“Ugh, I can’t see a damn thing. Frickin’ fog…”
Dream sequences are, and forever will be, difficult to properly portray. Especially at the relative start of a story. They’re useful in exposing the inner workings of a character, but if that’s used as a crutch, it can start to feel overbearing. The best dream sequences capture a spirit of placelessness and surreality, while hinting at themes from the “real” world.
Yu’s dream (technically occurring on 4/11, but addressed here for sake of fluidity) sidesteps most of the pitfalls that come with the territory by barely addressing them. This isn’t a meditation on Yu as a person; in fact, it can almost be read as a deliberate attempt to cast off the idea that his past needs further clarification. Where many stories would take this opportunity to expose Yu’s insecurities or ill-wishes toward his former life, Persona 4 reveals its counter-argument: there’s nowhere to go but forward.
This command, that even though the fog’s so thick you can’t see where you’re going, you need to progress, is both earnest and cynical. It does promote the idea that perseverance wins out against uncertainty, and that the truth is attainable to those who seek it. It can also be viewed in a much different context when you know about the vicious cycle the game explains in its closing hours. Charging ahead blindly with nothing but goodwill can hurt as much as it helps.
I’m also a big fan of how the game continues to play with the concept of choice even in a dream state. When you approach the door, you’re given a prompt: “Will you continue? Yes/No.”
It’s of a type with the other non-choices the game’s presented up to this point, and it’s made even more impactful by the pared down dreamscape. Fog surrounds you. There is only one way to go. The game tells you as much. And yet, somehow, whether or not you continue is a “choice.”
We also get a glimpse at the battle system, at least aesthetically. It strikes me as an especially smart way to cement a thematic point: by tying it to the introduction of a rigid gameplay device. Such is one of the multitude of ways a video game can tell a story in a unique way. It delights me, while reminding how frequently other games do it worse, or don’t even try.
Upon awaking, a new routine is introduced. School! Yes, one of the very foundations upon which this bizarre little game is built. I can’t speak to how accurate the game’s portrayal is to real life in the Japanese countryside, but the architecture and ambiance seems a good bit more inviting than most high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Taken at its face, school is an obvious bullet point in this game’s design document: the cast is made up of high-schoolers, and time management is a focus. What’s so remarkable is the mood the game manages to strike surrounding the school, not just as a building, but as a sort of state of mind. The long walks up the tree-lined streets, wide enough for cars but never traveled; the people you meet, and the friends who flag you down at lunchtime; the dizzying highs and lows of sunny mornings and rainy afternoons, and the umbrellas that may or may not be dotting the crowds.
Since the opening hours of Persona 4 are so restrictive (you can roam around somewhat early on, but everything’s conspicuously vacant), the school is one of the first places you get to know like the back of your hand. It serves as a mediator between the player and the scary new world they’ll be inhabiting for 80+ hours. As the game went on, I started to feel attached the school like a security blanket. That warmth expands like a bomb exploding, from the school to the town to the people living in it. At the risk of sounding a wee bit sad, I guess you could say the game as a whole has become my security blanket. But if that does reflect poorly on me, why are you reading this in the first place?
Anyhow… you wake up, and Nanako makes you breakfast. It’s a powerful gesture, because it solidifies her role as a de facto guardian while Dojima is away working, drinking, or both. She also walks with you to school, until you come to a parting point.
“You keep going straight from here,” she says, reminding one less-than-directly of the dream that Yu himself seems to have trouble remembering. And you do keep going, straight into a day littered with subtle character interactions and some extremely clever semantic oddness. Almost all of it has to do with the concept of player omnipotence: what should Yu know, and what should “you” know?
This starts with Yosuke’s somewhat unceremonious introduction, as he speeds into frame on a bike, and exits swerving out of control. All you hear is a crash. It manages to foreshadow both how the fog acts as an obstacle, and how Yosuke will be one of the first characters to be affected by it.
Be sure to notice a couple facts of this encounter that’ll be important throughout the day:
- Yosuke’s name, according the text box, is “cycling student.”
- Even though the game acknowledges he is in pain, it states that “you should leave him be.”
There are a variety of reasons why, even after Chie, Yukiko, and Yosuke are referred to by name minutes later, the game wouldn’t properly address them in the UI. It could be argued that because Yu hasn’t been introduced to them yet, the change shouldn’t be made, as the game is seen through his perspective. But we see the game break that rule at least once with Mr. Morooka. Here’s the chain of events: Yosuke crashes his bike and we fade out, then we fade in on a group of students talking about Morooka, and when he enters, his name is listed. Yu was nowhere to be found when the name was first mentioned.
So why the delay on Chie, Yukiko, and Yosuke? The answer’s a little obscure, but it lines up with what we’ve learned so far.
Earlier, I mentioned “saving the cat,” so I’d suppose I could throw out another reasonably obtuse storytelling term: the threshold. In most stories, the main character undergoes a physical, emotional, or locational change that serves as motivation. When this happens, they’ve crossed the threshold.
Dojima and Nanako serve as the true “threshold guardians” (recall how Marie appeared after Yu had crossed this line), but the same is true of the main school ensemble. Even after arriving by train, there are still more thresholds to cross, as any person who’s ever moved to a new town would know. One of these transitions can be found right there, in the first day of school.
Wait. Don’t say it. I know what you’re thinking. “Gee, mister Evan, sir, how does being a threshold guardian have anything to do with that naming business?” I’m getting there. Quiet down.
We’ve already seen what happens when Yu is moving faster than the machinations of the game. It constantly seems as if, from the attendant’s handshake on, Persona 4 is revving its engine; it’s trying to make you subservient to routine without you realizing. This leads to a lot of deeply insecure moments, not the least of which are the passive-aggressive ways the game quite literally tells you what to do and how to feel.
“You should leave him be.”
You should leave him be because you aren’t supposed to meet Yosuke yet. There’s so much you need to do first. You need to get to school, you need to be introduced to the class, and you need to meet Chie. Chie, the girl who’ll tell you about the Midnight Channel. Y’know, that rumor? The one about rainy nights?
Chie is the second threshold you must cross. And crossing her opens up a whole new world of possibilities — one that happens to feature people like Yukiko and Yosuke. Persona 4 can’t let you, or Yu, get a step ahead. If you want to play, you need to follow the routine. Even when that means doing things you don’t want to do. It’s all a sophisticated meditation on the problematic aspects of choice in video games, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Upon arriving at class, you realize King Moron’s reputation precedes him for a reason. He’s another unreliable authority figure, most similar to the attendant in practice: a character who should give you some tips on how to play this part of the video game, but is probably just full of shit.
The rest of the day proceeds as you might expect, if you’ve been paying attention. You meet Chie first, then Yukiko, and some characteristically smart writing helps solidify their personalities. Or rather, the opposite. These first impressions are all well and good, but they exist to mislead the player. By the time Kanji becomes a rat in this maze, most people have caught wise to the trick the game likes to play. What you see in these first encounters is as much of this person as their shadow. It’s just a polarity, and never the fully complex fuck-up you’ll discover later on.
Yosuke also keeps popping up, the pesky brat that he is. Each time, he seems to have a different name, from “pained student” to “cycling student.” After Chie hits him for breaking her DVD, Yu stops to survey the scene.
“You should leave him be.”
It’s played for laughs, to be sure, but it’s also incredibly menacing. Here’s a guy that you, the player, know the name and vague personality of, but you can’t help him. The game won’t even let you try. You just have to accept it and move on. After all, there’s nowhere to go but forward.
A wee bit later, Yukiko is accosted by “strange student,” who awkwardly asks her out, and runs off when she seems oblivious. Given the way Persona 4 has introduced tiny story threads in off-hand ways thus far, it’s easy to see this student fit the same pattern. Despite his import later on, he’s used here exclusively to introduce the player to Yukiko’s main emotional arc.
Keeping in mind that the Midnight Channel has only been hinted at up to this point, the amount of sly thematic references are staggering. You’ve got the reason Yukiko, Chie, and Yu take off after school (“C’mon, let’s go, everyone’s staring”), and even more directly, the way Chie needles Yukiko on their way to the crime scene. She keeps talking about her like she isn’t there, purporting to know what she wants and what she’s like. Most importantly, the information is delivered to Yu, and by extension the player; the poisonous qualities of secondhand speculation is evident by day two.
When they actually happen upon the crime scene, we find a merging of worlds. There’s the home life that Dojima inhabits, and the school life Chie and Yukiko inhabit. Now, they meet, and the soundtrack tellingly changes from silent to ominous. Sound is very important to Persona 4’s sense of normalcy, and almost every time it jarringly changes is deliberately placed.
The short scene here sets up a good teen/parent dynamic between the kids and the cops, and it’s one of the first times we see Dojima in hard-boiled detective mode. Of course, this also marks the introduction of Adachi, who is first seen running away from a corpse to vomit. Remember what I said about first impressions?
He’s also listed as “young detective,” even after Dojima calls him by name. We’re not even close to hitting the threshold Adachi’s guarding.
The length of this essay is getting a little unruly, so I’ll wrap it up shortly. My point stands: all around these early days, we see Persona 4 trying to catch up to the player’s sense of agency. It succeeds by forcing them down a linear path, and telling them how to regard certain characters and events. Having the player jump to a conclusion is really important to the designers of this game. So important, in fact, that they’ll do it for you.
You can wander around Inaba before ending the day, but it’s a lot like going to Disneyland after it closes; there’s a strong sense of place, and everything looks like it could be fun, but no one’s around to operate the rides. It’s big, beautiful, and empty, where every NPC seems to tell you the same thing — that maybe it would be best to head home.
Dojima isn’t there, of course. This is the routine. Lonely nights at home with Nanako. They’ve identified the body — Mayumi Yamano. Familiar name. She seems concerned by the news about the murder, and sad that her dad’s still gone, but fear not! Her spirits are livened by that most reliable of authority figures. Certainly more reliable than Mr. Morooka and the gas station attendant, right?
“Every day’s great at your Junes!”
You should probably just leave her be.