I got a PS Vita recently. Brianna Wu has been talking up Danganronpa 2 so much I genuinely couldn’t resist, and a co-worker has been praising the console for ages. Right now I’m playing Persona 4 Golden, although Danganronpa 1 is waiting for me on my coffee table. I’ve been aware of the Persona series, and Atlas games in general, through a friend who speaks Japanese and has a deep and abiding love for RPGs, so when I went to buy my Vita and Danganronpa, I also threw Persona 4 Golden into my cart. It was cheap, and I strongly suspected that I’d enjoy it based on friends’s experiences.
And I have really been enjoying it a ton! I’m about 25 hours in, on an easier difficulty setting (I’ve met Rise but she’s not in my party yet, to give folks who’ve played an idea as to my progression). I am playing as a Japanese high school boy who travels with my friends to the world on the other side of the TV screen to rescue kidnapped people from monsters, and also their own darker sides, which they must accept in order to escape. In my head-cannon she’s a gender-bent girl since they just asked my name without any hint about what was going on, and there aren’t many Japanese school-boys named Rachael. I also go to school, garden, am in an extracurricular drama club, work several part-time jobs, participate in rainy-day beef-bowl eating contests, and ride my scooter around town in my spare time, not to mention attending school as a second-year high school student trying to maintain a bevy of social bonds with people. It’s an endearingly complex game with a fleshed out world, an interesting murder mystery, and a quirky sense of humor. (I could do without the bear puns, though!)
Obviously from the title I have some issues with the game, however. I should preface this bit, by first saying that here there be spoilers. For a game out since 2008, I don’t feel particularly pressured to conceal plot details, although I don’t think any of the events are PARTICULARLY spoiler-y for anyone whose played at least a couple hours. If that’s a problem, turn back now! Secondly, I want to share a link relevant to what I’m about to talk about, so that you know that nothing here is anything less than a love-letter to a game I’m enjoying, and want to see do better. Lastly, I want to acknowledge that this game was not written in the culture I live in, and that I am not deeply educated about Japanese culture. I am coming at this as an American, playing the game localized into English, and want to recognize that. Ok, that’s out of the way, lets talk about my recent adventures in P4!
Persona 4 is a little bit of a tease, at the beginning. The initial character’s darker sides are a bit basic, with the first three characters struggling with various forms of familial and social pressures, from whether to take over a family business, to whether to be jealous of a friend who gets all the attention. Then, however, we meet Kanji. He is painted as a rebel with a heart of gold, beating up biker games for disturbing his poor mom, ditching school, but being extremely invested in the family business. We first see Kanji in person while he’s being asked out on a date by another guy. He panics a bit, and seems nervous, but decides to go for it, and seems excited. So far, so good! At this point I have high hopes!
Inevitably, Kanji is kidnapped (sorry, I warned you about spoilers!), and his Midnight Channel self appears as a painfully stereotypically gay version of himself in a full on bath house wearing nothing but a towel, asking for the man of his dreams to come find him. Remember, this is the dark version of himself that he has to face down and accept in himself in order to be saved. After you fight through 11 or 12 floors of empty bath-house, you finally help Kanji face his enthusiastically homosexual darker-half, accept himself, and gain his Persona as a reward. At this point I’m a bit distressed, there’s a lot of places the game could have gone besides the obvious stereotype and I wish they had made a better choice here, but Kanji seems to obliquely accept that he might be interested in guys, perhaps in addition to women, and we all go back to being high school students.
(we’re going to break up the wall of text with a picture of a cat here. SURPRISE! Spark is VERY interested in what you guys think of Kanji.)
This weekend I got a chance to put a lot of hours into the game. I (my character) got my scooter license, and the school camp-out came around. Both these events have some seriously uncomfortable scenes attached to them. First of all, the whole reason I have a scooter license is because my school buddy and fellow shadow-warrior Yosuke realized that if we had motorcycles, we could pick up women and when they rode on our bikes with us their breasts would press up against our backs. It’s literally all for the worlds most awkward grope.
Once we get our licenses (which seems to entail taking a written test, and that’s it?!?), we ride off to the neighboring town, Kanji in tow on his bicycle, and set out to pick up women. I find myself daring Kanji and Yosuke to a pick-up contest (why would I even want this, considering the two women I’m already getting close to back home, let alone my lack of free time in which to read The Art Of Manliness??). The game at that point moves from dialogue mode to one of the sections where I have control and can approach and talk to people, and I’m told I need to go get a girl’s number. The only women my age to approach are a pair of unsettlingly cruel high school girls who call me “piggy”. The game forces me to hit on older women shopping, a little girl, and a religious woman who is portrayed as uncomfortably obsessive. I eventually get a phone number from an older woman… I expected Mrs Robinson to start playing any moment!
The culmination of this extremely awkward experience comes when we collect back by our chick-magnet scooters (we can’t afford actual motorcycles), and compare our successes. All three of us have phone numbers, and decide to immediately call them! Kanji has been given a phone number that seems like it’s implied to be a phone sex service, and we skip him. My number is called, and a male voice picks up, recognizes me as “that guy whose been hitting on his girl” and proceeds to yell some extremely unsettling and violent threats at me. At this point in time, with the internet being what it is to female gamers, having a male voice shout out of my console about how it was going to decapitate me and spit down my neck was unexpected and unsettling to say the least. Even now, my nose is wrinkling as I type this.
And then we get to Yosuke’s phone number. It turns out the girl that Yosuke hit on gave him a phone number other than her own, substituting it with a different classmate. He calls twice to make sure, with the girl on the other side of the line sounding somewhat interested in a date, although perplexed as to how he got her number or why he had decided to call just then. “If you’re so eager to go on a scooter date, lets do it!” she says (paraphrased). And then she come on screen. The only thing the game could’ve done to make fun of her any more would be for the entire screen to shake as she walked in. She’s depicted as nearly spherical, with a huge face, and as she walks in and hops on his scooter, Yosuke looking more and more panicked by the second, it breaks, both wheels falling off.
(Spark is pudgy, too, and he wishes people would love him, not despite it, but just for himself.)
This may say more about me than about the game, but that whole scene made me deeply uncomfortable. I’m probably carrying an extra 50 lbs myself, so it felt like it was a personal indictment of my life that the classmate Yosuke feared to date most was the girl who was so fat she can’t even sit on his scooter without breaking it. “This is how people see you,” whispered a voice in the back of my head. “You’re not thin enough or pretty enough to be anything besides a punch-line”.
Then we get to the big class camp-out, which starts with a genuinely funny encounter with Yukiko’s awful cooking (she’s trying, at least!). This ends with our intrepid heroes hungry and sad as time for bed is called, when who should we see yet again, but our favorite rotund classmate sitting down with her own massive plate of food. She declares that she cannot share, because she’s already cutting down on food and this is all she gets to eat. sigh There’s nothing that pulls a person out of a game than relating more to the butt of the joke than the character you’re actively steering.
Cut to the inside of our tent, where me and Yosuke are going to sleep, when Kanji sneaks in to join us. Yosuke proceeds to ask Kanji if he is over being gay, because if not he’ll be too scared to sleep in the same tent as him. My heart broke for Kanji at that moment. “If you’re different from us, we have to fear and reject you,” the game was having Yosuke say. Kanji was quick to back-pedal, protesting that it wasn’t ever that he was gay, he just was scared of getting close to anyone and expressed it by shying away from women, but that’s all over now. I don’t know if it’s intended, but I read that as him backing into a closet, and it made me want to go watch It Gets Better videos for a few hours. “See? The butt of jokes, that’s all you are,” the voice whispers.
Atlus, I’m loving my first venture into your games and I know this game first became available in 2008 (the version I’m playing was released in 2012), and that a lot of cultural norms have changed between then and now, but my greatest wish right now is that my character and his friends learn from these mistakes instead of internalizing them and mocking people, especially groups I identify with. I’m not at the end of the game, and knowing RPGs I’m probably only a quarter of the way through, so there’s hope for redemption, but I don’t have nearly the level of hope I did when I first saw Kanji anticipating his date with the boy in the blue cap.
It wouldn’t take much to make this much more comfortable, either. Instead of Fatty mcFat-Classmate (whose name I can’t remember and am unsure how to page back to find), the undesirable date could be a cruel student, someone whom shunning would make sense for. The cooking joke stands on it’s own without the fat-girl rider. Kanji could be gay, bi, or not, it doesn’t really matter, so long as Yosuke accepts him without cruelty. These are not large changes, but they would make all the difference in the world.
(sorry for all the unbroken words, I lack the skill to screenshot from my Vita, and feel uncomfortable about snagging internet images to break things up. Hopefully Spark makes up for it!)