Tuesday, February 4, 2014

#69: SEES and the Investigation Team: A Tale of Tone and Scale

One of my favorite JRPG franchises has to be the Persona sub-franchise in the Shin Megami Tensei series. Although I have played through all of the games in the franchise, Persona 3 and 4 are the ones that really captured my heart. I was talking with a friend about the two games, and we disagreed on which of them had a better cast of characters. They preferred the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES) that made up the main cast of the third entry in the series. However, I connected more with the Investigation Team of the fourth game. This lead me to think a bit more about why I have this preference, which will be the subject of this post.

One of the biggest reasons I think for my preference is the difference in scope between the two stories. In the third entry of the series, the stakes are raised fairly quickly. In the first half of the game, players are introduced to monsters called shadows, which cause havoc during this extra hour in the day in which normal, non-Persona-users are sleeping in coffins. Both the player and the main characters are told that unless the shadows are stopped, they will destroy the world. Although the plot and its twists and turns stop this from becoming another standard save-the-world story, it is hard for audiences to really comprehend the stakes for which they play. When players are out participating in story events, it is very difficult to fully understand that if they fail, then X amount of nameless, faceless people will suffer for it. Not to say that players are stupid, but rather that the human mind is not really equipped to process such high risks, when so many people are on the line (doubly so when it is a work of fiction, and not a real event).
This is in fairly stark contrast with Persona 4, where the risks involved with failure are much easier to understand. The plot to that game is not a tale about saving the world. Rather, it is a story about a serial killer in a small town. Despite the supernatural elements to the plot (since it is a Persona game and players will need to use personae to fight in some capacity), the story is actually very grounded and on a much smaller scale than its predecessor's. Every victim and potential victim of the serial murders has a face, name, and personality which players are introduced to before they become the next target. It is much easier for me to comprehend that “If I fail, my classmate Yukiko will die” then “If I fail, innocent people will die.” This is not to say that larger scope stories are invalid, but rather that the smaller scale of Persona 4 let me really understand why my characters were out doing the things they do. That difference in understanding helped me relate a lot more to that cast as a result, especially since the majority of the cast joined the team because I saved them.

Another reason that the cast of Persona 4 appeals to me more is that the personal issues that each of the cast members are dealing with are much more relatable to me than those of Persona 3's cast. In the third game, most of the main characters have very dark personal histories. Out of all nine of them, six of them are dealing with trauma related to the death of a loved one as major parts to their story arc. Two of the other three are dealing with major issues involving their parents and the last one is a robot who is coming to grips with her growing sense of humanity. Again, all of these are valid and worthwhile backstories to explore, but the sheer darkness of it all makes it very, very hard for me to personally relate to them. These are issues that people do deal with, but not so much so that it becomes a dominating force in the way they live their lives like the cast of Persona 3. It often feels like there is a barrier between me and the cast as a result.
On the other hand, the kind of issues the members of the Investigation Team in Persona 4 go through are more resonate to me. Every single member of the group has something about themselves that they do not like and refuse to admit. In order to save them, players have to defeat their shadow selves and convince each cast member to accept whatever baggage is dragging them down. Many of these issues are much smaller ones that most people can understand and empathize with. One person secretly resents moving from the city to a small town with comparatively less to do. Two best friends have to confront that deep down, they are jealous of each other. Another party member is insecure about his favorite hobby because, to others, it is not very “manly.” These are all issues that people deal with on a day-to-day basis. I can understand these kinds of pains because I personally feel them more often than I would care to admit. Although I have only had loved ones die a small number of times in my life, these other issues are some that I and most people confront regularly. This creates much more empathy and understanding of the cast of Persona 4 than it does for Persona 3.

Lastly, I suspect that a contributing factor to the popularity of the Investigation Team over that of SEES is that Persona 4 was a lot easier to play than Persona 3 was. Transitioning from Persona 3 to 4, Atlus added two major additions to the combat system. The first was the “Guard” command, which replaced passing turns from Persona 3 and allowed players to reduce that damage from powerful skills that bosses used. The second was “Direct Command”, which allowed players to take control of other party members, besides the protagonist, in battle instead of leaving it to the AI. While I am sure this was a contributing factor for many people in increasing the likeability of the Investigation Team, this was not the case for me. When I played Persona 3, I played the PSP version of the game, which brought in the above improvements from Persona 4. Despite not playing a major part in affecting my enjoyment of both groups, I am sure it was a contributing factor for many others, so I opted to mention it here for completion's sake.

When it comes down to it, Persona 3 and 4 are actually quite different games in terms of tone, scope, and style of writing, despite being nearly identical in the gameplay aspects. This makes them useful for a case study in how writing can affect the overall takeaway of the player from a game. Of course, I have to stress that this is extremely subjective and I fully expect people to disagree with my preferences. Further, both games are solid and worth playing if you are a fan of JRPGs. I might have been a little critical of Persona 3's storytelling, but it is a very well-written and fun to play game. And who knows? You might be like my friend and prefer SEES to the Investigation Team. Regardless, make sure to reflect on how the differences between the two games make you feel differently about them, despite them being very similar.

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