Persona 4 Golden: what F. Scott Fitzgerald can teach us about games

Persona 4 Golden is a truly great game.  But what makes a great game, and why is Persona 4 Golden such a strong example?  For some insight, I’d like to turn to the novelist F Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, who famously said that “character is plot and plot is character”.  This is a good starting point for thinking about the secrets of video game design and why certain games draw us in so powerfully.

Scott Fitzgerald’s quotation is all about the driving force of a good story.  A common question in writing circles is where to start – with characters or with plot?  Do you start by imagining realistic characters and allow the plot to flow from actions consistent with their character?  Or do you start with a coherent plot and create characters to make every scene happen the way it ought?

Scott Fitzgerald’s answer was that character and plot ought to be complementary, to be conceived simultaneously, and to drive each other equally.  Can a similar theory govern video game design?

Citizen Kane didn’t have to consider how viewers might control the action.

Video games are a combination of two things: context and mechanics.  Context is the scenario in which the game takes place – the world and the characters that populate it.  Mechanics are the systems that the player can use to make actions and win the game.  So the question for game designers must be: where do you start – with a game’s context or with its mechanics?

Video games are unique in having to resolve this tension between context and mechanics.  Prior storytelling media like literature, theatre and film only have to deal with context.  Citizen Kane didn’t have to consider how viewers might control the action.  Meanwhile, traditional games tend to deal only with mechanics.  Chess is all about deep and flexible mechanics, but the context is non-existent beyond abstractly titled pieces in a war of Black vs White.

Here’s my theory: a great video game is one where the context and mechanics are complementary

So what do these two areas of context and mechanics look like in a video game?

A good example is Batman: Arkham City.  Here, the context is a masked superhero fighting thugs and super-villains in the walled prison district within Gotham City.  The mechanics are the open world, grapple-and-glide traversal, exploration, stealth, melee combat, and puzzle solving based on simplified detective skills.

Here’s my theory: a great video game is one where the context and mechanics are complementary, with few or no inconsistencies between the two.  In other words, to paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald, context is mechanics, and mechanics is context.

Batman: Arkham City is an example of moderate compatibility between context and mechanics, and this is probably the reason why the Arkham series of Batman games has been the most successful video game adaptation of a comic book property.

Problems arise when the mechanics allow the player to spend a lot of time exploring instead of pursuing what the game’s context tells us is an urgent, time-sensitive plot

Batman: Arkham City upholds many of the traditions of Batman lore.  In the game’s context, Batman is a master crime-fighter, skilled in stealth and combat, the world’s greatest detective, and he has a utility belt full of gadgets.  He famously refuses, on principle, to kill his enemies.  He lives in a city wracked by crime, with a fearsome rogues gallery of villains.  So when the game gives the player mechanics that allow for sneaking around, fighting hand-to-hand with armies of thugs, using a variety of impressive gadgets to take down enemies and traverse the environment, defeating elaborate bosses, and using detective skills to solve mysteries, it all reflects what the game’s context is telling us is true of the character and world.  However, problems arise when the mechanics allow the player to spend a lot of time exploring the world looking for collectible items instead of pursuing what the game’s context tells us is an urgent, time-sensitive plot, and when the game offers almost no way for the player to experience the other half of Batman’s character: Bruce Wayne.

Now that you hopefully understand what I’m talking about when I refer to compatibility between a video game’s context and mechanics, let’s look at a really bad example and a really good example.

The mechanics undermine the implied significance of Lara’s inexperience and her first kill

Tomb Raider, rebooted in 2013, was notorious for having a disconnect between its context and mechanics.  The game’s context established a scenario where a young Lara Croft was inexperienced in survival, facing danger, handling weapons and – most of all – killing.  However, after a pivotal scene early on when Lara is forced to resist an attacker, the game’s mechanics compel the player to shoot and kill hundreds of enemies.  The mechanics undermine the implied significance of Lara’s inexperience and her first kill, while the context serves to make the mechanics seem bewildering and barbaric.  Many critics questioned this disconnect, and it hurt the game’s review scores.

Up until now, I have thought that Mass Effect 2 was the best game I have ever played.

On the other hand, Mass Effect 2 is a stunningly good example of context and mechanics working together.  According to the game’s context, you are a military hero named Commander Shepard and you have to assemble a team willing to commit to a terrifying suicide mission, and with the skills necessary to overcome unknown challenges that lie in uncharted space.  The game gives you a set of mechanics that play into this context directly.    First you undertake missions to recruit team members one-by-one.  Then, to ensure their commitment and skill, you undertake “loyalty” missions for each of them, in which you help them to resolve personal problems and unlock powerful combat skills.  You can take advantage of team members’ special knowledge and resources to upgrade your ship and make it strong enough to face the most powerful enemies.  Finally, in the suicide mission, you decide which team members are assigned to which tasks, according to their known skills.  If you don’t ensure your team members’ loyalty, or if you assign the wrong team members to the wrong tasks, people will die and your mission could ultimately fail.  Mass Effect 2 is generally remembered as the best of the three games in the series, and I think this is why: it’s the one time where the context and mechanics complement each other in a most satisfying way.

And so we come to Persona 4 Golden.  Up until now, I have thought that Mass Effect 2 was the best game I have ever played.  Today I know that that title goes to Persona 4 Golden, and the reason for this is that P4G has the most brilliantly realized connection between context and mechanics.

This is a game all about understanding, self-realization, friendship and commitment.

This is the context: you are a high school boy who has transferred for one year to a new school in a small town.  You are staying with your uncle and his young daughter.  You are trying to make friends and fit in in your new situation.  However, trouble starts when someone starts kidnapping people who appear on TV, and those people turn up dead.  You and your friends discover that these people are being thrown into a secret world accessible through TV screens.  Those who are thrown into the secret world must face the parts of their personality that they repress, or they are destroyed by that world.  Those who can accept themselves discover the power of “persona” – a projection of their knowledge of self within the secret world that is endowed with powerful combat abilities.  This is a game all about understanding, self-realization, friendship and commitment.  It’s about a bunch of young people who need to know who they really are, where they belong, and what they’re supposed to do with their lives.

These are the mechanics: you can safely explore your small town, your high school, and a few surrounding areas, while combat is reserved for “dungeons” in the secret world.  Each dungeon is a projection of the mental anxieties of the particular kidnap victim hidden within it. Saving a kidnap victim turns them into an ally, who you can deploy in combat.  Combat is based on the skills of your party members’ personas.  Their persona’s skills are improved through leveling up in combat but are also tightly connected to your relationship with that person.  You can improve your relationship with each person by spending time with them in the real world and helping them to work through their personal issues.  The more challenges you help them to overcome, the more they understand themselves, the more powerful their persona becomes, the stronger your party becomes in combat and the more able you are to rescue the next victim.  Your ability to improve relationships is dependent on the quality of your character, which is measured in areas like Knowledge, Diligence and Understanding.  You can improve your character in any of these areas by doing all sorts of normal activities like studying, joining extra-curricular clubs and taking part-time jobs.

Such coherence I have never seen before in a video game.

To put it simply, the game’s context tells you that the most important thing is that you must develop close relationships, help people to understand themselves, and rescue people from the secret world; and the game’s mechanics give you all sorts of ways to accomplish these things, and these ways make sense for the real world (conversation, spending time together, hard work) and for the secret world (party-based combat where power comes from self-awareness).

Such coherence I have never seen before in a video game.  It’s an extraordinary achievement in writing and design.  What’s more, the game is almost unbelievably big, with my first play-through lasting over 80 hours.  And P4G makes sense for that entire time.

If the secret of great game design is indeed a complementary connection between context and mechanics, then Persona 4 Golden is indeed the greatest game ever made.

Will other game makers understand why this is and follow this example?


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