I very rarely feel connected to characters in video games, or if I am, generally it’s only at the surface level. I can count on my hand the number of times a game’s narrative has drawn me in – specifically to its characters – and made me experience genuine emotions for them. Persona 4 is probably the title to best describe a game like this. It pulls me into a world not so different from my own. It gives me characters I can relate to, laugh at, protect, and even love.
[Spoilers for Persona 4, read at your own risk. They're not super big, but if you're a member of the Personathon then it might be beneficial not to read this. Mainly just the next two paragraphs are super spoiler-y. The rest isn't too explicit.]
I started playing Persona 4 last year, as many of you already know. Immediately I’m introduced to a little girl named Nanako. This shy, sweet, Junes-loving six-year-old became a character I wanted nothing more than to do everything I could to make her happy and safe (since, this being a JRPG, I knew she’d probably wind up in some kind of trouble eventually). I don’t know exactly what it was about her that drew me to her so instantaneously. It could have been the first time she sang the Junes theme song, or maybe how she always welcomed me back home after a long day at school. It might have been when I realized how terrible of a father Dojima was. It probably was. Okay, it certainly was, but he shouldn’t come home stinking of booze yelling about work and his dead wife.
I wanted to protect her from a bad experience at home, and I wanted to help Dojima become less of an asshole so he could actually be there for her as well. I felt that way towards her hours before she first called me big bro. Once that happened, I was distraught with how absolutely drop-dead adorable Nanako was. I’m not her brother, but I’m so special to her that she feels comfortable calling me that. She called me big bro and I knew I would do anything and everything to keep her safe. I’d kill for her, quite literally in fact. And in that moment right before I’m throwing Namatame in the TV I feel justified for my actions, no matter how shitty they might be.
I’m sort of ashamed to admit that I even made a pros and cons list to figure out who I was going to romance in the game. I only did it because I couldn’t choose between two girls that I became really close with. On one hand there was Chie, the meat-loving, kick-happy, reserved girl who wanted nothing more than to protect the people closest to her the best she could. On the other hand Yukiko is the super popular girl that everyone is attracted to; she laughs at my corny jokes and we got along incredibly well. I couldn’t decide. I sat there for about an hour with both Social Links right before we become romantic.
It got so bad I saved my game and played through the final leg of Yukiko’s S.Link, quit the game and did Chie’s right after. I was hoping something would happen to make me like one of these girls more than the other one, but I couldn’t. It is actually, 100%, without a doubt one of the hardest choices I have ever made in a video game before. I chose Chie, by the way. She told me she wanted to protect me from the bad guys. How goddamn adorable is that, right?
I had a moment with every character when I realized how deeply connected I was to them. I mean, if I go into every specific moment I’m just going to be recounting all the best moments of Persona 4 – which let’s face it is like every moment – and it’d get super depressing because I don’t get to experience that for the first time ever again.
And that was the hardest part of playing Persona 4: having to leave. I didn’t want to get on the train and go back to whatever life I had in the city, I’d probably just drown myself in sorrow and a bottle of whatever Dojima was always drinking. It took considerable effort to actually finish Persona 4 because it felt like home. I was tied to these people and depended on them. I was afraid they would forget me, or I’d forget them. And as I boarded the train I realized these weren’t just characters in a video game, they were people – at least to me and my screwed up brain anyway.
I realize I’m part of the problem — or the whole problem, I don’t know. But leaving Persona 4 was not unlike leaving high school. We’d all write in each other’s yearbooks as one final goodbye before we all go our separate ways. I gathered up as much contact information as I could, told them we’d keep in touch even if we weren’t going to see each other every day. Which is pretty much impossible and I probably to this day only keep up with two or three people from high school anyway. Not for lack of trying, anyway.
But we all grew up and grew apart. I knew what that was like and didn’t want to have that happen with my friends from Inaba. I didn’t want to grow apart from them, or go away from them. They’re like family. We developed a considerable co-dependent relationship and without that morphine drip of Teddie’s bear puns, what was I going to do? For some (namely Evan) the answer was to have a constant game of Persona 4 going like it was a security blanket. And that’s not a terrible idea. Well, it sort of is a terrible idea, but much more tolerable than writing fan-fiction (no wait he’s kind of doing that) or something even more disturbing.
I remember those friends from high school, the ones that I still keep in contact with, and I can’t help but feel distanced from them. Whether by time or location, we’ve grown apart even if we’ve still remained friends. And the friends I had that I don’t talk to anymore I’ll wonder where they are or what they’re up to, but I dont really miss them.
I had a friend from the age of six until senior year of high school. We were best friends, close in that special way where I would come over to his house and there’d be a place for me at the dinner table immediately. We shaped our personalities around each other and our experiences were mirrored. We would know what the other was thinking, or some form of it anyway, and know how to help. We maxed our social links and just clicked (using a video game term in real life is really weird, but I think the point stands).
I moved in the eighth grade and we attempted to stay close, hanging out on weekends or chatting on AIM (oh shit, remember when AIM was like a real thing people used?). Over time we grew apart, slowly but surely he gained more friends and shaped himself into a different person, while the same happened to me.
I think it’s safe to say the Persona 4 characters aren’t unlike my friend. They shaped me and my experiences within the game, and to a lesser — or greater depending on how crazy I actually am — degree within myself. I connected to certain characters in certain ways, while Evan might have connected to other characters. We shaped our friendships and personalities within the game because of our links to these characters.
I’ll grow apart from the Persona 4 cast, but I’ll always remember them because of how special they were. Each character elicits a different emotion from me in a very specific way that I can’t say any game ever has before, or very many people have for that matter. They’re so well-rounded and realized that they mimic facets of people I know, but make them better. Because people suck and Teddie is awesome, that’s all there is to it.
I ended up getting on that train and leaving Inaba, at least for a little while. I hope to come back some day and maybe even have some new experiences with the characters in Persona 4 (maybe Persona 5? I can hope). But I find myself wanting that more than to get in contact with those people I went to high school with, because they’re not as cool as Kanji or Yosuke or Teddie or Rise or Naoto or Chie or Yukiko. I wish they were, because having those guys as friends would be awesome and my friends suck in comparison.
I’m basically saying Persona 4 ruined people for me. So thanks, Atlus. Hope you’re happy.