I didn’t know how much I needed to play Persona 4, but wow, it really was the perfect way for me to spend my game-playing time over the last two months. (Many thanks to Dan and Adam for nudging me to play it!) I’ve gotten sick of games that present you as an all-powerful hero saving the world via buckets of blood; so, in retrospect, it’s not a big shock that a game that presents you as a surprisingly competent hero who saves a town via making friends and helping people confront their true selves turns out to be just up my alley. And of course I did enjoy Persona 3 and I’d been hearing people gush about Persona 4 for years; still, I didn’t expect to react to the game quite so strongly.
What most impresses me about Persona 4 is how it commits to showing the virtues of daily life. You’re a teenager, which means that you get up in the morning, you go to school, you spend the afternoon in a way of your choosing within constraints, you go home and see your surrogate sister and father, you spend the evening maybe with them or maybe studying or working, and then you go to bed. And you wake up the next day, and the pattern repeats. Which, written out like that, sounds boring, but the game doesn’t force you to spend time needlessly going through repetitions: a couple of button pushes and you’re through the school day, unless something surprising happens at school that day. Instead, the structure provides a context that makes your choices of actions meaningful: I’m not sure quite what the right musical analogy is, but it’s something like the way the repetition of the chorus grounds a song, or the way musical themes acquire weight on repetition.
And that repetition isn’t limited to the basic structure of your days that is given to you: it’s in the choices that you make as well. Because you don’t have an array of options for you to express your creativity (with the arguable exception of the dungeon crawling mechanic): in your afternoons, you’re going to wander around a bit through the town (or rather the few small areas in the town that the game exposes to you), you’re going to decide whom you want to spend your time with that afternoon (or, if nobody’s around, what you want to do instead), and then you’ll spend time with them. Do I feel like spending time with Yukiko, with Yumi, with Koh and Daisuke? If it’s raining, do I want to study in the library or to take a swing at the Mega Beef Bowl?
Which, in the wrong hands, could be really boring: you’re ultimately just pressing a few buttons to get the next bit of story drip. But there’s just enough interactivity for those button presses to matter: expressing what you want to do that day, expressing how you want to respond to your friend in any given situation. And the bit of space given by wandering around town is just right, too: if you were constantly in story mode, the game would feel more like a visual novel, whereas if you were almost always wandering around, then the story bits would feel like infodumps to be ignored. As is, though, it feels like you’re living your life, just in a distilled form.
And the stories are really good! Or at least I responded to them very strongly: I can’t quite figure out why, because there’s nothing really remarkable in any of them, in fact the opposite is true. But, somehow, that manages to work: the game is about celebrating the joys of daily life, and daily life isn’t filled with people living extraordinary adventures (at least for those of us who don’t have a special power of entering televisions to fight monsters buried in our collective psyche) or being in unique situations. Instead, it’s people going through the same frustrations and the same joys that billions of other people have gone through before them; but it’s their lives, their frustrations, their joys, and that turns out to matter a lot.
You can’t always advance the various stories that you’re going through with different characters. But, as frustrating as it can be to not be able to hang out with anybody on a given day, I think that too helps the game, as does the fact that the story with a given character doesn’t advance every time you hang out with them. People have their own lives; sometimes those lives intersect with yours, but not always. And even on the days when their lives do intersect with yours, sometimes it intersects in a moment of quiet companionability; that turns out to have its own impact, to be good enough. Of those quiet moments, I particularly liked the family routines: tending the garden with Nanako, or the evenings when Nanako had gone shopping and you spend your evening making a lunch for you to share with a friend the next day, with results that were sometimes excellent, sometimes mediocre, and sometimes disastrously bad. (Food preparation is a running theme: it turns out that, if you have teenagers preparing food, they will frequently not be very good at it.)
And, on a family note: Nanako is an amazing character. She’s a kid, much younger than you; she’s lonely, she’s glad you’re there, and you turn from a guest in the house into a brother for her, as important to her as anybody. And, conversely, she’s as important to you as anybody; you spend many happy hours together, but you also help her work through frustrations, help her accept and come to terms with what’s going on. And she’s fundamentally a such a good kid (but realistically good, not saccharine); she has every right to be frustrated with how little time her farther spends with her, but you help her see his good side, and you also help him realize not just how important she is but how important it is for him to show that with conviction in his actions, to not be lost in memories of his wife.
Nanako also helps show what an excellent set of friends you have: you’ll frequently run into friends during outings with Nanako, and they’re always genuinely happy to see her and to include her. The game doesn’t pretend she’s a peer, she’s a little kid surrounded by big kids: but the warmth that they show her is genuine, their lives are better because she’s around, and she glows when she’s around them. The game builds up those interactions in a way that, when the inevitable plot point comes when Nanako is in danger, your and your friends’ distress is real, she’s the furthest thing from an abstract plot point princess to be saved.
Like most games, you’re playing an idealized character. But your character isn’t idealized because they’re an all-powerful savior or because they’re an amazing fighter. Your character is idealized because they’re really good at making friends, and really good at being friends. Even the boss fights are focused on this: you help your friends or friends-to-be come to terms with the fact that the image of themselves that they’d like to present isn’t everything who they are. And with your acceptance of their hidden sides, you help them accept those hidden sides.
That ability to make and be friends in turn opens you up to the great good fortune of having a rather wonderful group of people who want to spend time with you, with their lives enriching yours, your life enriching theirs, and their lives enriching each other’s. That is a game that I can very much get behind.