“…Hey, you ever have nights where you’re so nervous that you can’t get to sleep?” – Yosuke
I’m writing this essay on the night before it’s set to be published (yes, I’m a rebel). This bears some significance, because on the night of 6/15 (real life, not Persona 4), Sony held a press conference where they announced the truly unthinkable: a remake of Final Fantasy VII.
You see, remaking Final Fantasy VII is one of those storied, video game insider jokes. People have wanted it for years, Square Enix has known they’ve wanted it, and yet it’s never come to pass. Remaking Final Fantasy VII used to be a white whale. No longer.
You can’t talk about JRPGs without talking about FF7. Not everybody likes it, but that’s not even the point. FF7 was one of the first JRPGs to break big, converting millions of people who’d never touched an “Action-Time Battle” system into instant, frothing devotees. Final Fantasy VI (the best one in the series, and one of the best games of all time) was a late-period SNES title thrown together in about a year of development time. Starting with FF7, people began anticipating the next Final Fantasy game like a person might anticipate the next Hollywood blockbuster. It got bigger, and shinier, and eventually the flame that used to burn so brightly was snuffed out.
Now, after a handful of false starts, spin-offs, and troubled development cycles, Square Enix is remaking Final Fantasy VII.
The truth is, FF7 didn’t really start anything. It is an evolution of the games that came before, with prettier bells and whistles. There’s only one reason FF7 strikes me as particularly significant in 2015. It drew a line in the sand for the Western gamer about what a “JRPG” was and what a “WRPG” or “CRPG” was.
Here’s the way it breaks down in the public’s consciousness, I’d guess:
-JRPGs are about teenagers with spiky hair. They are all very broody. They always have to save the world. They do so in the most melodramatic way possible.
-WRPGs are about adults dealing with adult things. They often have dragons. They have a richly detailed world and lore. They deal with heady, real world issues like racism, misogyny, and war.
This way of thinking, I submit, is total bullshit.
It’s something I want to talk about a lot as this series goes on — the notion of what a JRPG “is” and “isn’t.” It’s rooted in what I’d argue is a willfully obstinate engagement with one genre, and borderline sycophantic praise of another. Western audiences seem to like the sort of fantasy that derives from Tolkien. The kind that has Big Important Messages about how absolute power corrupts absolutely. The kind that has enough lore to fill a whole cupboard worth of cookbooks. JRPGs are the kind of fantasy where pre-teens have Big Important Feelings.
I would also say that the modern Western gaming demographic is a little scared of Big Important Feelings. You need only read the internet’s response to a game like Gone Home to see what I’m getting at. And at some point, this complex — wherein we can praise The Witcher 3 for its storytelling maturity while disregarding an entire culture’s differing take on the genre — forces us to overlook a lot of really fucking cool things JRPGs have been doing for years.
What I want to touch upon lightly today is the standard JRPG’s relationship to god. I’m not a believer, so I feel a little dishonest typing that with a capital G.
A lot of people praise the more skeptical way some modern Western RPGs (most recently, Dragon Age: Inquisition) have been handling the topic of religion. The dirty little secret here is that the best JRPGs have exploring this theme for years.
The fascinating thing about the average JRPG is that it doesn’t follow the obvious route of the skeptic. JRPGs are rarely atheistic. What they are is frequently, and vehemently, antitheistic. JRPGs are inherently skeptical of authority, and people who want to control others. There is no greater controlling authority than the theistic god. In a more direct, poetic way: gods are assholes.
Just look at Final Fantasy VII. It’s a game with two major villainous forces: SHINRA, an evil corporation, and Sephiroth, a bad guy who looks like this when you finally defeat him.
Suffice it to say, religion is a big sticking point for JRPGs, and Persona 4 is one of the genre’s grandest case studies. This will become extremely apparent by the end of the game, but for now, let’s focus on one isolated incident. I could sit here and write about how Yu went to lunch with Yosuke and bonded, but that’s all familiar ground. Here’s something that happened after dark.
Yu returns home. He’s a little restless, so he checks the fridge. A simple sentiment.
“Nothing catches your eye.”
At this point, Yu gets an idea. He ate so much spicy tofu that he’s courageous enough to visit the shrine after dark. Why not take a stroll down to the shopping district and see what’s happening?
He arrives. Silence. Cold. Just him and the shrine. What next?
Why not try to pray?
That’s what shrines are for, right? Praying? And Persona 4 responds affirmatively.
“Maybe you should pray…”
It’s worth a shot.
A silent prayer. And more silence. And more darkness. And then, from an ever darker, deeper, more silent place:
“You wonder what kind of food is in the fridge back home…”
Here we have an act of minor divine intervention that doubles as a transparent gameplay trigger. Why couldn’t Yu eat anything out of the fridge? We hadn’t activated the right part of the game.
Why couldn’t Yu eat anything out of the fridge? God hadn’t yet shown him the way.
Yu has a spring in his step. He’s had trouble with authority before. The news, the police, Junes, his teachers — all of them steering him in unhelpful directions. All of them forces to be contended with. In a moment of need, there’s a small victory. He still has a long road ahead of him, but at least he knows that the highest authority is one worth trusting.
He returns. He opens the fridge.
And I was controlling him the whole time. I’m such an asshole.