When Persona 5 was released at the start of the month I wasn’t going to buy it. Despite waiting nearly ten years for it, and that the fact that Persona 4, was one of my all time favorite games, (seriously, I bought a PS-Vita just to play the best version of it ‘Persona 4 Golden’) I was supposed to hold off. I was in the middle of another excellent game, ‘Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wilds’, and I needed to finish a novel draft that had already gone on for far too long (more on that in another post). I didn’t have the time to get sucked into a game that would last over a hundred hours.
And yet, on Persona 5’s very release date, I made the snap decision to stop at Best Buy on my way home and pick it up. I’m about fifty hours in and only about halfway through the story. I’ve played it every evening after work and have sacrificed whole weekends to it. I can’t stop, which I find both understandable and utterly bizarre, because at its core Persona 5 is a game all about time management.
In Persona 5 you’re a teenager who is sent to live in Tokyo on prohibition after being falsely accused of a crime. There the player character finds that he can travel to another dimension known as ‘The Metaverse’ where he gets some dope threads and starts stealing the ‘hearts’ of corrupt adults to make them confess their crimes. It’s a game full of teenage rebellion, coming of age stories, young love, talking cats, virtual tourism and the slickest menus and smoothest background music you can find. The last two are vitally important because you spend a lot of time in those menus planning your day.
Unlike most RPGs were the progression of time might exist only to change the scenery from night to day, Persona 5 has a friggin calendar. Each morning the date is prominently displayed by a slick cartoon knife throw. You start the day going class and then get the afternoon off to run dungeons, work part time jobs or hang out with friends, with a similar free time existing in the evening. Each dungeon must to be completed by a certain date, and if you don’t pull it off, well it’s game over. In Persona if you fail at time management you die.
This emphasis on making smart choices with your time is a paradox, because Persona 5 is a massive time commitment. The game is a dialogue heavy experience that takes over a hundred hours to complete a single play through. And to get the entire story, boosting all your stats and social links, you must beat Persona 5 multiple times. Accomplishing that would cost you hundreds of afternoons and evenings, the very resources that Persona 5 teaches you are precious and shouldn’t be wasted.
Thus Persona 5 rewards me for being smart with my time in game and yet it costs me a ton of my real-life time. I first discovered this paradox back in Persona 4 when I skipped the gym to play more persona 4, but told my character in game to work out, in order to improve his ‘guts’ stat. I gained a point in the game and lost one in real life. I was shocked, and yet I kept playing.
Despite my surprise Persona is hardly the first game where I’ve bumped into similar paradoxes. RPGs are my favorite video games, but they’re a genre that require a lot of time and even some work. Things like grinding and sorting through gazillion pieces of equipment aren’t actually fun, but you do them to bump up stats and get the best stuff. Back in high school my mom always found it infuriating that I could be so thorough planning out a massive game and yet never had my homework done on time. It was all because of the Persona Paradox.
For instance one of the many tasks you can do in Persona 5 is laundry. Laundry takes up one of the game’s afternoon or evening slots (just like in real life). I can now say that in one of my favorite games, you do laundry. How does Persona 5 make something like laundry compelling?
There’s a lot of answers to this, some are obvious, in Persona 5 laundry takes a game ‘afternoon’ which is like 15 seconds. There’s a scene where my character sits down stares at the laundry machine and my adorable talking cat says something cute and it’s over. Laundry only cost me about two pushes of a button. In real life it takes more time and effort. There’s also the rewards.
In persona 5 if I do laundry I get new, better equipment. In the real world, the same clothes I already own are now clean, it’s just not the same. And that’s true for all of Persona 5’s daily activities. In Persona 5 if I spend my afternoon working at the flower shop I gain both money and also a sat boost to my ‘kindness’. If I spend the evening playing Shogi with my friend I move our relationship forward and get a stat boost to my ‘knowledge’.
Certain apps and TED talks have suggested we can ‘gamify’ life. Take the rewards and habit loops that are so addictive in games and recreate them in the real world. You get points and experience for doing chores, you can level up. If I make it to level ten blogger maybe I’ll earn a follower, that sort of thing. I see the allure of this thinking, but real life is a lot messier than video games.
Take the stats I keep on mentioning. In Persona 5, like in many games, you can increase stats by doing repetitive tasks. This is kind of like real life. If I get up every morning to run, I’ll get better at running over time and be able to go farther and faster. But my path forward is not a straight video game experience bar. I don’t know exactly how many runs I’ll need to progress to a new level as runner and no video game randomly injures me when I push too hard. I could strain myself and that might cost me some of my gains. And running is pretty clean example, what about some of more the abstract persona stats? What repetitive tasks make you kinder or more charming? How do know you’ve progressed in those areas?
The social links of Persona would be even harder to quantify. In the Persona games you gain more experience, neat tricks and occasional stat boosts by hanging out with different characters. These characters are your friends, but also maybe your teacher, or guardian, or that shady guy at the gun store that asked you to ‘hold something’ for him when the cops came calling. On top of being rewarded levels for hanging out with people you’re also rewarded with insight into their lives and get little story arcs that are fun and touching. Progress these far enough and you might even get yourself a girlfriend (every girl in the game is kinda into the player character, which yeah, that ain’t like real life.)
In real life how do I know I’m progressing in levels with a friend or colleague? If I hang out with my friend Pete I’m not going to get a neat little story every time like in Persona. Sometimes we’re just going to watch a movie or argue about politics. Some people you’ll never gain intimate insights to regardless of how often you hang out with them. There’s also no toxic relationships in persona.
And since Persona 3 they removed the very real world mechanic where if you didn’t regularly hang out with a social link, then that link would start to deteriorate and you could even be demoted levels with them. From real life experience I can tell you that if I start hanging out with a girl then ignore her for weeks on end to break into cognitive palaces, play with my talking cat or rent dvds to increase my ‘proficiency’, she won’t become my girlfriend when I decide I have time to get back to her. I’d be lucky if she even responded to my texts at all. (Side note; Persona 5 taught me that renting DVDs is apparently still a thing in Japan).
And yet, I can’t let the Persona fantasy go. It is so tantalizing close to real life. Sure, I can’t be a dashing phantom thief with great hair, but hanging out with my friends, volunteering to help local politicians, and reading to increase my knowledge? I can do those things. I can look at my afternoons and evenings as chances to expand my relationships and experiences. Time management can be fun and engrossing. I can even get a girlfriend! Or I can play Persona 5 where all that is as easy as pressing a button. Maybe that’s the true allure of the Persona Paradox, that the fulfilling exciting life you always wanted is there for you, and all it will cost you is your time.