It is 2014. On a flight home from Australia, I try to introduce Persona 4 Golden to my friend Z. He asks about mechanics, abilities, loot. I struggle to answer. The game is about all these things — but it is also about none of them.
A fantasy roleplaying game (RPG) developed by Atlus, Persona 4 was released in 2008 for the PlayStation 2 and saw an expanded version titled Persona 4 Golden for the PlayStation Vita in 2012. Set in the rural town of Inaba, players take control of a transfer student from the city, who discovers a fantastical world accessible through the television and its connection to a series of murders.
Contrasting dramatic RPG tropes against the prosaic nature of life, Persona 4 rejects romanticisation and attends to the mundane as the vital substance of living.
Each Persona game features the main cast of high school students with supernatural abilities. The franchise’s distinctive binary structure comprises school life and dungeon exploration. The dungeons, an RPG trope of enclosed areas with hostile creatures and find items or unlock new abilities, are typical video game fare. In the more unusual school life sections, players improve “social stats” (Courage, Expression, Knowledge, Understanding, and Diligence), develop friendships, and undertake household chores throughout the school year.
In Persona 4, the journey of self-growth and self-understanding commonly defining one’s teenage years cleverly mirrors the power accumulation tropes of the RPG while simultaneously subverting the genre’s conventions. The stereotypical main plot about saving the world is a backdrop for much more ordinary joys. Playing with the stray cat outside of the house, for instance, yields no significant gameplay reward or story progression but renders a sense of everyday life. Some side-quests even focus on helping people with prosaic routine issues, from a snack-eating addiction to adolescent love.
The writing, too, involves unusually personal stakes. One of the protagonist’s classmates Yukiko Amagi contemplates her future at the family inn. Hisano Kuroda, an old lady who befriends the protagonist after an encounter at the hospital, grapples with old age, death, and the reality of dementia. Ryotaro Dojima, the protagonist’s uncle, struggles as a single parent, while his young daughter Nanako comes to terms with the loss of her mother. In fact, most dungeons end with a confrontation with a character’s “shadow self”, a doppelgänger that is a supernatural manifestation of their insecurities, anxieties, and regrets.
Yosuke Hanamura, a classmate also from the big city, rejects the drabness of life in Inaba for the fantastical notion of playing hero. In life, our narratives are also fraught with romantic, idealistic, and heroic qualities, comparable to the vicarious fantasy of video games. Delicate and complex to give shape to, the humdrum of the everyday is rarely depicted in games, but Persona 4 actively acknowledges it as the shape of our lives. Contrasting dramatic RPG tropes against the prosaic nature of life, Persona 4 rejects romanticisation and attends to the mundane as the vital substance of living.
As I contemplate revisiting the game for the umpteenth time with the release of the 2020 Microsoft Windows port, I think of how Z. eventually picked up and fell in love with the game. It became a topic of our daily conversations, part of our shared language.
The game’s age has become increasingly prominent. In the thoroughly technological medium of video games, rapid advancements in graphics and sound production highlight the transience of experiences. Games will never look or feel this way again. Moreover, while the graphics have become crisper and the sound is more luxurious on my computer’s speakers, it doesn’t feel the same when it isn’t on the Vita, which I’ve since retired.
In the thoroughly technological medium of video games, rapid advancements in graphics and sound production highlight the transience of experiences. Games will never look or feel this way again.
Game design has evolved significantly too. Menu-heavy, turn-based combat games have become passé. Instances of clunky mechanics and clumsy interface design come across as bad practices. Parts of the writing has aged poorly, with occasional awkward or off-colour humour and plodding pacing.
I too have changed over the years. No longer able to experience the game as I have before, I foolishly keep seeking the magic of that first encounter again, but all my recollections entail a shred of loss.
Years after that flight home from Australia, I am at a class gathering. Z. delights in repeating well-rehearsed tales of our school days for everyone. For me, all I can remember are hazy days — glances, the tenor of voices, laughter.
Persona 4 is a game about nostalgia. The setting is rural, the fashion of the game world is appealing but outdated, and the soundtrack evokes the pop music of yesteryear. The high school setting hearkens to a stage of life irretrievable for perhaps most of Persona 4’s players when simply venturing out on one’s own on a scooter to discover a shopping arcade could be a thrill.
After all, nostalgia — nóstos (homecoming), álgos (ache) — is a longing, the hauntological pain of an imperfect return.
More than simply a matter of aesthetics, Persona 4 captures the transience of youth, articulating the weight of time. After all, nostalgia — nóstos (homecoming), álgos (ache) — is a longing, the hauntological pain of an imperfect return. The game meditates on remembrance and loss, epitomised by the winter term, a feature added in the Golden version that brings a stark change to the game’s tone: Snow covers familiar locations. An unnamed old man in the streets bemoans the regrets of his youth. “This is where we say farewell,” declare the lyrics of “Snowflakes” in the background. The students constantly refer to how the protagonist will return to the city when the school year ends. Indeed, uncertainty and impending loss define each moment for characters in Persona 4, who struggle to make sense of the present and its impermanence.
“I just need to slow down and cherish each day of my life!” drama club student Yumi Ozawa declares if the protagonist interacts with her during the winter. This simple, almost naïve statement encapsulates the spirit of Persona 4. Persona 4 describes the shape of life through the preciousness of everyday moments, but also confronts its fleeting nature, ultimately suggesting a path to acceptance. Days pass us by and slip away, filled with endings, regret, and lost things. I may never experience the game in the same way again. My early youth is out of reach. My friendship with Z. is no longer the same today. And all of this is okay.
Atlus. Persona 4 Golden. Atlus. PlayStation Vita. 2012.
Atlus. Persona 4. Atlus. PlayStation 2. 2008.
Atlus. Persona 4 Golden. Sega. Microsoft Windows. 2020.
Hirata, Shihoko. “Snowflakes”. Persona 4 The Golden Original Soundtrack, Aniplex.