Saturday, 22 February 2014

Persona 4: Arena - Story Analysis

Persona 4: Arena - Story Analysis

***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

This will probably be more an opinion piece than anything, since how much you, the reader, like a given story may vary from that of others. Opinions are subjective after all. But as I alluded to in my main review of Persona 4: Arena (hereafter just referred to Arena), I think this particular game and this particular story deserve a much closer examination as it is, in my mind, a singularly fascinating mix of expectations unmet and how the fighting game genre, while not entirely responsible for the crap plots found in its games (they’re crap because, well, they’re crappily written) can play a part in undermining them.

Firstly though, a thought experiment: did you watch the Avengers film by Marvel Studios? If yes, did you like it? If yes, why was that? I mean, on paper all that happened in Avengers was an invasion of New York by aliens, right? But for me personally, I liked that film more than its contemporaries in the superhero genre for one reason (well okay two, the second being Loki): it featured a roster of characters coming together who had five films of character growth and establishment between them. These characters then initially butted heads and joined forces at the end in the darkest hour to overcome an immense threat, and along the way we got moments like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark clashing, the wonderful banter between Stark and Bruce Banner, the simmering history between Hawkeye and Black Widow, Thor demanding Loki be trialled in Asgard and how he initially comes into conflict with the other heroes, etc etc.

There’s a name for this sort of thing in fiction: it’s called chemistry. Individual characters, if well developed, are elements, and like in actual scientific chemistry, when you combine certain characters you get explosive effects, and it’s a core part of great drama.

So, consider Arena. Here we have two groups of characters from two games, Persona 3 and Persona 4. The gang from Persona 3 had their lives changed due to what I could describe in the understatement of the century as a “brush with death” that sadly did not end like this. Persona 4’s team of miscreants had their lives changed as they sought out the truth about themselves and of the mystery that engulfed their town. But although the means differed, both groups of characters learned about life in the process. And in Arena, these teams (with some missing from Persona 3 admittedly) finally meet to overcome a new threat that affects them all.

That sounds like the Avengers, doesn’t it? And the characters of each group are arguably just as fleshed out, if not more so, than the members of that Marvel superhero group. So in that case, why in Arena is there no real chemistry between these characters? Why do we get a reaction that is more like a whiff of stale smoke rather than, say, Coke and Mentos?

Part of this is structural. The story of Arena, beyond the identity of Labrys’ kidnapper and his veiled threat to return, is resolved within the day, so the time needed for our characters to meet and properly spark off of each other isn’t allowed. But even then, with little time you would expect some interaction that promises further exploration, a “We have much to discuss but now is not the time” kind of thing.

For example (and this is just one of few I could mention), take Mitsuru. In the interim between Persona 3 and Arena she has assumed control of her father’s company and is working to restore the Kirijo name to good standing, including going so far as to alert the Japanese government to the existence of Shadows and the threat to human life they represent. She is a strong woman admired for her beauty but also respected as a leader and someone taking charge of her life and her world to right the wrongs of the past.  

Off the top of my head, I can think of two characters from the Persona 4 roster who would benefit from meeting Mitsuru (and whom might benefit in return): Yukiko and Naoto. Yukiko’s arc was finding a sense of control over her life and deciding how to proceed, if she wanted to run her family’s inn or not at the end of the day. Naoto struggled with her gender and how it affected her preferred profession as a detective and the lack of credibility she seemed to get as a consequence. Mitsuru inherited her father’s company and legacy (just as Yukiko may inherit her inn and Naoto has the Shirogane family name to live up to) and has proven that her gender, rightly, is utterly irrelevant to her skills as a leader and head of a large multinational firm. She is a good because, shock horror, she is good at these things, and gender plays no part in either how people view her or how she goes about her business, and she has had to deal first hand with continuing her family business with far less say in the matter than Yukiko ever had. 

It’s telling therefore that in Arena’s Story Mode Mitsuru meets Yukiko and Naoto in their respective tales, but the opportunities afforded by what I’ve just described do not come up at all. There is no lip service paid in actual dialogue to these possibilities partly because the events allow no time for them to happen, but partly because it never comes up anyway except in rare moments of introspection that are not acted on and are left just as observations. This is not the only wasted opportunity: Yu never learns that his SEES counterpart, Makoto, the wild card user from Persona 3, actually died to save the world, and therefore those events mean nothing to him even though they could colour his own understanding of what it means to possess the wild card. Chie and Akihiko meet and all that happens between them is some light shipping between the two that, while cute, does nothing to advance either of their characters. About the only meaningful thing that does happen as a result of character interaction between the two teams is that Aigis comes to realise that there are people outside of the SEES members and Shadow Operatives that would accept her and Labrys as more human than machine, but this is just a small footnote rather than anything covered in depth.

But this is just an issue with the lack of meaningful interaction between the Persona 3 and Persona 4 characters. There’s another, and that lies inside just the Investigation Team themselves.

Arena’s conceit that is that the Persona 4 characters will end up fighting each other physically, but usually physical violence is preceded by intent, or rather a reason as to why you would want to attack someone. Margaret herself in Yu’s story says that the status quo of the Investigation Team is going to change. If they are a family, then Arena should be the family argument that drives them apart and concludes with them reunited stronger than before.

This doesn’t happen, and this is again due to structural and narrative issues inherent within the plot. There isn’t time to allow the team to be divided because the events are concluded within a day, but the means by which they are to be divided are completely devoid of any venom or bite. Shadow Labrys’ method of trying to drive a wedge between the characters is by making each of them believe one of their friends is saying horrible, cutting things about them, but as Shadow Labrys is merely putting words in their mouths rather than driving existing issues and divisions to the surface they ultimately don’t matter. The only time it does, and it stands out as the highlight of Arena’s contribution to the Persona 4 characters, is with Yosuke. Having been jealous of Yu for quite some time, and with this being alluded to at the start of both their stories with Yosuke wanting to play leader in Yu’s absence, the two fight in Yosuke’s story and he comes out on top. So, in his moment of triumph, Yosuke… does not gloat. He does not proclaim himself the bigger man. He does not relish in his victory over the subject of his envy. He is shown to be aware of his jealousy issues but does not fall victim to them. It enhances his character significantly and makes him one of the most relatable in Persona canon.

That is the only time this happens. Yosuke’s story may not be canon anyway as there is no agreed true path in the Story Mode and his story also states he can defeat Aigis, a mechanoid so heavily armed that she’d give Robocop firearm envy, in single combat without either holding back. So take whatever meaning you wish from it, I guess.

The issue also lies in the fact that authorial responsibility for the divisions between the team does not actually fall with the scriptwriters, but rather with Shadow Labrys. It’s almost meta in how this plays out, but thinking about it, it is her that tries to drive the team apart rather than the actual writers. Her method is very basic and blunt, which matches the mentally of the character Shadows in that they only think in basic terms and along simple lines without recognising the deep subtleties of human interaction (a trait shared with the Malveolent Entity that is the puppetmaster behind the events of Arena as a whole). But as far as delivering on the promise of the “family argument” this completely fails, and I should stress that I do not believe that driving them apart just for its own sake is a good thing, but with a restoration of their family unit this would serve as great character growth for all involved. Atlus are not prudish when it comes to their writing; the entirety of Kanji’s arc and the visual and character motifs of his dungeon and Shadow in Persona 4 alone refute that, but in so far as trying to drive the team apart Arena only proves one of two points: either that the writers couldn’t think of a way that they could do it effectively, or chose not to.

But what is deeply ironic and disappointing about all of this is that Atlus have done this plot, or a similar variation of it, properly in the past and in the very same franchise with Persona 3 FES: The Answer. The Answer is the wake to Persona 3’s funeral dirge, and later in that story the surviving SEES members are given an opportunity to go back in time, and with that, alter a single moment of history. This splits the team four ways: Akihiko says that they shouldn’t use this one shot retcon at all, Yukari argues they should use it to undo Makoto’s sacrifice (and thereby doom the human race but to be fair she was incredibly grief stricken and not thinking straight), Aigis wants to go back just to understand how Makoto died, not to actually change anything, and Junpei simply wants to beat everyone to cool their heads. Subsequently they fight, and would you believe it, the stage for these battles is a coliseum, a synonym for which is, you guessed it, “arena”.  

This series of events worked far, far better than anything we see in Arena. The primary difference between the two is that The Answer is a JRPG while Arena is a fighting game. One is the bread and butter of Atlus’ work, the other is not. And that sums up my issues with Arena’s plot: Atlus tried to write a sequel to both Persona 3 and Persona 4 but did so in unfamiliar ground with a fighting game, and in doing so slotted a square peg into a round hole by sanding off all of the edges. I honestly believe that, had they done the plot of Arena as a JRPG it would stand tall with the rest of the series, but as it is Arena simply goes to show that even great wordsmiths like Atlus can fall prey to the structural constraints of the fighting game genre. Hopefully Arena’s sequel will alleviate some of my complaints and deliver on the promise of these two teams interacting (or possibly Persona Q but as I don't own a 3DS I'm SOL on that front), but for now, if I want my Coke and Mentos fizz bang wallop in Persona form, I’ll revisit The Answer, where it was done right.

-      - Shadon1010 still wants a Persona game by way of Battle Royale. But instead he’ll have to settle for a disco simulator. Huh.

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