Persona 5 – Realism through the Mundane and Metaphorical

Persona 5 is a game that combines some of the most juxtaposed concepts imaginable.  Mechanically, it alternates between a tense Shin-Megami-Tensei-style RPG and a relaxed daily-life simulator.  Visually, it alternates between the subdued realism of modern-day Tokyo and vibrant, highly stylized dungeons within the game.

Narratively, it alternates between four main premises.  There is the main story arc about a group of rebellious youth changing the hearts of corrupt authority figures and the subsequent pursuit of the group by the police.  There is a supernatural element to the story wherein the protagonists enter the minds of those corrupt and interact with their inner demons, manifested as mythological and religious icons. There is frequent psychological subtext, with the characters’ vulnerabilities unveiling themselves as you explore their minds. Finally, there is the concurrent story of your character going through the mundane joys and challenges of high school life. Persona 5 somehow manages to tie all these concepts together in a way where they coexist seamlessly. I believe this is accomplished in part by the game’s realistic characters, thoughtful use of metaphors, and authentic portrayal of everyday life.

For those who have never played the game, it may be somewhat difficult to imagine.  I don’t blame you.  I had no idea what to make of the game either when my brother first introduced me to it.  To provide a bit of context, here is a brief summary of Persona 5’s plot.  While there will be no spoilers for late-game events, some early-to-mid-game content will be discussed. Persona 5 puts you in the shoes of a high school student in modern day Japan. On his way home one night, your character witnesses a woman being assaulted and tries to help her. The assailant turns out to be a powerful figure in society who uses his leverage to have your character falsely convicted instead. Now burdened with a criminal record, your character transfers to a new school in Tokyo and lives under the custody of a family friend in the attic of his café. 

Your character is feared and ostracized from the moment he enters his new school. In the hallways, he is surrounded by glares and whispers from unnamed classmates. As an outcast, however, he gradually befriends other students in similar positions. In a mysterious turn of events, everyone in this misfit friend group receive an app on their phones, one which allows them to enter the “Palaces” of corrupt authority figures.  

A Palace is formed when an individual’s subconscious is overtaken by their malicious desires and inner demons. These demons are referred to as “Shadows” in-game.  A Palace manifests as a real-world location that is important to said individual. However, it is distorted to reflect how they metaphorically view it. For instance, a despotic teacher in the early-game has a Palace which is simultaneously his school and his castle. The app also allows the students to enter “Mementos”, a manifestation of the public’s collective subconscious.  

Your character and his friends form an anonymous group that infiltrate Palaces to reform corrupt authority figures and, via online requests, track down the subconscious of misguided individuals in Mementos, intervening before a Palace forms.  As the group’s actions begin to gain attention from the media and police, your character and his friends must stay under the radar and, between escapades, carry on with their high school lives.

At times, the delivery of Persona 5’s story can come across as overly-simplistic, lacking the nuance needed to explore its psychological themes. Overly-capable protagonists get back at cartoonishly evil adults with stylish ease. What is incredible, however, is how Persona 5 can take this scenario and fill it with characters and settings that are genuinely believable.

There are several reasons why I believe Persona 5 succeeds at this. For starters, it structures its story so major developments among the rebel group are interspersed with the events of everyday life.  The game begins by foreshadowing a major plot point, which simultaneously gets one of the least believable scenes out of the way.  Your character and his friends are seen finishing up one of their final heists when, suddenly, something goes wrong and the police catch your character.  Back in the real world, he is detained, drugged, beaten by guards, and sent to interrogation.  The game then cuts back to the beginning of the story with your character being falsely charged and transferred.  This is the first interaction the player has with the game’s story so, at that point, they’d likely suspend their disbelief and expect the rest of it to be equally over-the-top.  However, the game then tactfully slows down its pace. The player follows the character’s life on a daily basis over the course of a school year, which builds back up to the foreshadowed scene. Palaces, Mementos, and the rebel group are not thrust upon your character and his friends.  Rather, they are gradually developed until it feels like a normal part of their everyday lives. Moreover, your characters spend just as much time in school as they do in Palaces.  Between missions, the player is given a lot of free time to spend as he chooses. Studying for an upcoming midterm or seeing a movie with a friend on the weekend ends up being just as big of a priority for the player as preparing to enter a Palace or answering a request in Mementos. Ultimately, the game never loses sight of the fact that your characters, despite their extraordinary circumstances, are still high school students first-and-foremost.

Similarly, the metaphorical nature of Palaces and Mementos provides ample justification for their over-the-top and vibrant styles. For those who haven’t played the game, your characters essentially become superheroes while exploring these areas. They attack Shadows with acrobatic movements; gain inexplicable strength, defense, and weapon proficiency; and can even summon their inner demon, known as their Persona.  However, the game justifies it in a way that doesn’t ask the player to suspend their disbelief.  These events don’t need to be viewed as “real” in the same way your character’s everyday life is.  They take place in dream worlds where people’s abilities are (rather appropriately) elevated to a level of fantasy.

Finally, Persona 5 excels in creating an ensemble cast of high school students with relatable, multi-layered personalities. No matter how over-the-top the circumstances may seem, the characters that drive these events are believable.  Your character can choose to spend his free time with any of his friends.  During these meetups, he learns more about their personal struggles and helps them cope. Each friend is not just shown to have more to their personalities than what they display to the world, they also have sides to themselves that the player would never expect.  Take the characters Ann, Ryuji, and Makoto for example.

Clockwise from top-left: Ann, Ryuji, Makoto

Ann, a beautiful classmate with interracial parents, was in a not-so-secret relationship with the high school’s popular gym teacher.  Her peers begrudged her for hooking up with a faculty member everyone had a crush on, and being “part foreigner” made her that much easier to antagonize.  When your character first meets Ann, she is ostracized and labelled a slut.  It is soon revealed that, behind-the-scenes, this gym teacher had used his positional power to pressure Ann into a relationship that she did not want.  As a player, you might expect her to be sullen, jaded, and calloused by the situation.  However, as your character gets closer to her, you find out that Ann is surprisingly resilient.  She does not let that past incident define her and, in spite of it all, she does not let it dampen her optimistic outlook on life.

On the surface, Ryuji is a stereotypical delinquent.  He skips class, talks back to teachers, and gets into fights.  This, unsurprisingly, is due to circumstances like his broken family and a lack of support from adult figures in his life.  As a player, you might expect him to garner your sympathy but still be dominant, intimidating, and dangerous. However, as Ryuji opens up more to your character and shares his insecurities, you learn that he is just as sensitive and vulnerable as anyone else. Outside of school, he doesn’t get into much trouble and isn’t caught up in any wrong crowds. Ryuji is honestly a good kid.  It’s just that no one has ever given him a chance to show it.

Initially, Makoto exhibits every stigmatized trait of an academically-driven student.  She gets A’s in all of her courses, she is the class president, and is rarely seen having fun.  She comes across as cold, critical, and vigilant.  She acts complacently around authority figures and enforces their rules onto her peers.  As you might expect, these traits are the result of strict expectations that have been placed on Makoto by her school and family.  She did not choose to live like this.  Underneath her cold and collected exterior is someone desperately looking for an escape.  However, her personality doesn’t end there. Makoto is ashamed at how this constant pressure is influencing her personality because, deep down, she genuinely cares about others.  Furthermore, as your character spends time with Makoto outside of class, you find out that she’s actually pretty cool. Once relieved of her academic pressures and out on her own, Makoto displays a surprising amount of charm, style, and emotional intelligence.  Also, she like mafia movies.  Who would have expected that?

Persona 5’s game mechanics actually employ a smart allegory for overcoming the labels others place on you and gaining the confidence to show your true self. The first time a character enters a Palace, they literally rip off the mask that they show the world. This releases their Persona, depicted as a mythological icon that symbolizes the public’s perception of them. This is a pivotal point for the characters. They are no longer letting this Persona control their behaviour. They are now the ones in control and can utilize their personas to fight Shadows. Once your character grows close with a friend and helps them overcome an inner struggle, their Persona transforms into a stronger mythological icon that better reflects who they really are as a person.

Ultimately, Persona 5 understands that the way we act in high school is often influenced by the expectations of others. We may not like the parts of our personality that we display but feel trapped by the idea that our peers have already decided who we are. As we mature, we learn to overcome labels and better understand who we are. With this concept at its core, the game has created some of the most believable teenage characters I have ever seen in any novel, film, or video game.

No game is perfect, though, and Persona 5 definitely has its flaws.  While characters, events, and the tone of the game are consistently believable overall, there are two main areas where it just jumps the shark in my opinion. These are during cutscenes and during scripted social events between Palaces. Several of the cutscenes were riddled with generic anime tropes that diminished the realism set by the rest of the game. There was out-of-place (occasionally prejudiced) humour, out-of-character perversion, and just enough fanservice to make you feel pandered to.

Furthermore, some scripted events felt more like fantasy than reality. After the fifth palace, for instance, the group’s rich friend rents out an entire amusement park for the night. As a player, I was forced to suspend my disbelief, which is a shame since the rest of the game is so immersive.

There are always exceptions to the rule, though, and one section I expected to be the most contrived ended up being one of the most real depictions of high school life in the entire game.  About halfway through the narrative, your character goes on a school trip to Hawaii. When I first read that line of dialogue in-game, I could smell the potential Beach OVA tropes. I was anticipating to witness my characters spend a lavishly unrealistic week in paradise. I could already see my character taking part in a beach volleyball game with no prior experience. The ball would be set to him and, going up to spike, he would inexplicably gain the skill of an Olympic gold medalist. Gloriously, he would score the winning point of the game and be flocked in celebration by all of his peers. Ryuji would throw his arm around your character’s shoulder and rave about how cool he looked. Ann would step into his personal space and say something jokingly flirtatious. Makoto would evaluate him silently, with an approving smile on her face.

Luckily, my prediction was very, very wrong. Throughout the school trip, your character and his friends are shown idly waiting around, having jetlagged conversations at night in their hotel rooms, taking group photos to pass the time, and getting stomach flu by accidentally drinking tap water. Near the end of the trip, your character can choose to spend some time with his crush on the beach. It isn’t anything special. They grab some dinner at a nearby food truck and chat for a bit. Your character’s crush gives a little souvenir she bought for him (in my playthrough, he received a tiki keychain). There is no big kiss, no confession. They just grab a seat on a bench and watch the sun go down together. The beach is kind of messy. There are some people in the background minding their own business. The whole trip to Hawaii was uneventful and underwhelming, and that’s what made it so perfect.  Looking back on my own high school experience, my fondest memories were the times like these.  Hanging around with your friends, sitting in a comfortable silence, and just taking in the moment.  Finding joy in the unremarkable is what being a teenager is all about, and this section of Persona 5 absolutely nails it.

The success of Persona 5’s narrative ultimately comes down to its strong portrayal of teenage characters, high school life, and psychological metaphors.  These three factors establish one of the most believable portrayals of teenagers and high school life I have ever experienced.  Throughout this article, I discussed “your character’s everyday life” and “your character’s friends”.  However, throughout the game, it genuinely felt like I was living a real high school life.  The characters felt like real high school friends I had.  For a game with a premise about teenagers going into people’s minds and fighting demons, this level of narrative realism is truly something incredible.

 

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