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Persona 4 and Strong Characters

Trent Seely

It's interesting how well a game's narrative can resonate with you in spite of itself. I recently played through Persona 4: The Golden for the first time, and I have to say that it was a pretty phenomenal experience. The events of the game mattered to me, to the point where I meticulously budgeted my in-game time to maximize the amount of good I could do in the rural town of Inaba. The story resonated with me and felt very relevant at the time, but it occurred to me after I finished the game that the plot itself isn't terribly new or innovative. It's a crime thriller that follows crime thriller conventions through-and-through. So, why exactly did I care as much as I did? I guess I would have to attribute my love of the experience to the characters and how their individual personalities and challenges thematically linked to the core of the game.

RPGs of all flavors have a tendency to present your heroes as paragons: good-natured men and women who epitomize virtue and selflessness. They are role models who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the evils of their world, and we tend to root for them because we imagine ourselves doing the same thing in their place. The only problem with that is a lack of realism. These heroes don't seem to be believable characters, making it possible to feel detached from the good and bad things that happen to them. That isn't the case with Persona 4's characters.

As with other RPGs, the characters that appear in the game have their own personalities and character arcs. They act a certain way and grow over time; that's pretty much par for the course. The interesting thing that Persona 4 does with its characters relates to characterization itself. None of these people are paragons; they each have their own unique faults, and have a tendency to lie to themselves about who they are and what they want. Some would say that this is a weak side of their personality to show, but I feel as though it is very human to be this way and by extension is all the more real. This is, in my opinion, what makes the game truly great.

In what other series would you deal with characters contemplating their sexual preferences, gender identities, or even reason for living? What other game allows every single one of their characters to doubt the fundamentals of who they are and what they want? There may be examples of games in which a protagonist temporarily losses sight of who he/she is, but to have a game demand that all characters lie to themselves until they finally grip with the truth is almost unheard of in today's RPG landscape. And that's a problem.

You see, it's more than unique and refreshing to me that Persona 4 challenges its own characters. I think it takes immersive storytelling to the next level. I'd wager that many gamers have become fatigued by the standard slog of a taking a group of heroes from town-to-town in order to fix the in-game society's many problems. We've seen and played that all before. It's much more intriguing to me if we have a cast of relatable characters with their own demons that have to actively balance their collective goals with their own personal growth. I feel as though that kind of characterization makes me care about the cast, their dialogue, and the on-goings of the plot more as a result.

There are many elements of RPG design that have evolved over time. Many battle systems involve more strategy, most plots are more intricate and pull on more contemporary themes, and the mechanics of playing are generally more streamlined in most RPGs than they would have been decades ago. Why then are we still dealing with the same character archetypes? If Persona 4 is evidence of anything, it is that flaws aren't a bad thing to have and heroes don't have to be perfect little do-gooders to steal our hearts.

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