This is the second part of my deep dive into Persona 4. In the first part I focused on gameplay structure; this time I’m going to look at the game’s approach to its characters, and how integrating them into the broader systems of the game creates a more tangible relationship between the player and the characters.
I won’t lie; I kind of fell in love with the game’s cast of characters. Not a ‘buying a Rise hug pillow’ kind of love (none of you can read my PlayAsia receipts so you can’t prove that this happened), but a ‘wanting to spend longer hanging out with these characters’ kind of love.
It’s gotten to the point that I’m finding myself considering numerous Persona 4 spinoff games that I otherwise wouldn’t have any interest in, just because playing them would give me the opportunity to spend more time with the Persona 4 cast.
I don’t usually get this attached to characters in a videogame, so this is quite an achievement from the point of view of Persona 4’s writers and designers. What exactly is it about the characters in this game that makes me want to spend time with them even though the game’s finished?
It’s not that they are especially deep or profoundly well written. For the most part they follow pretty standard anime tropes. Rise is the flirty precocious one. Kanji is the brash reckless one. Chie is the insecure tomboy type. Yukiko is the quiet studious one. None of the characters have a ton of depth to them, but they do all have distinct and endearing personalities, which, while painted with pretty broad strokes, do over the course of the game come to grow on you.
And the course of the game is key. I’ve not played another game that dedicates so much time to simply hanging out with its cast. It’s entirely possible to play for two hours straight and experience nothing but dialogue. This is the bishōjo (that’s a dating sim for those not familiar with the Japanese sub-genre) part of Persona 4’s hybrid DNA coming to the fore, and it certainly won’t be for everyone. If you find yourself wishing you could skip through the dialogue in other JRPGs, you’re probably best giving Persona 4 a wide berth.
There is a significant upside to all that dialogue, however. The sheer amount of time you spend with these characters means that you feel like you’re really getting to know them. When you’ve spent as much time discussing the merits of steak skewers as you have the supernatural mystery plaguing your hometown, the relatively simple characters begin to develop depth with familiarity.
It helps that so much of the game is spent following the cast’s everyday lives. It’s not all dungeon crawling and demon slaying; you’ll go to school with these characters, you’ll go shopping, you’ll hang out in diners, you’ll go on beach holidays and road trips.
No other game I’ve played gives you such unprecedented access to its character’s day-to-day lives. If the Final Fantasy games are epic dramas, then Persona 4 is more like a sitcom, and much like a sitcom the more time you spend with its characters the more they start to seem like people you actually know.
This isn’t to say there isn’t high drama in Persona 4; over the course of the game you’ll experience the cast go through moments of life-changing significance, of profound character-altering realisation, of loss and grief and despair. But what Persona 4 does particularly well is balance out these moments of drama with moments of tenderness, moments of comedy, moments of teenage insecurity and day-to-day mundanity.
Not only does this make the truly dramatic moments feel that much more impactful, but it makes the characters feel more rounded and fully-developed. One of the problems I have with recent Final Fantasy games, the XIII line in particular, is that they treat only the most dramatic moments in the characters’ lives as worthy of attention. Any low-key moments and quiet personal developments happen either off-camera or in flashback sequences; all we experience as players is the angst, the drama, the capital-E Emotion.
The intention is to create a more dynamic and dramatic experience, but in reality it just makes the game’s cast come off as unbelievably highly-strung. No one experience high-intensity drama all the time, and presenting characters this way makes it incredibly difficult to empathise with them. In contrast, by dedicating so much game time to mundane activities and just the sheer joy of hanging out, Persona 4’s moments of drama really strike home. I’ve rarely wanted to fist-pump in public as much as I have during some of the game’s ‘let’s do this guys!’ pre-boss-fight chatter.
It’s impossible to overstate how important humour is to creating balanced characters. Humour is such a vital part of our day-to-day interactions with people, yet so few games use it effectively, if at all. Persona 4 is full of humorous moments, many of them generated by the back-and-forth between characters, who joke with, mock and gently make fun of one another in exactly the way high school kids do.
It’s all delivered naturally, rarely rammed down your throat, and it goes a long way to making the cast seem like real people. A lot of modern games confuse humour and snark, considering quips and one-liners a suitable stand in for humanity; it’s refreshing to see ATLUS deliver honest, innocent humour (though not always without troubling themes, which I’ll touch on in my next article).
The other thing that Persona 4 does particularly well is integrating the characters directly into the core games systems. I’ve already covered the Social Link system and how it ties the game’s fiction into character progression. From a player’s perspective it means that getting to know these characters, sharing their troubles and forging a meaningful relationship is directly beneficial to game progression.
Not only does improving your Social Link with a character give you the ability to forge stronger personas for use in battle, but those characters in your playable party become more effective in battle too. Later in the game well-established Social Links mean the difference between breezing through a dungeon with confidence and an excruciating grind.
This socially-focused progression makes much of the game’s incidental dialogue feel necessary when in fact its entirely optional. I’ll be honest; if there was no gameplay incentive for me to partake in all the optional character scenes then I likely would have skipped a lot of them. And I’d have missed out on a lot of great moments by doing so. If the characters were unlikable or the dialogue badly written then these sequences would have felt like a chore, but here the game’s systems and the snappy writing work together to make it feel like you really are forging a relationship with these characters.
You might start hanging out with a certain character in order to forge a particularly powerful demon, but you’ll come back for the charming dialogue exchanges. The one-two punch of great character dialogue and their integration into the wider game system makes getting to know the characters a gameplay loop in itself, and creates a bond between the player and the characters that few games can pull off so well.
It helps that ATLUS have done a fantastic job of the localisation, too. It strikes a great balance between being understandable to Western audiences and maintaining the distinctly Japanese flavour that’s such a core part of the game’s presentation. Characters refer to one another as ‘senpai’ and ‘sensei’ as Japanese culture dictates, but jokes and dialogue quirks have been updated to suit Western sensibilities.
There’s no awkwardness to the translation; everything feels natural whilst seeming, at least to my entirely ignorant Western sensibilities, to provide a genuine slice of Japanese culture. By the end of the game, after some 100 or more hours, you’ll feel fully integrated into that culture, and into the lives of the characters that inhabit it.
So much so, in fact, that it’s difficult to leave it behind. Watching the credits roll really felt like I was leaving a group of friends behind. So much so, in fact, that I’ve been eyeing up games like Persona 4 Arena and even the Persona 4 dancing game because they present opportunities to dip back into the world and spend more time with these characters I’ve come to love.
It’s pretty special for a game to have that effect on me. In fact, as hyped as I am for Persona 5 coming out, a part of me is sad that the game won’t feature Yosuke, Chie, Rise and all my other friends from Persona 4. I’m actually a little nervous about being introduced to a whole new cast of characters. What if I don’t like them? What if we don’t get on? What if they don’t live up to the high bar set by the cast of Persona 4?
I have every confidence that ATLUS will deliver just as great a cast in their new game as they did in their previous one. But it speaks pretty highly of Persona 4 that my fondness for that game hasn’t been eclipsed by my anticipation for Persona 5. Part of me just wants to linger in that world, and be Rise’s senpai forever…
That’s a wrap for the character part of my Persona 4 deep dive. The third and final part of this series will look at the broader themes of Persona 4 and the Persona series in general and also Persona 5 speculation and hype. Stay tuned.