This review contains spoilers for the video game, Persona 4.
The heated carpet warmed my buttocks through the green fleece of well-worn sweatpants. I was in the midst of a ritual of semi-herald importance here in Iwate prefecture, Japan: playing video games on a lonely morning in a freezing house in the middle of nowhere. The game was Persona 4, a fitting choice given its setting in a slightly supernatural occurrence-prone town in rural, modern Japan. The room’s air had a mysterious crispness to it as well as a pungent stench of kerosene burning in a life-giving icon to the gods of love and benevolence: the space heater.
The last few moments sent my mind reeling through the events of the eighty hours or so I had spent with Persona 4. Things were coming to a head with poor Nanako-chan and her curmudgeonly father Dojima-san, both hospitalized for injuries incurred in the pursuit of Namatame. Dojima crashed his car in an attempt to save Nanako. Namatame had taken her into the TV world, saying he would save her. The TV world is where the Shadows live. They kill people, not save them.
These moments were the build to Persona 4‘s finale. Persona 4 (P4) is a game based around the conceit that inside the TV is a realm full of monsters called Shadows. The game’s narrative push comes in the form of a murder mystery where someone repeatedly throws people into TVs in order to kill them. The protagonist and all the other good guys, armed with Personas (summon-able alter-egos used in fighting) go there to stop the Shadows from doing away with their victims before it is too late.
While my main character, Izzy Nurd, waited outside Nanako’s room, I pondered the fate of Namatame, the prime suspect, injured from our recent battle. “He hurt Nanako-chan! I will make Namatame pay… which is to say, I am going to beat this game.” I couldn’t wait to see how P4‘s developers planned the ending out.
I collected myself, stilled and steeled my heart and proceeded with a button press. Suddenly, the nurse appeared from Nanako’s room, calling everyone in to see her. She had taken a turn for the worst and wanted to see her big bro Izzy. Izzy stood by her side, holding her hand and administering the death bed platitudes we all hope to hear when the reaper comes a’ calling. Dojima entered fearing the worst for his daughter. The heart monitor flat-lined and I heard a staccato beep with a slow fade as Nanako slowly passed from the world.
“Eh?” I thought in disbelief. No way. They killed Nanako-chan. The developers killed Nanako-chan.
My lips slid slickly over my teeth and my cheeks tensed to form a nice swoop. I smiled radiantly at having witnessed such unheard of boldness in the normally cookie-cutter realm of video game narratives. The developers killed a main character, a seven-year-old girl. I felt immensely sad at the loss, and was moved at the extent of my emotion. I did not want to see her die and thought her as invincible as any other poor, innocent child in a video game. But there it was, her pixilated corpse beamed through my television.
That pixilated corpse represented the promise of not only the eighty hours I had sunk into the game, but the failed promises of the many other times where video games did not deliver. Because I was jaded, I was so surprised by Nanako’s death. Persona had gotten me and I felt joy that it had given me such a gift. The gift of profound, earned sadness as light as a feather in the wind. Sadness without trauma and tragedy is a delicious treat.
I trudged on and felt the pain with Izzy as the team headed to Namatame’s room, inexplicably located in the same hospital. Namatame, owing to the supernatural way he dealt with his victims, cannot be punished by the law. Izzy’s best friend, the brash and hopeless Yosuke, had murder on his mind: “Throw him in the TV and let the Shadows take care of him.” With calculated lightness, I talked him down through a series of dialogue choices. I wanted Namatame to pay for causing Nanako’s death, but why should I make these digital high schoolers, yet so full of hope for the future, turn into murderers? Yosuke was appeased and the team walked out on Namatame, letting the law do what it could to punish him.
Little did I know the importance of that exchange.
Before I had time to contemplate the situation, I was hit with something unbelievable and horribly unwanted. Nanako-chan recovered! After killing her and winning my respects, the developers resuscitated her for what seems to be and what turns out to be no reason. She was alive and well. My insides reeled and I suppressed heaves of disgust.
“Bastards! They tricked me, they got me good. My heartache was pointless. She’s better off dead.”
Persona really let me down. They killed an innocent little girl in a moment of transcendental beauty, but they sullied it. They took their hubris as lords and seers of this mock world and brought her back from the dead. The sweet dark chocolate bitterness in my heart was replaced by the plastic, saccharin-icity of pap.
Obediently, I trudged on only for another unfortunate surprise. The in-game clock suddenly sped ahead. It skipped winter and became spring. Izzy was sitting in a room with a hale and hearty Dojima-san. Dojima asked about regrets. I contemplated if I had had any besides buying that Persona’s developers had the chutzpah to put emotions into their games. Izzy and Dojima went to the train station and Izzy waved good-bye to all his friends. Credits.
“Eh?” I thought.
In my little room the walls shook as I screamed “No, no, no, no!” The game fucked me. It fucked me. I played for eighty hours and it just ended. It did not give me a conclusion or any sense of closure. It did not give me any side-quests or ultimate weapons. It did not even give me a final boss to dispose of with the malice I take out every night on my body when I am all alone, naked in my wet bed.
Feeling drained out of me and I lost my color. I slowly released the muscles in my back and slopped to the floor. It broke me. It took away my sadness and it broke me. I had wanted a respectable end. I had wanted to grind my levels. I had wanted to feel uber-powerful and uber-sexy with my giant, glistening and very hard sword. I had wanted to earn the credits that would follow the final boss’s on-screen dissolution and ending cutscenes packed full of half-baked philosophies and pathos.
I did not want this emptiness; the infinite promise of the future revoked.
I texted my girlfriend Azusa, who was further in the game than I was. She informed me she had done the same thing four times and had to look online to figure out how to get the real ending.
“Yeah, real ending.”
Persona had gotten me a third time. This was not the end, how could I be so stupid? How could the real ending be so abrupt and unsatisfactory? All I had to do to get the real ending was to choose the correct answer to all six of Yosuke’s questions in Namatame’s room. So basically I had a 1/46656 chance of continuing with the game without having to resort to the advice of people who have played the game innumerable times. These are the people that devote 10000 words and as many hours to divulging all the game’s secrets and minute details to the wanting masses through text-only web pages. People I intimately respect and owe a great deal to, but for which I have no love.
Persona, what was the point of these multiple endings?
They are pretentious bullshit. Much has been said of the split between casual gamers and hardcore gamers. Though this dichotomy is about as useful as black/white, Persona walks a path suited and made for the proto-hardcore player. Even worse, the developers crafted this game with hardcore players as their target (niche games are important, but they should never pander to their niche. The niche naturally will come to the game). They made the end of their game inaccessible to most—46655/46656—of the people who do not know that free game guides can be found online and do not own a published game guide.
The majority of gamers out there use the Internet, and a large portion of them know that places like GameFaqs provide encyclopedic reference material for most video games. Some gamers do not know these things, and a large portion of the uninformed gamers are children. Yes, it is a strange thought, but children also play video games. They rely upon their wits and developing (but substantial) intellects to beat them. I am sure many minor-aged gamers know that online tutorials and walkthroughs exist and use them, but a substantial lot probably do not know they exist or do not have free access to them.
These are the people that Persona fucks. Or at the least, does not care about. JRPGs have often been criticized for their lack of innovation and evolution, a complaint that has also been leveled at Japanese-made games as a whole. Though I think that Persona is for the most part innovative and a step in the right direction for JRPGs, it should still be aware of the stagnation of the Japanese video game market. As I walk down the aisles in a game store in Japan, I see row after row of the same generic, bland material, most of it I know will never go across to American shores. All the money spent on execrable products by both producers and consumers is a waste. With video games waning in popularity in Japan, it is best not to fuck anyone with your game.
Persona‘s little trick was made for JRPG consumers, a small group of veteran, completionist players that have played many and will continue to play Persona‘s games (and by extension most of Atlus’s products). There is nothing wrong with adding content to a game to please completionist, fan-like gamers (the last seven dragon bosses in Dragon Quest 8 come to mind as a benign example of such content), but to make your game in such a way that some people get tricked and duped, that is dangerous.
It is suicide to turn away prospective consumers. Making tricks that only the fan base can enjoy hurts the chances of attracting new players, both young and seasoned. More so than the miraculous recovery of Nanako, this ending trick left a bad taste in my mouth. It was not just the irresponsible stupidity of it, it was the thought of all those confused kids. I grew up and played games before the Internet was around. My NES and SNES were with me throughout my formative years. I played shit games, like Rise of the Robots, but it had robots and robots were always cool (let the rise of CG blockbusters and an endless deluge of poor-quality mecca anime ruin that. At least we still have zombies. Man, zombies are awesome). But a game that deliberately kept the fruits of my eighty-hour labor from me? A younger me would see no point in playing a game like that again. There would be no point at all.
Rightly, I was (and am) firmly in the camp of the diehard fan of Persona (both of the series and the genre). People like me but slightly more apologetic towards bullshit in otherwise winning games would love this game, and frankly, there is a lot to love. It has great gameplay, an interesting story, well-made and well-voiced characters, copious side-quests and extras, and incredible execution of a slice-of-life setting. If it weren’t for that one ending…