At its core, Persona 4 is a game about interpersonal relationships and identity. Particularly how the bonds forged through friendship can triumph over personal strife—such insecurities, anxieties, and self-doubt—and allow one to find their true self. There’s plenty to be explored there later, but first, one oft-overlooked aspect of the game is its criticism of television.
Persona 4‘s criticism of mass media–of which video games are firmly a part of–begins early. After the game’s introduction in which the player inputs his/her name, the narrative opens with a commercial starring Rise, a pop star who’s also one of the game’s protagonists. She’s clad in a skimpy bikini, holding a can of Calorie Magic, a fictional diet drink, in which she proclaims “I’m tired of diets! Enough with going to the gym! Good thing there’s something even I can handle!” over a peppy jingle. This commercial is purposefully vapid, satirizing the insipid and ubiquitous advertising that litters contemporary society. (Soon after, Rise retires from being a pop idol–and doing such commercials–to attend high school in the small town of Inaba.) The camera then pans out, showing a crowd watching a wall of televisions at a train station. The commercial ends and a news broadcast begins. “Now on to some juicy news,” a stonefaced anchor states, as he transitions to a news story of a news reporter having an affair with a politician, setting the game’s plot in motion.
The game’s combat is exclusively carried out within televisions. I mean this literally, the protagonists of Persona 4 climb inside their televisions to carry out missions. Characters are kidnapped and thrown inside TVs by the game’s villain, where they are forced to (again, quite literally) face the aspects of their own personalities they are most uncomfortable with. These other selves, or shadows, as they’re often called, are broadcasted across the small town of Inaba at midnight for all to see. The parts of these characters’ personalities they are the most embarrassed by and uncomfortable with are manifested on the TV. These traits are typically incongruous with social norms and constructs. One character struggles with his confidence, another with the jealously of her best friend’s better (and more feminine) looks. However, as the game progress, these other selves address more complicated social constructs: one character, Kanji, struggles with his sexuality; another, Naoto, with her gender. The game presents these insecurities on television as it is the medium which is most responsible for reinforcing these stereotypes and expectations, especially when you consider that this is a Japanese game, developed by a Japanese company, in a society that is much more rigid and obsessed with conformity than ours.
In a sense, Persona 4—a game which features both themes and gameplay about forging bonds and developing social links—is arguing against itself. Aside from warning of the poisonous nature of television, it’s a 60-80 hour narrative that’s essentially telling the player to stop sitting in front of the television and go out and hang out with your friends already.
It’s not often that you see art directly criticizing the medium it is commuting through. There are few novels or poems or films which are critical of their own media. Stranger still, few JRPGs bother to flesh out a story more dramatic than saving a princess or the world from some two-dimensional villain with little motive, never mind developing a theme that address one of the many important problems that plague contemporary society. Exploiting paradoxes can often lead to rich and rewarding fiction, however, this is not the only paradox that exists within the game.
The second, and problematic, paradox lies within how the game addresses sexuality and gender. At first, Persona 4 seems to take a surprisingly progressive stance on both. The game originally introduces Kanji, a sort of tough guy/bully with a heart of gold character, as a teenager questioning his sexual orientation. His shadow persona is that of a flamboyant gay man. Then there’s Naoto, who is introduced as a boy wonder detective brought to the town of Inaba to assist the local police in solving the disappearances and murders. Later, Naoto is kidnapped and, though the player will almost certainly figure this out first, she is revealed to be a young woman during her shadow’s defeat. Again, considering the time (2008), the place (Japan), and the medium (video games), it was and, to an extent, still is refreshing to see Persona 4 explore homosexuality and gender identity. At least at first.
Sadly, Persona 4 spends the rest of its narrative contradicting and rejecting the two characters’ queer identities. The player is later told that Kanji isn’t actually gay, he’s just terrified of talking to women and feels more comfortable around other men. His dialogue is full of homoerotic double entendres, which he is immediately chastised for. The reactions to these by his friend, Yosuke, range from being insensitive to straight up homophobic. Naoto quickly comes to terms with her gender, explaining to the other characters that she lived as a young man partly because all the hardboiled detectives she loved in pulp and noir books were men, but also so she could advance her career. These other characters then seem to go out of their way to call her “missy”, “girly”, and other variations of such, and constantly pressure her to act and dress more feminine. This culminates in a sauna scene where the other girls physically force her to join in only a towel, and then comment incessantly on her breasts.
Aside from this being both implicitly and explicitly anti-LGBTQ+, which is an incredibly dangerous commentary for a piece of art to make and should not be taken lightly, this second paradox contradicts the theme of the game itself. As Carolyn Petit writes in her essay “Denial of the Self”, “By introducing the idea that Kanji is gay and that Naoto is transgender and then backing away from embracing those characterizations, Persona 4 represents a betrayal of its central theme about people learning to accept themselves and each other for who they are, and sends the message that such sexual orientations and gender identities are too scary to accept.” By the game’s end, the straight and cisgender characters are all able to come to accept who they are and find their true identity. Why deny the same to the queer characters?
The juxtaposition of these two paradoxes—one intentional, the other not—is an accurate portrayal of the state of narratives and storytelling in games. For the Persona series, and the medium of video games itself, there needs to be far more of the first and far fewer of the second if either expect to enter the conversation of great storytelling.