Chasing Shadows and Facing Insecurities in Persona 4
The Shin Megami Tensei series has always presented Japanese role-playing games that combine extensive battling and team-building mechanics with interesting narratives that diverge based on player choice. They’re not necessarily the most approachable of games, often catering to their more hardcore and dedicated fan-base with little tutorial or hand-holding for the uninitiated. That said, if there’s a prime example of the Shin Megami Tensei series at its best, the Persona series must be considered for its willingness to play in muddy waters of social and internal dilemma. This day back in 2008 in particular saw the release of Persona 4: arguably the most approachable, popular and also most narratively exploratory of all of Atlus’s illustrious RPGs.
Development of Persona 4 began immediately after release of Persona 3. With the original Persona 3 and additionally a few Persona 3 fans brought into the staff, the primary goal in Persona 4’s conception was to make a more compelling story that would better motivate players to continue and finish the game. To this end, a murder mystery-esque plot set against the backdrop of a small, cozy town near Mount Fuji was created to ensure a goal, motivation and natural progression of the story. The small rural town of Inaba also helped to reduce development time on environment, allowing the team to focus more on gameplay and narrative.
The story in Persona 4 presents players with a silent protagonist that has just moved to Inaba for a year while his parents are out of the country. Not long after the protagonist arrives, murders begin to occur with bodies inexplicably left hanging from TV antennas. Meanwhile, a rumor starts that if one observes a powered off TV on a rainy midnight, they can see their soul-mate. The main character begins to make friends with locals and they form the Investigation Team and they discover that watching the “Midnight Channel” takes them to a TV World where shadows live and attack those who come across, breaking them down as manifestations of their own fears and insecurities.
To combat these shadows, solve the murders and protect their friends, the Investigation Team discovers their ability to use personas – strong representations of oneself – and uses this power to help them along their way. Combat and social interaction remained largely unchanged from Persona 3. The protagonist can be lead throughout his daily life, engaging in events within the city either with other characters or simply on his own. As time passes, the player is tasked with entering the TV World to traverse a dungeon themed and centered around a potential victim and their shadow somewhere in the dungeon. While each additional party member has their own persona that aides them in combat, the protagonist has access to multiple personas that can be gained through battle or via fusion of two or more monsters.
Perhaps where Persona 4 shined most was in the portrayal of shadows and in the characters interactions with them. It wasn’t the first time the Persona series had used shadows to point out the inner turmoil of characters, but it was the first time the series had used them to explore more complex and personal themes. Whether you look at Naoto's gender-driven dilemma as a female that wanted to be accepted into a male-driven occupation such as the police or Kanji’s fear of rejection for engaging in thoughts and interests that straddle the lines of sexual orientation, masculinity and femininity, Persona 4 attempted to tread more than a few controversial social waters.
Persona 4 didn’t serve as a groundbreaking new formula for Atlus to hang its hat on. Mechanically, it didn’t do anything astronomically different from its predecessor. Rather, it engaged fully in taking what worked and refining it further. More than that, Persona 4 used Shadows as more than just a plot piece and enemy for the player to destroy. It used them to attempt to tackle deeper, more complex narratives of insecurity and fear than had previously been addressed in a popular game. It didn’t always push these subjects as hard as it could have or push them in a necessarily constructive manner. Furthermore, it can be accused pulling back from the subjects once the focus was off them, but it was still one of the first mainstream video games to explore difficult coming-of-age subjects as deeply as it did.