You may read my recent posts and come away with the idea that I don’t much like Persona 3, and you’d be right. The game’s flaws are just too weighty, and I’m getting to the point in my current playthrough where I’m about to throw in the towel for the third time.
The question is, then, why take three swings at a game I dislike this intensely? SMT fanboys have been pinging me for a long time about how, if the game is just not my thing, I should just leave it be. One guy even went so far as to tell me I didn’t “deserve” to play the games.
Maybe they’re right. I’ve long known that my disfigured neanderthal brain melts down when posed with gameplay features it can’t wrap its long, troglodyte fingers around. And yet, it still grunts with drooling monkey pleasure at the idea of Persona 3, because there is one area (and possibly only one area) where the game really, truly resonates with me.
I love the writing. And the characters. And the interactions between those characters. And I love how the player is allowed to explore those interactions at his own pace. And I love how those interactions are tied directly into the game’s advancement systems, meaning the more they are explored the more powerful the hero will get. I love the bouncing music notes and the “yay!” chimes I’m rewarded with when I do or say something that makes an NPC happy. I love coming out of class and seeing an exclaimation point over someone’s head. I love the voice acting, god help me. I love the setting, and the structure, and the theme, and the snippets of mythos that help the game to breathe.
It’s the opposite of what I usually like about RPGs. In this genre, I typically end up liking a game despite its story. Do you know how many times I’ve teamed up with a plucky magical anime girl to save the world from some encroaching darkness? Or been told I don’t stand a chance against said encroaching darkness without first finding some legendary artifact of unimaginable power? Only to find out that said artifact is actually useless (or what the guy behind the encroaching darkness desired all along) and then winning purely on the power of love/friendship/etc.?
It’s been… more than a few.
Here’s my theory: most RPGs try to sell themselves on their gameplay systems. The first thing players want to know is, how is this RPG combat different from the last guy’s? In answering that question, the player learns what the game is and whether he should play it. From there, the genre is largely about spectacle: RPG players want to see breathtaking cinematic views of each new location they encounter, and they expect their heroes to dabble in enormous, overly-elaborate super attacks. RPGs are expected to have musical scores that rival blockbuster films, and they’re expected to offer hundreds of hours of post-game content to assuage the most severely OCD-addled of us.
It’s little wonder, then, that such a comparatively small amount of a game’s budget goes towards crafting the setting and story… especially since “stock fantasy”, “stock sci-fi” and “stock anime fantasy/sci-fi” play so well with gaming demographics. To put this into perspective a little: almost nobody who has watched the Lord of the Rings films had much appreciation for the incredibly deep world-building that originally went into crafting the setting, or the countless layers of history and backstory that went into developing each and every character.
Everyone, though, remembers Aragorn tossing the dwarf.
Persona 3 is the exact inverse of this formula. The game systems, the world, the places the hero goes and the things s/he does are almost purely incidental. After all, 95% of that half of the game is Tartarus, and Tartarus is just the same hallways and square rooms repeated endlessly. Each new batch of enemies is just a slight graphcial variation on the old batch.
Where all that production value went was directly into the Social Link system. This is the network of people your hero builds relationships with, and everything about it is exquisite. Each S. Link is a real person with a fully-formed personality, who starts off as a casual acquaintance of the protagonist. Over time you learn more and more about the person, help them overcome some obstacle they’re struggling with, and in the end form a lasting friendship with them. In practice, each S. Link has a story arc behind it, and these story arcs are very well done.
When I say the S. Links are real people, what I mean is they are people you may know in your real life. You have, just as an example, the doting old couple who run the bookstore. They are forgetful and sentimental, prone to emotional breakdowns and endless reminiscing. Every time you visit, the old grandfatherly gentleman doesn’t let you leave without giving you sweets. Oh, it’s no bother — he insists!
Then you have Maiko, the little girl who skips school to hang out at a nearby playground. She’s having trouble at home because her parents are getting a divorce. During the course of her story arc she struggles with understanding why Mommy and Daddy are so mean to each other, and resolves to run away from home. What I like most about this story is the player is not the hero of it; you do not resolve Maiko’s plotline by making her parents magically fall back in love and live happily ever after. What you do is help a lonely child cope with a really scary event in her early life. You help her to understand that sometimes bad things happen, but such things are not the end of the world. The ending of the story is emotional and bittersweet.
That’s the key, really, and it bears repeating: you are not the hero of these peoples’ lives. Outside of Tartarus you are just an ordinary high school kid. What you are to these people varies a great deal from one interaction to the next. You are Maiko’s big sibling. You are a stand-in for the old bookstore couple’s departed son. You are the invigorating, youthful voice that helps pry the curmudgeonly Buddhist monk out of is drunken rut.
You aren’t saving these people. That’s not what the S. Link system is about. Instead, you are identifying what these people need, and giving it to them. You are helping to enrich their lives by being just a small part of them. In return, you’re treated to hours of enjoyable little vignettes about a whole rainbow of characters, always leaving you wanting more.
That’s why I keep struggling with Persona 3, really. It’s the exact opposite of how I deal with the bad stories in other, lesser RPGs: I’m such a fan of standard RPG mechanics that I can just plow through an uninteresting story without noticing it. Trying to digest an actually interesting story — with a dozen or so lovely little sub-stories surrounding it — while fighting with bad game mechanics is somewhat more difficult. I am, after all, still a “gameplay is king” dude at heart.
There is one fairly stinging flaw in the S. Link system, though, and it is this: the game is designed in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to experience every step of every S. Link on a single playthrough. The SMT fanboys tell me this is a good thing, but Toby Keith fans also tell me that country music is quality entertainment, and I don’t believe them either. I cannot for the life of me figure out why you would want to play a 60+ hour game and not experience the best of all its content. Remember, Persona 3 has a hard time limit imposed on it, which cannot be circumvented. Did anyone really get to the end of the game and say to themselves, “Well that was fun! I’m sure glad I didn’t get to see the last two scenes of Mitsuru’s S. Link. Being deprived of that bit of character development really enhanced my gameplay experience!”
Where I’m at in the game right now, I’ve long since given up on Tartarus. I pushed through the last thirty or so floors fighting as little as possible, leaving me woefully underpowered for the next boss I have to face. If I want to pick the game back up, I know in my heart of hearts I have eight hours of hallways and grunting blobs ahead of me before I’m back on track… followed by god-only-knows how much more Tartarus after that. Hallways and hallways and hallways. It’s enough to make a man pine for monster closets.