Assassin's Creed? Halo? Screw'em, I'm Playing Persona

Over the next few weeks, the bulk of the gaming industry will set its sights on games like Assassin's Creed III, Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. I will not. I'll be playing Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Persona 4 Golden, two Japanese role-playing games that I find more interesting and engaging than any big-budget shooter or adventure.

I'll have lots to say about Mario's latest papery excursion next week in my review, which should be up next week. For now I want to talk about the latest Persona game.

Persona 4 Golden, which comes out for the Vita on November 20, is unusual in a lot of ways. For one, it's a video game on the Vita. It's also 3.1GB, which is particularly insane when you realise that the lowest-end Vita memory card is 4GB. The highest-end Vita memory card, by the way, is 32GB and it costs $US100. This is a business strategy commonly called "we can do whatever we want because f**k you."

The other interesting thing about Persona 4 Golden is that it's a remake of a video game that came out in 2008. This is sort of like that joke about how the people behind Twilight started planning a remake of Twilight when Twilight came out, except instead of a joke, it's real and actually just happened.

But it's all good, because people love Persona, to the point where it's become the shining example of A Japanese RPG It's Okay To Like. It's common to see gamers and critics write things like 'JRPGs? Oh, I hate JRPGs. But boy do I love Persona!'

So one big question I'm pondering as I play Persona 4 Golden — my first experience with Persona 4 in any form — is why? Why do people love Persona so much?

I never finished Persona 3 Portable, a game that Kirk and I have discussed quite a bit on the site formerly known as Kotaku. I logged some 25, 30 hours in the game before I had to put it down for one new thing, then another, and then another, and no matter how many times I promised myself I would go back and finish it, I never quite could find the time. But I loved what I played. I loved the calendar-dictated rhythm of daily life as a student in Iwatodai. I loved the dichotomy between mundane classes at school and harrowing journeys through Tartarus. Something about the whole thing just worked.

It's also very, very Japanese, and I say that not to disparage, but to point out that this is a game that wholeheartedly and unabashedly embraces both Japanese culture and Japanese game design. Aside from the obvious — it's a game about people in Japan — Persona 3 also clings onto a lot of design quirks that Western games try to avoid. Repetitive rituals, for example, like that ticking clock animation that appears every time it turns midnight. While Western-developed games like last month's fantastic Dishonored try to give you the player more control than ever, Persona 3 does quite the opposite. Persona wants you to know that it's in charge. Not you.

Similar trends are rearing their heads in the first two hours of Persona 4 (although I'm sure it'll open up more soon). It's got all sorts of funny little ticks. Every time you head in and out of the game's bizarre TV World, the screen will turn funky and that same old TV World animation will play. Just before you're about to watch television at midnight, your character will close the curtains and walk away from his window. Rituals.

And then there are the moments during which the game tells you what to do. "You should go to bed," the game will tell you. Or "You shouldn't talk to him right now." You won't even have the option. Your character spends a great deal of time performing actions that are dictated by the game, not you.

To many people these things would be unacceptable, the definition of "bad game design". But a large number of Westerners — even the ones who don't typically like JRPGs — have fallen in love with the quirks and trends of Persona 3. What's up with that?

Maybe the series' unique structure — seriously, what other games follow this sort of rigid school-dungeon-school-dungeon routine? — makes it easier to forget about what we'd consider flaws in many other games. Maybe these sort of choices work only for games like Persona. Or maybe we're just too in love with Mitsuru to care?

I'll be thinking about this question more and more as I continue to play through Persona 4 Golden. Offer your own theories in the comments


Comments

    It's the rituals that make it good. Instead of an open sprawling mess like Skyrim or an open world game, Persona 4 has structure, the universe has rules you follow, and you feel more a part of it because of these limitations.

    If he's complaining about the TV curtain bit (it's like, 4 seconds, and it's there to build a sense of dread) then he's only in the first 4 hours, which is still the intro prologue bit of the game. It really opens up after that, and I suspect his complaints will go from "Meh." to "OMFGSQUEE!"

    I've only really got on the persona when the vita first came out and I decided to buy them off the psn. I'm still only on persona 1 at the moment but I have enjoyed it and once I get my uni exams done in next few weeks I will hopefully have time to go back and finish 1 and start on 2. As far as I can tell Australia still doesn't have a set release date for this so I might be able to get through all 3 before 4 comes out which would be awesome:D

      Persona 1 and 2 are terrible. Skip straight to 3.

        oh? I have heard that persona 3 is where it's at but I wanted to see it from the start? Do they continue on from each other? Or they basically stand-alone?

          1 and 2 are completely stand alone. 3 and 4 are in their own universe, and aside from a few cameos (and a particularly awesome sequence in P4) then they're pretty self contained.

          Persona 3 is one of my favourite games of all time. And then I played Persona 4, and it made Persona 3 look like crap.

            haha ok well good to know that 4 is that awesome. I probably will play all of them since I bought them already but if I find out the exact date we get p4 then ill prob jump straight into 3. I'm looking forward to having holidays to catch up on gaming (though I stupidly doing some study over summer semester and teaching myself Japanese). Hopefully I can learn enough to start importing some of the great jrpgs we haven't got localised:D

            No, 1 and 2 are *not* completely stand alone, they're set in the same universe. You either haven't even played them, friend, or you haven't played much of them.

            Innocent Sin is set years after 1. I haven't played Eternal Punishment but I know it pretends the events in IS never occurred.

            Yukino Mayuzumi's a party member in both 1, and Innocent Sin. She appears in Eternal Punishment, too.

            Personally, I prefer Innocent Sin to every other Persona game.

    Opinions.

    Speaking of opinions, 3 and 4 are awful. Play 1 and 2 and then pretend the series ended there.

      Depends what you're after I guess. 1 and 2 are old-school dungeon crawlers, but 3-4 are more modern and unique with the whole relationship/social-link thing. If you find the dating stuff weird (which some people do) I can see why you wouldn't like them.

    I really cannot wait for this. Bought the Vita specifically for this.

    I just want Persona 4 Arena to be released in Australia FFS!!

    I really wish this was on Steam, so I don't need to drop an extra $400 on hardware for it :(

      All you need is a PS2 and $21 :)
      http://www.ozgameshop.com/ps2-games/persona-4-game-ps2

    For me it's the balance of life and action. It humanises the characters and reminds you that these are people who still live a life outside of Tartarus. To be honest, I enjoy P3s outside sections more than the Tartarus sequences but then, no one said that a quest was going to be an enjoyable task.

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