LOST IN THE FOG: Part Six (4/16)

“It is like the number zero… empty, yet holding infinite potential within itself.” — Igor

If 4/15 were the first day to feel overstuffed, then 4/16 feels practically lackadaisical. It’s a comedown from yesterday’s emotional trial; a single sustained note before we’re set off on Yukiko’s adventure. Days like these are central to Persona 4‘s success. They’re not flashy. There’s no real information gained, or arc the characters run through. It’s all about regrouping. Some intense shit just went down. And Persona 4‘s suggestion when intense shit goes down? Let’s sit down and talk about it.

Even as 4/16 may feel like wheel-spinning, there’s still some importance packed into its edges. This, as far as I’m concerned, is where the Junes aspect of Persona 4‘s routine really kicks off. We know that this game likes to introduce its disparate elements individually and gradually. This is the first time that making the trip to Junes feels like a foregone conclusion, rather than an active decision. The ultimate point of Persona 4 hinges desperately on the feeling that every single person caught in its plot acts not out of independence, but necessity. A perpetual motion machine that drives the characters as much as it drives the player.

Ah, damn. I’m getting ahead of myself. The most immediate thing worth discussing today is also a more substantial addition to the routine than my Junes pontificating: the Social Link.

If you were going to try and pitch Persona to somebody (which I have done a few times), it’d probably take ten to fifteen seconds, tops, before getting to Social Links. They became the foundation of this series post-Persona 3. And to be honest, the gap from the original Persona to Persona 3 & 4 is wide enough as to be unrecognizable.

Social Links rely on a very basic, fundamental principle: characters are their own reward. It’s actually one of the boldest original game mechanics in recent memory, because it doesn’t function without old-fashioned artistic inspiration. Most games make a system and plug the story in later; Persona 4 made a system out of its story.

It can actually be traced back to what I was saying about the “inner life” last essay. Persona 4‘s bedrock is its characters, which should be clear by now. We’ve been taking extraordinary time to establish each character, and how each character wishes to present themselves. In the case of Saki, that presentation went directly against her inner life. You can see where this goes.

Social Links are the system by which you discover a character’s inner life. It has the requisite ties to the other mechanics in the game — by strengthening social bonds, you strengthen your Personas and battle effectiveness — but that intent feels secondary. Just like in real life, you define the limits of your social circle, and pursue friendships with the people you like most. It’s “emergent” in a way (which I hesitate to say since it’s become a video game buzzword), where the tone of your playthrough is dictated by your own flights of fancy. Most of the Social Links are technically optional, so you could even be a shut-in who never hangs out with your teenage investigator acquaintances. The sky’s the limit!

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It’s no coincidence that the first Social Link you form is with Yosuke, the only other character yet to accept his Shadow. Since the both of you confronted his inner life head-on, you naturally have a deeper existing bond than you might with Yukiko, or whomever. And while the brunt of this first encounter is wordy Velvet Room nonsense, the sense of companionship is real and earned. We already know more about Yosuke than most characters by the end of their respective games.

The truly exceptional thing about all of this is that Persona 4 could just leave it at that. Yosuke, as a character, could just fade into the background, or become purely reactive to the twists and turns of the plot. But Persona 4 does not work in half measures. Just when you feel like you’ve gone deep with Yosuke, you get the option to go even deeper. And Persona 4 makes you work for it, too! Yosuke is not an encyclopedia entry to read up on. If you really want to go the distance, you have to carve out time for Yosuke. Time that you could spend in any number of other ways. Time you will never get back.

Persona 4 understands the importance of downtime. So much so that it makes the management of that downtime feel as vital and precise as, I dunno, catching a serial killer.

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