Thursday, February 5, 2015

Persona 4 Golden - part 1

I've been itching to write about this game ever since I started playing it. Let's start with a bit of background: the original Persona 4 has been my absolute favorite game since it came out and I've beaten it thrice already. There was no way I could keep my hands off from an improved version - even though it was released on a console I had very little desire to own. That did delay me a bit, but eventually I had to buy a PS Vita. I mean, I had already bought the game from a PSN sale anyway. I also delayed a bit because I knew from reviews that P4G would not have nearly as much new content and other improvements as Persona 3 Portable had. Anyway, It was nice to find out that the my most beloved game ever was just as lovable as it was over 5 years ago. I guess we are here to find out why.

Or we would have been, but the post started to get really long. Instead, this is part 1, and it discusses the game from a story/characters perspective, and the roleplaying aspect that I discussed some time ago when going through Dragon Age: Origins.

1. RPG?

This is a good continuation to my previous Dragon Age post. I have probably mentioned this in passing before: I find it peculiar how the term roleplaying game is used. As it stands, most titles in the genre have next to nothing to do with roleplaying at all. DA was one of the few exceptions, and in general it's more common to have some roleplaying in Western RPGs. However even here we have a legion of so-called action RPGs that have absolutely nothing to do with playing a role. What is generally called an RPG actually represents some other genre but has character development as a central aspect (a bunch of action-adventure games already have simple character development, but usually it's just glued on top). Japanese RPGs in particular have very little to do with roleplaying; they are linear like a railroad track, and their game mechanics are in many cases very abstract.

So although they supposedly fall under the same category, and even sound similar in many ways, there is very little common ground between Persona 4 and Dragon Age. You might think that all those Social Links in Persona 4 would be opportunities for defining the main character's personality like I wrote in the previous post. Alas, they are not. Although you are offered some choices during S.Link events, these are not really roleplaying choices. They are quiz choices that test how well you understand the other character's personality, and you are rewarded for making the right choices as your relationship grows faster that way. So the game does not only make value judgments about choices - they are also tied to explicit rewards. The relationships also grow linearly - only the speed of growth is accelerated. There is one roleplaying choice involved in some S.Links: with the girls, you can choose whether you want to be friends or lovers.

Likewise, on the first playthrough you might think there are choices involved in who you want to spend time with. Again, this is an illusion, and a result of poor scheduling on your part. In fact, it is possible to complete every S.Link within one playthrough. Therefore there exists at least one explicitly optimal path through the game where you don't need to make roleplaying choices because you basically get everything. At this point it's important to emphasize that this is not in itself a bad thing. It simply means you should make your choices from a strategical basis: you need to be able to understand the game's schedule in order to create your strategy (of course you can kill the fun by looking up a day-by-day guide). You also make strategic decisions about the order in which you raise S.Links. Beyond that there are yet other choices to make - indeed, whether you actually want to max all links is also a choice, because there are benefits in spending some extra time on other things.

The point is that, due to the nature of choices, P4 is not a roleplaying game by design - not in the sense of the word's meaning in tabletop circles - whereas Dragon Age is (at least to a much higher degree). It is however a game with meaningful choices. Indeed, the choices you make concerning how to spend your time have a huge impact when it comes to exploration and battles. All this means is that the game caters to different preferences - and these just happen to be pretty exactly my personal preferences. Almost every single thing in the game contributes to your overall strategy. This makes each individual decision interesting, as there are always strategical considerations involved. As much as I praise the game, one change would have made it better: it should have been impossible to max out all Social Links in one playthrough. Or, at least, there should be no special reward for maxing all of them.

The reason I feel this way about being able to max all S.Links is that it becomes a goal that is very irresistible. Although there are multiple ways to reach this goal, it still limits what you can or cannot do during a playthrough quite tremendously because most of your time will be contributed towards this huge effort. You can of course choose not to pursue this goal, but the game does portray maxing all S.Links as kind of an ideal result. The same problem exists, although more severely, in Valkyria Chronicles. There the way missions are evaluated strongly prefers one particular type of strategy that is very limiting and even boring to play - so the game encourages you to not have fun basically. It's not as bad for P4, because it is still a lot of fun to figure out how to accomplish that lofty goal. The game is lax enough that you don't need to follow a step-by-step guide to do so. Following a guide would totally kill it for me. For the record Persona 3 is much stricter in this respect.

Just to clarify, you definitely *can* play Persona 4 like a roleplaying game. I have some vague recollection that this could have been my approach on my first playthrough - if not in P4, then at least in P3. Roleplaying is simply not really reflected in the game's design. The main character does not really grow nor are you really presented with any opportunities to reflect upon his personality. Likewise, since choices aren't created equal, they are not exactly choices in the roleplaying sense.

Since it's not a roleplaying game in any traditional sense, using the abbreviation RPG sounds silly. I make a point of always distinguishing Japanese RPGs with the J for exactly this reason. It doesn't make it less silly that the letters R, P and G are still there, but at least it signifies the fact that there is actually nothing related to roleplaying in this game. To me at least the J in JRPG is a clear genre indicator, instead of place of origin.  It quite clearly states that this is not a roleplaying game. It's more like a mesh of tactical battle game + anime series + RPG style character development. The term RPG is there because early on these games shared a lot with traditional fantasy roleplaying games. Since then, tabletop RPGs have evolved way more towards roleplaying, while JRPGs have evolved into some other direction entirely. That's my best guess anyway why the letter combination is still used.

2. Real people

Another topic in my last post was about relatedness of virtual characters. Persona 4 is an interesting game in this regard as there is a sharp contrast between the protagonist and all his friends. It's not much of a surprise that characters in the game are generally super-relatable. The combined length of all cut-scenes in the game is way beyond normal - almost on an entirely different scale really. For comparison, a normal 26 six episode anime series runs for about ten hours. I didn't count, but I'd wager this would be at most half of all the cut-scenes in P4G, so it's at least in the "one season of Buffy" territory - at least; some sequences in the game are as long as movies. If you want to write an entire, huge anime series into your game, it needs to be good on TV standards or the entire thing becomes a horrible yawnfest. So falling back on game standard for your characters and their representation is definitely not going to cut it. 

Of course it also goes the other way around. The more screen time characters get, the more relatable they can appear. However, this is definitely not a 1-to-1 relation - simply giving characters more time to talk doesn't necessarily make them any more relatable. In the last post I used Mass Effect's characters as examples of poor presentation - despite given a whole chunk of time to talk, they never seem to become much more than audio book autobiographies. Another trope in video games are characters that are walking encyclopedias or plot explainers. They never really react to anything on a personal level. All in all, they appear rather emotionless, and consequently scenes where they do pour out their feelings come out as paper thin. Dialogue can be entertaining even in these scenarios (e.g. the plot can be interesting enough to warrant a few hours of explanation) so it doesn't mean these games are automatically bad - but you never really feel the characters.

Characters in Persona 4 dick around. A lot - so much you'd almost think they are just high schoolers playing detective. Oh wait... that's exactly what they are. They talk to each other constantly - often just to shoot some random crap - and they react to things that happen around them. Even serious discussions about the case or studying turn into food discussions or whatnot eventually. They make fun of each other in a playful fashion, they support each other and really just bounce around from topic to topic rather randomly. Most of the game's events aren't honestly about the plot at all, they're just all kinds of school events that usually end up weirdly for our heroes. Sure, they abide by anime cliches a lot, but nevertheless, beneath every set of bytes there is a person. Not only has a lot of effort been put to writing and designing each character, just as much effort has been put into showing off. Indeed, there's a ton of events in the game, from small dialogue scenes in the morning to the massive movie length plot ones. 

Overall, dialogue writing is just incredibly solid. Sure, maybe it's not on the godlike level of Gilmore Girls and not quite up there with Buffy either, but there's a coherent personality behind every line. I had all sorts of warm, fuzzy feelings as I followed the characters grow together as a group, and the game's humor worked for me. Of course it's a bit of tropefest and if that bothers you, then enjoying the game will probably be more difficult. However, if we disregard the content itself and just focus on narrative methods for a while, there clearly are a lot of things done right for a game with a linear narrative. There's this massive argument whether games should sway away from cinematic narration or not. I personally don't mind the lack of interaction with stories in my games. However, if you want to go that route, you should follow the writing standards of your source medium - and for your typical RPG, the equivalent video narrative is often a TV series. 

3. Unreal people

Spoilers. Minor, but spoilers nonetheless.

In sharp contrast to all the other cast member, the protagonist is enigmatic. Like most games in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Persona 4 employs the silent protagonist paradigm. Although he has a voice, the main character has no voiced lines - indeed, anything he ever says is selected by the player from a handful of options. Yet because of the game's highly linear nature, the player can only affect nuances in his character. No matter how badly you do in your exams or how few Social Links you attend to, in the end all your investigation team friends will still revere the main character. So although you can choose to fuck up as much as you like, in the end the protagonist is still written to fulfill the role of mr. perfect. Indeed, if you play well by any of the game's standards, the main character will come out as a superior being. As being mr. perfect is coded into the game's reward structure, I'd consider the main character pretty much written in stone.

I don't even think of the MC as a real person per se. If you look at how other characters in the game grow - especially in Social Links - they credit most of their change to the MC. However, he doesn't really do all that much. To me it makes more sense to think of him as some kind of a mythical paragon or a mirror of the soul. It's kind of consistent with his special power: he can literally assume multiple personas to fit his needs - or, more likely, the needs of his friends. Not only does this allow him to defeat anything thrown at them - it also allows him to be exactly what his friends need to overcome themselves. The game even hints at this: if you are carrying a persona of the friend's arcana, you get more relationship points when spending time with them. As the MC's understanding of a person grows, so does his power in relation to that arcana - and he can act as a better mirror, allowing people to face themselves more and more.

This is kind of a philosophical meta level to view the MC. I do think everyone - including the MC himself, at least consciously - believes that the MC is just a normal human person. This is why the only thing that really seems a bit off is his ability to be awesome at pretty much everything. Whether there ever was a true person inside or not is debatable; however, I do think that what everyone sees is just multiple reflections of people's hearts - and in a way, of the player's wishes. This is probably even more pronounced in Persona 3, at least to a Western audience. The MC of P3 is portrayed quite clearly as a sort of messianic vessel. It's not about just saving the world in either game. After all, the catastrophe in both games is ever-looming, secretly desired by mankind. This is why it's not enough for the MC to be a hero - he needs to be a paragon that truly changes people. On a higher level, P4 is about making mankind desire the truth.

So. How is this relevant? It's a viewpoint that makes all the pieces about the game fit. If you think about the MC as a roleplayable character, you are bound to be disappointed by the lack of possibilities to truly define him. Likewise, he is not a scripted character either - he barely has any lines. However, if you accept my rambling about how he is a presence more than he is a person, the contrast between him and the rest of the cast kind of disappears. In a way it could be said that he is a direct extension of "you" - the player - in that he is not truly present in the world as a character, yet he has more influence over the world than anyone else. The same thematic repeats with the main character in most Shin Megami Tensei games where you get to name the protagonist - with the important exception of Raidou Kuzunoha who is a person with a background.

It's worth remembering that as a genre, JRPGs generally position the player entirely outside of the game's events. The game may have a protagonist on paper, but ultimately it's always about the entire group, and the player can only follow from the sidelines. The difference between P4 (and others) and most of the genre is the fact that the player is observing from inside a character - but the dynamic does not change: even if the player is positioned inside a central character, their only purpose regarding the story is to follow and observe. That is all.


Since this threatened to be become yet another massive post, it's better to stop here for now. To wrap up: I absolutely love the characters in Persona 4, and they are one of the key reasons why I like the game so damn much. The story in itself is not massively impressive but it does create a better environment for the characters to goof around than the one in Persona 3 (I think the plot itself was better in P3 actually, but it's not as enthralling to follow). Sure it's a long game (actually it's effing huge) but there is something happening almost constantly. On top of that, there is the ever-present philosophical meta level to think about. This is a common trait in Shin Megami Tensei games, and I would not be surprised to find it among the reasons why people praise them. Still, what really makes P4 possibly the best game ever made, is first and foremost a matter of actually playing the game - and we'll go there next time. Until then...

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