I’m sitting in class, being grilled by a teacher about who-cares-what. Ms Sofue, who’s wearing an Egyptian headdress while delivering a history lecture for some reason, calls on me to stand by my desk and answer a question about the Gregorian calendar. I should at least try to get the answer right as it’ll boost my knowledge stat and help me out later, but I have other things on my mind. Once school ends, I only have so many hours to rescue a friend from an interdimensional TV world before I have to return home to make my curfew. In the lonely doldrums of peak lockdown, Persona 4 has at least let me live both a very ordinary, and an extraordinary, life.
Persona 4 takes place in Inaba, a sleepy, countryside Japanese town that’s been abruptly awoken by a horrific and mysterious event. After a fog clears, the bodies of innocent townsfolk are found strung from telephone poles, and no one knows why. As I progress through the opening hours, I learn that someone is throwing these people through TVs into an alternate realm populated by shadows… mmhmm. A bear, who calls the TV dimension home, tells me that they’re safe as long as they’re enveloped in the fog. But as the mist gathers back in Inaba, it dissipates in the TV, whipping the shadows into a frenzy and putting those who are stuck there at risk.
The unfolding mystery and changing weather patterns are a few of the things that influence my routine in Persona 4. As hours turn to days in Inaba, it’s up to me to decide how I’m going to fill my calendar. If the local weather presenter says that it’s due to rain, then I know that fog will follow, and so I’m running out of time to save whoever is missing. But I have to keep a cool head. If I attempt a rescue too soon, I may not be strong enough to pull it off.
The sense of flexibility you have over your routine is one of Persona’s more enduring, endearing qualities as a series. Each day is organised into six periods: early morning, morning, lunchtime, afternoon, after school, and evening. I could rush to the TV dimension from school to tackle a dungeon and get stronger, or I could spend my time watching the hours fly by at my mundane job to raise funds for better weapons and armour.
Even the game’s social moments come with a benefit. You and your pals take to the RPG’s turn-based battles with large summonable creatures called Personas, which you can strengthen by bonding with their wielders back in Inaba. Hanging out with your friends after school is another way to pass the time, but I never feel that I’m doing so at the expense of advancing.
As I remain stuck indoors self-isolating in the real world, barely able to alter my routine, the ability to do everything or nothing as I explore Inaba offers a sense of normality that’s been missing from 2020. Games like Stardew Valley can feel therapeutic as you form routines that offer consistency; you take a messy, neglected farm and turn it into something neat at your leisure, progressing your schedule unbothered by difficulty spikes and an escalating sense of challenge. Persona 4 affords similar flexibility to develop a routine, but with a greater sense of urgency. You’re working towards saving a friend, and if you fail to manage your time correctly, it’s game over.
That kind of pressure has put me off games like Persona in the past as the consistency and control in Stardew Valley was a better tonic for a typically hectic, unpredictable day. Given that time spent isolating can feel unchanging, though, I’ve warmed to the high-stakes decisions I have to make when setting out my daily agenda in Atlus’s classic RPG. There are lots of things I could be doing in Inaba, but I have to prioritise what’s essential amidst a desperate situation.
I don’t have anyone I have to save in real life, thankfully, but I do miss the frantic rush of dipping into town, weaving through crowds, and doing what I need to do so I can go home to avoid everyone. Even in Persona 4’s quieter moments, I appreciate being able to do simple things like meet up with friends for lunch, or hang out at work while I watch time slip away. I can still do some of that stuff in real life, but necessity over desire dictates what I think is right due to, you know, the whole global pandemic.
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The story offers some interesting themes to reflect on, too. Everyone who is thrown into the TV is trapped in a prison made from their insecurities. To help the town’s teenagers accept the parts of themselves they dislike, you must make it to the top of a tower, battling monsters along the way. Each teenager faces a familiar demon of adolescence, be it their negative self-image or the weight of having to grow up too early. It’s relatable to most teenagers and perhaps to many more of us, as anxieties over your appearance or what you’re doing with your life don’t necessarily go away. And this year in particular has provided more opportunity for such thoughts to surface, in those quieter moments while stuck in lockdown. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m certainly squidgier than I was when lockdown began, but I have more sense of direction in my life.
Persona 4’s menus and blurry cutscenes expose its age, but until we get a particular sequel to play on our rigs, it’ll do for now. The game tells a relatable story that adds some urgency to the routines you carve out for yourself in Inaba. Organising the activities with which you’ll fill your precious hours creates a sense of excitement I haven’t had since lockdown began: it makes me appreciate the former ease I had of jaunting into town to do everything and nothing. So, with more restrictions looming, maybe check it out.