Persona 5, And What I’ve Learned About The “Open-World”
The addictive fantasy of Persona is not in magic, but in teenage independence
For all of the surreal, power-tripping, ridiculous fantasy elements, it’s the mundane in Persona that sticks with me strongest.
Getting coffee with a friend, playing some darts, studying for school, getting a part-time job. It’s easy to scoff when you hear about video games including such low-stakes, meaningless activities. And yet: I don’t think I’m an outlier for feeling that these little touches add up to an experience of “real life” and “the passage of time” that are difficult for other video games to evoke.
Persona is a series of fantasy RPGs that involve teenagers making contracts with demons, harnessing their powers, and usually fighting unfathomable Gods for the fate of the world. It’s also a series that is perhaps best known for simulating the full school year, day-by-day, of a Japanese high schooler. You attend school, make friends, get to know people, and play out your daily schedule.
These games are beloved. I think a significant reason for that is how they perfectly encapsulate the freedom and independence of real-world adolescence.
Because in Persona, your most amazing ability isn’t Agidyne, Bufudyne, or Ziodyne. It’s riding the train.
I’m from the suburbs.
The older I get, the more I understand how much those four words truly mean. How much they tell a story about who I am and what you can assume about me. I understand just how particular those circumstances are, how they intersect with the rest of people’s experiences, and how, quite frankly, it results in a little bit of side-eye.
I grew up in the suburbs, and have spent most of my life in them. It was all that I knew. I assumed “life” for most people were the suburbs. In cartoons, people live in suburbs, with trimmed lawns and backyards. Of course, I was aware that many people lived in urban and rural areas, but it never quite clicked for me how different these three experiences could be. Deep in my subconscious, my younger self assumed that “most” people live in suburbs, or that everyone’s end-goal in life was to settle down in a wealthy suburb.
I know better now, of course. As with many things, it has been a process of learning and un-learning everything I thought I knew about what life was like for most people. Looking deeply inward and recognizing the core of assumption and privilege (and my inability to even spot those things) that color my view of everything around me.
All of this is to say that when I’ve been exposed to work that depicts Japanese citylife, I’m learning about life in Tokyo just as much as I’m learning about life in Philadelphia, or San Francisco, or New York City. It’s all new to me.
Growing up, I never viewed my town as a whole, interconnected place. Why would I? Criss-crossed with highways, every place I went was like an island in isolation. With the help of someone older than me, and a vehicle, I could be transported from one island to the next. Sit in place, stare out the window, and like a long loading screen I wait to magically arrive in a new distinct location. It was like the models and textures of my town needed minutes to be loaded in from the disc. The draw distance was short, you can’t go from one place to the next with fluidity.
In Persona games, you play as a teenager living their daily life. With ease, you travel from your home to the school to the café to the mall to your secret hideout.
This isn’t done with magical doors or some sort of warping ability. You just get on the train, or the subway. Like an average person does.
The heroes’ adventures are not bound by whose Mom or Dad can pick them up in the SUV. They’re not bound by coordinating a play-date with a friend, or tagging along with an adult on a trip to the store. They’re not bound by knowing a friend with an older sibling, whose family is well-off enough to afford two or three cars in their driveway. They don’t necessitate saving up to buy a car. There is no unrealistic convenience or contrivance that explains how this video game lets you bounce from place-to-place, wherever you need to go.
For many people, that’s just what life is. You walk, or take the bus, or take the train. It’s what life in a well-designed area is.
If you’ve lived in a city your whole life, this is probably the stupidest piece of writing you’ve ever clicked on. (Sorry.) Being able to get to the grocery store or meet up with friends or walk to school is not some sort of fantasy, it’s just life. But it was an obvious facet of life that took me years to fully wrap my head around.
When I play Persona, or watch an anime, a part of me nods and thinks: “Ah, yes, this is what life in Japan is like! The layout is densely packed, they’ve focused decades on developing a swift public transportation system! In Japan, students walk up a hill to school, and take the train to the shopping district to hang out with friends! It’s all so convenient!”
It took me years to realize that this far-away experience I was describing was not inherent to Japan. It was just what millions of people do, living in cities. It was mundane.
It can be, in many ways, ideal.
Everything feels backwards in Persona.
In the world of RPGs, it’s actually the dungeon-crawling, the acrobatics, the weapons, and the magic spells that feel everyday. There’s nothing exciting about a sword or a fireball spell. At least, not by itself. In this sense, the core of Persona’s RPG half is fairly typical. It’s an enhanced remix on the basic ingredients of video games.
Persona’s other half is a different story. Persona trades turns being a dungeon-crawling RPG and being a “life sim.” It simulates everyday life, and what it feels like to grow stronger and wiser as a regular person. Unlike RPGs, life sims are a much more niche genre with a much more niche appeal. If any franchise warranted credit for introducing that appeal to thousands of “hardcore” players, it’s Persona.
Life sims flip the concept of “escapism” on its head. At first blush, an outsider doesn’t understand why anyone would want to arrange furniture in The Sims, do chores in Animal Crossing, or buy birthday gifts for neighbors in Stardew Valley. After trying it out, any fan could tell you that it’s a different type of escapism. Escaping the stresses of your personal life doesn’t require fantastical settings or performing feats that are physically impossible for you to accomplish. It’s just escaping to do something else. Something without physical danger or real risk. You’re just carving out time for leisure, no matter what that leisure looks like to you.
I mean, watching The Office isn’t pointless if you already work in an office, right?
This is a base assumption we have for every other type of media: film, TV, literature. Fiction isn’t frivolous just for being set in the “real” world, or focusing on people doing “real” things. In games, that concept is still considered a little radical.
Persona 5 implements some clever connective tissue to tie the life sim half and RPG half together. Getting a job nets you some money, which you can spend on equipment. Tinkering at your desk before bed can give you some items you can use in the dungeons. Hanging out and strengthening your bond with the local doctor earns you discounts on healing items, and strengthening bonds with your friends gives you life-saving team abilities.
This interweaving is great, but it’s mostly just the appetizer to get the RPG player to give the life sim aspect an honest shot. Once you’re in it, the life sim becomes fulfilling for its own sake.
The real fun of Persona is the realization that the game has handed you a calendar off the wall and told you, “Do whatever you want.” Get a job, or don’t. Hang out with friends. Eat a really filling bowl of ramen. Go to the arcade. Meet new people. In addition to saving the world, you’re living the full life of a high schooler, every day of the week.
In this way, the Persona games are some of the only video games I can think of that truly encapsulate the freedom of coming into adulthood.
“Freedom” is something a lot of games like to brag about. Many games try to promise the feeling of freedom, whether it’s an open-world game that lets you “go anywhere” or an in-depth strategy game with hundreds of skill tree branches. There’s something intoxicating about freedom in games. The more freedom you feel you have, the more separated you feel from the act of watching a film or reading a book. It’s exciting and immersive, when done right.
I think it is worth mentioning the game series that is maybe the most famous and influential for its promise of freedom in Western games: Grand Theft Auto.
The secret to its sense of freedom, and its central mechanic, is right there in the name. You can get into a car anywhere, at any time. You can drive through red lights, you can smash other cars off the road and be on your way. Every car is yours, every road is yours, the world is yours, it’s for nobody else. It is, when I look back on it, diametrically opposed to the concept of public transportation. Or even the concept of living in a city in general.
And while it’s a great mechanic and a very successful franchise, nothing about it will ever feel as free to me as using your student-discount subway card to commute back and forth from school in Persona 5. That simple design choice, of using the trains and subways to fast-travel to where you want to go, is symbolic of the choices that have continued to resonate with me so strongly.
The Persona series are the best games at evoking freedom and independence because unlike many games, it evokes a sense of freedom that is relatable and real. It’s a reminder of what, in our actual lives and communities, grants us true independence.
Feeling free is the feeling of waking up every day and knowing what you can do, what you want to do, and how you can go about it. It’s about knowing what options are available to you.
Ask yourself these questions…
- Do you have the means to reliably get to school on time, on your own, like the characters in Persona do?
- Do you have the opportunity to get a job?
- Do you have the opportunity to decide what activities you’d like to do, outside of your home, for leisure?
- Do you have available methods to travel to stores, or to a vacation spot, or to a doctor?
- Do you have a means of securing income and the freedom to spend it how you please?
- Do you have a chance to spend time with people you care about, and develop a loving relationship with them?
Playing Persona forces me to think about which of the above opportunities were available to me growing up, and which ones I have now. It also reminds me that millions of people around the world have different answers to these exact questions. Not everyone has these freedoms. Not everyone is granted the opportunity to live independently. Sometimes that’s because of who they are, what they were born into, or what neighborhood they live in. It’s not always easy to get to an arcade, or even to a grocery store. It’s not easy to have the money to afford “leisure” activities. To me, this is a large part of the escapism of Persona.
When playing Persona 5 in particular, I’m constantly reminded how life in a city is so different than the life I saw through my own suburban lens.
If you’re from the suburbs yourself, you might be wondering why I’m going so hard on this distinction. My intention is not to “dunk” on the suburbs, or distance myself from them, or cast judgment on life in the suburbs. When I learn more about the world around me and the struggles of people I care about, it forces me to reflect on my own childhood. It’s a package deal.
It’s impossible to discuss the suburbs without considering the techniques used to construct and carve them, and the rules that determine who gets to enjoy them. It’s short-sighted to discuss transportation from place-to-place without considering how it can best be designed for freedom, and understanding that elephants will never fit in wine glasses. It’s difficult to look around our communities and not wonder how we use the land that we have. And it’s naive to contemplate the differences between rural, suburban, and urban living without recognizing how some countries purposely draw lines between them for political and electoral purposes, or how in recent memory, some politicians have pushed to prevent, delegitimize, or suppress the votes of those who live in urban areas based on assumptions about their skin tone and political leanings.
Or, maybe most pertinent to the topic-at-hand, it’s silly to think about a version of Persona 5 where your Mom has to drop you off in her SUV so you can spend a heartfelt afternoon with Makoto. For me, all of these thoughts are inextricably tied to the experience of Persona as a series.
The memory that crystallized these associations for me was a morning in the summer of 2017. I was taking a connecting train trip, through a transit system I had become very familiar with, to travel fifty miles from a hotel to visit the area I went to college. I was playing the Persona games for the first time around then, and was listening to their soundtracks on the train. It was a moment to reflect on how far I’d come, and how much my life and its perception of independence had changed over the years. After many train rides and bus rides through college, connecting me to classes, restaurants, stores, conventions, and airports, I realized what a big change it was.
Earlier in my life, my world was completely structured as little islands, separated by impassable obstacles. A ride in an adult’s car was the only ticket to determine what you wanted to do and how you would get there and back. As a result, I chose to spend most of my time at home. It dawned on me that now, with refillable train pass in hand, I had the complete freedom and privacy to go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted, forever, as an adult. And while it was an embarrassing moment to compare myself to a game protagonist much younger than I was, it was a moment of realization of exactly what type of “open-world” game Persona is, even if it doesn’t fit our usual description of that concept.
It’s a silly story, but I believe that reflecting on these things is not trivial. The separations in experience between those in rural, suburban, and urban areas is what makes it so difficult to change things for the better. In even just the past few years, I’ve seen so many examples firsthand (and through the news) of how a lack of understanding of what it’s like to live outside of a wealthy suburb can completely dictate someone’s worldview. It is not trivial when a hateful person with a megaphone tells the suburban world that people from the city are trying to “take the suburbs away.” To counter this, I feel a responsibility to always be learning about how others live, especially when they have been trying so desperately to make me understand the forces of history, culture, and politics that have shaped their cities for better or worse.
Persona 5 is a revelatory video game because it’s an amazing RPG and life sim that gives you the freedom to go where you want, do what you want, and spend time how you want. It’s a power-fantasy in more ways than one. It taps into the power of having independence.
Persona 5 is a revelation for me because it was an awakening. A realization of which freedoms games relish in giving us, and which ones seem mundane. It was equally a realization about which freedoms I’ve taken for granted in my own life, and which have been long unavailable to me. It was a calling to do more research into the politics, history, and beliefs that build our communities and what we can do in them.
Like many Persona fans, I’m eagerly awaiting any news of a Persona 6. The franchise has continued to remain stylish, unique, and captivating. But maybe I’m most excited because I can’t wait to see the next story of a video game hero who can explore their life how they please: doing what they want, spending time with who they want, and going where they want.
No matter what you might wish for, the real world will never be an open world like Grand Theft Auto, bending to your immediate individual whim.
But games like Persona 5 will always be there to remind you how open the real world can be, when it’s designed with the freedom and opportunity of all of its residents in mind.
Even if that sounds, in the world of fantasy RPGs, a little bit mundane.