It always takes a second playthrough of a game to make one look at it through new eyes. It isn’t that Persona 4 wasn’t amazing the first time. It was. It is quite possibly one of the best games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, which is a lot like saying that dark chocolate is the best kind of chocolate. Unless you don’t like chocolate in which case it’s not like that at all and what is wrong with you. But I digress. I recently acquired Persona 4: Golden for the PS Vita, which basically takes everything from Persona 4 and makes it better. So much better that I really don’t mind dumping another hundred and twenty hours into a game I’ve already beaten once.
Doing so, however, has given me cause to reflect on it, and on the Persona series as a whole. Persona 3 and 4 are really quite different from anything else I’ve ever played, even within the context of SMT games. Sure, there’s still the pokemon-esque demon collection and fusion aspect, and it’s still quite the dungeon crawl, but the truly interesting aspect of the game is the part that happens /outside/ the dungeon. The part where you go through day to day school life and empower yourself through managing your life and by forming connections with other people.
Imagine that. A game that teaches you to be social.
So, I thought about this whole ‘life simulation’ aspect of it and pondered to myself just how well does Persona simulate life? What lessons can we draw from this series? Of course, there are quite a few absurdities, so it isn’t /completely/ representative of teenage life. For instance, who would find themselves talking to an empty bear suit, or fighting shadow demons in an hour of the day that the rest of the world just skips over?
But aside from that, there really are some very potent and relevant life lessons to be learned from the games. Of course, I would say the first lesson to be learned is that Shoji Meguro is awesome, but I doubt that is something that will come up in day-to-day life. So here is the list of actual life lessons that I would take away from the Persona games.
1) Everyone has a side of themselves that they do not show people. In Persona, this side is called a person’s Shadow, and it represents all of the inner thoughts that a person has that they do not voice or act upon. In Persona 4, specifically, this side manifests as a mirror of the person which can break free if that person denies that the shadow is a part of them. Sure, this isn’t the sort of thing that actually happens, but the lesson is still there: those thoughts are a part of who we are. Sure, everyone likes to think that they’re always the best possible person they can be, even within our own thoughts, but is this really true? Absolutely not. Nobody is perfect. Everyone has thoughts they aren’t proud of, but the hard part is accepting that those thoughts are also part of who we are, just like the good thoughts are. To deny those thoughts is to deny a part of what makes us unique, and human. Having bad thoughts doesn’t automatically make us bad people, it just makes us /people/.
2) Everyone acts differently when they are around different people. Everyone wears a metaphorical mask to protect their inner selves. This is the concept of the persona, which the series is named after. Again, this is not a bad thing, as it helps us navigate social situations and to both protect our own emotions from harm and to stop us from hurting or alienating others. This might not make a whole lot of sense, but bear with me. When different people look at you, they have a set of expectations about how you will act. I’m not talking about profiling or anything, I’m just talking about the interactions that you build up with people the longer you get to know them. If you have two friends who are close to you in two different social circles, likely you will act at least slightly different when around each one. This happens even if you haven’t seen a close friend in awhile; when you finally get back together, you tend to fall back into old, familiar patterns to show each other that you are still friends. ‘How I Met Your Mother’ has a term for this: ‘Revertigo’, and this clip will illustrate it better than I could ever describe it.
Again, acting one way around one person, and another way around others does not make a person two-faced, nor should two-faced be an insulting term. Everybody has multiple faces that they show based on the situation. Everybody has a little bit of The Fool inside of them, the ability to adapt their behavior to be more compassionate to others. Even in Persona, you can see a little of this in the other characters even though you are looking at the world through the eyes of just the main character. Take for example Persona 4‘s Chie Satonaka. To you, the player, she represents The Chariot, because that is what you need her to be, and that is what she needs to be to you. To others, she may be something different. To Nanako, she may be The Strength. This is just one of many examples I could point out to say the same thing: our many faces are not bad, they let us be better friends to a wider group of people.
3) Being good at something doesn’t happen immediately, it takes time and time management. This is one of the less abstract lessons the game teaches you. You have a set amount of time to do the things that you both /want/ to do and /need/ to do. Do you need to have a certain amount of knowledge for that midterm coming up? Then you had better not sneak out at night and go out to the club, or spend your time playing that MMO. Do you have two different people wanting to hang out with you? Well, which one haven’t you seen in awhile? Who will get more offended if you dismiss them? Does someone need your help /right now/? Do you want to be more athletic, or more expressive, or develop a certain skill? Well, you’d better practice it, and it will absolutely not happen overnight. It will take hours out of your day that you could easily spend doing something else. It is up to you to place priorities on your activities, and take responsibility for your own development.
4) Your friends are important to your success, and you are just as important to your friends’ success, so pay attention to their needs. Many games these days cast their heroes as loners or as people who abandon everything for the sake of a quest. How far do you think that sort of attitude will get you in life? To put it another way, yes, it is entirely possible to get through life with absolutely no help and support from others, but it is definitely a whole lot harder and less fulfilling. In Persona, your friends will be your success, and the lack of them will be your failure. Persona 4: Golden is the most robust example of that. Sure, building up your connections gives you direct benefits such as more powerful Personae to summon in battle, but it also has numerous, more subtle rewards. If you build up trust with your friends, they will help you up if you are knocked down in battle. They will learn new abilities as you help them through their major life events. They become stronger and evolve as you go out of your way to help them, and in turn they can use those talents to help you. In life, your friends will open doors for you that you cannot open yourself, will encourage you when you don’t have confidence, will listen to your problems, and yes, will even pick you up if you fall over.
5) Many people who you wouldn’t think you’d be friends with are actually worth getting to know. In the Persona games, your social links come from vastly varied social groups, be they the sports teams, the drama or music clubs, the academics, your job, your neighbors, etc. Sure, it’s probably a bad idea to just pick someone at random off the street and start chatting them up, but maybe you’ve met someone at school or work and have struck up a conversation for a bit, and found out that they’re quite a bit different from you in the sorts of things they enjoy. Well, maybe that’s a good time to find out what they enjoy about their particular interest, hobby, or pastime? Don’t know the first thing about basketball? Sit around and listen to that group of people at work that never misses a game, and maybe check out a game or two yourself. You might be surprised at what you’d enjoy.
6) People will treat you differently based on your gender. It’s a fact of life. Conversely, gender also colors how you treat others as well. Persona 3 Portable offered a second story path: the option to play as a female character instead of a male one. Of course, since I had already played Persona 3:FES, I chose to play as a girl in P3P just so I could see what the difference was. Gameplay-wise, of course, there wasn’t one. However, the social structures were altered beyond belief, because of how differently people treated my main character. Sure, there are the obvious differences in which people were possible romantic partners, but it extended even beyond that. Arcanas were changed because people put on different faces to interact with her than they did with the male character on the other story path. And similarly, my character had to put on a different face when dealing with a character than the male would have had to. I’m not saying that gender equality doesn’t exist, and I’m not at all talking about discrimination (which is absolutely wrong whenever it occurs), I’m just saying that both men and women treat men and women differently. It’s human nature.
7) No matter what is going on in your life, the rest of the world moves forward without you. This is probably one of the most important lessons to learn: the world will not wait for you. Sure, something catastrophic might be happening in your life, but that’s just your life. The world, as a whole, will keep moving forward, mostly oblivious save for the people connected to you. And even then, like the opening theme to Persona 4 says, your maze of relationships ‘goes on with or without you’. You can’t expect everything to stop when you stop, you just need to deal with things and carry on, doing the things you need to do in order to get through the day, the week, the month.
8) Save often. You never know what’s around the corner, and having a safety net helps. Persona is hard. Bastard hard. And I’m not even talking about the fair but uncompromising combat system. I mean if you don’t do things exactly right, you can miss out on a lot of opportunities to improve in the rest of the game as well. There are save points everywhere and you are encouraged to use them. Now, I know that there is no ‘reload from last save’ option in real life (SADLY), but I’m not just talking about that. There are other definitions of ‘save’, after all. You are given a very finite amount of resources in Persona. SP, which is used to cast spells, comes at a premium. SP refilling items are not sold in stores, and there are very few ways to recover SP in dungeons (except by leaving the dungeon and that costs you precious time), and most of those ways are very expensive in terms of money. Money is also not easy to come across either. Sure, you get it from battle, but equipment and items are very expensive as well, and you also need money to do things in your free time to better yourself and expand your social links. /That/ is the part that translates over into real life. You have a budget, and there are definite consequences if you exceed that budget and do not plan wisely. You may get, figuratively, stuck at a very powerful enemy and have no magic points left with which to heal yourself or cause damage. So it is important that you do not waste your resources on frivolous things that do not contribute positively to your life.
There are many other life lessons to be gleaned from this game that I did not think of to include. These were just the ones that stood out to me as the most relevant, and the ones that push me to continually play games from this series. Sure, they are a challenge, and they are very well-constructed games with engaging plots and characters, but there is more to it than that. I’ve heard it said that art imitates life, and that humans have always played games as an evolutionary mechanic. Every game teaches a lesson or skill, and once that is learned, the game itself becomes pointless. At that point, we move on to new games. So why keep coming back to Persona? It is my opinion that even if everything else is learned, there is one lesson that we, as humans, find it very, very hard to internalize: how to accept ourselves and others. I still struggle with it, and so does everyone else. It takes going through a game like this again and watching how, over and over, the characters are forced to face their deepest inner thoughts and not reject them, not overcome them, but /accept/ that those thoughts are a part of themselves to make me think about how I still find myself needing to do the same. It is the hardest lesson that we learn, and it is the one we always have to learn over and over. It is a good thing, then, that we have literary and artistic examples of all kinds to draw on.
[This article originally appeared on the gaming website Attack Initiative.]