Persona 4 was one of my favorite games.
It was the summer of 2014. I’d just graduated high school, and in a few months would be moving away from my hometown for the first time in my life. It was a time of anxiety, transition, and uncertainty. What kind of person would I become now that I was growing up? What would it mean to be an adult? Would I have to be someone besides myself?
There were a lot of games I could have played that summer that probably would have stuck with me. But borrowing a friend’s Vita to play Persona 4 Golden was what fate had in store, and I’m honestly happy that’s how it turned out. Something about the game’s tight-knit cast, upbeat tone, and psychoanalytical nature just spoke to the 18 year-old me. I didn’t have too many close friends as a teen, so getting to know the people of the Investigation Team and wider Inaba as if they were my own buddies – while a bit sad when put into words like this – really did comfort me. And the game’s core message – it’s okay to accept yourself as you are, in all your parts, and not rush into change – resonated at a time when I needed it.
Now, almost ten years later, Persona 4 Golden is coming to Switch next week. I should be ecstatic, tripping over myself to revisit the town and cast that had meant so much to me back then. But my love for the game has become far more tangled in the years since, a product of realizing its shortcomings, growing older and wiser, and facing my own true feelings – and the necessity of change in my own life. Do I hate it now? No, I still love it dearly. But it’s a complicated love.
Mechanically, P4 is very similar to its predecessor, Persona 3 (which I had played a bit of and watched a Let’s Play all the way through at the time) – a mixture of RPG combat and daily social simulation, balancing hanging out with friends and saving people thrown into TVs (long story). Unlike the more melancholic, death-pondering P3, P4 is a more vibrant title, amplifying the goofier relationships in the cast and the quirkiness of your friends. You’ve got meat-hungry tomboy Chie, delinquent with a heart of gold Kanji, dignified but well-humored Yukiko, and a whole bunch of other colorful characters who to this day remain one of my favorite JRPG casts. The main color is a bright yellow, and Shoji Meguro’s soundtrack has as many bops as bangers. It’s a game full of life, even when it’s dealing with death.
The most striking addition in my eyes was the dungeons – instead of one very big tower you traipsed through, each one was a psychological representation of characters’ inner desires. There was an edge to seeing repressed desire for sex, homosexuality, and free expression at a time when I wasn’t as used to seeing such topics covered in anime. And the culmination of each – in which a character who initially rejects their “other self” comes to embrace them as an inner peace – was powerful. And then seeing their character arcs culminate in their Social Links – with a theme that your “hidden side” is not your only side, and the self you show others matters too – resonated greatly with my teen self.
I think Persona in general is a series built for teenagers, despite its “M” rating. Besides starring a bunch of teens who deal with very teenage issues – school, friendships, identity, relationships – its themes and scopes are somewhat… juvenile. I don’t mean that they’re crude or childish (though their “humorous” scenes can often be the most generic anime trite imaginable), but rather that there is a broad personal melodrama to them that doesn’t always think through the greater implications or nuances. P3’s ponderance of death is weighty, but its resolution is a bit straightforwardly Jesusy in some ways. P5’s rebellious, anti-authoritarian streak is great, but it’s often concentrated at bad apple individuals rather than larger systemic issues. It doesn’t make the games bad; they just have their limits (as almost every piece of media does). And that applies to Persona 4, too.
P4’s main thematic issue is one of reinforcing the status quo nearly unilaterally, with a suggestion that the ways in which the characters stand out or feel estranged from society are temporary bursts of teenage angst that will resolve themselves in time. Yukiko feels constrained by being the heir to a famous business in a small town and desires to spread her wings? Actually, she loves the people around her and doesn’t need to go anywhere. Rise is sanitized and objectified for her idol work and resolves to quit? Actually she stays in the business because she realizes that her job provides inspiration and hope to others. It would be one thing if this was the resolution for one or two members of the core cast, but it’s a widespread phenomenon applied to the majority of your party members, made worse by Golden’s epilogue (which shows the cast as “well-adjusted” members of society now, scrubbing them of much of their angst or what might make them stand out).
This gets particularly squirrely with Kanji and Naoto, two characters who straddle the line of being LGBTQ in a very non-commital way. Kanji is a manly man who likes sewing and other feminine activities, with his dungeon implying that he feels homosexual attraction to other boys (his Shadow even stating that he essentially thinks girls are icky). Naoto meanwhile is a woman facing belittlement and persecution by older conservative misogynists whose dungeon and Shadow suggest a desire to transition to become a man. Their characters are “intended” to say progressive-ish things – Kanji’s being that “it’s okay to like girly things that doesn’t make you gay” and Naoto’s being a commentary on a system of patriarchy that devalues women and their accomplishments – but the endpoints are frustratingly limited. Why can’t Kanji’s be “it’s okay to like girly things AND it’s okay to be gay?” If Naoto is frustrated by the patriarchal standards of what she should be, why does the epilogue show her as a more stereotypically feminine person instead of someone who resists gender norms (either by adopting a different gender identity or at least being GNC)? It doesn’t help that there are several queerphobic moments throughout P3 (that one beach scene), P4 (how many times does Yosuke act homophobic?), and even basegame P5 (those two queens who hit on Ryuji for… no reason?). As well as no same sex romance options for any of them even though there are excessive (and sometimes morally questionable) heterosexual romance options.
I’m not the first to make these arguments. In fact, much of Persona 5’s focus on rebellion against society (where the true issues are not inner angst and acceptance but fighting others who are actively making your life worse) is a response to criticism of P4 from back in the day. And it’s a complicated issue – I don’t think it was the intention of the writers to end up with this “everything is fine you just need to shut up and accept things as they are” undertone, at least not to the degree that they did. And part of what makes discourse around the topic neverending and cyclical is the variability of readings around the issue. Naoto is maybe second to only Chihiro from Danganronpa in people on the internet saying “nonono this character ISN’T trans, the writers were just trying to comment on gender roles and expectations in society” (failing to understand that, well, having a character be trans is a great way to do that). And it’s also easy to note that P4 originally came out in 2008, a time when people still used “gay” as a casual insult. Certainly any piece of media that addressed these topics in any remotely positive light for the time is transgressive, right?
I do want to give credence to that, were it not for the fact that Persona already set a standard for itself on the matter. Persona 2 (which everybody I trust tells me is the best game(s) in the series) has the ability to enter into an mlm relationship in Innocent Sin, a game that came out in 1999. Persona 4 files actually suggest that there was the ability to romance Yosuke at some point, but it was cut out. With points like these, it’s harder to give benefit of the doubt to the developers of P4 and state that they were doing something bold and forward thinking. P4 is certainly reflective of its time, and that needs to be considered fairly, but “of its time” is not always “ahead of its time.”
I don’t wish to tear into P4 excessively. I know some people do enjoy that, and feel like the game offers little or nothing to them, a regressive or shallow look at self-reflection and change. And I am sympathetic to those people. Just as I’m sympathetic to those who still love the game dearly and find value in it, and sympathetic to folks like myself who have a more complicated view on the matter. There have been pieces of media I once loved (or more accurately thought I loved) that I later realized I had loathing for. Persona 4 is not one of them. I have deep affection for it, the world it depicts, and the characters that inhabit it. When I heard the I’ll Face Myself remix for Smash? I went ballistic. When I think of how much I love Chie, or Nanako, or even one of the smaller Social Link characters like Ai or Yumi? It’s a very pure feeling.
And I think even its themes have a way of resonating now, if in a different form. The core idea of facing your dark side and embracing all parts of yourself is central to another of my favorite games, Celeste. And that’s a title that has become an icon of transgenderism after it helped the creator realize she herself was trans (and then confirmed protagonist Madeline was too). While a game of great universal application to issues of mental health and self-acceptance, Celeste offers a story of growth, accepting all parts of yourself not to go back on your desires but in order to move forward.
In some ways, Persona 4 contradicts itself. At points it’s a title of teenagers realizing that they’ve repressed their true desires and need to truly be themselves. And at others it’s coming to realize that the non-repressed parts matter too, life is complicated, and that “being yourself” doesn’t ever only mean one thing (even if the writing subconsciously suggests that it means conforming to societal expectations). I think my roommate put it best when she hailed it as “a game for closeted gays” – those who, unbeknownst to themselves, want to more freely express or be themselves, but also have a fear of doing so because of the difficulty it will bring. It doesn’t just apply to LGBT people, of course, but I think they offer a simple way of exposing the contradiction. There is a reassurance in being told that you don’t need to change. You can just keep going as you are, even if life has you down, because you may not realize the good things around you. Just keep on being you. You’ll be the same person no matter what, right?
But I’m not the same person I was that summer. In 2020, I realized that, contrary to what I’d been telling myself, I did need to change. I started gender transitioning. I went to therapy. I began really and truly facing myself, who I was, what I wanted to be. And I haven’t stopped. It’s a slow, painful process, but it’s moving forward. We as humans are always reflecting, always morphing. Who we are one minute may be gone the next. That’s scary, but it’s inevitable. And there’s nothing wrong with retaining some parts of ourselves all along the way. Just as there’s nothing wrong with discarding what was once a piece of our souls that we find we no longer need.
Back in 2014, I needed Persona 4. Now in 2023, I no longer do. But needing isn’t the same as loving.
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