Warning: there are spoilers for Persona 4 in this article
Between over 100 hours of Giant Bomb’s Endurance Run, the new anime, action figures, and the New Game Plus giving me an excuse to jump back in, I’ve been knee-deep in Persona 4 as of late. For those of you who didn’t own a PS2 in 2008 or just didn’t care, Persona 4 is a Japanese role-playing game famous for teenagers shooting themselves in the heads to summon demons and being a dating sim. Except neither of these things are completely true. The head-shooting comes from Persona 3 (and I won’t get into how that works), the Personas from 3 and 4 aren’t demons, and dating girls is only about a sixth of the actual 80-hour game. Persona 4has the usual JRPG turn-based combat, but add a complicated fusing mechanic that has lead to the popular ‘M-rated Pokemon game’ nickname. On the gameplay side, it’s not bad. I found myself enjoying the combat and the fusing, although doing either for too long will lead to boredom. But the story is another matter.
Persona 4’s plot deals with a supernatural whodunit. TVs act as portals to another world and a killer is throwing people in the TV. If people stay in the TV too long, they die. The party members have to save them. That’s basically it, at least for the first 75 or so hours. This is different from the usual JRPG plot because here, if the antagonist isn’t stopped, the only consequence will be another murder. It’s not nearly as big of a scale as the destruction of a planet, but smaller stakes work in this case. In order to engage an audience, you need to get them to care about what would happen should the protagonists fail in their quest.
To that end, the game keeps the story isolated to a relatively small Japanese town called Inaba. Keeping the player in a familiar setting makes the town’s eventual decline into fog-covered insanity that much more effective. Persona 4 also gives the player a gameplay incentive for hanging out with characters. See, Inaba’s named citizens have a thing called a ‘Social Link’. Depending on how much time you spend with them outside of social links and/or the Persona you have equipped, your S.Rank may level up with each time you hang out. A higher S.Rank in a particular Arcana will mean that bonus EXP will be added when fusing Personas of that Arcana, and will unlock more powerful Personas available for fusing. Social Links with party members will result in bonus powers in combat. Everybody got that? This increases both the amount of time you spend with a character and the chance that you might grow to care about the character, all the while adding a gameplay reward. So when the stakes revolve around the possible death of a named character, and you care about the named characters, then the story carries more weight with the player.
Finally, any good interactive story is driven by the actions of the protagonist. Since Persona 4 is a JRPG, you know that the protagonist is going to end up being a major player in the game’s universe. He’s the first one inside the TV, he’s the first one to get a Persona, he makes the decisions in combat, the ending you get depends on the choices he makes, and he gets first pick of the women. Characters constantly tell the protagonist how special he is, and Persona 4 reinforces this in gameplay by giving him access to more Personas and ending the game if he dies in combat before any of the other party members.
Everything the story tells you is backed up by everything the game does, which is exactly what we need more of these days. I can’t count how many games where I play a useless cardboard box being lead around by the nose as the game makes it clear at every turn how unwelcome you are. But thankfully, we have games like Persona 4, where the actions of the protagonist matter and the player is given reasons to care. When shit goes down in the last third of the game and two characters are put in the hospital (thus permanently cutting off their Social Links), it means a lot more because you had a reason to care. Even if you hadn’t spent time with them (which means you’re just not playing the game right), they were prominent in the story. When Inaba starts going insane from the fog and the citizens begin regressing into monsters, the player cares because of the preceding 75 hours spent in the town. This is how you do a game story.