by Jason Schreier
“Oh no!” you are almost certainly thinking. “Gawker Media is underwater, desperately clinging to Tumblr like that guy in that movie where the cruise ship sank. But it is Friday! It’s 3pm Kotaku Time! What will I do without my favorite weekly JRPG/sex-advice column Random Encounters?”
You are too sweet. But don’t worry! I am still here, I’ve still got power, and I have a serious illness where I can’t go more than a week without talking about JRPGs, so Kotumblr will have to do.
Over the next few weeks, the bulk of the gaming industry will set its sights on games like Assassin’s Creed III, Halo 4, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. I will not. I’ll be playing Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Persona 4 Golden, two Japanese role-playing games that I find more interesting and engaging than any big-budget shooter or adventure.
I’ll have lots to say about Mario’s latest papery excursion next week in my review, which should be up Tuesday, drowned servers permitting. For now I want to talk about the latest Persona game.
Persona 4 Golden, which comes out for the Vita on November 20, is unusual in a lot of ways. For one, it’s a video game on the Vita. It’s also 3,137 megabytes, which is particularly insane when you realize that the lowest-end Vita memory card is 4 gigabytes, or roughly 4,000 megabytes. The highest-end Vita memory card, by the way, is 32 gigabytes, and it costs $100. This is a business strategy commonly called “we can do whatever we want because fuck you.”
The other interesting thing about Persona 4 Golden is that it’s a remake of a video game that came out in 2008. This is sort of like that joke about how the people behind Twilight started planning a remake of Twilight when Twilight came out, except instead of a joke, it’s real and actually just happened.
But it’s all good, because people love Persona, to the point where it’s become the shining example of A Japanese RPG It’s Okay To Like. It’s common to see gamers and critics write things like “JRPGs? Oh, I hate JRPGs. But boy do I love Persona!”
So one big question I’m pondering as I play Persona 4 Golden — my first experience with Persona 4 in any form — is why? Why do people love Persona so much?
I never finished Persona 3 Portable, a game that Kirk and I have discussed quite a bit on the site formerly known as Kotaku. I logged some 25, 30 hours in the game before I had to put it down for one new thing, then another, and then another, and no matter how many times I promised myself I would go back and finish it, I never quite could find the time. But I loved what I played. I loved the calendar-dictated rhythm of daily life as a student in Iwatodai. I loved the dichotomy between mundane classes at school and harrowing journeys through Tartarus. Something about the whole thing just worked.
It’s also very, very Japanese, and I say that not to disparage, but to point out that this is a game that wholeheartedly and unabashedly embraces both Japanese culture and Japanese game design. Aside from the obvious — it’s a game about people in Japan — Persona 3 also clings onto a lot of design quirks that Western games try to avoid. Repetitive rituals, for example, like that ticking clock animation that appears every time it turns midnight. While Western-developed games like last month’s fantastic Dishonored try to give you the player more control than ever, Persona 3 does quite the opposite. Persona wants you to know that it’s in charge. Not you.
Similar trends are rearing their heads in the first two hours of Persona 4 (although I’m sure it’ll open up more soon). It’s got all sorts of funny little ticks. Every time you head in and out of the game’s bizarre TV World, the screen will turn funky and that same old TV World animation will play. Just before you’re about to watch television at midnight, your character will close the curtains and walk away from his window. Rituals.
And then there are the moments during which the game tells you what to do. “You should go to bed,” the game will tell you. Or “You shouldn’t talk to him right now.” You won’t even have the option. Your character spends a great deal of time performing actions that are dictated by the game, not you.
To many people these things would be unacceptable, the definition of “bad game design.” But a large number of Westerners—even the ones who don’t typically like JRPGs—have fallen in love with the quirks and trends of Persona 3. What’s up with that?
Maybe the series’ unique structure—seriously, what other games follow this sort of rigid school-dungeon-school-dungeon routine?—makes it easier to forget about what we’d consider flaws in many other games. Maybe these sort of choices work only for games like Persona. Or maybe we’re just too in love with Mitsuru to care?
I’ll be thinking about this question more and more as I continue to play through Persona 4 Golden. I would invite you to offer your own theories in the comments, but we have no comments. Hurricane Sandy affects us all.