When I had the opportunity to play a favourite game all over again with Persona 3 Portable, I was happy to do so. I didn't realise a virtual sex change would make the experience anything but the same as before.
The PlayStation Portable adaptation of Persona 3 adds an interesting twist: The ability to play as a female. There are plenty of games that let you choose your gender, but few of those that are story-driven. And few of those equate a gender pick with anything other than a graphics swap and a few tweaked story references. Recent games like Mass Effect and its sequel should be lauded for including character customisation deep enough for the player to both personalise and gender the experience – but even then how long can people discuss Mass Effect in the public forum without getting down to "Blue Alien Sex Scene"? The most relevant issue in player gender choices becomes romance.
I fall for anime-pretty-boy tropes as easily as the rest of the female audience to whom those things tend to be marketed. I admit it: Despite some excellent modifications to the game mechanics to make it more user-friendly and portable-suitable, the primary thing I desired when firing up Persona 3 Portable was getting to date elegant tough-guy Akihiko or chip-on-his-shoulder semi-adversary Shinjiro.
I seldom "roleplay as myself" in a game like this, aside from indulging my inner squee and picking my favourite boys to date. I don't necessarily make the decisions I would make if that character was really me. Chalk it up to being a writer. Rather than visualising myself in a fantasy scenario, I decide on a character concept that I think would be interesting to try out (In BioShock, I decided to kill all the Little Sisters not because I have a vicious streak, but because I thought it would make for a darker, more interesting story than being a savior).
I wasn't expecting the ways the game would feel different when playing as a girl, even outside of romantic interactions.
The latter Persona games – especially the third and fourth instalments, which have been largely responsible for the franchise's surge in Western popularity – are interesting beasts to begin with. Persona isn't just a name; the games' stories deal with the way one conceptualises the self in one's interactions with others, a theme that ties directly into the nitty-gritty of the battling and levelling mechanics as players summon alternate "selves" to do battle for them.
The players' Personas are strengthened through their social relationships. Persona 3, when it originally launched on PlayStation 2, employed this unique levelling mechanic with a dark twist: The formation of relationships is directly correlated to a gain in power, so interacting with your classmates in the game's hip high school setting becomes less about making friends and "being yourself" as it is about telling people what they most wanted to hear in order to gain their confidence.
I liked that subtly sinister way of behaving in the game when I played as a male. But it makes the social interactions of Persona 3 Portable inherently more complicated when I'm a female playing as a female. Swap the gender and suddenly my ideas of who I'd like my character to be – aloof, clever and a little dark, as my Persona 3 male character was – collide with my own knee-jerk reflex to conform to the sort of social expectations women are often told they should fulfil in order to be likable. I found myself hesitating between conversation responses that would be consistent with the character I had visualised, and those that were more closely aligned with the ideals of "be attractive, sweet and likable".
Early in the game, tension over who should be the group's leader becomes more than the simple power struggle it was in the original – it's an all too familiar situation for women who want to be in charge. Once again I felt the clash between the need to be assertive and the desire to make everyone happy. Isn't that the conflict many women claiming positions of power often face? It also feels far less natural for me to eschew the empathetic or apologetic dialogue options when dealing with a character that requires me to respond in a tough or cold way to gain their approval.
From the get-go, I noticed that I immediately reacted differently to Yukari Takeba, a main character who is part of the player's core party throughout the game. Takeba – or "Yuka-tan", as your bro-on-board Junpei calls her – is something of an aggressive personality, opinionated and expressive, yet overtly insecure as she compares herself to your elegant Senpai, the mature and beautiful hyper-achiever Mitsuru. I found her dislikable the first time around – and yet when I played as a female, I found I empathised with her better. That Mitsuru, whom I admired very much through the eyes of a boy, really is irritatingly perfect, isn't she? Where I once felt Yukari's tendency to question all the authority around her annoying, this time I started selecting dialogue options that supported her point of view. We girls have to stick together, after all. It was like being in high school all over again.
For another example: Fuuka Yamagishi is a character that appears fairly early on in the game as a "support member" for the player's combat party. Fragile and demure (and helped none by famously grating voice acting), I used to find Fuuka hard to like, as she nervously foisted her poor cooking on my male protagonist in an effort to gain confidence. I had little interest in developing my social link with her, even if it meant some of my Personas would be less powerful in battle. But the female story arc adds the option for the player to form a cooking club with Fuuka, supporting her in her shy efforts to improve in the kitchen – a cause to which I've been much, much more sympathetic this time around.
Cynical view: Suddenly I like playing in the Home Economics room with Fuuka because society has taught me that baking truffles is an activity in which it is appropriate for chicks to engage?
Moderate view: As a female peer, rather than a male paramour, Fuuka's insecurities become sympathetic, rather than repulsive. We're taught that men like independent women, but girls like to share things and help each other. Definitely, my real-world social experiences as a woman were weighing on me as I experienced Persona 3 as a female.
The game itself didn't overtly impose any obvious gender expectations on me – I can be as cool, impassive and tough as I was when I was a male character, and my in-game classmates admire me just as much for my sharp study habits and level head as they do for being "cute" (in the male arc, the protagonist attracts admirers in a similar way). But there is one unfortunate major constraint in play: There just aren't as many dating options for the female protagonist.
The male protagonist is allowed – or even encouraged, since gameplay rewards it – to be a Lothario, pursuing romance with some seven women (one of them via the Internet) at a time. However, when you play as a female, several of the male character's romantic prospects are replaced with different characters… who are simply new female friends for the protagonist. These new storylines are well considered and interesting, but the result is you can't "play the field" as a female – if I can be a lady-killer, shouldn't I get to be a man-eater, too? Is the game telling me that's unladylike, or that men pursue women and not the other way around?
The Persona 3 protagonist's over-arching objective in the game is unstated but evident: Put on whatever face is most appropriate for the situation, both socially and in battle. This created interesting and sometimes challenging moments for me. Sometimes the dialogue option I needed to choose in order to achieve the greatest synergy with a social partner conflicted with instinct that I must conclude comes from being socialised as a woman. I had no problem being ruthless as a male, but as a female, the urge to care-give, to people-please and to back down kicked in.
I found myself comparing my female protagonist to my male protagonist, and finding I liked her less because the gameplay choices I was making weren't "feminine". I even realised I had held in mind a series of pre-approved traits for what constitutes an acceptable "tough gal". She's still got to be lively, spirited and "cute", right? I wanted to be able to picture her with the male heroes I admired in the game. It made me anxious.
I didn't think I was the kind of woman who bowed to those social expectations. I mean, I'm a female video game journalist, something incomprehensible to most of my gal pals. But the narrow-minded, old-school impulses of mine that surfaced through my "blank slate" female protagonist were more than a little uncomfortable to face. Persona 3 is a game that asks players to consider the importance of their relationships with other people – really, though, I've just been thinking about my relationship with myself.
Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.