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‘Persona 5’ is a game for the cool kids

Persona 5
Developed by: ATLUS
Published by: ATLUS
Available on: PlayStation 4

Incredibly, one of the most visible popularizers of analytical psychology today is a Japanese role-playing series about high school students. The Persona games draw inspiration from Carl Jung’s idea that societal and individual expectations drive people to adopt different “personas” to get by in the world. Since high schools are places where young people naturally strive to fit in and make sense of themselves, they are breeding grounds for identity conflicts. In the Persona universe, such conflicts set the stage for psychological battles between people’s projected images of themselves. On a basic level, the games nudge players to consider if they are who they think they are.

Although I’d heard good things about the series for years, “Persona 5” marks my first foray with it. Because it’s a JRPG, I assumed it’d be long but I didn’t know a newcomer might spend well over 100 hours seeing it through to the end. Given the demands it places on a player’s time, it’s ironic that the game actively promotes time management skills (there are in-game deadlines to respect, time-sensitive deals to grab hold of, people to catch up with, etc.).  As it happens, I’ve put in about 60 hours and only now feel like I’m in the thick of things.

What makes this weird game so irresistible is how well it juggles being a social simulator and a dungeon crawler — a combination one can imagine Jung might have enjoyed. What could be more representatively human than conjoining the mundane impulse of staking out a place in society with the grandiose one of being an intrepid adventurer?

In “Persona 5,” you’re cast as a teenager who is misperceived by much of his community. Walking alone one night, he comes across a woman being physically harassed by a man on the street. After intervening on her behalf, he is charged with assaulting her attacker. The woman’s assailant, who has the police in his pocket, cows her into backing up his claim which leads to the boy’s expulsion from school. And so, with a cloud of dishonor hanging over him, he is packed off to Tokyo to live with a family acquaintance who runs a cafe in a shabby, residential part of the city.

Newly installed in a sparsely furnished room above the cafe, the boy discovers a “creepy,” app on his phone that he deletes before going to sleep. Soon after closing his eyes, he awakens in a striped prisoner’s uniform, shackled behind bars. Seated at a desk outside of the cage is an old man with a long-nose who introduces himself as Igor, the master of the Velvet Room — a place between reality and dreams that’s also a projection of your heart. Igor, while keeping purposefully vague about the details, offers you a chance at “rehabilitation” which entails casting off your distorted perception of reality and embracing your latent potential. Upon waking, your character thinks he was only dreaming but since this is a video game, you know better.

Soon into your career as a second-year transfer student at the fictional Shujin Academy, you run afoul the school’s celebrated volleyball instructor. After the mysterious app reappears on your phone, you learn that it can be used to access a cognitive projection of the volleyball instructor’s inner reality, which takes the form of a palace. In this gaudy building, testifying to his lusts and megalomania, you befriend a cat-like creature named Morgana who tells you that the palace contains a heavily guarded treasure that symbolizes something of vital importance to its owner. Back in the real world, it grows increasingly obvious that the coach is abusing his authority. This prompts you and a couple of sympathetic friends, who’ve also discovered the app on their phones, to try and steal the treasure so as to trigger a change of heart in the instructor.

Ransacking the palace involves engaging in turn-based battles that pit you and your friends against aggressive manifestations of the psyche. Early enemies range from scantily clad female warriors, to demons, to piles of slime with faces in them. Aside from killing them, you can sometimes negotiate with your enemies to absorb their power. Then you can go back to the Velvet Room and create more powerful “personas” or powers by having two or more of the creatures in your possession guillotined to bring forth a new “persona.” (Did, I mention the game is a little weird?)

Once you pull off the heist and return to the real world, you and your friends establish the Phantom Thieves, an organization dedicated to exposing corrupt adults by stealing their mind’s Treasures. After the kids set their sights on figures in the art and criminal world, they grow increasingly confident in their abilities even as ethical questions — like is it okay to force a dramatic change of consciousness on someone — begin nipping away at their satisfaction. Regardless, it’s clear from the get-go that their luck will hit a snag.

“Persona 5” is an absurdly imaginative game. You can drive through a manifestation of Tokyo’s collective unconscious in a bus that is also your cat-like friend Morgana. You can do battle with a face made of paintings, and maximize your studying time by ordering coffee at a diner on a rainy day. Though some of these activities are shallow — I didn’t actually learn anything while my avatar drank coffee and read — they propel your advancement through the world which yields an uneasy satisfaction. If nothing else, “Persona 5” is all about how people can be led astray by their knack for projection and fixation on distorted desires.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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