**DISCLAIMER 1: I AM ONLY 1/3 OF THE WAY THROUGH THIS GAME, SO TAKE SEVERAL ELEMENTS I SAY WITH A GRAIN OF SALT**
**DISCLAIMER 2: THAT SAID, SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST 37 HOURS OF THIS OVER 100-HOUR LONG EPIC**
**DISCLAIMER 3: PERSONA 5 IS RATED M BY THE ESRB AND FEATURES THEMES SUCH AS POLITICAL CORRUPTION, EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL, AND THE PHYSICAL AND SEXUAL ABUSE OF MINORS, WHICH MAY OR MAY NOT BE BROUGHT UP IN THIS ARTICLE, SO BE AWARE.**
I have waited years for this game to come out (not an exaggeration, it was delayed for three years and in development for almost eight). I was excited for this enough to actually pick it up on release day (a complete rarity for me) and constantly post about my play through on Facebook (to my friends uninterested in Persona 5, I’m not sorry for posting about it so much). And few games have ever been able to pull me in and keep me invested the way this game has.
For a bit of history, I will refer to a list I made a while back.
In hindsight, I would revise this list if the chance provided itself (remove Hearthstone, for instance), but it does work as a solid example of my tastes in video games. It also happens to include the three I gravitate towards as my favorite games ever: Melee, Rock Band, and Persona 4.
Between Endurance Runs, the game itself, rereleases of the game, anime adaptations, and pure fan culture around the game, I became completely engrossed with Persona 5. Probably because I found it when I just entered high school (you know, games involving horny teenaged emotions, attractive anime girls, and not being an awkward loser appeal to an awkward teenaged loser like I was), probably because I preferred the play-style of JRPGs, probably because I was a burgeoning weeb who felt he grew out of Naruto and needed his next fix. But Persona 4 caught me hard and it remains to this day as one of my favorite games ever.
So, since my love for Persona 4 runs very deep and I’m unsure how deep it actually goes, I was naturally excited to find out what another game in this series (that wasn’t an obnoxious rhythm game spin off) would do. So, from when it was first announced, I sat eagerly awaiting this game that would be the proper follow-up to one of my favorite games (and definitely favorite game story) ever.
And then Persona 5 was finally released on April 4, 2017. And I bought it that very day.
Persona 5 is interesting to me, because it’s kind of the polar opposite of Persona 4 in many regards. Whereas Persona 4 is effectively “teen detectives and an annoying Bear-like-thing stop murders in TVs” and is actually very light-hearted and welcoming, Persona 5 is “teen thieves and an odd talking cat steal the evil intentions of evil people in their hearts” and is ultimately very dark and harsh.
Persona 5 has you, the protagonist, being sent to live under the supervision of a grumpy restaurant owner after you’re arrested for trying to stop a drunk, scarily powerful politician from molesting a woman in public (it doesn’t get better, I’m sorry to say). The school you’re placed in is basically under the control of two monsters: a borderline-apathetic principal only concerned with his school looking good (and who looks like Wilson Fisk), and a volleyball coach who physically abuses the students on his team, lusts after the female students in the school, gets close and constantly makes advances towards one in particular, rapes her friend when she won’t put out for him, and drives that friend to attempt suicide (I just described the games first 10 hours, for the record, he’s really that bad).
Persona has a propulsive narrative from the first moments of the game, but also seems to have some stumbling blocks that can’t be overlooked. While Persona 4’s narrative was far from perfect (I’m looking at you, Teddie), it tended to lack a problem that I’ve noticed with Persona 5’s first third: it doesn’t suffer from really de-escalate.
Persona 5, based on it’s themes of rebellion against corrupt authority and vigilantism, has to amass the support of it’s players, which presents one problem. Persona 5 is a Japanese game about Japanese problems (well, many of them are universal, but the extent featured in the game is meant to mirror current Japanese issues), and this story about rebellion against corrupt leaders is being told to a culture who’s entire societal structure is predicated on an almost comically-strict hierarchal structure. From a Western perspective, where stories about rebellious heroes and untrustworthy authority are somewhat common and are borderline expected, this rings as “well, no duh, of course you should disobey to do what’s right.” Japan, however, does not hold this ideal and, as a result, needs to be given undeniable proof that justice must be done against authority.
Which brings me to the issue of de-escalation in the narrative. Now, for a Western story of rebelling against evil, you’d start with a personal trauma, then build it up as going against smaller, but increasing-in-relevance evils until you finally reach the final source of corrupt evil: a symbol for everything wrong with society and, for bonus points, the source of the protagonist’s personal trauma. What you don’t do is start with something incredibly heinous and hatable, only to then focus on people who are, for lack of a better way of putting it, “less evil” for a while.
Persona 5 does this. Out of the three antagonists I’ve faced so far in the game, the first two were the only interesting ones, while the third one (oddly enough, the only one who’s an actual career criminal) is just kind of boring. Also, out of the first two antagonists, one is definitely more evil than the other one. And unfortunately, the more evil one is the first one: the volleyball coach I described earlier.
Again, I understand why Atlus did this. A culture based so much in respect for those both older and in higher positions of power is less likely to get on board with a narrative that is basically calling to ignore those ideas. You need something really strong to make the intended audience for the game (Japanese players) to embrace the idea of fighting against society in the name of what’s right.
That’s where Kamoshida, the volleyball coach, comes in. He was made as loathsome on purpose. He needed to be someone that even a strict believer in the hierarchal system in most Japanese settings would agree needs to be taken down. He needed to be so easy to hate that there could be no room for anyone playing the game to not agree with the game’s philosophies of rebellion and fighting corruption. And once their on board, they can focus on bringing the other characters into the fold and expanding the narrative (which I’ll discuss once I actually beat this game).
My issue is, like I mentioned, I’m not a Japanese player. I’m American. I’m from a culture that created an entire genre of games about imposing one’s justice and/or ideals by force, a culture that regularly creates stories about rising against tyranny, a culture where Watergate occurred, a culture that regularly celebrates the cowboy ideal of “the roaming hero against the world”. I don’t need much convincing to accept a premise where a corrupt society must be brought down. When I’m shown the incident that led the protagonist into his situation, I’m on board to get rid of the bald bastard who arrested the protagonist for trying to stop him from molesting a woman. So, when I’m playing this game and the narrative goes from the world’s most evil volleyball coach to a plagiarizing art teacher posing as an actual artist, I am kind of lost. How can you de-escalate the stakes so much?
Make no mistake, I’m still enjoying Persona 5 and look forward to my mind being mush once I finally conquer this 100+ hour long behemoth. But the narrative is so crucial to the game that a strange occurrence like this needs to be brought up. Still, I am looking forward to more of this game and it’s weird, weird attitudes towards a high school student romancing older women (including your teacher!).