Persona 4 Ep. 1: High — perhaps unreasonable — expectations

As a fanboy of the game, it goes without saying that I’ll enjoy Persona 4: the Animation to a certain extent no matter what. That doesn’t mean, however, that I think the decision to adapt the video game to anime in the first place was a good idea. In the role-playing game genre, there’s the dichotomy between sandbox games versus those of the theme park variety. Fair or unfair, Japanese RPGs have often been slammed by some Western media and fans for being too linear — too similar to movies. Like a theme park, the gamer is just along for the ride. Even so, I’ve always preferred Japanese RPGs to Western RPGs, because while the (greater, but not limitless) freedom of choice in sandbox games is intriguing, stuff like the The Elder Scrolls series have never given me that epic sense of storytelling that I crave. Still, I can understand why many gamers on the other side of the spectrum might balk at certain JRPGs (the most egregious example would Final Fantasy XIII).

Maybe this is why I enjoy the recent iterations of the Persona series so immensely. Like other theme park games, there’s an unavoidable main quest in Persona 4. Play the game and you’ll get to a point where the plot has to be advanced or it’s game over. But in between these on-rails portions, the RPG contains pockets of freedom. A player progresses through Persona 4 much like how he or she would approach life: one day at a time. Of course, the scale of time is vastly shortened in Persona 4, but like life, there are only so many things one can do in a single day. Should I go fishing after school today? Should I work part-time at the hospital tomorrow night? Maybe I’ll go see a friend instead….

This extra freedom — and maybe it’s just an illusion of choice — in Persona 4 seems to me like a compromise between the linear RPGs of the East (of course, I’m generalizing for brevity’s sake) and the more open-ended, sandbox-like nature of Western games. To be honest though, if you strip away the brief moments of freedom in Persona 4, its stories and characters are nothing special. And maybe that’s why it’s all just a clever slight of hand. By implanting the mere idea of choice in the player’s mind, this makes the same ol’ tropes a little fresher and a little brighter. Chie would just be another typical tomboy in any other story, but since I chose to spend time with her over Yukiko, it somehow feels more special in Persona 4.

Well, interactivity — or even the mere illusion of it — is gone now. Of course, how could this not be the case? Cinema and its related cousins (like anime) is necessarily linear. With the anime adaptation of Persona 4, we no longer have a choice in who the main character befriends. We can no longer influence the events of the story ourselves. And nothing epitomizes the vast differences between the game and the anime than the main character himself. In the game, the main character is a blank slate; his thoughts and actions are meant to reflect the player behind the controller. This is also why he has the special ability to summon more than one Persona, but we’ll get to that in the weeks to come. For now, what’s relevant is that the main character has now been strictly defined. The anime gives him a name (Narukami Yuu) and a voice. He’s no longer you or me; he’s himself.

Nyoron and Fin watched the first episode with me, and during the fight scene near the end, the former remarked, “The main character isn’t as GAR as I expected.” I agreed, but of course, I only expected him to be a little more badass in the first place because the game allows the main character to be whoever I wanted him to be. In any case, the events of the first episode mostly follows the game step-by-step, word-for-word. Insignificant details are changed, of course, but these won’t affect Persona 4‘s overall narrative. Even the music is lifted straight from the source material; I half-expected a remix or two to put a twist on things. But an adaptation is more than just faithfully copying the canon. AIC A.S.T.A. is well within their rights to adapt Persona 4 in any way they see fit — I’ve said that before and I won’t change my mind now just because I’m a fan of the source material.

But this isn’t just about whether or not the adaptation can live up to the original. More importantly, it’s whether or not the adaptation can make up for the fact that we’re losing the crucial element that makes the original so much fun: interactivity. This is more pertinent than ever with modern video games because they are already quite cinematic all by themselves. When a manga is adapted to anime, a lot comes with the package. We finally get to hear what our favorite characters might sound like, how our favorite scenes might play out in action, etc. We’ll also get a soundtrack, and sound is a vastly underrated component of cinema. With modern video games, however, there’s already voice acting. There’s already action. There’s already cinematography. There’s already choreography. There’s already a soundtrack. The list just goes on.

I recently heard that Hollywood wants to make a film out of the Uncharted series and the thought of this perplexed me. Doesn’t the game already resemble a movie? In fact, ask the developers what they are trying to accomplish with Uncharted and they’ll likely mention Indiana Jones as one of their primary inspirations. They want the player to feel as though he or she is in the middle of an action film. As a result, what could Uncharted possibly gain by being adapted to the silver screen? Money, of course. On the other hand, you could never translate the interactivity found in video games to the cinema. For the moment, it’s just not possible and even if it is to become possible in the future, what would then separate movies from video games?

Likewise, Persona 4: The Game already has voice acting. Hell, it even has a few animated sequences of its own. Anime can only then give the same story more animation, but is this enough? Rather than battling monsters myself, I sat there and watched the anime “play” itself out for me. Was I impressed? Unfortunately, AIC A.S.T.A.’s animating chops could use some refinement. I’ll never understand how Persona 4 failed to attract a more reputable studio for its adaptation when countless visual novels are getting vastly superior treatment elsewhere. In any case, the episode’s climax was a little disappointing due to the mediocre animation. And if history has taught us anything, animation quality often goes down after the first episode.

Thinking ahead, I reminded myself of what I had said earlier in the post: Persona 4‘s story is nothing special without the illusion of choice. With the anime adaptation, however, all we’ll have is the story. Well, we’ll see over the next few months how it’ll hold up all by its lonesome.

34 thoughts on “Persona 4 Ep. 1: High — perhaps unreasonable — expectations

  1. Naota

    It’s funny you mention this, because that illusion of choice offered by open-ended games as a storytelling device has been on my mind as well.

    If you ask me, the biggest failing of games that make constant minor choices a central element like Mass Effect and Dragon Age is how just by doing this they’re limiting the influence and long-term impact of every possible branch, to the point where against all appearances the game becomes highly linear. Any time you’re given what looks to be a world-changing decision, no matter what you pick the status quo will be restored once the immediate result plays out. Nothing ever develops the player character or affects the world around them in a satisfying way because there are simply too many combinations of choices to account for.

    Should you romance a character and become intimately involved for instance, their dialogue and actions won’t change anywhere else in the game except during that scene and the followup “let’s have a talk for loyalty points” conversation in the main hub. Likewise, being a heartless monster wherever possible finds the player in the exact same places as a paragon of virtue. The plot is cast in concrete, and for all our supposed options the player is given only the barest wiggle room to alter it.

    I’m certain a studio could design a game with a handful of true story branches and endings rooted in player choice like a VN or CYOA novel might, but they seem either obsessed with the quantity of options over their quality, or content to provide no choice at all. I would have no problems with either approach, except very few games like the one I just described exist. Self-contained branching storylines just haven’t been broken into with modern gaming yet, and it’s kind of a shame.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Well, I think you’re talking about being able to make choices in the narrative and that’s just so much harder to accomplish. At some point, the amount of work you have to do will go up exponentially in order to maintain this vision of self-contained, branching storylines. VNs have static backgrounds and a limited set of character poses for a reason. In 3-D games, you’d have to record new lines, storyboard new scenes, motion capture or design new animation, and maybe even design new art assets just to accommodate a plot decision with real impact. Multiple plot decisions over the course of the game will be even worse. With publishing deadlines (cause the publisher only really cares about the bottom line) and whatnot, I can understand why developers either allow no freedom or just the illusion of it.

      For some studios, they can afford to take their time retooling their games till they think it’s perfect. I think Sony just allows Fumito Ueda to take as long as he wants. But it’s a zero sum game for everyone else. Devoting development time here will come at the cost of something else. This is largely why I prefer theme park-esque RPGs. Just give me one solid story as opposed to trying to do too many things at once and nothing comes together. I thought Fallout 3 was a huge disappointment as a result.

      When I was talking about sandbox gaming though, I was mainly referring to games where emergent gameplay can organically come about. Players can follow along a quest or just do his or her own thing. Maybe that’s torturing a nearby village in Oblivion. Maybe it’s stealing a fire truck in GTA4 and seeing how long you can last with five star wanted status.

      Reply
      1. Naota

        I’m all but certain that some sacrifices would have to be made in order to maintain a game with a branching plot (namely length), but it doesn’t necessarily have to have many branches either. It would be nice for an RPG to split just once in the last three hours depending on if the player was an idealist or pragmatist for instance, or if the plot remained linear but characters’ relationships and fates could change dramatically depending on how the player acted.

        Extra voicing would no doubt be required, but at the same time there would be no need to record 3-4 different replies and responses for every 30 seconds of conversation involving the player. Limiting the number of primary characters could also work very well, as a large cast is by no means required for a compelling story. I think there’s a middle ground to be found which allows a greater measure of influence on the plot without committing financial suicide..

        Emergent gameplay is a whole different beast entirely, and when it works it can make great stories out of almost nothing. I’ve actually considered embellishing particularly memorable instances of it in action and writing them as short stories on my own blog.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          It would be nice for an RPG to split just once in the last three hours depending on if the player was an idealist or pragmatist for instance

          You’d run into problems here too. Take Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for instance. You could act like an evil Sith dick all throughout the game, but still end up as the savior of the Republic if you so choose. There was only one plot branch in the entire game and it didn’t depend whatsoever on your actions. This sort of thing can ruin narrative immersion.

          Extra voicing would no doubt be required, but at the same time there would be no need to record 3-4 different replies and responses for every 30 seconds of conversation involving the player.

          Having a plot branch that impacts the game significantly will also require the story’s characters to react to the world around them. That in itself should necessitate a lot of new lines. One of the greatest examples of a branching plot in a game for me was Tactics Ogre. By the end of the first act, you could choose to obey the Duke’s orders, slaughter your own people and pin it on another political entity in order to incite a rebellion, or disobey and become a fugitive. I can’t imagine, however, the same game existing as an AAA RPG title in the current day. The change in dialogue, setting, etc. would just be too costly for our high-def 3-D games with voice acting, motion capture, etc. There’s a big reason why a lot of JRPGs can only be found on handheld platforms where development costs are so much lower.

          Reply
  2. thearbee

    I’d pretty much WANT to compare the Persona 4’s Truth Seekers to the relationship of the girls in the lighthouse in Battle Royale for an opening comment. Yet I don’t want to.

    I’ll just put in that Persona 4 seems better off as a game. Unless we can feel like this can be an Interactive type of anime where the audience chooses the decisions of the character. But I pretty much bet they will go for what seems as the best choice for the game and most likely going for the true ending route.

    I mean, if we already played the game (repeatedly) and we expect what to watch in this show because well the anime will most likely follow the game’s plot, where is the excitement?

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I’m just wondering how many of the characters the adaptation will even bother to flesh out. Certainly not all of them, right? There’s just not enough time for that, I don’t think. Certainly, he’ll have the social links with his team, his uncle, and Nanako. Hopefully they’ll stay away from the dorky kid you had to tutor. Hell, will the main character even bother to pick a girlfriend or will it go the stereotypical anime route where there are hints of romance but people stay friends.

      Reply
      1. thearbee

        I think they might follow the perspective of Yu and make the characters change whenever the main character talks to them or hangs out with them. Or maybe they are just going straight to the point with the case while adding some red-herring filler scenes to make it like the game. Best I can tell is that they might pick some of the social links to be shown while the rest is cameo or in mention.

        Romance-wise, I bet to you that it will be slightly “Harem-y”.Since let’s face it, anime might not be able to take risks of making Yu a… pimp.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          Romance-wise, I bet to you that it will be slightly “Harem-y”.

          Y’know, P4 really improved on the formula laid out by P3, but the one change I didn’t like was how the P4‘s MC could date every girl without repercussion. Thank God P3 didn’t get adapted though. The fans would’ve be clamoring for the studio to pair the MC up with the robot.

          Reply
        2. thearbee

          Hence slightly Harem-y. The whole every chick likes the protag and the one that he has eyes for he gets.

          I think the P4 system of date everyone you want applied in the Male P3P. yes we got the caught in the act, but instead of reverses and breaks we simply get not a lotta progress.

          Reply
          1. E Minor Post author

            Well, I never played P3P so I can’t comment. Replaying the game for FES is as far as I’ll go!

            Reply
  3. Marow

    Persona is one of those game series I really really wanna play. I got a PS2 from a relative about a year ago because he didn’t use it anymore, but I never really used it and as a result never bought Persona 4. One of my big mistakes I think.
    I also wanna play Catherine. Maybe I should get a PS3 sometime. Or PS4 when it comes. Oh well.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Well, a version of P4 is coming out for the PS Vita if you’re into handheld gaming. I personally hate playing games on the go though.

      I want to play Catherine too, but right now, I’m trying to fit Dark Souls into my budget without starving through the fall. Damn next-gen games and their $60 price tag. This is why all I ever play anymore is the Civilization series and the free TF2.

      Reply
      1. Marow

        the free TF2

        G-r-r-r-r-r-reat. Shame on me for not having played it in a while. I tend to TF2 more during holidays.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          Ah well, it’s not like TF2’s a hardcore game. I just pop into a server for half an hour, rocket jump around till I get bored, then be done for the night.

          Reply
          1. E Minor Post author

            No, no, no, I play real maps. I just like to rocket jump into a crowd of enemies though and pretend I’m helping. If I really play seriously, I usually go medic.

            Reply
        2. Marow

          Oh, okay. You should try those modes out though, they are fun if you have a great server!

          But I prefer stock maps, especially Goldrush, Badwater, Dustbowl and Gravel Pit. A bit normal choices perhaps, but they’re great.

          Soldier for me and maybe some Spy too.

          Reply
          1. E Minor Post author

            I have no patience for spy.

            I personally prefer 5cp maps like Badlands or Granary. Push maps just get too annoying when there are four plus sentry nests and there’s maybe one demo worth ubering.

            Reply
            1. Nyoro~n :3

              back in the day, e minor and i would tear up some clans and hardcores p. good. he’d be an awesome soldier and i’m an awesome medic but tf2 kind of bores me so i don’t play any more~ now he’s taken over the role of awesome medic, and i? i’m playing wow and i’m an awesome priest

              yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

              Reply
  4. Ando

    Having had a look around at the reviews, the general trend seems to be that fans of the game are relatively content but slightly disappointed, while the newbies love it. I guess if the purpose of this anime is to attract new customers to the game franchise then it seems to be doing okay? I kinda sit halfway since I’ve only played P3 (and SMT), and I thought it was a pretty solid opener. Looking forward to seeing how it all plays out. I love the OP tune though.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I don’t know. I don’t think the adaptation will be all that successful. It’s really the girls, I think, that won’t appeal to fans. If you look at the recent trend of heroines, they all seem to be selfish, antisocial girls. Everyone — male or female — is too buddy buddy in P4.

      Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          Maybe. Naoto was probably my least favorite character when I was playing P4. Naoto was basically the explain-the-fucking-obvious character. It’s, like, yes, I got the murderer’s motives, you don’t have to belabor the point, man.

          Reply
        2. thearbee

          If anything, she is the fandom’s #1 pure wank material ever since the subtle “she is more feminine than the girly characters because she cooks and makes Teddy dress prettier”, the cross dressing Christmas and the goddamn medical exam.

          That is why I was throwing bottles whenever Dragon Kid became girly. Because I don’t want her to be like a total femwreck like Naoto.

          P.S. Her Initial Personal is generally a Navi.

          Reply
          1. E Minor Post author

            Yeah, well, I make it a purpose not to pay attention to how the fandom blows (in more ways than one). I actually found the female characters in P4 quite a bit weaker than its predecessor but that’s another debate in itself.

            Reply
        3. thearbee

          Eh, we’ll just end the debate here, we might have those who love P4 (especially the female characters) to watch these very comments right now.

          Reply
  5. Ryan R

    Well, here’s a newbie that didn’t love it, to answer Ando’s points above.

    I don’t think it’s downright bad, but the main problem is that the male lead has virtually no personality at all. I would argue that Persona 4 Episode 1 is too faithful to the game. A silent protagonist can work in a RPG, but not so if you’re just watching him.

    AIC needed to give the male lead a personality, but I fear that they didn’t have the balls to do it, leaving him as too much of a blank slate for a passive medium like anime.

    Reply
    1. Ando

      Haha, there goes my theory then. Actually, after I wrote that I came across a bunch of negative-ish reviews so the reaction seems pretty mixed.

      Reply
    2. E Minor Post author

      He has as much personality as any other male hero in anime. He just doesn’t have a generic voiceover. I’m not saying that his portrayal is any good, but let’s see if the whole “unbuttoning my shirt and loosening up” BS amounts to anything next week.

      Reply
      1. Ryan R

        *caugh*Okabe Rintaro*cough* *cough*Kotetsu Kaburagi*cough* ;) :-p

        In fairness, I’m glad that he wasn’t made into your typical loser-ish harem anime male lead, but being a cipher with fewer lines than Brandon Routh’s Superman isn’t necessarily an improvement on even that, lol.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          Let’s keep in mind, however, that Okabe and Kotetsu are adults — they are men. We tend to forget this but most anime heroes are just boys — high schoolers with loser temperaments like Narumi.

          Reply

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