This past week, Ishaan and I exchanged a few e-mails regarding the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona games, and discussed how we felt about director Katsura Hashino’s comments on Persona 5. What you see below is a part of our conversation, shortened to make it a little more digestible.
The conversation starts out with a brief chat about the differences between Bravely Default and Shin Megami Tensei IV, before moving into the Persona talk. Keep in mind that it is, by no means, a thorough discourse of the topics at hand, and more a rambling of thoughts to get our readers to share their own ideas with one another.
I’m… cautiously optimistic about Bravely Default. So many people said SMTIV was “too hardcore” for them, and I thought exactly the opposite. And I’m by no means one of those old school-loving nostalgic types. Retro stuff does very little for me. So hopefully, I’ll enjoy this, too.
Speaking of SMTIV, your write up about the game has kinda sat in my mind festering since I read it. I also think the world of the game, but I come at the experience from a slightly different angle. I feel like SMTIV is largely defined by what it is not. It does not in any way feature the themes “The power of friendship conquers all” or “The power of true love conquers all”. Indeed, it lacks any form of romance whatsoever. This alone puts the game in a pretty exclusive club.
Modern JRPGs basically only have those two themes. Well, that or “You can choose your own destiny!” which is something SMTIV explores… but SMTIV does it more honestly. SMTIV is a game about choosing one’s own destiny that actually features, well, choice. And it does NOT guarantee that a choice will be “right” or even lead to happily ever after. When other JRPGs talk about choosing destiny, it’s usually in the context of overcoming oppression. SMTIV is not like that at all.
The end result is that SMTIV is a WEIRD game for a 2013 JRPG. And it has a severe audience problem. See, I reckon that most modern JRPGs are conceived from the beginning to be JRPGs. The developers are aware of what is expected by the audience, what works well and what shortcuts are generally acceptable (amnesia!). At some point JRPGs started to be inspired by JRPGs, rather than being a medium through which a variety of inspirations can be realized. There are just so few of those games these days that are actually about anything distinct or different.
And there’s an audience for our modern games! There are people who like last year’s JRPGs and want the ones this year and next year to be like them too. But SMTIV… SMTIV wasn’t inspired by other JRPGs. It’s a game following a distinct vision that’s quite unlike not just other genre games, but other games period. Other games don’t pay attention to environmental design like SMT IV did. They don’t make strange and hostile worlds actually strange and hostile like SMTIV did. You said that SMTIV is ultimately a game about Tokyo, and I think you’re right about that. It’s about the distinct flavor of the different regions, it’s about the people, and it’s about how technology is changing all of it. And it just happens to explore those ideas in the form of a turn-based role playing game.
I think that SMTIV is an excellent game, but I don’t think that it will be discovered. Those who are still enthusiastic about JRPGs in 2013 are largely enthusiastic about 2013 JRPGs. Which SMTIV is not. To them, the game will seem to have a bland plot, one-track characterization, frustrating difficulty spikes, and cheap 2D battle scenes (none of which is entirely unfair, but totally misses the point of the game). And to those who would actually get a lot out of this focused creation and exploration of a post-apocalyptic world that in so many ways reflects our own? I don’t think those people are playing JRPGs anymore. The genre has been so devoid of unique visions for so long that those who want commentary on society, who want to explore beautifully crafted 3D landscapes, who want to be thrown into the deep end armed with nothing but their wits and limited resources… they’re all playing other kinds of games and have been for a decade.
And frankly, SMTIV’s first couple hours don’t do it any favors in roping in the unfamiliar either.
I actually had the strangest experience with the Bravely Default demo. I went into it right after a 2-hour session with SMTIV, and it was this utterly bizarre experience. Like listening to two hours of metal and then someone subjecting you to classical music immediately afterwards.
It didn’t work for me at all. I was so on edge from playing SMT, which is such an intense game (even the battle theme is like KILLL HIM!!! BURRN!!! in how it sounds). Meanwhile, Bravely Default has a much more “peaceful” mood to it. It doesn’t convey this sense of urgency that SMT does.
The other thing with Bravely Default is that, while the battles are in 3D, the battle camera isn’t very animated. It’s a very traditional “side view” and judging by the demo, it doesn’t move around very much. In the case of SMT, the battles were in 2D, but they were also really, really fast. This is something I really hope they address in Bravely Second, and judging by some of the things Asano has said, and the teaser trailer they released, I get the feeling we will see the second game be a little bit more daring than Bravely Default was.
So yeah… still cautiously optimistic. Honestly, I kind of hope Atlus does a Shin Megami Tensei V (or another spin-off) before long. I’m looking forward to Persona 5, but Persona doesn’t evoke the same sensations that SMT games do. And well… Persona 5 kind of sounds like wish-fulfilment, so I’m not really sure what to think of that.
Persona has morphed into a sort of wish fulfilment already, though, hasn’t it? I mean yes, Persona 3 and Persona 4 have some thematic content beyond your common JRPG. But that’s not why the franchise blew up and became Atlus’ bread winner. That’s just what people found to talk about once they had played it. The reason those games got huge is how INCREDIBLY seductive the illusion of going back to high school is.
Very few people are really happy when they’re in high school, it’s just a pretty messed up period of life. Stuck in a building turning into adults alongside a couple hundred other people, and nobody really knows what it’s like on the other side. But in Persona people can go back and be the guy in high school they wish they had been. They date the pretty girls, they study for the tests, they participate in extracurricular activities, and they have TONS of friends. Every character in Persona looks up to the protagonist be it as a best friend or a boyfriend or a leader or a senpai or whatever. Everyone likes you in Persona, you can succeed at everything in Persona, and your character never gets a boner in front of the class or gets hazed by the upperclassmen or gets turned down by a popular girl or suffers any of the other indignities of adolescence.
I mean, that stuff gets me and I didn’t suffer the worst of high school by a long shot. I didn’t enjoy it, but there are others who had it worse. I imagine that for people who had worse experiences at that age, or didn’t make it out into college and are in a dead end job or unemployed or heaven knows what else that the Persona illusion is absolutely intoxicating. So reading today that Persona 5 is written for people who are discontent with their lives… I mean, no shit? That’s kind of the audience, isn’t it?
Oh, of course. There’s no doubt that Persona preys on the dissatisfaction people have/had with their lives. I don’t mean that in a bad way, necessarily. I had a rough time in high school, too, for a variety of different reasons, and that aspect of Persona 3 and Persona 4 hooked me as well. Persona 4 in particular gave me some much-needed perspective on how people can be different in frightening ways, but that they aren’t necessarily bad people.
So yeah, I love both P3 and P4. That said, I do like P4 significantly less than 3, and this is because the wish-fulfilment aspect of 4 went a little too far for me, and the main plot suffered for it. Persona 3 felt more… grand. It felt like you were finding your purpose in life. Like you were finding what you were meant for, and carrying out your role as a savior—as someone that was truly capable of being able to bring out the good in people, and also help save the world.
And that’s the thing about P3’s main character. He had that typical angsty anime character look to him, but his appearance clashed so greatly with his personality. Outwardly, he looked quiet, unsociable… maybe even a little meek. But once you started to see more of him, he almost seemed deranged and like he had no regard for himself whatsoever. Like that first time he put the Evoker to his head and shot himself on the rooftop. This dude was secretly a badass because of how messed up he was.
And at the same time, he was also compassionate, but in a smart way. He wasn’t simply idealistic, he was also manipulative. And manipulating people—knowing the right thing to say—is sometimes the best way to help them. He was a complex, sophisticated person, and that was what I loved about him. He was a natural-born leader, had the ability to help change people, but also had a greater purpose to serve in life. There really was no other way for him to go. I mean, after you’ve saved the world, saved everyone else, and lost part of the persona that made you who you are, what else is left for you to do? He became a messiah, almost.
In and that sense Persona 3 was still very much a “Shin Megami Tensei” game. Meanwhile, Persona 4 felt like Scooby Doo-meets-Tales-meets Japanese light novels. And there is definitely a place for that. It had that slice-of-life feel that the Japanese are so good at pulling off; it had the whole “power of friendship” thing going for it; it had the high school setting that’s just so easy to get into when done right. But the problem for me was, it just felt so small and insignificant in scope compared to P3. There was no real story. Nothing really at stake, outside of some outlandish murder mystery, which turned out to have the most ridiculous solution ever. (Throwing people into TVs to kill them? Really?) It was a bunch of kids playing detective.
Meanwhile, the protagonist of P4 wasn’t nearly as complex as the one in P3 either. He was just straight-up “cool”. In the Japanese version of the game, they even call him “bancho,” because of the yakuza-style trench coat his persona, Izanagi, wears.
So yeah… I’m not sure what to think of Persona 5. Is it going to be more of that? Is it going to be more of an illusionary wish-fulfilment affair, where the game tells you, “Hey, look—this alternate life is pretty great, isn’t it?! You can have that, too!” Because if that’s the case, I might just opt out this time. Real life isn’t like that and we all know it. And the problem is, Persona has this way of being unbelievably convincing, so when you leave the game, your head is stuck inside that world for hours.
Maybe it’s just because I’m older now but the thought of my “mental world” being anything like Persona’s “everything-is-great-and-it’ll-all-work-out-fine” mentality makes me uncomfortable. I’d much rather have it be something a little more believable. Something where you fight tooth-and-nail to get through life’s hardships, because that’s just how I’m used to living my life. That’s how most of us are used to living life. So, when Hashino says that he wants to inspire people, I have trouble believing him, because Persona preaches that good things will just land in your lap by themselves.
I actually really appreciated that Persona 4 scaled down the conflict to just a local murder mystery. I’m pretty sick of saving the world all the time. Regardless of whether the actual mystery ended up making total sense, I see it as a massive plus that P4 for most of the game made the stakes as small as whether a single person would live or die. Because really, that ought to be more than enough reason to stop the bad guy on its own, no? I actually felt spectacularly betrayed at the very end of the “true” ending of that game when it regressed to saving the world from some sort of poorly defined god of nihilism that wasn’t meaningfully connected to the rest of the game.
I guess that we’re in new territory with these Persona games. There aren’t really other games in the genre that are close enough to real life that one can even object to how they portray it. You don’t like how straightforward and easy the last two Personas make life seem, but are there other games that give a depiction of real life that you’re more comfortable with?
Maybe this is just a baby step towards maturity. If you look back at television the earliest shows were a lot of cowboys and Indians, the superheroes of their era. That was the popular American fiction. Then when TV eventually did start to take a look at “normal” life the shows depicted an impossibly pristine whitewashed ideal of domestic life. I wonder if I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver weren’t similar to these Persona games. First steps towards depicting the real world, but not yet bold enough to show the ugliness of it.
Have you played Papers, Please? It’s like the anti-Persona. It’s another game about real life with such a powerful illusion of its world that it sticks in your head long after you leave it. Except it depicts a world that is stressful, monotonous, and unfair. Papers, Please isn’t necessarily ‘fun’ in the traditional sense, but it’s a powerful work and from the sounds of it you may see some of your world view reflected in it.
But look on the upside! Maybe this means we’re only 45 odd years from getting our Japanese video game version of The Wire.
I would’ve found Persona 4 just fine, had it actually been a proper murder mystery. Persona is the perfect kind of game to explore a murder investigation with anyway. But ultimately, the whole premise was so ridiculous, I felt as though the plot served no purpose at all. It was just an excuse to have these characters hang out together and help flesh out their personalities.
And that’s fine, but even in that regard, P4 was uncomfortably perfect. You’re cool, everyone loves you, you’re great at school stuff, and you can essentially do no wrong. You’re never betrayed, never asked to deal with real-life problems (although some of your friends are), or anything of the sort. I was actually talking to Laura about this earlier, and arrived at this crazy idea: what if Atlus made it so that your first romantic Social Link in the next game ends up cheating on you?
I feel that would be a great way to invest the player in the game and really tug at their heartstrings. It could be a really likeable character, too. You’d have to try to forget her and move on with your life. Of course, I would imagine a lot of people would just stop playing the game entirely. Alternatively, there are probably people that don’t want a game like Persona to mirror real life.
Well, I reckon that there’s no way a Persona game could feature a core character doing something genuinely objectionable like that. This is big business now and nobody’s gonna buy merchandise based on the girl who cheated on them. I think that at this point we’re kind of limited to external bad things happening to the characters who are themselves basically virtuous, rather than the characters making serious mistakes or doing bad things themselves.
Which is a bummer! When I first saw the desk with chains promotional art I got real excited about the possibility of the game being set in a juvenile detention center. That’s a good Persona setting. Lots of messed up kids stuck together going through some variation of rehabilitation, be it education or learning work skills. The prison setting gives an excuse for limited environments. Most of the characters (even the protagonist!) actually might be guilty of something, which has a ton of interesting potential. Plus there’s lots of rich image symbolism in a prison, and that development team is super good with their visual metaphors. I thought that it would be a throwback to the darker tone of Persona 3 (which I also prefer) and maybe even go farther.
But then I realized that characters that are guilty of crimes don’t sell merchandise like adorable waifus, and girls in detention centers don’t wear the uniforms with short skirts. So that’s pretty much it for that possibility. There’s a whole lot of market for schoolgirl outfits these days, less so for orange jumpsuits.