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 rebels directly enter the subconscious of those corrupt and interact with their inner demons, which manifest themselves as mythological and religious icons. There is a huge psychological focus to the narrative, with the character traits of both friends and foes being explored and developed in considerable depth. Finally, there is the 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 psychological metaphors, and truthful portrayal of everyday life.
For those who have never played the game, it’s probably very difficult to imagine. I don’t blame you. I had no idea what to make of it either when my brother first told me about it. To provide a bit of context, here is a brief summary of Persona 5’s story. 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 abused and tries to help her. The man abusing her turns out to be someone with political leverage. Using his connections, he is able to have your character falsely charged with assaulting him. Bearing the weight of 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 a café he runs. Your character is ostracized from the moment he enters the school; the player can hear rumours about him being whispered as he walks down the halls. However, he gradually befriends other outcasts and misfits, forming a tight group with them. All members of this group mysteriously receive an app on their phones which allow them to enter the “Palaces” of corrupt authority figures. A “Palace” essentially represents the authority figure’s subconscious which has been taken over by their unrestrained inner demons. These demons are referred to as “Shadows” in-game. A Palace takes the form of a real-world location as it is figuratively viewed from the authority figure’s clouded perspective. The app also allows the students to enter “Mementos”, a manifestation of everyone’s collective subconscious. Your character and his friends form an anonymous rebel group that rectify the Palaces of corrupt authority figures and, via online requests, track down the subconscious of misguided individuals in Mementos, intervening before a Palace forms. As the rebel 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.
I’ll admit that this narrative seems really far out there and unlike anything that could be realistically experienced by high school students. However, Persona 5 is able to successfully take a premise like “Inception but with teenagers” and present it in a way that is surprisingly believable. It does this firstly by pacing the story such that major events related to 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 last heists when, suddenly, something goes wrong and the police catch your character. Back in the real world, he is detained, drugged, beaten by guards (guards are beating up a minor), 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 narrative so, at that point, they’d likely just go along with it and expect the rest of the game to be equally over-the-top. However, the proceeding narrative progresses on a daily basis through the school year, slowly building back up to the foreshadowed endpoint. The whole story arc about Palaces, Mementos, and the rebel group is not thrust upon your character and his friends. Rather, it is gradually developed until it becomes what almost 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 these events, the player is also 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 over-the-top and vibrant styles of Palaces and Mementos do not break the realism of the game due to its use of psychological metaphors. While in Palaces and Mementos, your characters essentially become superheroes. They attack Shadows with over-the-top movements. They gain inexplicable strength, defence, and weapon proficiency. They even have the ability to summon an inner demon, known as their Persona, and use it to inflict elemental damage. 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. The Palaces, Mementos, and everything within them, are symbolic representations of individuals’ subconscious. There is a degree of realism to these sections of the game. It just needs to be viewed from a metaphorical perspective.
Finally, Persona 5 shines in giving all of its characters deep, multilayered personalities that genuinely feel real. No matter how over-the-top the circumstances may seem, the characters that drive these events are believable. During your character’s free time, he can choose to spend time with any of his friends. Each successive meetup unlocks a new chapter in a subplot where your character learns more about his friend and helps them get through an inner struggle of theirs. The way your character’s friends are developed in these subplots is incredible. They are not just shown to have more to their personalities than what they display to the world, they also have sides to their true selves that the player would never have expected. Take the characters Ann, Ryuji, and Makoto for example.
Ann, an archetypal pretty girl, was in a not-so-secret relationship with the high school’s popular gym teacher. Her peers begrudged her for allegedly seducing the faculty member who everyone had a crush on. When your character first meets Ann, she is shown antagonized, ostracized, and labelled a slut. It turns out that, behind-the-scenes, this gym teacher had actually used his positional power to coerce Ann into a relationship that she did not want. As a player, you might expect her to be sullen, jaded, and matured by the situation. However, as your character gets closer to her, you find out that Ann is surprisingly strong-willed. 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 hardened, 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 classes, she is the student council president, and she is rarely seen outside of the library. She comes across as cold, critical, and unempathetic. She acts submissive around authority figures and enforces their rules onto her peers. As you might expect, these traits are a 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 crying for help. However, her personality doesn’t end there. Makoto is aware of the effect stress has on her personality and is ashamed of it 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 the teenage process of overcoming the perspectives of others 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. It is a pivotal point for characters since they are no longer letting this Persona control them. On the contrary, they are the ones in control now. Once your character reaches the end of a friend’s subplot 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 identities we display in high school are not necessarily the parts of our personality we want others to see, but rather the way we reflect the assumptions and expectations placed upon us. With this idea 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 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. You could tell that the cutscenes were made by a separate production company. They were not poorly done by any means, in fact they beautifully drawn and animated. However, several of them were riddled with generic anime tropes that diminished the realism set by the rest of the game. Movement, colour, and lighting were reminiscent of the formulaic, big-budget series we see today. There was out-of-place humour, out-of-character perversion, and just enough fanservice to make you feel pandered to.
In the case of the scripted events, I’ll admit that my lukewarm reaction may be somewhat due to cultural differences. While its themes are universally relatable for the most part, Persona 5 is still a piece of Japanese media. For instance, after completing one of the Palaces, your character and his friends go grocery shopping and cook a huge hot pot on a tiny electric stove in his ramshackle attic of a bedroom. I don’t think any of my friends in high school even knew how to use a stove. When playing the game for the first time, I had a hard time believing that this is something students would do in their spare time. A friend recently taught me that this kind of activity is actually pretty common among teenagers in Eastern cultures. It’s something he even did in high school. While this scene may not have been relatable to me, I can accept that it could be considered a believable depiction of Japanese high school life. With that in mind, I’d still argue that other social events felt more representative of what teenagers fantasize about doing with their friends and less representative of what they actually do, regardless of culture. After completing the first palace, your character and his friends go to a fancy hotel for lunch and reserve an entire table at the buffet. After the fifth palace, the group’s rich friend rents out an entire amusement park for the night. Both of these events forced me as a player 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 size him up 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 (the girl I liked gave my character 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.