“If you hold on life won’t change.”
The television cut to black, plunging my house into near total darkness. Styled as though cut out from magazine pages, “Fin” glowed white in the bottom right corner of the screen. All lights were off, my family having gone to bed hours earlier, and our border collie puppy dozed beside me. I’d just finished Persona 5, and I desperately needed a hug.
“I finished Persona 5 last night,” I told my sister at breakfast the next day. She nodded over her bowl of muesli.
“Oh, good. How was it?”
It was like the end of high school, but worse. These characters and I had helped each other overcome everything from emotional insecurity to cruel authoritarians to literal gods. But now our lives were destined to go on without each other. I’d had to say goodbye to my best friends, knowing I would never see or speak to them again.
“It was… weird. But in a good way. Kind of. It’s weird to explain.”
The emotional connection I’d made was impossible for me to account for. Though she is a gamer as well, she gets restless if she spends more than a few hours on one game. I had spent over 200 hours in Persona 5.
I’d never played a Persona game prior to this. When Persona 4 was released I was too busy buying novels I “should” read rather than comics I wanted to, and hoping Truman Capote and the French New Wave would transform me into a “proper” adult.
I’ve since grown out of growing up, and am relearning to embrace the things I love. So when Persona 5 was released in the West this year, I jumped on it. I’d seen fans discussing the series, and it sounded right up my alley. Possibly my favourite manga genre is “teenagers in high school with secret identities”, followed closely by “teenagers in high school with supernatural powers”.
“If you don’t have 60+ hours to spend, reconsider,” cautioned Kotaku AU’s editor Alex Walker when I expressed my interest in the game.
I did not have 60+ hours to spend, but I did have determination. I felt as though there was something I was missing.
The bell above the door chimes as I enter Cafe Leblanc, following behind Sojiro. My team rush to greet me. “Hey, you big bastard!” says Ryuji, slinging an arm around my shoulder.
“How’ve you been?” asks Ann.
I’m shyly pleased that they’re so concerned about me but slightly overwhelmed by the show of affection, so I deflect with a joke.
They pick it up. “You must be fine if you’re joking around like that,” says Ann, before the group moves on to discuss our latest escapade.
I listen quietly as they talk around me. Though I shouldn’t be, I’m surprised they all gathered to wait for me. I’d had a rough few days, but I foolishly didn’t think they’d be so concerned. Unexpectedly, I’m moved. More than ever, I feel we’re all on the same page, all working in concert toward the same goal. These aren’t just teammates, they’re friends, and allies in every sense of the word.
Objectively, I know my friends don’t care about me. They can’t care about me. They are writing and code, an animated fiction with a predetermined path. They are just as attached to me as they are the over 1.5 million others who have the game.
And it isn’t even me that they are friends with. It’s a version of me created to fit into the narrative of a video game.
Yet I felt valued. Trusted. Loved, even. They had seen me at my most vulnerable, knew me with all my faults, and still they rallied around me. I wasn’t afraid of being cut out or saying the wrong thing. I knew my friends inside and out, and no clumsy tongue or inconsiderate moment, nor time or distance could harm our relationships.
High school was where I learned self-consciousness, followed by self-doubt, followed by self-loathing. Some days I’d cry before school. Some days I’d cry in the school toilets. Some days the only thing that made me get out of bed was the knowledge that questions would be asked if I didn’t, and I was unable to explain myself.
I didn’t tell my friends. They might have been supportive, but I was too embarrassed, and afraid I’d drive them away by burdening them with more than they could handle. After all, nobody’s teen years are entirely rosy. I suspect that they also held things back. Selfishly, I was relieved. I was barely holding myself together by the nails. I feared if a friend made me a confidant, I’d fumble them.
I still worry that I’m not a good friend. I enjoy spending time with myself. Socialising often exhausts me. I hardly ever message people because I fear being a nuisance or overly familiar. I rarely share the things that upset me, and keep a tight hold on myself. If a friend comes to me with a problem, I never know what to say - my words of comfort sound superficial and my advice inadequate in my ears. I’m sure it seems that I don’t care.
In high school, my mum often encouraged me to change my behaviour by saying, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” Back then, I couldn’t decide if it would be worse if nothing changed, or if everything changed.
“Even if we study and learn what we can in school, doesn’t it feel kinda pointless?” complains Ryuji when we stop to take a break from studying. The team is crowded into a booth at Leblanc, hunched over workbooks and pencil cases.
I understand Ryuji’s frustration, but I don’t want him to have regrets when he’s older. “Studying is important,” I say, ever the consummate nerd.
“At the very least, it’s necessary for Ryuji,” says Yusuke.
“You wanna say that again!?”
Sojiro speaks up from behind the cafe counter. “These sorts of experiences are important too, but common sense is just as important. You should know better than anyone how nasty adults without common sense can be…
“Someday, you’ll graduate high school and become adults.”
He continues to speak, but I’m suddenly and painfully aware of myself. I am already an adult. I’ll never be a teenager again. I’ll never again go on school trips, or gather with friends to study, or waste a few bucks on an overpriced bag of crispy M&M’s at the school canteen.
People are widely polarised regarding their experience of high school. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sitting in a cafe surrounded by friends who knew my every secret, sitting on my couch by myself, it drove home to me that the difference is the company.
I had a hard time in high school. But now, in retrospect, I would love to go back for one more day of hanging out in the hall next to the maths staff room, planning sci-fi stories and debating stupid hypotheticals with my friends. Even if I never told them what I was going through, sometimes they made it bearable.
I’ll never have that again. But this felt close.
Upon completion, I recorded my game in the first save slot. Then I saved it in the second slot, just in case. Nobody else in my household even touches the game, but what if it was accidentally erased, or the save was corrupted, or I booted up the PlayStation and saved a new game over it whilst sleepwalking?
My initial plan was to start a New Game+ and run through it just far enough to earn all the trophies. There is a Persona you can only fuse in New Game+, as well as a new boss to fight. And I’m pretty sure I’m one novel off having read every book in the game.
But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to erase their memories, erase all the time we spent together, the good and bad. Ryuji, Ann, Yusuke, Makoto, Futaba, Haru, Morgana. I could meet them again, relive those moments. But for them it would be the first time we met, while I would be remembering the deep friendship we once had.
I was being ridiculous. Every moment was scripted. My attachment is silly, misplaced and unreciprocated.
But I could feel the wind pulling at my hair, the gentle sun heating up the cool day. The soft weight of a piebald cat in my lap, and the comfortable, quiet companionship of friends beside me.
This once, I’ll allow myself to be sentimental. My friends are fictional. But that doesn’t mean our adventures didn’t happen. In that fictional reality, the only reality that exists to them, I am a valued friend. I can’t bring myself to destroy that.
Recently, I allowed myself to confide in an old high school friend that no, I was not OK. He offered to meet me for lunch, and though we came up with no solutions, when the hour was up I felt lighter. As I left the cafe, a loose Marvel T-shirt in a throng of grey fitted suits, I felt I had grown more and in a way that no analysis of In Cold Blood nor any foreign film could prompt. I wasn’t so afraid any more.
Slowly, I’m learning to let go.
This story originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.