Friends, I have a confession to make: I am not what you would call a “gamer.” I do not play video games very often, nor have I played very many different ones within my lifetime. When it comes to the various forms of art in our culture, video games are high on the list of ones I don’t know much about.
I have my reasons for this alarming lack of knowledge. I’m not very good at most video games, which makes playing them not very fun. I’ve also found that a lot of video games don’t appeal to me from a story perspective – weird, I know, considering how many of them have monsters. Plus they take so much time to play and finish, and they cost a lot of money… I just can’t invest myself in them as easily as I can in other art forms.
But when a game does hook me, well, it’s a fucking treat – a story experience that few things can match. Such is the case of Persona 4.
Persona 4 if part of the massive Shin Megami Tensei series of video games, most of which I have not played and know little to nothing about. I’ve read that Persona 4 is an uncharacteristically happy and optimistic game compared to the rest of the series – which is funny, since it’s still a very dark story.
In a nutshell, Persona 4 is a supernatural murder mystery. Set in the small town of Inaba, it concerns the grisly and perplexing murders of several people in the town by an unknown individual using unknown methods. The victims are found strung up from telephone poles, often tangled in the power lines. Our heroes are a group of high school students, each of whom appears at first to fit a specific archetype (or stereotype, or cliche, depending on how unflattering you want to be to tropes in stories that take place in high schools), and each of whom is much, much more than meets the eye. Each is drawn into the murder plot for different reasons, and they quickly join forces to figure out who is committing the murders, how they’re doing it, and how to stop them.
The supernatural element? Well, our heroes soon discover that the murderer has been transporting their victims to an alternate dimension that is reached by going through a television, Alice Through the Looking Glass style. This alternate dimension is made up of humanity’s collective thoughts and feelings. Our repressed desires – those we keep secret and pretend don’t exist – manifest as hideous monsters called shadows, which are more than happy to attack and kill any humans that enter this world. Our heroes are able to defeat them with their Personas – creatures made from our heroes’ feelings acceptance and understanding of themselves. Personas manifest as characters from various real world mythologies, though often with a modern twist – and the more our heroes understand themselves, the stronger their Personas grow. Our heroes’ journey forces them to not only confront great forces of supernatural evil, but also their own vices and insecurities, forcing them to grow into better people if they ever hope to end the threat that looms over their small town once and for all.
In college, I majored in education and literature, and I had a minor in communication studies. Those three subjects involve a LOT of psychology between them, and as a result I am incredibly interested by anything that analyzes the complexity and depth of human thoughts and feelings. Persona 4’s story and gameplay are both centered on doing just that, and they do it marvelously. The characters in these games are immensely complex, and the game doesn’t just let you explore them as a sidequest – it makes exploring their complexities and forming emotional relationships with them a core game mechanic. This is a game that wants you to think about people in a compassionate and complex way – to view others as more than just good or bad. Of all the stories I’ve read/watched/played – and there are MANY – this is one of the best when it comes to crafting characters that are as complex (and often contradictory) as real human beings. The only works I can think of that top it are the plays of William Shakespeare – granted that’s off the top of my head, but still.
Yes, I compared a video game to Shakespeare. Sue me.
I could probably write an ICHF about every character in the game. Hell, maybe one day I will – I can already think of a handful I want to do sooner rather than later. But for now we’ll just stick to one – my favorite character in the story, Chie Satonaka.
As I said earlier, the heroes in Persona 4 all seem to be archetypes at first. In Chie’s case, she’s the “tomboy.” She likes kung-fu movies, she’s athletic, she’s incredibly assertive towards her peers, and she eats meat like she’s training to beat Disney’s Gaston in a protein heavy diet competition. She’s even best friends with Yukiko, another character in the game who is much more stereotypically feminine (at least at first glance), making that nice “tomboy and girly girl” contrast that fiction loves to have.
(I would like to note at this point in the article that when I refer to “feminine” traits and “masculine” traits I do not mean to imply that they are inherent to their respective genders. “Feminine” and “masculine” are social constructs – they don’t exist as an inherent part of our psychology, but are rather things that our society pretends are universal truths. So if I say “such and such is a feminine trait of so and so,” I am actually meaning “such and such is a trait that society believes is inherent to female people and is thus female in nature, even though that’s all bullshit and personality traits aren’t decided by one’s gender.” Just… just so we’re clear. We clear? Cool.)
But even though Chie loves kicking monsters to death and taking no shit from anyone, she isn’t just a collection of masculine traits in a skirt. Chie has an incredibly sensitive side as well – she’s neurotic, often feeling like she’s imposing on others and talking herself down. She in some ways wishes she could be more stereotypically pretty and feminine like some of her peers (including her best friend, Yukiko), yet also wishes to be accepted as someone who is physically strong and in control. Though she’s a badass fighter, she fights specifically to protect others and jumps at the opportunity to nurture others as well (though her cooking is terrible). In short, she’s a great big bundle of personality traits, some feminine, some masculine, all mixed together in one very complex individual.
Chie was designed to be a “normal” girl compared to the other female members of the cast – someone who, while pretty, wasn’t particularly glamorous, and wasn’t exactly the ideal woman that people might fantasize about. In the process she ended up defining the aesthetic and personality of the setting of the game – she’s a little retro and and a little mundane at first, but beneath all that is someone who is full of potential.
(I’m not making that up, either – I got it from the official design book for the game, which is GREAT by the way).
Though my gaming experience is, as noted above, less than extensive, I’ve played enough RPGs to know that generally your first girl character is a healer or a mage – someone who can’t take much damage, and either helps others survive or who stands in the back lobbing magic attacks from a safe distance. Chie breaks that mold – she’s your first female character, sure, but she’s a brawler. She’s one of the strongest physical attackers in the game. If she picked a D&D class, she’d be either a fighter or a monk. Chie doesn’t sit by the sidelines cheering you on; no, she leaps into the fray and kicks a monster in the fucking face again and again until it fucking dies. I love the fact that the first physical fighter you get in this game is also the first girl – that kicks ass. So does Chie.
She also benefits from being one of the first characters you meet in the game, and the second character you add to your party (after Yosuke, who’s just a little bit of wimp). She’s with you from the very start, welcoming you to the world and standing by your side as you face horrific monsters from another world. She’s a physical powerhouse who dares bullies to punch her in the face, stops thieves, and will stop at nothing to protect the ones she loves from harm. She’s also a girl who really wants to nurture others, and who loves the people around her despite worrying that she’s not worth their time. She’s a meat loving badass who kicks monstrous enemies to death, then comes home and tries to make a nice meal for her friend’s lonely younger cousin. Chie is one of the most interesting heroes I’ve ever seen in the Horror genre, and deserves her spot amongst the other Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction.