Social Justice vs Games: Another Persona 5 Review

So, via the same thread that I talked about last week comes a review at Zam of Persona 5 by Kris Ligman that explicitly hits similar themes and aims at Social Justice ideas. Don’t believe me? Here’s the explicit quote from the review:

But suppose you are the kind of person who calls strangers on the internet “SJW cuck” and you don’t care whether a girl’s rape is referred to as such in a major game from a major publisher.

So, definitely, many of the negatives the reviewer has are informed by a push for Social Justice. Her main criticism of the localization is what she says above, which I’ll get into later, but she also hits a few more of these themes both in terms of what she finds positive about the game and what she finds negative about the game:

The criticisms printed above are nothing compared to the whole laundry list of issues I have with Persona 5. I didn’t even mention the trans woman who, though better than 99% of Atlus’s transgender representation, still gets called a drag queen. Or the sheer number of adult women in this game who seem ready to hop into bed with a 16-year-old. Or that you still can’t date your best friend, even though Ryuji is clearly just as in love with you as Yosuke was in Persona 4.

But I’ll spare you, because at the end of the day, it serves no one any good to only emphasize a game’s negatives. Inasmuch as Persona 5 can be cloyingly childish and it earned its biggest laugh from me during an inadvertent “clap for Tinkerbell” moment, there was a lot I really connected with in this game. Futaba and Makoto are two of the most relatable characters I’ve ever encountered. The “Confidant” social link with Yoshida, a downtrodden former politician whose speeches will remind you more than a little of the Democratic primaries, was another highlight. Persona 5 tackles social inequality much more directly than past entries in the series, and there are a few optional quests where you (say) get to take down somebody’s abusive boss or a controlling ex-boyfriend. It’s undeniably cathartic. And oh man, when you get to the dungeon critiquing the Japanese legal system, the game just shines.

A lot of her positives and negatives, here, are things that will appeal to you or bother you if you have a certain mindset. I have no issue with you not being able to have a gay relationship here, and don’t see it as a huge negative, especially since doing that can potentially open up a can of worms and make things more complicated. It wouldn’t offend me if it was available, but I’d rather be able to choose a female protagonist over that. Yoshida didn’t strike me as interesting in my first play through, and linking him to Bernie Sanders isn’t likely to do that as well. And the others are obviously even more attached to your own personal viewpoints. While I appreciate a reviewer giving their own opinions on things, there is a strong undercurrent of “These are problems with the game and story!” rather than “This is what didn’t really work for me!”.

But, as with Solid Snake, we again hit an issue of someone who is criticizing the game primarily for its Social Justice problems and claiming to have played and enjoyed previous games seems utterly unaware of what the previous games in the series actually did. She complains about the how short the dungeons seem:

As a result, Persona 5’s dungeon exploration differs in two fundamental ways from past Persona games: 1) each dungeon has its own distinct feel and internal logic; 2) almost all of the dungeons feel way too short. Party members exacerbate the problem, always urging the player to complete a dungeon as quickly as possible, despite the fact that the plot won’t advance till a deadline has passed on the in-game calendar — leaving the player with often huge “doldrums” periods in which there is little to do but go to school, work, and develop friendships with such colorful residents as Hot Dad Who Runs An Airsoft Gun Shop and Anime Bernie Sanders. While past games also had downtimes like these, the sense of urgency isn’t quite the same as it is here, nor does the story’s tension feel needlessly overextended the way Persona 5’s does

The “distinct feel” idea originated in Persona 4, where the dungeons, while still procedurally generated, where themed to the person who generated them. So the big difference is that Persona 5’s dungeons have a static format — which allows for more set puzzles — while Persona 4’s wasn’t. As much, actually, because Persona 4 itself had a number of puzzle floors with a static layout. So what Persona 5 really did was split those sorts of things off from the randomly generated floors, relying on set and puzzle-heavy dungeons for the story and putting the random generation in Mementos, which despite her claims isn’t really optional if you want to do anything in the game (including getting the true ending).

But it’s that comment about the “sense of urgency” that really misses the mark, because while that’s true for Persona 3, the sense of urgency was worse in Persona 4. There, the party members were pretty much just as pushy to get you to go into the TV, and also about as pushy as your teammates were in Persona 3 (it’s done primarily through pop-up events or messages at the times when you can go into the dungeons). Arguably, Persona 5’s system is less intrusive because it comes in the form of text messages on your cell phone that you can completely ignore if, say, you want to instead do an S-link. And while in Persona 5 you knew exactly how long you have to finish the dungeon, in Persona 4 all you had was “When it rains for a couple of days and we get fog, you’ll be out of time”. In Persona 5, your biggest worry is going to be how far in you are and if you are going to be able to push through the rest of the dungeon in time, which was also there in Persona 4 … and Persona 5 actually lets you talk to Morgana and find out about how far along you are in the dungeons, which was mostly missing in Persona 4. And on top of all of that, in Persona 4 the stakes were always at least arguably higher. You are constantly reminded that someone specific is going to die if you don’t complete the dungeon in time, and in a lot of cases the person in there is someone you know and care about. I dare anyone to not feel like they really need to rescue Nanako instead of working on S-links in her dungeon, for example. So the pressure to complete things quickly, contrary to Ligman’s assertions, is less in Persona 5 than in Persona 4. And objectively so (although your mileage may vary wrt to the last one).

But why she finds this problematic also reveals an inability to understand why many people actually love the Persona games. She describes the downtime between the dungeons as the “doldrums” where there is “little to do but go to school, work, and develop friendships with such colorful residents as Hot Dad Who Runs An Airsoft Gun Shop and Anime Bernie Sanders.” Or, you know, do the S-links. And the S-links are the gameplay mechanism that is arguably the modern Persona series’ most unique feature and what catapulted it into the position that is has in the JPRG world. There are, therefore, going to be a number of people who will feel that the dungeons are too long, and take up too much time that could be spent pursuing those S-links, building abilities, and exploring the outside world. I would, in fact, happen to be one of them. And Persona 5, in addition to the normal S-links aligning to the Arcana, has even more things to do than any of the other Persona games. Even in the S-links, you can go to other places and have unique scenes, often involving characters from other S-links. You can watch movies, rent DVDs, play video games, make coffee, make curry, wash things you get from the dungeons, hang out in the batting cage, work at a number of places, take a bath, and read books. One of my main issues is that there are far too many things that you can do, so that in one playthrough you aren’t even going to get close to doing everything you want to do. I didn’t even manage to max out the S-link of even one of my teammates, and only managed to get relationships with three of the four older women … and those were the only S-links I maxed out. I actually really want to replay the game again to at least get Makoto’s relationship, if not Futaba’s, and to max out Shojiro’s. There are entire S-links that I didn’t even start because I didn’t have the time that I really would like to see.

“Doldrums” indeed.

The odd thing is that she does acknowledge this later in the review:

For some, that’s fine. Like the day-to-day school and social life stuff that has become the hallmark of the series, sometimes the monotony is the point. If all you’re after is another Persona game, but more, this will scratch that exact itch.

While most people who really like those things won’t call it “monotony”, I’m not sure that it should be a surprise in any way that a large number of people really, really interested in a Persona game would be interested in the S-links. You know, the thing that the series is probably most known for (alongside interestingly tactical RPG fights)?

Look, I get it. She doesn’t care for those elements. Fine. But to list the prominence of those elements in a continuation of a series known for those elements as a negative isn’t what you want to push in a full review. Most of the existing audience will think it a plus, in general, and even those who are new to the series would want more of a description of how it actually works than a mere comment that the reviewer, personally, finds it boring.

But it seems to me that her big complaint is almost certainly the Social Justice angle — or lack thereof — than anything else:

But sometimes, “the same but more” just doesn’t satisfy. Atlus promised Persona 5 would be a return to the “dark” roots of the series, and while it’s definitely darker than Persona 4, what I played was a mish-mash of dissonant ideas plagued by awkward and inconsistent localization, hedging itself where it should go all in. A rape isn’t called a rape. Anonymous message board commenters can say “****,” but principal character Ryuji has to console himself with “eff.” Gay relationships with party members are still verboten, but a gay male NPC sexually harassing a teenager, that’s perfectly palatable, I guess. The game calls out the social inequalities screwing over an entire generation, and then says the solution is, what, positive thinking? Better civic engagement? I would call it a compromised vision, but compromised with whom, exactly?

She seemed to want it to align more with what she wanted than with what the series is about and is known for. That’s okay as just an opinion, but despite her somewhat denying that in the comments, her “No” here isn’t just about things like the length and the issues with Persona negotiation — both of which I agree with — and how that might impact older and more casual gamers (like me) but is instead a comment that she thinks the game is bad, or at least has some really bad elements, especially the story. That’s not a mere “I don’t like it” or “I wish they had done it differently”, but outright and full-on criticism.

So, let’s look at her biggest Social Justice issue: that they refer to Shiho’s situation as “sexual harassment” rather than as “rape”:

Remember what I said about the game’s first chapter, where a girl is raped and subsequently so traumatized she tries to kill herself? Persona 5 refers to this as “sexual harassment.” Not as “rape.” Not as the more nebulous “sexual abuse,” additionally confusing seeing as this chapter doesn’t shy away from calling out physical abuse. Just “sexual harassment,” as if the script were suggesting she was catcalled to death. This may be a literal translation of the Japanese portmanteau used, “seku-hara,” but using “harassment” in the localization when it is made abundantly clear the character was raped (“You took everything from her!” party member Ann screams) downplays the seriousness of the entire scene.

Worse, it doubles down on the cowardice of the original script, rather than seizing upon the opportunity to clarify and deliver maximum impact for the English-speaking player. Localization isn’t just about 1:1 translation; it’s about ensuring stories make sense for the intended audience. If it was “just” sexual harassment, and the guy who did this was Unequivocally Evil for doing so, then why are all the gross moments that come after it — the lewd comments Ryuji lobs at Ann, Yusuke’s stalking, the two camp gay men entreating the protagonist to strip, to name a few — just harmless fun? Where is the consistency there?

So, let’s look at what happened, shall we? (Yes, there are spoilers coming up).

The teacher, Kamoshida, was pursuing sex with Ann, saying that he would keep Shiho as a starter on the volleyball team if Ann did things for him, with the ultimate goal being that she would have sex with him. He was pushing her to come to his home after school for what Ann is certain is an attempt to have sex with her, and one that she was fairly certain that she would give in to his demands until she met with the protagonist, which gave her the strength to say no. After that, out of revenge, Kamoshida calls Shiho to his office and it’s strongly implied that they had sex. After that, Shiho attempts to commit suicide.

So, let’s look at what likely happened there. Since Shiho was so emotionally vulnerable that she felt like the only thing she had that she was good at was the volleyball team, and since we know that Kamoshida knew that because he was using that as a basis to get Ann to do things, it isn’t likely that Kamoshida grabbed Shiho and forced himself upon her. What he likely did was make the threat to her directly that he had been making to Ann: have sex with him or she was going to be off the team. And thus it is likely that she then “agreed” to have sex with him on that basis, and that one of the main drivers for her attempted suicide was the conflict and self-loathing Shiho had over giving in to his demands, but feeling that she had nothing else but the volleyball team, leaving her in a position where she had to do something that degraded her in order to keep the one thing that gave her any self-esteem at all. And Shiho’s weak self-esteem could not survive or support either option.

But if we look at that, what we actually have is classic “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. There are only two ways to call it “rape” instead. The first is to call it “statutory rape”, which both gets us into issues of what the actual age of consent is and would minimize it since some of those cases are cases where the person legitimately agrees but is being taken advantage of. That’s not what’s happening here. The second way is to use the strict “She didn’t consent” line and note that, well, she didn’t because of the blackmail, which is an interpretation that could actually minimize it, with an idea that she didn’t “technically” consent so it’s rape. Ligman almost certainly prefers the last interpretation, but it isn’t clear that doing it that way is better than calling it sexual harassment.

Especially since her claim about how calling it that diminishes the impact is flat-out false. In a news report — which is where I think that most comes up — doing that might diminish the impact because how it is phrased is all we get, and so, yes, you could see it as something similar to the juvenile antics of some of the team towards Ann. But that’s not all we get. We get all of the details. We know exactly what happened and exactly why what he did to them — and to the other female students — wasn’t the same sort of thing, and was so much worse. By the time it gets called out as “sexual harassment”, we already know the details and have already formed our opinion of it … and Kamoshida. The translation here, therefore, is utterly irrelevant to the impact the events have on us. The impact has already happened; it is too late for the nitpickers over language to vote.

So the issue with calling that out as a major failing is that it invalidly puts too much pressure on calling something the right thing, where “the right thing” is in line with precisely how she wants it to be called. It ignores the context of the scene, the potential gray area in what happened, and the fact that the impact of the events is felt completely separately from the context in which the phrase appears to argue that they aren’t taking it seriously enough. So an excellent presentation that highlights how bad that was that receives callbacks throughout the entire game isn’t enough to get us to take it seriously if they don’t call it rape. Sure.

At the end of the day, this review is the reviewer being bugged by some things in the game that others might really like, not care about, or that is just her opinion and saying that the game is, at least in part, bad because of it. Well, I don’t care for a lot of the aspects of the dungeons, but I have to admit that if you like that sort of thing Persona 5 does them really well, and won’t claim it’s a bad game just because of that. Perhaps she can work on reviewing a game using more than just her own personal perspective, especially when she is supposedly writing for an audience that includes me and yet I couldn’t disagree with her more about her description of the game. No, this review is not aimed at an older audience, someone with a job and a family and not much free time (although the comments on length do resonate with me a bit with that). It’s aimed at someone like that who has strong Social Justice leanings and finds the S-links and “slice of life” aspects that the Persona series is known for boring. So if you are one of those people, you might find something of interest in the review. Otherwise, it’s not going to tell you what you want or need to know about Persona 5.

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