Social Justice vs Games: Persona as Wish-Fulfillment

So, continuing on from last time, “Solid Snake” talks in these two posts talks about the “agenda” of the Persona games:

Oh, the game is absolutely pushing an ‘agenda’ and that agenda is wish fulfillment fantasy for its presumed audience with a side helping of completely eroding the agency and independence of NPCs to ensure the wish fulfillment fantasy ‘succeeds.’ My objection is twofold: Atlus ignores the wishes of everyone outside the confines of its presumed target audience, and even then, Atlus misconstrues what its target audience actually wants. Either that or it’s pandering to a subset of immature boys it really shouldn’t bother pandering to; take your pick on the latter.

Now, you can argue that Atlus’ agenda here is harmless (I’d disagree), but it’s certainly the clear intent of three Persona titles and counting now to put the gamer in the shoes of a protagonist who, through some kind of combination of sheer willpower, the mechanics of the game world and the exigencies of the heroic narrative, lives some hyper-idealized life where all his desires (perfect grades, perfect relationships, perfect friends, even the existence of antagonists is necessary to provide heroic purpose) are within reach and require minimal effort or investment to achieve.

Huh? It might surprise him that I, personally, have never completed all of the S-links in any Persona game. I don’t even get all of the relationships with the women. This is because getting everything is flipping hard unless you follow a guide. To be the most efficient you can be in the game, you have enter the dungeons on the right days, meet with people on the right days, fuse Personas at the right time, grind the right way, bring the right Personas to the right meetings, say the right things at those meetings and increase your abilities in the right way and at the right time. Otherwise, you won’t be able to max out all of the S-links. This all takes an exceptional amount of effort that I can never be bothered to do. And this is despite the fact that, for example, I very much like Naoto as a character but she starts so late that you have to be perfect to actually finish her S-link, which I often fail to do. And I’ve never managed to finish Aegis’ S-link in Persona 3 FES.

So what the Persona series lets me do — and why, in fact, I like it — is not do everything, but instead to do only the things I want to do. There are entire S-links that I ignore because I don’t care for the characters and none of my characters would like to interact with (Hidetoshi from Persona 3, and the Gourmet King from Persona 4). And this all comes from the fact that the investment and effort to pursue S-links is not minimal, but is in fact significant. This carries over to Persona 5, as one S-link requires a significant outlay of money and I’m always cash-strapped. So you do what you want to do, and often have to choose between two S-links and hope that you can still finish the other one.

And even on NG+, where you have to grind less, have more money, and have likely maxed out your abilities, you still often have to choose which S-links to focus on unless you want to play by the guide. Which isn’t much fun.

He then talks about the relationships being shallow:

Furthermore, the very mechanics of the game that you laud are utilized to reinforce all these really nasty story themes. They’re not minor blips, as Arcanum alleges — they’re ingrained into the fabric of the game itself. Take for example your Social Stats — Knowledge, Charm, Proficiency, Guts and Kindness. The game encourages you to invest time into activities that presumably raise these stats, and raising the stats on their own unlocks additional relational content with the ladies. Hell, even Bioware for all its faults attempts to write their supporting cast in such a way that they’re not merely gatekeepers demanding you gain X points in Y attributes — and then immediately falling head over heels for you once you’ve pasted the litmus test. The game’s mechanics support and attempt to rationalize the idiotic Nice Guy fallacy that women are objects whose affections can be ‘earned’ through correct behaviors or responses.

Real relationships are about chemistry and attraction and they’re complex and truly character-driven; driven by our faults, our flaws, our needs and wants, our hopes and dreams. We converse to know each other better, not just to soothingly whisper empty platitudes at each other. Go back and watch any of the Social Link scenes with the Protagonist and notice what the ‘correct’ answers sound like. Every romantic scene with a love interest boils down to women attempting a real conversation with the Protagonist and the ‘correct response’ boiling down to the Protagonist simply saying some iteration of “Believe in Yourself” and that, combined with his Stats, apparently justifies a degree of affection that’s downright irrational and harmful to the women the Protagonist is presumably helping.

And later, in the second comment:

I don’t have a problem with the game tying stat progression to actions, I have a problem with the game tying stat progression with an assumption of deepening intimacy with people. It’s a problem with guys too, insofar as it’s just as clunky and nonsensical when applied to the boys, but because there’s no SJ issues there insofar as I’m unconcerned with how Atlus chooses to portray platonic relationships among men. The issues I have with Atlus and sexism is how the Persona series portray romantic relationships, so it’s patently obvious that I’m criticizing the system from that comparatively narrow perspective.

The thing is that all of the things that he’s complaining about are gameplay abstractions of you deepening intimacy. The conversation choices you make can increase their feelings towards you, but you have to choose the options that make sense for them. It has often been the case in the Persona games that giving the empty platitude isn’t the option that they approve of. Sometimes, you need to kick them in the butt. Sometimes, you need to leave them do things themselves. Sometimes you need to help. And all of this is wrapped around a mechanism where if you are willing to be inefficient you can answer how you would answer and they, well, don’t like it much. What this means is that you actually have to spend more time with them to win them over, which involves arguably getting to know them better and what they want.

Even the fact that you get bonuses to affection for bringing the right Persona fit into this, as a Persona is a part of you and a part of your personality, and so if you have that Persona inside you you are better able to relate to them, because that’s who they are.

As for the stats, it seems odd to gripe about agency and about the women being more than mere objects and yet ignore that they would have certain things they like. Makoto, for example, is originally “gatekept” by intelligence: you have to be smart — or at least knowledgeable — enough. But she constantly, as the Student Council President, harangues the team to study and keep their grades up, and is very disappointed when Ryuji absolutely can’t. How likely is it that someone like that would want to spend time with someone when her first instinct would be to tell them to study more? And “Solid Snake” scoffs at what might well be a personality trait:

Technicality: You need either Rank 2 or 3 Knowledge (I forget which) very early on with Makoto’s link. I forget which one, but it’s a threshold before the Charm one that applies because she’s smart and likes smart people, I guess.

Yes, because it’s definitely unheard of to think that someone smart might, you know, prefer someone smarter, too, or see that they don’t have much in common with someone who isn’t as smart as she is, or at least doesn’t seem to be at all interested in academics, which she, at least, has been taught is important for all her life. Makoto is the Mitsuru ex-pat here — but not as interesting a character — and being good academically is important to her, and thus in a person that she’d fall in love with.

For the most part, the attribute restrictions are always used to either say something about the person or about the protagonist. Either you have to be intelligent or charming or skilled or whatever enough for them to find you interesting, or you need to have that level to be able to make the approach in the first place. And this applies to the relationships as well as to the friendships. While some of them might be able to be done better — Yukari, for example, can come across as shallow with her restriction — they do say things about the characters, and thus you need those abilities because of who they are. The biggest objection is that this is not an RPG like Torment where, arguably, focusing on one trait over another shapes the game and so you want to choose what you favour to suit your character, but instead you always benefit from and so always want to max out all attributes. But none of this is bad from a Social Justice viewpoint.

And one final point from these comments:

I know ‘gameplay first’ gamers who wouldn’t touch the Persona series with a ten-foot pole precisely because it’s Story first with a capital ‘S.’ That much is readily evident when you consider the length of playthroughs and the sheer amount of time Persona invests in telling its longwinded narrative. Hell, Persona 4 famously has like eight hours of pure exposition before you even enter a ‘real’ battle. Persona 5 follows that lead. And before Persona 5, gameplay was so secondary that dungeons themselves were completely generic and randomized.

Now, the Persona series executes its gameplay quite well, I’d agree with that. But, if anything, the mechanics of gameplay during the segments of the game where you grind your stats and your social links furthers the story and requires you to be invested in the characters and the town you live in.

Um, the random generation was the gameplay, as it made it so that you couldn’t memorize the layouts and so just know where the exit was. Persona 4 introduced the idea of personal dungeons and so tying the dungeons to the story in a significant way, while Persona 5 has designed dungeons for the personal dungeons. I wouldn’t claim this game is “Gameplay first”, but the gameplay is, in fact, a big draw for these games, particularly around battles, weakness, and Persona Fusion.

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