Though I assume it’s the same with mostly every other entertainment industry like music and movies, it seems especially strange in video games that the zeitgeist moves so quickly. It seems like with whatever GDC, Nintendo World Summit, or Microsoft thing that manages to squeeze into February and March, the starter pistol fires early and the races goes on all year. Every writer (and non-industry gamer, I guess) is sprinting towards December where there is a brief respite before we do it all again the following year. It’s the grueling endurance test of a marathon at the breakneck speed of a 100-meter dash with the road behind you crumbling almost as fast as you can run.
But like a marathon, we get little pick-me-ups along the way; publishers and developers holding out their cups and bananas for you to take. The only problem is that it seems like with every step we take, we find ourselves at the feet of another refreshment and another and another until our cups overfloweth with games. Either we blaze through each release with nary a drop of pleasure to be found or we prioritize and leave anything less than necessary unfinished.
So it’s astounding to me when my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds all fill up on the reg about a single game, when it seems like everyone agreed on an unspoken moment of lying on the pavement—sweating and panting—to take a break and look at the clouds. Even though no one had the time, it seemed like everyone took a day to appreciate Asura’s Wrath back in February. Even in a month inundated with must-cover titles like Mass Effect 3, Ninja Gaiden 3, and Kid Icarus: Uprising, somehow every stopped, played Journey, and then talked about Journey for the next two weeks. The Walking Dead, Fez, and Trials Evolution found time to be lovingly caressed amidst the storm of Diablo III, Max Payne 3, and The Darkness 2.
This time of year makes it harder to find a moment to catch your breath. The “holiday push” is what they call it, a massive wave of new releases (and a new console) to play on all that Christmas and Hanukkah spending spirit. Not only that, but most outlets begin to prepare for what seem like potentially endless debate on Game of the Year contenders. There’s just so little time between the Wii U, Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed III, Hitman: Absolution, writing about Hitman: Absolution‘s marketing blunders, writing about #1reasonwhy, etc. to even think about how you’re still running.
So imagine my surprise when two weeks later, everyone is still tweeting, booking, and gramming about one game in between headliner reviews and previews (and traveling to Los Angeles, for some reason). Since review copies went out a week before its official release date of November 20, Persona 4: Golden has been shared, discussed, and lauded across the social network of video games writers. That’s three weeks strong in the middle of the winter deluge. Not bad for a game that was new back in 2008.
Why, then, has Persona 4 persisted? Well, besides that it’s a great game, but it truly has no reason to have such staying power. Look at all the other games around it! This was a JRPG released on the PS2 back when video game budgets were still reasonable. In current times, it’s going head-to-head with Halo 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, a new console launch, ACIII, Far Cry 3, and the conclusion of The Walking Dead, arguably one of the best stories ever told in video games. And that’s not to mention that it’s only for the PS Vita, a gaming handheld that not everyone owns (like the 360 or PS3) or even cares to remember.
Simply put, it was too easy to pass over back in the day. At its release four(!) years ago, Person 4 was still up against a plethora of holiday juggernauts (it was released on December 9th) and also on a mostly forgotten console in the PS2. It was heralded as the last great title to come out for the aged and legendary Sony product but had to compete with Call of Duty: World at War, Mirror’s Edge, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Left 4 Dead, Need for Speed: Undercover, Tomb Raider: Underworld, Prince of Persia, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, Gears of War 2, Resistance 2, Fallout 3, LittleBigPlanet, Rock Band 2, Far Cry 2, Fable II, Dead Space, and—HOLY CRAP. No wonder it got left behind!
Everyone had moved on by then. Who has time for an 80-hour game when you have to make time for coverage of aaalllllll that. Just within the span of three months, three (maybe four?) big successful franchises debuted and some of the most hyped sequels to ever hit the industry all drop on us like one big collective Skrillex. 80 hours on a console with one foot in the grave? Nice try.
Which is a shame because Persona 4 is so god damn good. I put in a solid 20 or so hours before I had to call it quits and focus on the more relevant madness surrounding the Atlus opus, and yet I still found it to be one of my favorite games that year.
My first exhaustive experience with the game was watching the Giant Bomb Endurance Run. All 155 episodes of it. And it’s strange that even in my 100% passive participation in the game over those seven months, I developed a deep bond with the characters. Charlie Tunoku was my man.
Those 20+ hours of gameplay I had under my belt prior to watching those two fumble their way through the game put me in a unique position. I’d spent pretty much an entire, unbroken day getting to know Chie and Yosuke and Yukiko. I’d built my Charlie (then Christoph Lavin) in my image through my choices and my words. Put relative on a lifetime scale, I raised him from child to young adult, and then he left me. Or, more accurately, I left him, but the empty feeling left behind was all the same.
So when I watched Gerstmann and Caravella pick up again where I left off, it was like I was watching my kid go on with his life. I’d taken him through his formative years, and now through a MST3K-style lens, I was watching Charlie live. It was what I imagine everyone who watched The Truman Show in the movie The Truman Show must have felt. Hands-off, sure, but that didn’t stop me from yelling at my computer every once in a while at boneheaded mistakes and incredible victories. To the end, I was rooting for the Endurance Run, but I was also pulling for that character I had put 20 hours into.
And watching all these people pick up the game for their own personal playthroughs, I got jealous. I wanted to do that, too. I wanted the feeling of accomplishment of bringing the whole cycle close from creation to termination on my Vita.
But I couldn’t do it. I tried so hard but I just couldn’t do it. It’s not that the surprise was gone (the story beats are still well-played and poke and prod at you accordingly) but rather it felt disingenuous to do it all again. I was lying to myself, as a broken man clinging to memories of his yesteryear. I was lying to Charlie, holding over him knowledge and emotions that I wanted but had lost so long ago. It just didn’t feel right. I had my time in that world and I couldn’t bring myself to cheat my way back into it.
It’s an odd possessive feeling you get with games like this. Stories that rip into your blackened heart and tear away until they get at your core are something to be treasured because they come along so rarely, but more importantly, they feel like they are your own. RPGs and adventure games excel at this because they give you choices (or at least the illusion of choice). This small, somewhat innocuous nod to the player is all it takes to have us with the controller move the Charlie Tunokus of the world from the “some dude” category to “my dude.”
Games like Mass Effect, The Walking Dead, the Final Fantasy series; they all do this because they spin you this large, weaving epic that wraps you up in an overwhelming embrace as you attempt to reconcile the personal stories underneath. Unable to discern the immutable and the variable, we begin to take on these sprawling worlds and characters as our own. They have been molded to us and anchor our emotional cantilevers to something deep inside of us that will never let go.
That’s why it’s so hard to pick up Persona 4 again. People talk about their Femsheps and their hookups but I can’t relate because that isn’t my Shepard. People talk about Clementine and the relationships they forged but I just don’t understand because that isn’t my Lee. People share their times with Funky Student and the Meat Dimension but I don’t hear a word they’re saying because they’re not talking about Charlie. I don’t know any Yu Narukami.
There are changes made to Person 4: Golden over the original release. There’s a cheesy dance title sequence, but that’s pretty much inconsequential (and ill-advised; Naoto don’t dance, dawgg). But they have a new voice for Chie. And they have a new voice for Teddy. And there are new Social Links. And so on and so on. And none of that is real, not to me anyways. It’s not better or worse; it’s just different. It’s different from what I did and what I said and what I experienced. That isn’t my story and it isn’t the story of anyone else who played/watched all those years ago. This is a different Inaba and a different Junes. This isn’t me.
I’m excited for everyone on my Twitter feed playing Persona 4 for the first time. Excited and a little jealous. But like everyone else who can’t be part of this Golden kick, I’ll be spending my 80 hours reminiscing. Is this our chance? No. We had ours.