Why Persona Is Still A Big Deal

by Gabriella Ekens,

When I first encountered Persona 3 as a young JRPG fan, it was a revelation. I'd grown up on Final Fantasy and just entered puberty. This JRPG didn't take place in a fantasy world. It was about regular teens just a little older than me gaining special powers based on classical mythology to represent their growth as individuals. I never knew I wanted it, but as soon as I saw a screenshot, I knew it had to be mine. I beat Persona 3 FES, picked up Persona 4 on launch day, played through Persona 3 Portable in Japanese (a language that I do not know) out of fear that it would never come out stateside, and did so again when it eventually came out in English. I became the local Persona evangelist. Persona was easily the definitive nerd property of my adolescence.

It's hard to imagine that Personas 3 and 4 are “old” by pop culture standards, but it's true: Persona 4 came out for the PlayStation 2 in 2008, while Persona 3 happened all the way back in 2006. To put that into perspective, I flunked a midterm in middle school because I stayed up all night beating Rise's dungeon. I'm now in college. In otaku chronology, that's before Naruto Shippūden, the Death Note anime, and Pokémon - Diamond and Pearl. Doesn't that feel like forever ago? For their age, these games have maintained a consistent level of popularity almost anomalous for contemporary fandom. While cosplayers for the more recent Danganronpa and The World Ends With You have mostly trickled off, Persona characters still swamp conventions. Partially, this is due to Atlus's habit of releasing some new version every year. (Persona 3 had expanded re-releases in 2008 and 2010, a sequel anime, and a currently in-progress film series. Persona 4 had an expansion in 2013, anime for both versions, and a parade of spin-off games. I can't even begin to list the manga.) At the same time, this stuff keeps selling because the material resonates – there's just something about SEES and the Investigation Team that keep drawing people in, no matter how many times their mysteries have been solved.

So why did this previously obscure franchise suddenly explode over the past ten years, and how has it lasted so much longer than the typical anime nerd obsession? I think it's because Persona is not only popular, but important to many people – myself included. Persona 4 is the pinnacle of the franchise's ambitions so far, leaving me with nothing but high hopes for Persona 5, and this is why I think it's so special.

It's About Teens Like You

Persona has stuck around because it “gets” teenagers, their issues, and their struggles. The games try to tell stories their target audience can relate to, and they get better at this with each installment. They cater to a previously underrepresented fantasy – one where you're not brought into the magical world (like in the genre's previously unassailable emperor, the Final Fantasy series), but where the magical world comes to you. In Persona, you (or Yu Narukami, Mr. Perfect self-insert) and your friends covertly deal with this invasion while navigating daily tasks like school, errands, and relationships. Persona's characteristic “social link” system means that your skill in battle increases as you befriend specific characters. Befriending them consists of helping them work through their personal problems. The game is thus designed to teach players to empathize with kids suffering from tribulations like social anxiety, grief, family troubles, and illness.

When you're a teenager, molehills can seem like mountains. While the average video game hero struggles with dead parents, a tragic past, and a heroic destiny, I struggled with school, family, and learning how to date. This is what teenagers can relate to, and while escapist fantasy is all well and good, there's something attractive about art that's rooted in what you experience every day. Just look at the recent boom in young adult literature.

Persona 4 in particular is almost structured like a series of “very special” episodes. The game is divided into a number of dungeons that end with you recruiting another party member. Each dungeon is based on an ersatz version of this new member's problems, decked out with symbolic scenery, music, and enemies. For example, Rise Kujikawa, a pop star and high school freshman, is afraid of being pushed into unwanted sexual situations. Her dungeon – which is made to look like a strip club – features gyrating enemies, scored with lusty sighs. This represents what she fears will happen to her in the entertainment industry, based on what the media tells her she should be, reflected in how the dungeon literally exists behind a TV screen. Her story plays on issues surrounding the sexualization of young teenage girls in the idol industry, and also represents her reaching an age when she first realizes that other people will sexualize her.

Many character arcs deal with gender. Chie Satonaka is a tomboy who feels unattractive in comparison to her more feminine best friend, Yukiko Amagi. Her story leads her to reconcile her girly side with her masculine interests. I know several women who felt reassured in their desirability by Chie's arc. Yukiko, meanwhile, is the heir to a local business. Her family has never asked her what she wants, and she's regularly obligated to work long hours at the expense of her personal life. Her family's disinterest in her own desires frustrates her, and she begins to resent them. While these problems seem mundane, they have serious consequences on Chie and Yukiko's lives. Keeping those problems secret almost ruins their friendship. One of the first things you do in the game is air these issues out and rejuvenate their relationship.

Persona 4 is also famous as one of the few big games to seriously confront the struggles faced by LGBT teenagers. The second dungeon concerns Kanji Tatsumi, a delinquent freshman who dresses in a punk style. It turns out that he's questioning his sexuality and fears that, as a man who loves men, he'll have to act like an okama - the predominant image of gay men on Japanese television. (Examples include Haruhi's dad on Ouran High School Host Club, Fire Emblem from Tiger and Bunny, and Emporio Ivankov from One Piece.) It doesn't help that his interests, which include crafts and cute things, are stereotypically feminine. The game is sympathetic toward Kanji, and has him learn that his sexuality doesn't have to impose anything on his identity or behavior. Although its commentary is somewhat outdated by now (the game ultimately refuses to directly say that Kanji is attracted to men, even after ten hours of wandering through his tortured psyche imagined as a gay bathhouse), it still marked Persona 4 as landmark entry for queer representation in games as of 2008.

This marks only a few of the party members. There's also the very popular Naoto Shirogane, who many people read as an example of trans representation, and more than a dozen other social links. Persona 3's characters are also based on specific issues – such as loss, addiction, and family dysfunction – but the game isn't structured around them resolving their problems in the same way, so they're pushed to the background. Persona 4, with its marriage of structure and theme, perfected the franchise's formula. But there's still room to go up from there!

The Games are Always Improving

While the Persona series hasn't always succeeded in its goals, I can't fault it for lack of ambition. Each game is an improvement over the last, looking at the series' progression from Personas two to three to four.

While the series has always used real psychological ideas to “unmask” characters' various hangups, the mechanics didn't always play into that. The social link and calendar systems hadn't been developed yet, so character interactions only happened after long sections of arduous dungeon crawling. While Persona 2's character work is in many ways the franchise's most daring – the male protagonist can have a romantic relationship with a man, a teenage character is mentioned engaging in drugs and prostitution, descriptions of trauma are more explicit, etc. – it didn't have Persona 3's structure for powerful emotional engagement. There's a reason why 3 and 4 are so big, but not the games before them.

So, just by introducing social links and the calendar system (where players experience most days of the in-game year as blocks of time where they choose to complete certain tasks, such as deepening their relationships with other characters or increasing skills), Persona 3 was an advancement. Persona 4 proceeded to deepen that system by expanding it to party members and increasing the writing quality. It was such a gold standard for the established formula that its expanded re-release, Persona 4: The Golden, could only tack on more fanservice.

By contrast, it's difficult to return to releases before Persona 3 Portable. In Persona 3: FES, you couldn't even form social links with all of your party members. There were also no options to just be friends with your female party members – to complete all the social links, you have to date all of them. Your male party members were by default distant, your female ones by default romantic. Persona 3 Portable, the expanded remake for the PlayStation Portable released after Persona 4, rectified this. It took many of Persona 4's additions and wrote them into the game as new routes with a female protagonist. In terms of sheer writing quality, this is the version of the game to play, as it adds a new Persona 4-style dimension to all party members, as well as many more social links. If only Atlus would expand the female protagonist's existence beyond this game...

Gif by Wallabri.

Persona 5 already looks great. The protagonist is a milquetoast student by day, but a rebellious thief by night. His Persona is Arséne, named for the legendary thief. Alongside his schoolmates and a talking cat, he hunts shadows. The teaser's dominant images are chains against a stark red background. Series director Katsura Hashino commented that “The characters in this game, through sheer force of will, are out to destroy that which suffocates people in today's society and, again, keeps them chained in place. I want players to come away from the game feeling like they have the power to take on the world around them and keep going in life… we're talking about a different sort of freedom that's wet aside from what those previous games have discussed and operates under its own set of thematic principles.” (source)

I believe that the Persona series is the definitive JRPG franchise of the past ten years. What do you think? Why are these games valuable to you, and what are you looking forward to in Persona 5?

discuss this in the forum (64 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history

Feature homepage / archives