Persona 5 Fails To Give Any Sense of Meaningful Choice
Early in Persona 5, you start school in a new city. You, a boy from the country, have to get by in the heart of Japan entirely by yourself. On your first day, you’re forced to take the train in a city you’ve never lived in. With no waypoint guiding you, you workout where to make transfers to other trains in order to make it to school, except if you’re from the West like myself, it can be a little hard to work it out beyond the intrusive UI and the Japanese instructions. To say the least, it was very confusing, frustrating and oddly delightful. Here I was, at the outset of a grand adventure, my very own odyssey. Outside of the game, I, an American, stood dumbfounded at all the Japanese instructions I didn’t understand as I tried to navigate the railway system in a land I’m a foreigner in. For a second, I looked at my character, sharing in his confusion and genuinely thought “I am thou. Thou art I,” and the entire philosophy of Persona became real and I became complicit in its verity.
In retrospect, it was all probably downhill from there.
Persona 5, much as I love it, is a game that doesn’t trust you to plumb its depths. A game that splits its time between two well worn conventions in gaming (simulation and dungeon-crawling) always feels the need to explain every facet of itself, almost insecure that the audience it finds won’t appreciate every little touch and then double down on it, robbing it of any impact. It’s why the Mementos, a genuinely cool idea, is a neat side activity and hub for side quests until the end of the game demands its not and forces you to see all 66 floors before then introducing a whole other dungeon at its depth that needs to be completed in one day. What comes of it is a game that across its various slices, feels tame, unsurprising and forceful. Its story fails to get to the heights it can go to, characters come off as shallow constructs of what they could’ve been, and any sense of discovery the game could’ve imparted on the player is gone. The character, the frustration but also the satisfaction of navigating that subway tunnel is all but absent the further you “explore” Persona 5.
Persona 5 places you in control of a “rowdy” bunch of teens who are going against the grain. That means taking on the likes of wrongdoers in all shapes but only one size: they are uniformly adults. Persona 4’s core strength was its ability to envision a group of people finding themselves and made the exploration of their real identities the thrust of the game. The game, in deciding to cartoonishly paint teenagers and adults on opposite ends of the spectrum, fails to interrogate the ambiguous nature of its protagonists motivations beyond throwaway lines. Except those throwaway lines point to a story that could’ve unfolded in ways beyond the formulaic approach Persona 5 ultimately employs!
The first arc of the game sets you and your friends against an abusive volleyball instructor at your school. He beats the students into submission and forces himself on the ones he fancies because he has a bloated ego. The guy is despicable and while lacking nuances, is morally reprehensible and works as a efficient lightning rod to draw out the deep seeded feelings people typically like to bury. Conversation after conversation occurs of how much better the world would be without this guy until it finally culminates in a plan to invade his subconscious and steal his desires from him, thus reforming him. Morgana, a character knowledgeable in the ways of the subconscious world that allows this impossibility, informs you though that what you do could kill the guy. Suddenly, there’s a very real problem: we can perceivably make him a better person or we can accidentally kill him in our quest to enact our own vigilante justice. Either way, the problem gets solved, but how it’s solved could have a resounding effect on the people perpetrating the plan. This is Persona’s “go big or go home” moment.
The game doesn’t let you make that choice. Instead, the writers take it into their hands and force a solution on you, then make you deal with it. It ends in you reforming the teacher, ultimately leading him to breakdown at a school assembly and confess his sins. While the game will play somber music and force the characters to spout lines about whether you did the right thing or not, the truth is you did the only thing you could do, which is what they wanted you to. In order to tell the story it sets out to deliver, Persona 5 robs you of any choice that would lend the narrative any heft and becomes nonsensical. A game trying to make me feel bad for making a rapist pay isn’t just wack but fucking bad. Rather than lie in the ambiguity of its subject matter, the game draws very clear dividing lines between what it thinks is right and wrong and makes you pick a side, rather than come to your own conclusions.
Maybe the worst part of it is that this keeps happening. Villain after villain threatens you and you reform each one of them rather than come to your own weighty decision on how to proceed. Then one time, a guy does die, and while your characters go on about how they did the same routine over to much success, it also completely tells you, the player, what went wrong and it has nothing to do with you. Somehow, it decides to pull the rug out from under you again because it needs you to know you’re good and they’re bad and there’s no reality in which that isn’t true. For a tale about morality and duplicity, it’s fairly narrow, straightforward and bland.
As you reform decidedly evil adults who abuse people under them on a local and national level, the game tips the imaginary scale of the in-game social media poll in your favor, constantly reinforcing that what you’re doing is good. This feels like one of the messages of the game: do good and you will see positive reinforcement in the world. It’s cartoonish and simple but at least it’s a message. When the aforementioned character dies however, it does a complete about face and the world turns against you for a crime you didn’t commit. Suddenly you’re a victim for taking things to the extremes they wouldn’t dare allow themselves to think of. Sounds a lot like an earlier guilt trip from the same game regarding an abusive teacher…
I am envious of the reality in which a Persona 5 exists that lets you come to your own interpretations or make your own choices. Or even just one that forced the weight of those decisions on you. When it’s ready to do that, I think the game will really be able to reckon with the themes it tries to tackle. At least then, Persona 5 would feel more conversational and less like a monologue.