In this week’s DLC, Marc Lynch ventures into Persona 4 Golden and learns a few important life lessons (Warning: spoilers)
One of the most powerful aspects of story-building in video games is the emotional bonds a player creates with their characters. What I found in Persona 4 Golden was a strong mix of pacing, animation, and writing that, at the end of my playthrough, left me missing my characters like I would miss a real friend that had moved away.
In Persona 4, as in all JRPGs, you are tasked with stopping some world-ending event. The twist with Persona titles is that you’re also supposed to continue leading a normal life with friends and responsibilities. As days are separated into time blocks and some characters aren’t available all the time, you also have a limited schedule to build Social Links with other characters. These relationships, besides adding some nice side stories to the playthrough, also help improve your choices for combat.
In building your Social Links, you learn more about a character’s problems and insecurities while becoming closer to them as a friend. They confide in you some of their best-kept secrets and trust that you’ll say the right thing (and sometimes that you’ll say nothing at all). Some of these friendships also have an option to blossom into romance, and there are no immediate penalties to having multiple romances at once. More on that later.
The ending sequence of Persona 4 is something unexpected for most games. After defeating the final threat and saving the world, the game doesn’t end. You still need to write your final exams and finish your school year. There are also some holidays and other events to experience. And this is where I started to feel apprehensive about finishing. In most games, once you’ve beaten the final baddie, there’s no drawn out goodbye with characters. Everyone gets a ‘happily ever after’ and the credits roll.
But no. My choices and relationships were still following me. Everyone knew that I was leaving and wanted to spend our last bit of time together making new memories.
On the final day before your character heads back to the city, you need to visit all of your Social Link pals to say a final goodbye. In the process of this, you find out how you’ve changed the lives of people you’ve interacted with. Some have found new talents that you encouraged, some found ways to reconcile their pasts, and others found ways to improve their future. It passes on an important lesson: Our actions almost never influence only our own lives. Our choices, our words; they affect the people around us and we should be mindful of what those effects are.
Back to my “More on that later” bit. Just before the final event I described is Valentine’s Day. You and your friends gather around and exchange chocolates and everybody is happy. However, every one of the girls that you’ve built a romance with has prepared a special gift for their special someone and will awkwardly imply that they’re waiting for you to be alone to give it to you. Now up until this point I hadn’t had a problem with pursuing multiple romance Social Link chains because they offered the more interesting conversations. What I wasn’t counting on was being called out in such an embarrassing way.
When the school day was finally over, I was only allowed to spend time with one of the girls and I had already decided it would be Naoto. The problem was that I also had to tell the other girls that I wouldn’t be spending time with them. And it was excruciating. I was instantly reminded of all of the awkward break-ups in my teen years; the forced smiles, the suppressed tears, and above all the guilt. Persona 4 succeeded in making me feel like the sleaze that I’d accidentally built my character to be. I don’t think it’s something I could ever bring myself to do again.
The ability to build relationships with other characters in games is still something that is rather new to this industry. There’s a difference between characters you can relate to and characters you can bond with, but every now and then, gameplay and writing come together in a way that just feels right and you don’t want it to end.
We often don’t expect to remember conversations between characters in a game we played months ago. We don’t plan to remember an in-game event that didn’t give our protagonist a tangible benefit. We don’t usually anticipate the game to continue after the world has been saved because to us, that’s just where it’s supposed to end. But when your teammates don’t want you to leave, when you’ve built a life for yourself in the game’s world, sometimes the hardest thing to do afterwards is walk away.