The Shin Megami Tensei series of video games are a bit... odd. I don't mean that as a negative — far from it, actually. These games come equipped with engaging storytelling, intricate dungeon crawling, characters you'll declare as best boy or best girl, and soundtracks that you'll blast in your car on the way to work — you'll never see it comiiiiiing!
This is especially true for the Persona franchise, which is always brimming with symbolism and relatable topics cleverly disguised as boss battles and level grinding.
The first time I laid eyes on a Persona game it was with Persona 3, where you summon bedazzled Pokémon by shooting yourself in the head in between classes, school clubs, and waifus. On paper, it sounds like the trippiest of animes got drunk and hooked up with a PlayStation, and like any good mind-boggling anime, the oddities are a front for a much deeper plot. And you know what? I enjoyed every head-scratching second of it, thought there'd never be a game that stuck with me like this Atlus jam.
Then, 10 years ago, I was introduced to Persona 4.
It's my favorite JRPG of all time. Hell, I'd dare say it's my favorite video game, period!
It sounds simple enough: A ragtag group of high school kids are trying to solve a series of murders going on in their small town. It's like a mature rated Scooby-Doo in which victims are left to hang on television antenna. There's even a talking bear.
Eh, if a Great Dane can bark out legible words, we can deal with a bear making beariffic puns.
This is a much more lighthearted setting than Persona 3. You're not walking past coffins on your way to your dorm or fighting the physical representation of death. But don't be fooled, because the game remembers its roots and quickly takes a turn for the strange. There's a world inside our televisions, a channel folks can tune into and bear witness to someone's "true self," the form they try and subdue in favor of a facade of normalcy.
The formula of Persona 4 goes a little something like this: Character A gets kidnapped and tossed into the TV World. At midnight o'clock, their "shadow" is seen on TV, spilling all kinds of piping hot tea. As the main character, it's up to you to go inside the television and save them, and each dungeon represents a different, quirky aspect of Character A's life.
Once you make it to Character A, you find them face to face with their yellow-eyed doppelganger, denying their entire existence. This leads to the shadow flipping out and transforming into some bizarre representation of Character A. From literal caged birds to muscular dudes surrounded in flowers, begging for acceptance, this is the boss battle, and everyone fights to the death — kinda, because no one actually dies. Instead, Character A comes to terms with who they really are and their shadow turns into a persona — the bedazzled Pokémon I mentioned earlier. Then they proceed to use that powered-up version of themselves to help you save the world.
It's one of the most satisfying "believe in yourself" moments I've had in any form of media.
Each character who joins your team has their own arc, in which they have to face what they're convinced is a negative part of them, when in reality it's something they need to embrace in order to reach their full potential. Jealousy, loneliness, frustration, uncertainty, struggles with gender, questions about sexuality — these are all topics with which our teenage cast must deal. Despite the idea of such topics being too "adult" for 16-year-olds, let's be real: We were all questioning ourselves in between classes, because high school is the peak season of personal growth and development. That's exactly what this game explores, one day at a time, in an entire Japanese school year.
What solidifies this game as a favorite is that all of the feelings that emerge from the TV world are treated as legitimate, real, and something to be accepted, not conquered. More often than not we're told that our non-positive emotions are ugly, something that's meant to be defeated instead of talked about and fully understood. This is especially true if you're a black woman. We're heralded as strong, all-mighty badasses who can save everyone from themselves... or we're belittled for being too loud and too proud, usually a hypocritical mix of both. Bottom line: We're rarely seen as actual living, breathing human beings with feelings, and admitting to any sort of emotion beyond "independent," "strong," and "sassy" is seen as taboo.
So imagine being a queer black nerd girl like myself, clutching onto a PlayStation 2 controller and receiving a message of "embrace your true self" and being rewarded for doing so. You don't kill the shadow when you win the battle; what you actually do is create an opening for Character A to walk over, apologize, fully embrace them, and become the best version of themselves by doing so. By the time you get to the last party member, you don't even try and stop them from denying who they really are. You're told to let them hash it out because denial, at that point, is treated as part of the process.
Of course, the game follows the steps of its predecessor. There's an addictive soundtrack, plenty of waifus to pick from, and hard-hitting decisions like picking between Drama Club and soccer practice. But much like its predecessor, there's a greater message in the bottle, one that still resonates with me 10 years later.