Persona 4 is important to me. I deliberated for a long time over just what word to use in that sentence, but in the end, “important” felt like the most accurate because it was so vague. The game has been a lot of different things to me since I first played it, from an inspiration to follow my passion for games, to a way of trying to make sense of the death of a friend, and plenty of things in between. It has been so much to me over the years, that it only seems fair to take some time to examine, not just the game itself, but some of my time with it. Specifically, I’d like to look at what it means to play it well. By comparing two runs through the game, one very organic, the other meticulously planned and calculated, I hope to gain some insight into just what that entails.
Before we get started, some housekeeping. I’ve played through Persona 4 twice in its original form on the Playstation 2, and twice as Persona 4 Golden, the recent Playstation Vita port / remake. However, I’m only going to reference my two most recent playthroughs in this paper. Those first two trips to Inaba helped me get through some rough times, and I don’t think I could, or would even want to, write about them outside of that context. So I’ll give them the mention they’re due, but set them aside for today to focus on my most recent playthroughs. The earlier of the two, which I’ll be calling my more organic playthrough, was a fairly standard run through the game. I just played the game, from beginning to end, making decisions as I went. The more recent of the two, my platinum run, was meticulously planned so that I could get the game’s platinum trophy, a metagame reward through Sony’s PSN, which I did. Though I’m only pulling from my experiences in Golden, the two versions of the game are similar enough that I believe every point I make is applicable to both.
Persona 4 is the kind of game that I’m hesitant to talk about with anyone who hasn’t played it. Not because it’s complicated, or because anyone willing to talk about a JRPG/Dating Sim heavily steeped in Jungian psychology for more than 5 minutes is probably already a fan, but because of the kinds of conversations it leads to. When I talk about my organic run through Persona 4, I don’t talk spoilers, and I don’t talk mechanics. I talk about my first girlfriend (Yukiko), and the girl I stood her up for on Valentine’s Day (Naoto). I talk about my best friend (Chie), and the friend I outgrew (Youske). I talk about the time Ai Ebihara and I had a fight so big that our friendship never recovered, and leaving Inaba wishing I’d gotten to know Rise better. To someone who hasn’t played the game, I sound like someone who can’t tell fantasy from reality. There’s something off putting about talking about a fictional character as “my best friend” or “my girlfriend,” and rightfully so. These are fictional characters we’re talking about, not people. But, to someone who’s played it, everything makes sense. For those 100+ hours I spent in Inaba, across months of real-world time, the characters were as real as any character in a beloved novel, except I was the protagonist. We wandered Inaba, studied, and fought evil together. It was my very own year at Hogwarts.
To my surprise, almost none of this carried over into my platinum run. All of the trophies I wanted to unlock were somehow tied to maxing every Social Link in one playthrough. It sounds obvious in hindsight, but by forming relationships with everyone, I came away feeling like I hadn’t really befriended anyone. I saw all of the same scenes with Chie, but we didn’t feel like friends in the end. Even the characters that I had largely ignored my first time through, like Shu, the student in need of a tutor, or Hisano, the elderly widow, didn’t feel as important as anyone I’d met on my last trip to Inaba. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d meant more to these characters than any of them meant to me. I felt like a cowboy, a man with no name, riding into town to forever change the lives of the people there before disappearing, unaffected by the experience, just passing through. I would work through each character’s issue, help them come to some important realization about themselves, then fade away to help the next person. They weren’t side quests, or people that I helped incidentally as part of my larger journey, helping them was the goal, and I achieved it as efficiently as possible. It was cool, and it’s not an experience I can remember having with any other game. It was like playing as Marry Poppins, or Chauncey Gardiner. I would appear, help out, then, as soon as they didn’t need me anymore, away I went.
These two different experiences left me at an impasse. I’d tried to play Persona 4 well by treating it like a game, and it let me. It laid out a set of systems for me to navigate and conquer, as deep and intricate as any other JRPG worth its salt, and I did it. But when all is said and done, I hesitate to call that “playing the game well.” It seems a bit strange, since the protagonist navigated every situation perfectly. He always knew exactly what to say, never lost his cool, and had all the right answers in class. He was pretty awesome, but he certainly wasn’t me. I couldn’t talk about things like “my first girlfriend” or “my best friend” in the same way as I had before. Suddenly, that off putting feeling about throwing those terms around about fictional characters kicked in in full force. Maybe I was playing efficiently, but as long as I felt separate from the protagonist, I can’t say I was playing well.
I cannot stress enough that the strategy I used during my platinum run is a totally valid and correct way to play the game. The important thing is that it wasn’t playing well for me. Playing Persona 4 well is about throwing yourself totally and without inhibition into the game and becoming the protagonist. Like actual high school, it’s about learning to be yourself in a sea of other people, all trying to figure out exactly what that means. Over the course of the game, the player sees every supporting character discover and embrace their true selves, an experience that is conspicuously denied to the protagonist. Instead, the game leaves that up to you, the player, to come to on your own. It challenges you to jump head first into the game, and play, not as some character you wish you were, but as yourself. That is playing well.
Originally written in Spring 2014 for Advanced Topics in Game Studies, taught by Frank Lantz.
Full Title – Forging a Bond That Cannot Be Broken : On Playing Persona 4 Well