Warning: this article contains vague spoilers for Persona 4.
Persona 4 released way back in 2008 on the Playstation 2, but as with so many games I’ve only just begun playing it (the excellent Vita re-release “Golden” to be exact). It’s an exceptional game that’s completely devoured all my free time and which there is a lot to say about (most of which has likely already said), but one thing in particular has stuck out to me over the 40 odd hours I’ve put into it so far, and that’s in the way it approaches time.
Anyone who has played Persona 4 before knows that it runs on a very tight schedule. Your days are literally numbered, though exact dates are often left intentionally vague, which forces you to develop a strict schedule in order to manage the daunting number of tasks available to you. On most days you have only two periods to work with, the afternoon and evening, and within these you need to cram in social interactions, work, boosting your skills, and of course spending a lot of time in the Shadow World crawling through dungeons to rescue the people who have been trapped inside. All of these tasks take up at least one and sometimes both of your free periods, the improper use of which can lead to you becoming terribly stuck when you’re faced with a deadline and discover you’ve wasted away time that could have been better spent.
It can be very, very stressful and often requires you to spend your in game days in ways you wouldn’t normally have chosen. What’s special about Persona 4 though are the moments when the schedule briefly loosens up and allows you to do whatever you want without the constant fear that it will come back to bite you later on.
This stood out to me because it’s very rare in a game where you are actually given moments within a larger experience to simply relax. Most games seem to operate under the idea that if there is ever a lapse of objectives for the player to complete, they will immediately become bored and put the game down. As a result you’re often working toward a goal, but your reward upon completing it is just another task or the end of the game all together. Rare is it that a game actually gives you an epilogue and lets you see how the world and characters you’ve saved – going by typical video game storylines – end up in the aftermath of defeating whatever was threatening them.
What this means is that in a lot of cases I come away without any real sense of catharsis. The idea that players might like to stick around after the feeling of dread hanging over them has lifted is almost never given consideration, and if it is it usually just means leaving player in a now empty world where they can roam around but have nothing left to actually do.
This is where Persona 4 has provided me with something I hadn’t realized how much I wanted. After a key boss fight around what I’m guessing is a third of the way through the game, there comes a long period where everyone seems to assume that the fighting is over and they go back to being ordinary teenagers. Instead of fast forwarding through these times though, Persona 4 invites you to take a load off together with the characters you’ve spent dozens of hours getting to know. For the last four or five hours of playtime I’ve been hanging out with my friends, getting closer to the Dojima family I’m staying with, and taking part in more than a few school trips. Were you to jump in at this point you might mistake Persona 4 for a dating/life simulator, rather than a meticulous JRPG.
These might sound like dull tasks and the sort of thing most people would question being in a game at all, but in Persona 4 the characters and these moments of peace are a driving force of what has caused me to spend entire days of my life with a game that’s far outside my usual preference. There is so much desperation throughout most of the game that it can become hard to find the will to continue, but by giving me time where I don’t have to worry about someone being killed or grinding through dungeons I’ve received the same wave of relief that my characters have. There’s a real feeling that I’ve been fighting for a reason and have finally succeeded, and instead of that being the end of it I’ve been rewarded with more of what I love most about the game: spending time chilling with its great cast.
Nothing about this time has felt throwaway or filler either. The writing has only gotten better, with the temporary removal of the central mystery allowing for tons of humor and character development, and being able to use my time how I please means I can spend it with the people I most want to get to know. It’s a reward that has been more meaningful and enjoyable to me than any number of bonus missions or stat boosts ever could. It has provided me with a tangible sense of place within this world, a reason to fight for it, and proof that there is more to this game than fighting shadows that’s equally developed and essential to the overall experience.
I think a lot of games could learn from Persona 4 in how sometimes lightening the mood and giving players time to catch their breath can have a far bigger impact than rolling dead ahead as ferociously as possible before the game wraps up. With how detailed and enrapturing the worlds and characters in games have become, developers shouldn’t be scared to create moments of simple relaxation and comedy. Saving the world is great and all, but after doing it so many times, everyone could use a break.