The Timeliness of this Game is F*cking Eerie.
Now let’s talk about stuff beyond the gameplay.
As I told Billy Añonuevo, a bro of mine from Back2Gaming, Persona 5 is 2017: The Game. It was then surprising for me to learn, after the fact, that it’s actually been in development for six years, maybe more. At any rate, it certainly feels like a story that needs to be told. We need ways to understand how this year ended up as shittastic as it has for pretty much everyone. Sometimes, the only way of getting that is through fiction.
Persona games always make it a point to explore the good old Man vs. Self conflict through the lens of Man vs. Society. You drop “The Game” in Persona 2, stop the Apocalypse in Persona 3, and stop a supernatural serial killer in Persona 4. This one brings a team of kids together through their mutual understanding of how shitty humanity can get. It pits them against antagonists who are every bit walking amalgams of evil archetypes (the Sexual Predator, the Corrupt Politician) inasmuch as they are, once again, painfully human.
Have you ever thought about how nice it’d be to punch the apathy out of everyone around you? Did you ever wish that the world would just burn? Have you fantasized about playing God for a while and getting out of it scot free? If you have, then this is the game for you.
Persona 5 is the Ultimate Revenge Fantasy for the Tired Human Being.
We’ve all wondered, at least once in our lives, what we’d do if we had the ability to destroy all those evil bastards who plague our schools, our workplaces, our cities, our countries. We grow up reading about, watching, and playing superheroes – and we love those stories because they give us hope. At our darkest moments, however, some of us may also look at these same stories with disdain. We don’t have any Supermen, Captain Americas, Minato Arisatos or Jokers to save humanity from itself. Being a decent person means making some hard choices. It’s tempting to join the Dark Side.
I doubt Hashino-san expected this, but Persona 5 resonated a hell lot with the Philippine audience as it did for the States. Like this new and inglorious Era of Trump, my country is going through serious political shit at the hands of Rodrigo Duterte and his top dogs, and he was remarkably voted in by the very democratic system that he’s casually destroying. This – on top of all the tiny wounding things one encounters simply because we’re alive – frustrates the fuck out of me. Because this frustrates the fuck out of me, playing an RPG that gives me the power to destroy an evil that I’m normally stuck just getting mad at over Facebook is therapy. It’s also great at making me think about my country’s situation, and what I plan on doing about it. I’m never actually going to be a Phantom Thief with the power to irrevocably, irreversibly change human hearts. So, where do I go from there?
…But It Didn’t Push the Envelope As Much As It Could Have.
After going on about this game’s potential value to society, it pains me to say this. Persona 5 is only as revolutionary as how straight and male you happen to be.
I have the BIGGEST crush on Joker. Minato is our Emo Jesus and Souji is an Everyman, and that’s well in good. Joker is dark-haired bishonen gold in two movements: Everyday High School Oniisan and Sexy Phantom Thiefbutt. He is the end of my fangirl spectrum, standing on the opposite side from manry beef-Witcher Geralt of frigging Rivia. But he’s still a step back from Persona 2: Innocent Sin and P3P, two games that gave us ladies a chance to play ladies.
There aren’t, I feel, any good excuses for this. The narrative would have had equal power if Joker had been a girl. Hell, maybe it could have explored even MORE issues that way, given Japan’s peculiar gender politics. It’s not as if ATLUS was ever in danger of their sales dipping simply because the MC was female. It simply wasn’t done, which makes it yet another missed opportunity for everyone.
On that note, let’s look at the protagonist’s romance options in Persona 5. The game wasn’t afraid to give Joker endless romantic possibilities, from your friendly neighborhood Goth doctor to your homeroom teacher (!!!) to your rehabilitated hikkokomori little sister type. Those are all nice, diverse takes on love in many forms – except gay forms. Because the main character of a video game can’t possibly be gay in a Japanese RPG, yes? I mean, BL’s better off just staying in doujinshi and fujoshi porn.
Where Are My Queer Fools At, ATLUS?
The protagonist of Persona 2 was canonically bisexual. Then Persona 4 focused the lens on some of your party members and how they struggle with their sexuality. It’s beautiful to see such human portrayals of queer bodies, especially in Japanese video games. In contrast, the only canonically queer characters we have in Persona 5 are two unnamed “dandies” that seek to do nefarious things to Ryuji – not flattering to the Japanese gay community at all, that – and Lala, who has less unique lines in-game than I do fingers. To add insult to injury, unless you wanna go full on Sigmund Freud about Makoto Nijima and her motorbike, there are zero queer ladies in this game.
They’ve done representation well before, in the same franchise as this game. What gives?
Interestingly enough, in this Waypoint interview Hashino attempted to explain the lack of a gender select option. It would have apparently been “too much work”, which would have resulted in them “cutting other things”. Ahem.
“For me, this kind of attitude could hold the Persona series back from ever attaining the level of recognition, and commercial clout, of Mass Effect, for example. Persona 5 is not an insensitive game, tackling serious issues with great care. […] It doesn’t feel like too far of a stretch to ask for the smallest diversity with its playable hero, its Joker in the pack.” — Sayem Amhed, VICE
I couldn’t have put that better myself. This game’s overarching theme was challenging the conventions of society, but it wasn’t nearly as bold as it could have been. 2017’s market isn’t 100% heterosexual – gaming never has been. It’s high time that our video games acknowledge that.
Still, Play Persona 5, and Look to Persona 6 Possibly Flourishing Under Not!Hashino.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m glad Hashino is handing Persona off to other people. He has done some amazing things for the franchise. He did the game design equivalent of reinventing the wheel by making Persona 3 what it was. This set the tone for the rest of the series and put it on the map for gamers beyond Japan. His vision is communicated clearly through every detail, from the smallest touches to the broad, shiny strokes. Like every other Persona before it, Persona 5 is an equal parts eerie, funky, and epic exploration of humanity. It’s a game that attempts to answer the question of who we really are, and who we ought to be.
Unfortunately, Persona 5 appears to have hit peak potential for the franchise as a whole. The way down has the potential to be steep and painful if Hashino-san stays at the helm, especially if he considers a choice intrinsic to a good chunk of the international gaming market as less significant than whatever it is that he wanted to keep in Persona 5. For a series that has done so much for video games, some of us truly hope that it won’t crash and burn like a lot of the other titles have.
With that in mind, play this game. Play it, and hope that the best is yet to come.