The “disingenuity barrier” is the dilemma of what to do about a video game whose design causes me to feel one way about a person while the plot asks me to feel another. The classic example used is Half-Life 2‘s Alyx Vance, whom we’re supposed to feel an emotional connection with storywise while her only function in the game design is to unlock doors. If you don’t allow any connection to the character beyond watching them talk, then your game just devolves into a movie with buttons. If the game design just has the character perform basic or arbitrary functions for you in the game, then the player’s relationship with them will not easily go beyond that no matter how much your cut scenes insist otherwise. Atlus’s latest JRPG Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 uses a blend of multiple game designs to not just solve this problem, but also to set a good example of how it should be handled by any other game.
The classic description of the Persona series is that it’s a dating simulation combined with standard combat mechanics. How that works is the game creates two separate sets pf stats and activities. On one level, you spend portions of the game negotiating life in high school. Picking which sports team to join, which club to hang out with, or which friend to spend the afternoon with are some of the many choices you make on a day-to-day basis. Each of these sessions have questions and dialogue trees that are dictated by stats like Understanding, Courage, or Knowledge.
The game then introduces a second series of stats and mechanics which are used for the combat portion of the game. Everyone has a Persona (your own character has the ability to choose from several at once) that levels up and dictates their personal stats like strength, endurance, and magic. One game design is about socializing and being with friends, the other game design is about fighting. How Persona 4 works is that it creates several bridges between these two game designs. Spending time with a person develops your social links, which each affect the summon power of a class of Personas. Developing the social link also develops unique abilities for the character that can come up often in combat. The design bridge goes both ways as well, because your social interactions will change depending on what persona you are carrying and if it matches the person you’re socializing with. The two designs don’t overlap — you don’t break into a swordfight in the middle of class — but they do connect and depend on one another.
Alone, it’s easy to see how this could still succumb to disingenuity. You might just spend time with someone because you want their social link perks, or you might just ignore the socializing portion of the game and focus on the fighting. The game solves this problem with two interesting solutions. First, there are far too many friends, activities, and social opportunities to simply arbitrarily pick one. No matter who the player is, you’re going to end up doing what you’d normally do: hanging out with the people you prefer. In order to have the social link level up you have to pay attention to the story well enough to know about their feelings and become closer with the person (dialogue trees feature heavily), so the game also expects the player to pay attention enough to socialize. Second, the combat portion is pretty tough. I played this game on Normal (it has an easy setting) and regularly grinded to keep my characters in peak shape. I still died regularly. Without the edge that making friends in the social game gives, you won’t last in the difficult combat portions of the game.
The story of Persona 4 is about our relationship with the masks we wear to get through life and the ones we observe on television. When a news anchor is murdered, followed by a student with a troubled past, your character is sucked into the mystery when he discover he has the ability to cross into a T.V. realm where our social masks are torn off. Each of the victims are displayed on the Midnight Channel, a show that only appears on certain nights, and your character discovers that he can enter it using his new powers. This shadow realm inside the T.V. acts as a conduit for a person’s inhibitions and fears, causing a shadow self to manifest for whoever is stuck inside. Although the shadow self is happy to just mock the person at first, after a set number of days have gone by they will become violent and kill the person. The murderer is throwing them into the television world so they can die by their own insecurities and it’s up to you to stop them. Each day features a choice of afternoon and evening activities, meaning you have to budget your time between friends and exploring this alternate world to solve the case.
This is where the game crosses into its most fascinating experience: exploring the twisted shadow realm of each victim. The T.V. world becomes a psychological metaphor for what’s going on in the victim’s head. The dungeons themselves become emblematic of the person’s mind, so that they become a wide variety of mazelike hallways that reflect the victim’s inner nature. One victim has entrapped herself in a giant castle while another is at the top floor of an enormous strip club.
It’s a clever setup for a story but what makes the game powerful is that it’s not afraid to talk about these people confronting serious issues. The prudish, well-mannered girl must confront the shadow self who wants to show some cleavage and find a good lay. The son of a wealthy business owner must confront his fears about people only liking him because of his father’s power. The hyper-masculine brawler must deal with his paranoia about his latent homosexuality. Each of these experiences are played out in a typical JRPG fashion of attacking and leveling up within the combat system, but it is the personal moments that coincide, the ones we’ve developed in the other world, that make them poignant. The game’s message is ultimately that we do not defeat our insecurities, we accept them. As the shadow self of one victim screams, “What’s wrong with acting how you feel? Why can’t you just accept me?” The grueling boss battle that follows ends with the victim, having triumphed over this part of themselves, reconciling and accepting it back into their lives.
This is all structured very well, but just as the narrative is about the friction between two worlds the game design encounters friction when it is keeping the player active in both areas. Specifically, the developers maintain the difficulty in the combat-oriented television world by having a lot of cheap shots. Several enemy encounters will launch into a nearly unstoppable combo that always ends in death for your party. There are ways to defend against it, but the only way to do so is to encounter the enemy and know to guard for it. It’s one thing to throw creatures at the player that are just a higher level, it’s another to have ones that can finish you off with no prior warning. Since the dungeons don’t feature save points, this means you’re going to find out about these combos the hard way by losing hours of progress. Part of this susceptibility also comes from the fact that if your main character dies, you immediately lose the game no matter what the health of your other party members. It is hard to believe in the deep felt commitment of my friends when they cannot bother to use the revival beads unless you’re there to hold their hands. Save often, quit while you’re ahead in a dungeon, and run away frequently.
Still, that extreme difficulty is part of what makes you rely so heavily on your friends and what makes these moments genuine ones. When one of your friends asks a victim if he’s really going to accept his shadow self’s homosexuality, the victim acidly replies that he already accepted that a long time ago. He’s just scared to admit he’s worried about what everyone will think if they found out. If all Persona 4 did was parade a couple of juvenile teenage issues around and prop this up with a clever design, then the game would be just another JRPG with some exceptional innovation. But touching moments like that one make up the bulk of the experience, not the minority, and it’s for that reason Persona 4 becomes great.