“The daughter of a local family-run liquor store and the scion of the invading chain… Hoho, the flame of forbidden love!”
April 13th is the first relatively straight-forward day in Persona 4. The game pulls back on some of its more subtle narrative tricks, and instead focuses on setting up broader points. Who’s Yosuke? Who’s Chie? What are their personalities? How do they interact? What the fuck is the Midnight Channel?
It’s tempting to write off the early hours of Persona 4 as doing solely that, as many people have. The two most common complaints (that I’ve heard, anyway) are: 1) it takes too long to open up in any meaningful way, and 2) it’s far too focused on reiteration of things that the player already knows. I don’t disagree with either point, but I can’t help but feel as though they’re benefits rather than detriments. These first hours, more than anything in the game, are deliberate; if you feel like it’s taking a while to open up, or that it simply won’t trust you to comprehend the story, that’s probably because, well, it does and doesn’t respectively.
This also leads to a tricky semantic argument between the nature of art and its creator. If Persona 4 thinks you aren’t trustworthy, does that mean the creators necessarily agree? The answer, of course, is no (unless you think that, for example, Randy Newman has a bizarre prejudice against little people), but I can definitely understand where the confusion originates.
In most art, it is painfully easy to separate creation from creator, especially in satire. It’s not a challenge to figure out that, no, maybe George Orwell didn’t actually endorse the concept of “Thought Police,” even though the tone of 1984 is largely impartial and sterile.
The trickier part with video games is that a part of the creation needs to be carved out for the player. You don’t have to write every other page of 1984, but you have to play Persona 4. It’s a heightened bond, and one that leaves the game designer more connected to their audience than an author (or director, or musician) ever could be.
The opening hours of Persona 4 shatter a rule that’s upheld by almost every other game on the market. By making the game itself a character, and the designers of the ruleset more so, Atlus has essentially created an unreliable narrator for the age of interactive entertainment. We’ve been over the ways the game itself seems to mess with you (and Yu): “you should rest,” “you should leave him be,” etc. These moments are the perfect encapsulation of the first days of the game, and they show why the repetition is deliberate.
If you’d allow me to get a little sappy for a moment, Persona 4 is about denying normalcy and authority in search of happiness and truth. It’s a message that wouldn’t work unless the designers committed to it, hard.
In Persona 4, the final, meanest authority you need to question is the game itself, and that’s incredible.
Most of April 13th is actually spent at a new location: the Junes food court. Yosuke offers to buy Yu lunch, and Chie tags along, still angry about her broken “Trial Of The Dragon” DVD. Yukiko can’t come, because she needs to look after the inn.
I had always figured Yukiko was written out of these early days because she’ll be the first to go missing. It’s actually a pretty standard idea in horror stories especially — if a character goes MIA early on, you best not forget about them. One thing I didn’t notice until now is how Yukiko’s situation actually represents a sort of polemic opposite to Yosuke’s.
The reason he thinks to go to Junes in the first place is that it’s cheap, but it also bears other significance. Yosuke’s father runs this particular franchise, and they moved from the big city around 6 months ago. Chie mentions how the local shopping district seems to be closing down, to which Yosuke replies, insecurely: “you can’t blame it all on Junes, can you?” Yukiko, meanwhile, is quickly being vetted to run the Amagi Inn — one of the last attractions keeping Inaba on the map.
We also meet Saki today (after perhaps hearing her fight with her brother back on the 11th), whose barbs and jabs at Yosuke seem innocuous, but cut pretty deep when colored by knowledge you’ll gain later. When you realize Saki’s relationship to Junes (and by extension, Junes’ relationship to Saki’s family business), a couple of lines really made me wince.
“What’s up Hana-chan? Boosting the family business by bringing your friends here?”
All the while, Chie continues to uncomfortably pry into the lives of others, and starts giving Yosuke some shit about his clear infatuation with Saki. It all builds to a rather monumental release.
“You ever hear of the Midnight Channel?”
“You’re supposed to look into a TV that’s switched off, alone, exactly at midnight on a rainy night.”
“Maybe you should try it out tonight…”
Now, I’ll admit, I’m pretty much a sucker for this kind of thriller/mystery trope. A bizarre TV show that only airs at midnight on rainy nights in a moody Japanese suburb? Count me in. It’s enticing on the surface-level without even touching the deep (and I mean deep) thematic implications.
Seemingly right after the Midnight Channel is introduced, the game tries to pick up the pace. It recaps what Chie’s just told you, and “suggests” that you try it out tonight. Then, cut to black, and fade in on a familiar scene.
“Another dinner alone with Nanako…”
This is going to sound horrible, because it is, but these lonely dinners are actually sort of comforting. It’s a thing you can rely on, and later in the game, something you can work to fix. Nanako is one of the subtler characters in the game, because she can be easily dismissed as a stock, cutesy six-year-old. But she’s the closest thing Persona 4 has to a constant. She’s the only character who’s willing to express herself without facing down a demonic Shadow self. It’s why her safety becomes a top priority: she’s earnest in a game filled with deceit, both conscious and subconscious.
Dojima actually comes home this night, but he’s not in the best way. When he sits down, they just start watching the news, and eventually, he falls asleep. This isn’t breaking our established household routine: it’s merely adding a new, sad wrinkle.
That newscast, though, features some pretty key information. This is the first real time Persona 4 has laid out exactly how it regards the modern information cycle. And that’s to say… poorly.
We get a glimpse of the way news seems to travel in Inaba, from the core facts to the leading interviews and the opinionated commentators. It all begins with a rundown of the case so far (the specifics of which Persona 4 hopes you forget within the next 10-15 hours), involving victim Mayumi Yamano, suspect Taro Namatame, and his wife, Misuzu Hiiragi. Namatame was having an affair with Yamano, and Hiiragi seems to have a tight alibi.
Then, we get phase two. The body, disturbingly hung from a television antenna, and the high-school girl who found it. They apply a voice filter and mosaic out her facial features, but it’s still clearly Saki Konishi, the girl you met at the food court hours earlier. The interviewer asks her a variety of exploitative questions, sounding weirdly fascinated and aroused in the process. She doesn’t even seem to realize she found a corpse.
The conversation is cut awkwardly short as they throw back to the studio, where a resident expert presents his opinion on the proceedings. In summary, he thinks that Inaba PD are inept. Surely they should know by now if this was a murder or a suicide? Or even an accident? It’s the last thing Dojima hears before falling asleep.
Once all that messy business is done with, though…
“Every day’s great at your Junes!”
Nanako tells you she’s going to wake up Dad to get him into his bed. She goes back to watching the television. Now you can open the fridge, save your game, and walk around the living room, but there’s not much to see, or do. Until you walk upstairs. The game reminds you about the Midnight Channel, and segues into one of Persona 4’s rare fully animated cutscenes.
There are only a couple sections in video games that I’d call “well-edited,” and Persona 4 has most of them. The introduction to the Midnight Channel is appropriately foreboding, and tonally quite different from anything we’ve seen thus far. The rain is pouring, lit only by the sparse street lamps along the road. The clock ticks forward. Yu stares at his reflection in the television.
Then, just as he’s about to give up, the faint hum of static.
He staggers backwards as words most fitted to the Velvet Room ring in his head. The picture keeps cutting in and out, but it doesn’t take a detective to figure out who’s on tonight: Saki.
Oh, and Yu also falls into the TV a little bit.
It’s an adrenaline rush of information. Firstly, we know Chie wasn’t lying. Secondly, we know Saki’s involvement with this case will probably only get deeper from here. Thirdly, that guy just nearly fell into a fucking television. Persona 4 isn’t quite done winding up just yet, but it’s starting to throw some serious punches.
Moments later, Nanako is outside your door, asking if you’re alright. She seems unconvinced.
She’s a smart kid.