LOST IN THE FOG: Saturday, 5/7

“It stopped raining, but the thunder was loud! Were you scared, big bro?” — Nanako

Today on Persona 4: ghost stories. I feel a special kind of kinship with Yu and friends today, because it’s raining right now in Vancouver and probably won’t stop until the end of the week. I have a deep emotional investment in rain for a couple reasons. There’s the sound. Who doesn’t love the sound? There’s the way it feels like nature giving you a pass to stay in bed. All of that’s totally cool, but it would be less cool had I not grown up in Marin County.

Marin is the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area, and it has an incredibly mild climate. When I lived there, it was just kinda sunny, and kinda warm, which made the rare moments of rain stick out in my memory. Based on my experience with popular culture, I can only assume that other kids across the country had more at stake in the weather forecast. A day of really intense snowfall was a day you might spend away from the shackles of elementary school.

I was never so lucky. In Marin, there were really only two naturally occurring things that could keep me home from school. Earthquakes (and, believe you me, if an earthquake was bad enough to cancel school then I’d have bigger problems to worry about) and blackouts.

So, the two things I love: rain and blackouts. They were some of the only imposed tonal shifts in my pre-teen years. I remember it storming outside while I helped decorate my school’s Christmas tree. I remember lighting candles during a blackout, and driving to the neighborhood grocery store to get some hot, deli counter macaroni & cheese.

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Back to ghost stories. When are they most effective? Blackouts. Everybody knows it. Persona 4 uses its atmosphere (rain, check, blackout, check) to lightly expand on some character dynamics. It’s a nice little chapter before the next phase of the game kicks into gear.

I especially love the dynamic here between Yukiko and Chie, because it defies convention. Persona 4‘s take on sexuality and gender constructs is always interesting and often flawed, as we’ll discover shortly, but the slight subversions of perceived femininity here are very much appreciated.

Yukiko, as the more conventionally beautiful and soft-spoken female character, is not the one who’s supposed to tell ghost stories. Chie, with a far stronger will and louder mouth, should not be so scared by them. It’s distressingly rare to find stories where female characters are allowed to have depth beyond the stereotypical gendered traits thrust upon them. Given that Persona 4 is all about finding character depth and subverting first impressions, I suppose this isn’t a surprising avenue of praise. But I praise it nonetheless.

To illustrate my point, here’s how a thoughtless hack would write this scene. Chie, Yukiko, Yosuke and Yu are hanging out at school. Suddenly, wham! Blackout! Yukiko is terrified of the blackout. Chie is too, but she’s trying to put on a brave face for Yukiko. Yosuke tells a scary ghost story that frightens both of them, such that Chie drops her act. Lights come back on. End scene.

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It doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but it really is. The one I proposed subtly reinforces harmful gender stereotypes: Yukiko’s fragile and terrified; Yosuke’s totally fine; the idea that Chie, as a girl, even COULD be brave in this situation is played for a laugh. The scene in the game is throwaway in the sense that, yes, you could remove it and Persona 4 wouldn’t be substantial worse. But it isn’t lazy, and it isn’t cheap. It works hard to keep these characters orbiting each other in surprising, effortless, and charming ways, regardless of their gender identity. That’s a big deal! Especially in JRPGs.

It’s clear that Persona 4 is some kind of weird empathetic antenna, bouncing emotions out of my head, into my Vita, and then all around my room. It probably has something to do with how long I’m spending in Inaba. I’ve talked about it before in this series, but it’s astounding how an attention to detail and emotional depth can make a series of slightly askew dioramas come alive. I thought about the rain, and I thought about blackouts, because Persona 4 wanted me to.

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