“Big bro didn’t do anything bad.” — Nanako
It’s always a nice surprise when my choices in a day of Persona 4 lead to an interesting dramatic through line. Such was the case on 5/6, where I, and Yu, pondered a dichotomy as old as time: friends and enemies.
If you wind up meeting enough people, the line between a friend and an enemy gets blurred. I could tell you right now exactly who my friends and enemies were in the sixth grade. But now? Now that I’m an adult, and my circle of connections has grown exponentially? Eh. It’s not that adults are smarter, I don’t think, but you reach a certain age and suddenly dichotomies are harder to give a shit about.
Yu is a high school student, poor guy. Can’t catch a break. His social life should be similar to his JRPG hero life: good vs. evil. Friends vs. enemies. Either Yu’s smart, or Persona 4‘s smart, or both. That’s how it should work, but it beautifully doesn’t.
All major characters in Persona 4 orbit around Yu, and none of them fit into easily definable categories. As a matter of fact, Persona 4 lets Yu change up his relationships on the fly, like a real goddamned person might a month after moving to a new town.
Consider 5/6, then. Lunch break, two people approach Yu.
Yosuke wants to hang out.
Chie wants to hang out.
Who does Yu want to hang out with?
Choices in video games can be deliberately simplistic. People who play games aren’t often interested in the choices themselves — they’re interested in how their input changes the raw design of the game. I wrote a game with dialogue choices that didn’t change the narrative in any noticeable way, and I got a minor amount of flak about it. A lot of people would call that kind of thing a “false choice,” but that’s only true if you’re obsessed with destinations. Simply put: if you ask a video game player to go left or right, they aren’t thinking about where they want to go so much as where they want to see the game take them. Which is a seemingly semantic, but truly impactful distinction.
Persona 4 is full of “false choices,” and a couple really, really true ones. Hell, you can reach an ending of this story hours before catching the actual culprit. Those moments are neat, and obviously substantial, but I can’t help but feel like the video gaming public at large too often misses the trees for the forest. In real life, not every single thing you say, place you go, or demon you kill comes back to haunt you. If I failed a math test in elementary school, the action of failing it may be dramatic and truthful, but it probably won’t be a major part of my life a decade later. Video games, at some point, got strong-armed into making that failed math test matter. Otherwise, what’s the point?
And so, Persona 4 offers a counter-argument. The point of a choice is not just in its outcome. The point is inherent to the act of choosing.
Back to lunch break. Chie or Yosuke?
In the moment, Yu goes with his gut. Chie. He feels bad that he’s not hanging out with Yosuke more, but them’s the breaks. In a standard video game dichotomy, this decision would have drastic ramifications. Yosuke would stop talking to Yu. There would be a falling out. At the end of the game, Yosuke would face some kind of crisis decision, and a switch would flip in his brain. “I need to save Yu, and then — hang on. Remember that time he didn’t hang out with me? Fuck that guy.”
This choice would push Yosuke closer to an enemy than a friend.
Persona 4 ain’t having none of that, though. This is a story where love perseveres, not because you fill up a love meter by making the right love choices, but because love perseveres, dammit. Yosuke will be bummed out, and Chie will be excited that she and Yu started training by the riverbank. Persona 4 is mature enough to realize that this one, small decision won’t actually rewrite any dynamics. Chie and Yosuke love Yu, ’cause he’s Yu. Who wouldn’t love him?
So we’ve covered the “friend” portion of 5/6, and touched lightly on the limitations of that label. What about enemies?
On 5/6, Yu had a talk with Dojima.
Oh, Dojima. You mean so well, but it means so little. Dojima’s dynamic with Yu is really interesting, because it develops beyond a normal protagonist/antagonist relationship. He’s Yu’s guardian for this year, and as such, his conversation here sees him straddling a line between concerned parent and detective.
He’s right, too, but in a way neither party could predict. Yu isn’t the culprit, but he is a cog in what I like to call the Persona 4 Perpetual Motion Machine. If Yu and the Investigation Team weren’t playing their role, then the criminal, and the mechanics of the game, would stop their plotting. Dojima has a keen sense of intuition, and notices that Yu has this funny way of turning up around the suspects and victims of the investigation.
The manner in which Persona 4 portrays Dojima’s temper is incredibly sympathetic. You could never picture him jumping to any kind of physical abuse, but you can also see external factors — pressure from his job, his guilt, his alcoholism — accelerating a friendly conversation into a combative one. He really doesn’t seem like he means to hurt anyone, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Nanako interrupts him.
Dojima may have a detective’s intuition, but Nanako is Nanako. She can see right through anybody. And in this case, she’s right. Big bro didn’t do anything bad. He’s just caught up in something bad. He perpetuates the crime he seeks to solve.
He is, if you will, his own best friend and his own worst enemy. Or, uh, something.