What I learned from my time with Persona 5

There was a defining moment about ten hours into my playthrough of Persona 5 Royal. I decided to commit some of my precious finite time to cleaning up my character’s dusty attic room. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t really any particular benefit to this action, but having stared at the endless clutter and forgotten food bags for many in-game days now, I figured a change of scenery would be nice. So, instead of hanging out with someone or boosting my stats, I decided to spring clean like a fool. However, once that was all finished up and the mess had been relocated, I was greeted with a potted plant that had been hiding amongst it all. Out of curiosity, I interacted with it, only to be greeted with a menus Nd the option to give the plant some nutrients. Of course, as a nature-loving boy, I happily obliged, and in return the game added a little boost to my kindness stat, and it was at this point that the tears started welling in my eyes.

There I was, barely clothed and exhausted in between night shifts, crying softly to my dumbass self alone in my room. Even in the moment, I kept asking myself: why? Why did this collection of pixels in the form of a mundane house plant manage to hit me in the soul like nothing else in the game had thus far? Well, before I answer that question, I should first deliver an overview of my time with Persona 5 and the uncontrollable anxiety it eventually induced within me.

One of the first features that became apparent as I tried to figure out the ins and outs of the game was the stats system. Separated into five categories (knowledge, guts, charm, kindness and proficiency), this mechanic is meant to, in theory, encourage the player to try different activities and reap as many benefits as possible from your time invested. There are only so many hours in the day, after all, so you have to make them worthwhile, even if the stats don’t technically affect anything in-game aside from acting as narratives roadblocks for the sake of pacing, but the anticipation of never knowing quite when a stat is about to increase adds some much-needed excitement to what could otherwise become a tedious activity. Furthermore, these actions often reap some other kind of tangible reward which makes contributing to a task even more worthwhile. For example, crafting equipment to use in Palace heists nets you some lockpicks, maybe a Molotov cocktail or two, and your character has his proficiency increased. Elsewhere in the world, you might choose to play some darts with your fellow Phantom Thieves, which not only deepens your relationship with them and typically boosts your stats, it also results in perks during combat between yourself and that dart-wielding buddy of yours.

However, while the game makes it clear that there are many ways to maximise character growth in various activities, my initial few months were more or less dedicated to inflating my stats as much as possible, into hanging out with friends when specifically asked, and even then I would never do so on rainy days because I didn’t want to miss out on the knowledge boost you get from studying those days. It’s a very strange type of FOMO that really got into my head for a good chunk of my playthrough. I’m a person who deals with severe anxiety, and as such I can sometimes find it quite difficult to think in the long term and plan ahead accordingly; all the energy conjured up by all the worrying and constant stress tends to manifest itself as quick, instinctive decision-making, often poorly thought-out, meaning that despite being more productive than ever at my anxiety peaks, I tend to make the most mistakes at that stage too. As such, I got it in my brain that I would have barely any time to do all the things I wanted to do in the game, so I decided to try and beat the system by preparing way ahead of time with huge stats so I wouldn’t have to worry about meeting the checks later. However, by spending so much time fucking around instead of actually enjoying the full breadth of the game’s content, I ended up missing out on some cool opportunities that ultimately would’ve saved me a lot of time in the long run.

Persona 5 does this clever thing where certain confidants (the people you can hang out with) only become available on certain days, oftentimes occurring at the same time as each other to simulate the stressful decision-making process inherent to a sociable teenager. Unfortunately, the game forgot to account for one thing: I am not a sociable teen, but an introverted, depressed 20-year-old, and as such I often made the self-destructive decision to neglect all my friends and instead study alone or watch a movie late at night, or some other form of antisocial behaviour. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the confidants – in fact, I think they’re all pretty clever and well written – but rather it appeared that Persona 5 seemed to unintentionally exploit the specific type of social anxiety that I often struggle with. The combination of a limited time schedule and so many unique activities to choose from managed to concoct a particularly villainous bout of anxiety-induced self-isolation. Bizarrely though, I didn’t find playing the game to be remotely outside of my comfort zone. Quite the contrary, in fact; I felt right at home here. Being able to spend twenty seconds studying so an obligatory smartness metre goes up is like a fucking power fantasy to me, in that I could be prepared for exams without actually putting the work in myself.

Role-playing as the perfect emotionally balanced student hit all the right notes for me at the time, but I have one question to ask: is that a good thing? After all, games are supposed to be these fun experiences that give you the feel good brain. However, my version of a comfortable, inoffensive time also happened to closely resemble the exact kind of negative behaviour patterns I despise in real life. So what makes it fun in a video game? I believe it has something to do with the lack of real consequences. There are certain responsibilities you must fulfil in Persona 5, those being the Palace heists which must be completed within a certain time limit. They are the obligation you must form the rest of your plans around, and it should be a good lesson in maintaining a good work-life balance or whatever. However, the downside to this message is that Palaces are really fun to fight through. This isn’t a knock against the game by any means. The combat in Persona 5 is fantastic and I would not want to see it replaced in any scenario, but I never felt like it was something I had to plan ahead for. It was simply another fun way to pass time in the game, but this unfortunately further reinforced my damaging behaviours. I didn’t see the Palace deadlines as a reason to diversify my activities, but instead something to enjoy quickly before getting back to good old evasive manoeuvres.

I suppose it’s a testament to how immersive the world of Persona 5 really is that I was able to lose myself unknowingly in the way I did. The process of realising how much time I was wasting became a source of great frustration later on, but I think the first instance of realisation to the fact came with the surprising exit of Dr. Maruki, a new addition to Persona 5 Royal. The school counsellor is present in the game for more or less its entire middle section, and you can continue developing your bond with him through counselling sessions that often open up interesting discussions that help recontextualise some of the crazy things that happen in the story. I enjoyed his confidant, but just like every other interesting opportunity, I managed to squander this one too. However, unlike my relationships with main characters like Ryuji, Ann, Yusuke, and so on, Maruki does leave the game permanently at a point if you don’t max out his confidant in time. The game makes this very clear, even giving you a specific date by which you ought to spend your time with him. However, in my ever-flawless wisdom, I didn’t notice the flashing red flags. I figured that since this is a video game and all, I’m sure I’d be able to see him later on too, but simply in an out-of-school setting. How wrong I was.

The exit date came and in a single line of dialogue acknowledging how Maruki hadn’t completed his research (the main plot thread of his confidant), I came to a very quick, horrified realisation: I wasted all this time dicking around with shallow busywork, knowing full well deep down how pointless and boring it was, and before I knew it, my actions were met with clear, irreversible consequences. I had a chance to make the most out of my situation and I squandered it by falsely convincing myself that it’s be fine and I could just do it later. I might be making a mountain out of a molehill with this moment, but it hit like a freight train at the time. Not only did I feel stupid for missing a huge chunk of the game, I also felt personally attacked, confronted yet again with another kissed opportunity, a sensation I have become all too familiar with in my everyday life, but seeing a game get inside my head like this and fire my self-destructive tendencies right back in my face was another feeling entirely.

For a good while after this moment, I became stressed out of my mind, trying my damnedest to witness as many confidants as I could given the limited time remaining, desperately attempting to make up for lost time. However, despite my best efforts, there were a number of really cool and interesting confidants I wasn’t able to finish. I couldn’t help but let this get to me. How could I be so dumb as to allow myself this much breathing room to fuck up, in an anime game of all things?! Near the end of the game, I kind of lost interest in the actual main story at play, becoming increasingly absorbed in my own self-loathing. I had to take a few days away from the game to shake this feeling, but I’m not sure that worked altogether well. I just wanted to rewind time and enjoy the story properly, and not allow it to be tainted by my own failings as a person.

However, as I continued to ruminate on my feelings of inferiority, I was met with a revelation of sorts. Persona 5 takes place over an entire school year, and the game’s length reflects that incredibly long stretch of time. The ridiculous runtime might seem artificially inflated at a glance, but once you sit through it yourself and see it all the way to the end, it becomes clear what Atlus were attempting to convey with this decision. The game is supposed to simulate how it feels to go through an entire year, with all its twists and turns, bumps in the road, and the various lights along the oftentimes darkened tunnel. Of course, the linear narrative of the game has its own share of mishaps – if it didn’t, the story would be a pretty dull affair – but that wasn’t what ended up resonating with me as the credits rolled. I was brought back to those dreadful sensations of failure and regret, anger and self-resentment. However, rather than succumbing to those emotions, I was left with a thought upon reflection: isn’t that just what life is all about? Life isn’t just hours and hours of smooth sailing where everything goes according to plan. Rather, our existences are full of minor screwups and unforseen consequences. We all make mistakes, but that only allows the little victories to taste all the sweeter. By the end of this game, I felt as though I had been on a journey of my own, with my own flaws and insecurities, followed by a second act low point, all culminating in a satisfying character arc that left me in a better place than where I started. Fitting, since Joker is supposed to be a surrogate for the player, and not a character himself.

And so we return to the fictional houseplant in my fictional teenage bedroom atop an equally fictional Japanese café. When I drew tears for this collection of vaguely green pixels on the screen, I couldn’t figure out why I had done so at the time. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I can fully appreciate what that moment unknowingly meant to me. That houseplant represented a truth that permeates the entirety of Persona 5, and served as an important reminder to my emotionally turbulent self: every little action you take matters. Be it good, bad or just plain mediocre, it all contributes to something. Of course, my obsession with increasing stats might seem pointless on the surface, but those actions ultimately led to my personal revelation later. Through my mistakes, I grew, and watering this fake houseplant to the tune of a stat boost was a perfect encapsulation of that. Perhaps it doesn’t matter in an objective sense, but it sure meant a hell of a lot to me.

Whether it realises it or not, Persona 5 is about the magic of the subjective experience. No matter what anyone says, the experience you have, be it with a piece of art or a moment in life, will always be valid and valuable. Please never forget that, because after Persona 5, I don’t think I ever will.

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