“There’s so little to do, I’m sure you’ll get bored fast.”
Let’s start at the beginning.
I think I first became aware of Persona 4 in 2010 or so, when I saw Giant Bomb’s full playthrough of the game, dubbed, fittingly, an “Endurance Run.” The series ran 5 days a week for 155 episodes, and it remains one of my favourite things on the internet.
Even then, I hadn’t exactly fallen hard. That probably happened in 2012, when I grabbed Persona 3: FES off the PlayStation Store. For a while, it was my personal weird thing that no one else got. I struggled to get friends, in conversations both recorded and private, on board with the concept. “It’s part high-school life sim, and part turn-based JRPG combat. It’s kinda like Buffy?”
This crusade, to not only love Persona but get those around me to love it, too, came to a head in January of 2013. I was watching my friend play Persona 4, just as I’d watched him play 3, and he said two things.
“Wait. Where’s Rise? Oh, yeah, she’s probably at school.”
Then, telling silence, followed by the second.
“Hey, Evan? I think this game might be perfect.”
The two thoughts felt more intensely fluid in conversation than they do on paper. It was about tone. Of course Rise would be at school. That’s where she hangs out! It wasn’t about systems, or Social Links, or anything like that. It was as close to real as a relationship with a character in a video game was bound to get, and we both realized that at the same time. Something special was happening, even though I struggled to put into words exactly what it was. The only thing I (and he) knew, for sure, was that Rise would be at the goddamned school.
But how? How does such a thing happen? How do ordinary people become so attached to a couple character portraits and a voice? I’m still not entirely sure. That’s probably one of the reasons I’m writing this.
The obsession with story structure as a clinical, one-size-fits-all doctrine is more than established at this point. Most people say that stories, in every medium, proceed in a straight line: a three-act division, that rises and falls in predictable places. Then there are some stories that hinge on what we like to call “twists,” which are sharp inclines or declines in mood and pace. Sometimes they’re elegant, and re-contextualize what we’ve seen. Other times, they’re just deus ex machinas.
Persona 4‘s story doesn’t look like a line, nor a line with a sudden spike in the third act. It’s a pyramid. The whole thing is perfectly fitted to, and dependent upon being, an 80-hour video game. The three acts remain intact, but the first and third ascend and descend equally, while the second simply blinks by.
There’s the climb, the peak, and the slope.
We start our climb with a potent shot of a limo, traveling slowly through never-ending, obfuscating fog. Its interior? The Velvet Room, a space between dream and reality; mind and matter. There, your cool-as-fuck grey-haired teenage protagonist (Yu Narukami, in canon) meets Igor and Margaret, his shepherds into the world of Persona.
It’s an intriguing beginning, but it also seeks to confirm some of the preconceived notions a player might have jumping into a modern JRPG. There’s a mysterious man giving you somewhat obtuse spiritual advice, all the while reminding you that this is a “turning point in your destiny.” The whole thing is sort of… expected.
For my money, Persona 4 really starts in its harsh cut from the Velvet Room, to another, perhaps more universal preconceived notion: anime’s obsession with the male gaze. You’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes at Rise Kujikawa’s soda commercial at first glance, but in retrospect it’s close to a perfect beginning. For a game that’s so very much about the emotionless barrier of television, to bury the lede that deep is stunningly assured. That commercial is entirely indicative of Rise’s psychological and emotional distress, but we’ll come back to that in 30-35 hours, when it matters.
Yu gets on the train to Yasoinaba station, as a mass of people gossip over the latest news regarding council secretary Taro Namatame. Apparently he cheated on his wife, an enka singer, with a reporter. Pretty scandalous, eh? Yu doesn’t seem to pay it much mind, and the hope, I’d assume, is that the player doesn’t either.
The game also quickly combs over Yu’s backstory. He’s a transfer student, forced to leave the big city because of something regarding his parents’ work schedule. It manages to wisely acknowledge that this story begins exactly where it should; anything that needs to be explained in detail has yet to come. A montage sets up the first murder, as well as some principal characters watching TV back at home, but I’m perhaps most interested in the first real thing that’s ever said to Yu upon his arrival.
“Well, you’re more handsome in person than in your photo.”
It’s a casual aside from Ryotaro Dojima, his uncle, and father to Nanako, an earnestly adorable kindergartner. But like so much in this first day, it has a subtly clever double meaning. One of Persona 4‘s main themes, if I haven’t explained it already, is the distinction between watching and being watched; how each party’s perception is affected by the very act of knowing, or wanting to know. When Dojima says Yu is somehow different from how he pictured, he’s confirming the game’s moral. Staring at someone through a window just isn’t the same as getting to know them personally. That window gets all fogged up with lies, rumors, and misconceptions, as every main character in the game’s ensemble will eventually learn.
There’s a somewhat cynical concept in the screenwriting trade (at least, that’s where I know it from) called “saving the cat.” It basically states that if you want the audience to feel empathy for a certain character, you just need to have them do something heroic in the beginning, even if it isn’t related to the plot. Like, well, saving someone’s cat.
Persona 4 doesn’t have very many “save the cat” moments in a traditional sense. It’s far too ambitious and lengthy for such a simple trick to work. What it does have is a lot of early, character-defining moments that shape your perception. That perception is almost always (as is thematically pertinent) wrong, and part of the repeated arc is understanding, in often blunt terms, just how wrong you were. Such is the case with Nanako’s introduction, though it’s on an admittedly smaller scale than the other characters. After barely squeaking out a “hello,” she hides behind Dojima, and hits him when he mentions that she’s shy.
Veterans will know that this isn’t terribly representative of Nanako as a person. She has her fair share of problems (arguably, more than anyone else), but she’s generally outgoing, and especially kind to Yu. This disparity between how people act when they don’t know each other and how they act when they do is similarly key to the game’s story. Not to even mention the physicality of Nanako hiding behind Dojima to shield herself from embarrassment.
Moments later, you bump into Marie for the first time, of whom there isn’t terribly much to say in the first day. This is the first instance where Persona 4 really uses its music to drive home its point, though: notice how it’s silent until Dojima says they should leave. This marks a transition, and Marie appears after it, solidifying her role as a constant in the new world Yu has found himself in, rather than a guardian to it (as Dojima and Nanako were).
If you only absorb one part of this opening entry, it should be the following. I’m going to talk about the gas station attendant.
Now, if you’ve played Persona 4 before (which, really, you should), you probably are at least aware of the “true” ending, which fingers the attendant as the real antagonist of the game. The specifics are for another time (roughly 80 hours from this page), but what’s important to acknowledge about the attendant at this stage is twofold:
- She’s disguised as a particularly heavy-handed tutorial device.
- She’s, either literally or figuratively (depending on your commitment to the metatextual), the designer of Persona 4.
The innocuous handshake you receive is, really, the game’s beginning. It’s where the routine originates, and Persona 4 would be nothing without routine. The story manages to exploit most players’ penchant for disregarding tutorials and advice to present an absolutely jaw-dropping twist, and one that’s hard to see as anything but obvious upon on a second playthrough.
The attendant offers Yu a job, and explains that they’re always looking for new help. What’s interesting is that, of all the part-time jobs you can acquire, this isn’t one of them. Later in this essay, I’ll talk about some more ways Persona 4 flirts with the illusion of player agency, but this discrepancy is the first indicator that the attendant may not be as bland and trustworthy as she seems.
Also worth noting is Nanako’s reaction to the attendant. Between her and Dojima, she’s the only one who seems deeply concerned about your well-being after the handshake. Dojima does ask if something’s wrong, but the intensity of Nanako’s worry isn’t there, nor the persistence. It’s further characterizing her as both more attentive and caring than the others you’ve met thus far.
Moments after the handshake encounter, you’re finally allowed to explore the shopping district, and save your game, as if you’ve been given permission now that the gameplay cycle has started. The shopping district, in this first instance, has a couple more things worth noticing. Let’s break out the numbered list again!
- Marie appears for the second time, right next to the save point, further cementing her role as a fixture in this new world.
- The sign outside the bookstore displays an astounding amount of new information in very few words: that days bear some significance; that currency is a factor; and that there are activities/attributes to enhance.
- Saki Konishi and her brother can be heard arguing over something inconsequential, which serves as an introduction to the normalcy/tragedy disparity that the game is so fond of.
I mentioned earlier that Persona 4 likes to use its music to make a point, and one of the first, best instances of that trick comes a little later, mid-way through the inaugural family dinner. The music is bouncy and generally bright as the three of you share a casual conversation over a meal. Dojima even tells you that while you’re staying with them, you’re part of the family.
Then he gets a call from his job, leaves, and trusts his six-year-old daughter with making you feel at home.
The music never changes or stops, which is key especially if you view Persona 4 as a game grounded by routine. Minutes earlier, the soundtrack and dialogue would seem to confirm a routine of warmth and happiness. Now, the routine has changed to something much different: warmth and happiness suddenly interrupted by profound disappointment.
Nanako handles it like a champ, and turns toward an obvious source of comfort: television. The theme of people turning toward TV to escape reality is far too prevalent to necessarily single out here, but we are treated to the first instance of the Junes theme. Most players view Nanako’s insistence on singing the Junes jingle as little more than adorable (and don’t get me wrong, it is adorable), but it hints at something much darker. Even distanced from Junes’ role as a chain destroying the local economy, Nanako’s repeated reliance on the tune can be viewed as a kind of emotional crutch. Later in the game, when asked where she’d like to go on vacation, she replies perhaps the only way she knows how: Junes!
It’s hard for me, knowing Nanako’s character and fate, to feel anything but melancholy in these early segments. Persona 4 is one of those games that manages to change itself if you know what’s coming, as if later story developments send ripples all the way back to the start. It’s really intoxicating.
Nanako changes the channel to the Junes commercial in response to some “boring” news: the scandal involving Taro Namatame. In the game’s pyramid story structure, this moment is carefully placed, as the corresponding spot in the slope deconstructs what’s built here in the climb. The announcer explains that since the scandal has broken, reporter and alleged mistress Mayumi Yamano will be off the television, and out of the public eye. This moment’s significance is twofold: firstly, it serves to elevate television’s literal and figurative importance to the town, and secondly, it acts as a darkly clever metaphor for her death, which will pull her off of the Midnight Channel permanently.
After being force-fed a wealth of seemingly insignificant story, you finally gain control, and can save. You can also check the fridge, solidifying this place as your new home.
From this point forward, the game begins to somewhat menacingly and passive-aggressively tell you what to do, but it’s all framed as if you’re making the decisions yourself. You try to go outside, and the game tells you you’re too tired. That you should really get some rest.
Upon going to your room, littered with boxes, the game reacts similarly. You’re given the option to interact with most everything there: the desk, the coffee table, the bookshelves, and the television. The game, every time, says the same thing.
“You’re tired from the long trip. You should rest…”
After all, the handshake is still fresh; the game has just given you control of your routine. It needs to make sure you understand how the game is supposed to be played. By which I mean… both the game, and the “game.” When you finally select your futon, a cruel joke in the form of a question appears:
“Go to sleep? Yes/No”
As you select “yes” and fall asleep, the game still seems unsure of your ability, as if scared of your agency. Or, maybe it’s just being patronizing. It tells you that you “should” hurry to bed, even though the screen has blacked out and you’ve already made your choice. An ellipsis in the next text box would seem to confirm this contradiction as deliberate.
It’s repetitive and sort of infuriating, but it’s what makes Persona 4 great. Its commitment to its premise, in both gameplay and how the story unfolds because of it, is unlike anything I’ve ever played. You could criticize how long it takes for Persona 4 to actually become a game that you can make decisions in, but the slow drip of agency makes it all the more impactful 80 hours later. That’s ignoring the wealth of thematic and metatextual evidence to support the decision, too. In a way, that’s why this game is so special. Even if I didn’t think about it this hard, it would still be one of my favorite games, on the strength of its surface qualities alone. That’s a thin line to tread, and if the game has to coast for a while to walk it, then I’m happy to hand over the keys for a couple hours.
The game does have one real thing to say, though:
“You’ll be living in this town for one year, starting today… you wonder if everything will be all right.”