My birthday was last month, and barring that one week when I needed to finish a couple of short story submissions, I have basically been playing Persona 5 non-stop for a good 30 days. It’s been a wonderful journey, but now the aftermath of every Persona game has set in. Why did I not remember this before? This longing, this pain like I’ve had a dear friend ripped from me. Atlus fans will know what I mean. For every Persona game, there’s that one or two characters you can never let go of. For me in P3, it was Aegis, Akihiko, and Mitsuru. In P4, it was Chie and Naoto. But this one, Persona 5, hurts the most in part it is the last one from the Persona team, and the one where every character has left a gouge in my heart. Or rather, they stole it away.
Read more about my encounter with the Phantom Thieves here:
I first heard about P5 more than a year ago, after recovering from the heartbreak of P4. I replayed the intro a million times, wondered who I would fall in love with based on character designs, and mulled over teaser images of chains and a blood red sky. I was happy to learn the theme would be Phantom Thieves, a theme that has a bigger following in Japan than in the west, though characters like Arsene Lupin and Sherlock Holmes have their origins in Europe.
P5, in the end, is about young people trying to steal their stolen future back from adults who would sacrifice them on the altar of personal gain. A fitting memento for all the millennials of the world, then.
When I finally got my hands on P5, it was at a time of my life when I was wondering what life was all for. I was wondering how the hell I was expected to live when much of the game is rigged against me. As a Chinese American, I’m not expected to write the next big fantasy or science fiction novel. As part of the generation that entered the workforce with the Bush Recession, I didn’t have the best start. And I can’t even call myself a millennial, not really. ’80s baby. But I am left with all of a millennial’s lack of fair resources, all of the baby boomer’s expectations to uphold the American Dream, and the difficulty of being a minority in America who won’t stoop to race stereotypes. One does not have to leap far to commiserate with the Phantom Thieves.
For fans new to the series, Persona games have been bittersweet since P3, when I first picked it up. It’s in the nature of the game: you play a protagonist who visits a new city for one year, and you play through all the days of the year as an otherworldly story unfolds around him and his friends. You go to school, you meet new people, and you build up social links that give you the power you need to solve the mystery of the plot. In P5, that means reforming society, that sweet, rebellious dream. Persona games combine a dating simulator with a rich, satisfying RPG element. It’s not in the nature of them to be easy, either. Make a bad combat choice and the games punish you for it, which makes the bosses rewarding and breaks up the story well.
And as you unveil everybody’s own ironic drama or dark comedy, the story integrates with the gameplay to showcase lavish explorations into psychology, abuse, relationships, and the dark reaches of the human psyche. Lush with imagery and symbolism, they’ve informed my study of theology, comparative religion, and the nature of mortality. The driving motif behind the Persona games is the titular power that comes to every protagonist: you play a character who dons different masks, Personas named after gods, demons, all the stories of human culture, that become guardians and spirits who defend you against the Shadows of the human psyche. Will you wear the mask of Jack Frost, the trickster snow spirit? How about Leanan Sidhe, the Celtic muse who can easily leave a lover drained and spent? Or better yet, claim the mask of Arsene, embodiment of the gentleman thief, for whom the world is but his oyster.
A Persona is a reflection of yourself, the part of you that deals with the dark reaches and claims mastery over them. Think about how you talk to someone you don’t truly identify with, but find enough in common to relate to. That’s a persona you’re wearing that is still a part of you. Generally, the games put those skills to the test trying to fix some sort of twisted wrong that has filled your local area and twisted it into some horrible reality. But never fear. When playing Persona, you never feel alone, because these games are filled with a rich cast of characters who come alive whether you’re playing the Japanese or English audio. Whether you’re a SEES member trying to atone for your elders’ sins, an investigation team who are just out to care for your small town, or a Phantom Thief trying to wrest the world away from distorted adults, every Persona game is filled with people to care about who cannot be met with one playthrough.
And at the end of the year, you always, always have to say goodbye.
So here I am, at the end of P5. I managed to date Makoto, I got my ass handed to me by Ann when I chose the student president over her. I went through enough of Ryuji’s story to know he’s going to be okay. I wish I had gotten to know Futaba, Yusuke, and Haru better. I keep thinking about those moments, like when Mona turns into a cat bus for the first time or when Ann goes “nude” to trick Yusuke. Or when they discover they have a powerful rebellion sleeping inside them, those scenes when your Phantom Thieves awaken to their Personas. And as I watch the Phantom Thieves drive on toward the ocean, I think about how we had that one year when we changed the world. How that unites us forever, even if we’re going to be apart for awhile.
Then I wonder how I can have that in this world, and I wonder when I can play Persona again to guide me on my way.
And how to convince my wife to invest in a bright red catsuit.