Persona 5 is a very, very good game. It is incredibly polished in so many respects ranging from the music to the level design. There is little doubt that Persona 5 is well made and a lot of thought went into its conception. However, Persona 5 also does something that is being talked about a whole lot less. It has the capability to go above its status as a game. It sucks you into its world and at the same time, it addresses key issues that are facing Japanese society. It is important that western audiences be more aware of this as they may see similar parallels in their own countries.
The North American version released during the first week of April, which just so happens to coincide with one of the more important parts of the Japanese calendar. In Japan, the fiscal year begins in April, and so does the school year. As an English teacher in this country, April can be a stressful time with new students, new coworkers, and the uncertainty that is present with new beginnings. All of these factors, combined with some other issues that had happened earlier in the year, made me feel extremely depressed. It was difficult to concentrate on anything, and I was losing focus across the board. I was anxiously awaiting the release of Persona, but at the time, I wasn’t entirely positive that I would be able to fully embrace the experience. I was absolutely wrong, and I am grateful that was the case.
Persona 5 has a strong start with its in media res opening, and it does a tremendous of job of making you invested and inclined to see how the party reaches that point. Beyond the opening, this game creates a city life that you want to explore and be a part of on a day-to-day basis. What pushes this concept the most, are the bonds you forge with other characters. Since Persona 3, the social link system, which has been renamed to confidants in Persona 5, has been the crux of the game. As you spend time with characters over the course of this lengthy adventure, you become attached to their thought processes and individual story lines. This is amplified even further with your party members because not only can you spend time with them outside of class and combat, they fight shadows alongside you and experience the highs and lows of the story with you as well. They are all imperfect in one or way or the other, but that just makes them even more endearing. By the game’s end, I was very mush attached to most of them, and I just didn’t want to see the story finally end. It’s bitter sweet finishing a game that means a lot to you. Persona 5 helped me deal with a lot of stress, and knowing the end was near this past weekend, made me in some respects, reluctant to finish the game. However, everything must come to an end, and I think back fondly on the wide range of emotions Persona 5 was able to invoke in me over the course of the hundred hours I put into the game.
Persona manages to distinguish itself from other franchises because it is distinctly Japanese. In the case of Persona 5, the game uses its Japanese elements to highlight many of the problems that exist in society at large. From the beginning, the protagonist, code named as Joker, is sent to Tokyo because he was accused of a crime in his home town. He is not treated well by anyone, and is viewed as a troubled youth by both his caretaker and those at school. He is constantly warned to not get into any trouble. As you traverse Tokyo, you will constantly hear rumblings about the troublemaker that transferred to Shujin Academy, and Joker is clearly viewed as a threat by most people. It might seem incredibly strange to most foreign players that so many people seem to care about some random student with a bad reputation. While Persona 5 might be exaggerating the extent of everyone’s awareness, Joker is the embodiment of not conforming to societal standards. In Japan, individuality is not a cultural norm in any way. People are expected to simply fit in. It is never about the individual, as it is about the group. Japanese people operate as part of a cog of a larger machine. Making a name for one’s self, as viewed by American standards, is not a part of the culture in Japan. Students are encouraged to fit in with everyone else with uniforms and hair color being strictly enforced. When someone comes along, like Joker, that doesn’t fit in and is 100% viewed as an outsider, it can create an echo chamber that is difficult to break away from. Joker’s status at the beginning of the game is a not so subtle way of highlighting the group dynamics at play in Japan.
Perhaps the most obvious example of clear wrongdoing in the opening hours of the game is the verbal and sexual abuse exhibited by the PE teacher, Kamoshida. I think the most alarming part of this storyline for western audiences, is the way in which most adults turn a blind eye to his wrongdoing. In Japan, there is a strong desire to save face so to speak in front of others. It is very important to maintain a public image. There is also a desire to never cause trouble in any way, even when one party is obviously in the wrong. For example, if an employer were to treat any employee poorly, more times than not, the employee would silently endure the treatment rather than speak up for him or herself. This is quite clearly paralleled with Ann’s friend, Shiho. Shiho is one of the recipients of Kamoshida’s abuse, and it nearly pushes her to suicide. She chooses to punish herself rather than punish the perpetrator because you are expected to deal with your own problems in a way that doesn’t alter the public image. In relation to this, it also addresses the topic of teen suicide. Suicide is very much a problem in Japan, usually due to the intense pressure pushed onto employees by their employers. However it absolutely affects students as well. Japanese students are pushed to succeed. While this is far more of a problem in Korea, there are clear expectations that a student should not only participate in many club activities, but should also devote significant time to study. There is a huge buildup to university entrance exams. Exams in general are very important in Asian countries. Success is directly tied to test scores, and if you don’t do well, students may feel as if their entire future will be adversely affected. Ann struggling with her friend’s actions and being unable to support her when she needed it the most, is one of those examples where as the player, you become attached to your party members because these situations are very relatable.
By and large Persona 5 tackles many different societal problems, but the one issue that is most systemic and the one that needs to be addressed the most is the relationship between an employer and employee that is explored when you traverse Okumura’s palace. Okumura is the CEO of a fast food burger chain and had developed a reputation for treating his employees poorly. When you go into his palace, you see many robot enemies, which reflect how he views his workers. Within the dungeon, it is stated that overtime is expected and break time is to be severely limited. Near the end of the palace, the robots become so accustomed to abuse, they become brainwashed into strict loyalty. This extends to the boss fight with Okumura, where he doesn’t actually attempt to fight you and instead uses the workers as a meat shield to dispose of the party. For me, this dungeon was the most alarming example of a societal problem in Japan because I feel it is the most rampant and most directly connected to other problems. Japanese employees are overworked. These employees will often work unpaid overtime, and will stay at work far beyond their allotted time. In Japanese, the word karoshi translates to death by overwork. In October 2016, 11% of companies in Japanese reported having full-time employees working over eighty hours of overtime a month. Thus far, the Japanese government has only made lukewarm attempts to curb the problem. It will often prove difficult for Japanese people to have lives outside of work because they spend so many hours per week at their jobs. Persona 5 tries to talk about this issue, and by doing so it makes more people aware. It is an issue that is important for other countries to be aware of because there is doubt Japan can or will rectify the issue without external pressure. I appreciate Persona 5 as more than a game because of what it is trying to do through its medium. As games become more complex, they become more willing to tackle serious subject matter and that bodes well for the industry’s future. As indicated by the sales, the interest in Persona is certainly there. I can only hope games like Persona 5 urge people to ask more questions and challenge the status quo.
Persona 5 is more than a game to me. It is a medium through which its creators are trying to share a message with their fans. It wants you to think about Japanese society, in both a negative and positive way. It wants to challenge you on any preconceived ideas you may already have concerning Japan. At the same time, it wants you to be invested with the characters and settings. It is in these two regards that I think Persona 5 manages to separate itself from other Game of the Year contenders. If you’re on the fence about Persona 5, or if you are new to the series, give this game a shot. While other games released this year are deserving of your attention, Persona 5 is an experience that will help you think beyond the scope of the game and that is important as video games continue to evolve.