“Wh-What do you mean, ‘inside’?!”
“Wh-What do you mean, ‘empty space’?!”
— Yosuke and Chie
For a game with such notoriously slow opening hours, Persona 4 sure doesn’t hesitate to throw its characters into a bizarre situation right up front. It takes four playable days for Yu, Yosuke, and Chie to fall into the television world. The tactic doesn’t break the teenagers’ routine so much as it introduces a new option. Sometimes, they’ll go to class. Other times, they’ll fight their subconscious inside a television.
The truly thrilling and effective only ever works with contrast. It’s the reason player-driven mayhem will be eternally more engaging in Grand Theft Auto than in Saints Row. In one, you’re a rule-breaker; in the other, the substitute teacher is letting you watch an R-rated movie in lieu of a test. Persona 4 loves rule-breaking, and wants the player to try their best to do just that. It only takes around 80 hours to get to the first window of opportunity.
So when Yu first thrusts his hand into the television in Junes, and we see Yosuke and Chie react, it’s satisfying because of the three days before. Without the context of who these people are (normal teens), and where they live (a boring suburb), all the information we’d have would work against that being exciting in the least. This is a weirdo dating sim/JRPG. Of course someone just stuck their hand into the television. The game understands player perception and expectation, especially coming off of Persona 3’s underground success, and wields it like a weapon.
There are some parts of 4/14 that can go differently from playthrough to playthrough, but it’s all largely insubstantial (with one exception: I suggested Chie hang back with me, under my umbrella on the way to school, and if you choose anything else you’re a monster). The history teacher quizzes Yu on what year comes before 1 AD, and a couple students hang out in the corner, churning the rumor mill about Saki.
Yosuke and Chie also talk about what they saw on the Midnight Channel (a girl), and refuse to believe Yu’s claim that he fell into his television. It’s ludicrous, but is it truly any more ludicrous than seeing your soulmate on a television channel at midnight when it rains? It’s possible that Persona 4 doesn’t get how infuriating it is that they don’t believe you, but it dispels the notion so quickly that I suspect it’s something of a joke. It’s easier to understand when you get the game’s sense of humor, punctuated by its near punchline of an ending.
Not to say the ending is unearned (Persona 4, at its very worst, would stumble backwards into an earned ending due to its length and persistence), just that it’s… the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. In the aforementioned pyramid-shaped story graph, the very, very last moments of the game are some kind of bizarre emotional dynamite. A punchline doesn’t have to be trivial; it can be as important and powerful as the set-up.
Case in point: the preamble to the Investigation Team first-ever accidental trip to the TV world. It’s close to the first of Persona 4’s special brand of frenzied physical humor — add a lot of doors for people to run in and out of and it wouldn’t feel out of place in an upscale French farce. Yu sticks his hand in the TV, Yosuke and Chie freak out, and they all tumble inside.
It’s funny here and it’s funny later, when the game builds on the frenzy exponentially, but there’s an underlying darkness to it that comes back to bite all of the characters toward the end. Whether it’s played for comedy or drama, the vulnerable teenagers react problematically to each obstacle: with little sense of direction or cohesion. Full of sound and fury, signifying… you get it, right?
Yet another threshold is crossed as the three of them tumble into the yellowed, foggy, faux-television studio, but everything remains comfortably shrouded in mystery. Persona 4’s slow wade through a narrative swamp isn’t going to ask you to figure out what’s going on just yet. It will, however, ask you to feel what must be felt in a new, foreign space.
In this case, those feelings are all quite broad. You visit an eerie room, walls plastered with torn up posters of Misuzu Hiiragi. You acknowledge how the fog, so deafening in the rest of the explored area, seems to lighten in this one room. You meet a mysterious bear who stuffs you into a television set, ejecting you back out to Junes.
All that really matters is how loud the whole thing is, and how deviant it is from the normal school life you’ve led up to this point. The night of 4/14, spent watching TV at home, becomes as much a noiseless interlude to the player as it does to the characters. Fitting, then, that the game’s downbeat is the ultimate source of its crazed A-story. Fear the television. Love the television. Forget that it exists.