Words About Video Games

Persona 5's Episodic Structure

Persona 5 should have been an episodic game. It's written like an episodic game. Each new target the Phantom Thieves take on introduces a whole new cast of characters--including a client to help (who usually joins your team) and a villain to take down. Although your new ally sticks around and there's an escalation between targets, there is very little in the way of specific narrative plot points to tie the cases together. 

But beyond that structure, it also repeats itself ad nauseam. Even by the standards of game writing, which needs to be repetitive because of its length and the inability to turn a few pages back and refresh yourself on previous events, it is repetitive. It doesn't merely remind you what you're specifically doing on a given case, but it repeats its themes relentlessly and with little variation across its 90-100 hours of runtime. 

It's stylish and its initial premise is undeniably bold: a scrappy group of teenagers see that the adults in their lives are corrupted by their own desires and unable to see right from wrong. They learn this when a friend of theirs tries to kill herself after being raped by a teacher. This opening is intense, one of the most mature pieces of storytelling in games. The origins of the world's suffering, the game posits, are the twisted desires of humankind, and the supernatural monster-battling is the special power the protagonists use to fix what's broken. It's like Roald Dahl's Matilda, for an older audience.

But the luster fades as these same motions are repeated again and again, in the service of building up villains who disappear as soon as they're dispatched, never to be heard from again, and plot threads that are all but abandoned. In a game that by design already has more characters than you can possibly get to know in one playthrough, the excess of additional elements this structure introduces makes everything feel more shallow. And the repetition of themes, unaccompanied by a deepening of themes, only helps reinforce the idea that the game doesn't have as much to say as at first blush it seems.

The last straw is the final dungeon, which undermines the previous emphasis on human failings by introducing cosmic stakes, almost out of the blue. Suddenly, the game's lack of interest in exploring its villains after they're defeated becomes clear: they were only ever just props put in place for this reveal. The Phantom Thieves themselves were never meant to solve anything--they too were just a plot mechanism. And that's without talking about the actual ending, in which, after the entire game emphasizes the inability of adults to handle things correctly, a character literally tells the protagonist "It's time to let the adults handle things."

In spite of all of that, there are some undeniably great moments. The fake-out 3/4ths through is a fantastic twist. And the dungeons are the best in the series, especially the way they create the feel of a heist. 

But imagine if instead of playing it for 100 hours over the course of a month or two, you played it 10 or so hours at a time over a year? Suddenly the fact that each dungeon tells its own discrete story isn't a liability but a virtue. You could take your time getting to know characters, instead of feeling rushed by the in-game clock over which you have very little control. And its length wouldn't be such a drag. 

In its current state, it feels 20 hours or so too long (I would have ditched the cosmic showdown and cut one of the early game dungeons--probably Makoto's; as much as I like the character, the dungeon itself seems to be marking time in the wider narrative.) I have nothing against long games, but in a game as relentlessly linear as Persona 5, there are limited opportunities for the player to control the pacing--in contrast to more wide open games like Skyrim or Horizon, which can be 25, 50, 100, or 200 hour experiences as the player desires.

So my advice? If you want to play Persona 5, go ahead. But try to play it in chunks and walk away from it for a couple weeks at a time, if you can exercise that much self-control. ;)