Ask ten people why they play video games and you'll get twenty different answers. Some will say they like taking out their anger on a military battlefield, shooting up friends and enemies for better ranks on a virtual scorecard. Others might want to go on surreal, dreamy adventures through deserts and mountains and rivers of fire. At least one or two people will say they just like to have fun.
But one of the more interesting answers is one that fewer people would like to admit: Video games are an escape. They let us forget about our troubles and inhabit other peoples' brains and bodies. The problems in video games always have quantifiable, achievable solutions. Where life is messy, video games are neat.
Maybe that's why everybody loves Persona 4.
Persona 4, in case you're unfamiliar, is a Japanese role-playing game designed by a quirky company called Atlus. It's a high school simulator, a murder mystery, and a hardcore dungeon crawler. You, a high school student, might spend a morning taking a history exam, lunchtime eating ramen on the roof with the girl you want to date, and the afternoon fighting shadow monsters in the fantasy world you access by walking into your television.
Yeah. It's a weird game.
It's also a beloved game, and over the past few weeks, I've spent a great deal of time playing the Vita remake, Persona 4 Golden (out Tuesday—our review should be up around then) and trying to figure out what makes it so special. This is my first time with the game; I've played Persona 3, but this is my maiden voyage through its sequel, which is considered by many to be the superior experience.
There are a lot of reasons to love Persona 4. For Americans, interacting with virtual characters in the sleepy city of Inaba, Japan is like peeking into the window of another world, a world where people sit on cushions to eat dinner, where they address each other with honorifics and go to school on Saturdays. It's culture shock in a way that few other games have captured: Japan's take on Japan is absolutely fascinating from an outsider's perspective.
The real fantasy of Persona 4 is not the talking bear or the monsters that live inside your television. The real fantasy of Persona 4 is the seductive lie of perfection.
The writing is also stellar: the translators over at Atlus have done a tremendous job bringing Persona 4 to English. Everything follows a certain rhythm: whether you're taking a pop quiz in class or sitting out to lunch with some friends, the structure is so tight and punchy that it feels like a sitcom whose writing has been workshopped over and over to the point of perfection. Video games are usually much looser. Even when the game is barking orders at you—annoying lines like "You should go to sleep" or "You shouldn't talk to him right now" must make some game designers want to take an Evoker to the head—it's hard not to be charmed by the experience.
And the people, the characters inhabiting this world of Persona 4, are appealing even when they're one-note. These high school kids are also just like us—or at least like we were when we were in high school. The characters are confused, emotionally charged, jacked up on adolescent hormones. When they talk, they leave important things unsaid: one character, Kanji, spends a great deal of time dealing with sexual confusion, but never makes his sexuality quite clear, probably because he's 15. He has no idea what he wants, how he feels, how he thinks.
But these people are also very much not like us, and we find solace escaping into their world because of that. Real humans are hypocritical, inconsistent, constantly questioning themselves and hurting each other. Each member of Persona 4's gang of Scooby-Doo-like misfits is driven and confident. They build up their stats and level up and grow more powerful in mechanical fashion. No matter how frustrating it might seem when they have no leads on their ongoing murder investigation, we all know they will find something. It's a video game. There's always an answer.
The real fantasy of Persona 4 is not the talking bear or the monsters that live inside your television. The real fantasy of Persona 4 is the seductive lie of perfection. This is a world where building friendship is a quantifiable activity, where you can start a relationship just by selecting the right bit of dialogue from a list of three options. Relationships are straightforward and concrete, even when the characters are ambiguous and confused.
To build relationships in Persona—an activity that is essential for improving your characters' performances in combat—you simply have to talk to people. If you want to go on a date with a girl, you walk up to her and say "hey, let's go on a date." If you want to hang out with your goofy best friend, you call him up at the movie theater and say "get on over here, buddy, we're watching Star Wars." These people never say no to you. There is no rejection. They are always upset if you turn down their requests.
In the real world, people will betray you. Your friendships can be frustratingly ephemeral, and your relationships can be as torturous as they are blissful. You will never get everything you want. You will be rejected.
In Persona 4, your character is silent and suave, beloved by every girl he sees. He has a rolodex full of people to see and hang out with, and building up a connection with someone is as simple as going to band practice, or heading downstairs and talking to one of his many friends and girlfriends. They always want to talk to him. They don't betray his trust or break his heart.
Developing relationships in Persona 4 is a mechanical activity, like piecing together a watch or solving a puzzle that always has a guaranteed, if not always obvious solution. You won't regret leaving someone or missing an opportunity to find love, or friendship, or comfort. You rarely have to worry about losing someone forever; if you make the wrong choice today, all you have to do is come back tomorrow and start up another conversation. Keep on leveling up that relationship.
The world of Persona 4 is surreal and unusual and fascinating and, in many ways, despite its hardships, it is also ideal. Intangible qualities are measured by statistics. Want to be more manly? Go read a book called Forever Macho. Want to learn how to be more diligent? Sit at your desk and start folding envelopes. Need a quick burst of knowledge? Head to your room, pick up a book, and watch your stats go up.
You never fail at studying. You are never sent to remedial courses because you just can't seem to keep pace with your classmates. You never have to deal with financial hardship or losing the spark in a relationship that seemed like it was going to last forever.
Even when it's capturing real life, Persona 4 is absolutely nothing like real life. Maybe that's why we like it so much.
The characters in Persona 4—fascinating, relatable characters whose internal dilemmas are as interesting as their awkward encounters—confront their demons as literal demons. To fight off her indecisiveness, Yukiko fights a shadow of herself. When dealing with his sexual ambiguity, Kanji has to confront a giant, sexually confused monster. Problems are solved with fights. Some of these boss battles are difficult, but they can always be overcome. They can always be confronted. There's always an answer.
Don't you wish real life was that easy?
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.