Persona 4 Golden: life is too short

People often say that video games are a waste of time.  Well what if I told you that Persona 4 Golden, a video game, can teach you the value of time and the wisdom to use it well?

Video games are no stranger to the ticking clock.  It’s a dramatic device used to limit your options, put you under pressure and create urgency.  Sometimes it’s a literal ticking clock, like a countdown timer on a bomb.  Other times it might be the threat of an imminent attack (although the precise time might be unknown).

A ticking clock works easily enough in film and TV.  Our heroes have a limited amount of time to make the correct choices, act on them, and save the day.  However, in video games, it tends to work a little differently and it tends to fall into one of two formats.

So how can you use time restrictions to create effective dramatic tension and still have a fun game?

You have a straightforward rush towards a goal (like reaching an exit or defeating an enemy), where you feel the pressure but your action is constrained to the point where it ceases to be creative or meaningful.  As an example, think of the linear dash to the helicopter at the beginning of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

You have an open-ended set of goals and a vague sense of urgency, where you have meaningful choice in how to act but the game allows you to dally and waste time, undermining the supposed urgency.  As an example, think of Mass Effect 3 where the race to stop the Reaper invasion is critical but you somehow have plenty of time for romance and even a house party.

For every action that you choose to do, there is at least one alternative action that you are choosing not to do.

The ticking clock, then, is a difficult device in video games because it has to work dramatically but also mechanically.  And in video games, those two things often struggle against each other.  So how can you use time restrictions to create effective dramatic tension and still have a fun game?

In Persona 4 Golden tries something quite unusual.  We have a ticking clock in the form of a calendar.  You have one year to live in the small town of Inaba.  In that year, your goals are to solve a mystery and to cultivate relationships with friends and family.  Every day gives you an afternoon timeslot and an evening timeslot in which you can choose what to do.  Everything you do feeds into those goals.  For every action that you choose to do, there is at least one alternative action that you are choosing not to do.  And you cannot get that time back, no matter what.

Time passes in Persona 4 Golden
Time passes in Persona 4 Golden

For example, in the afternoon after school you could choose between participating in a club activity, socializing with a friend, or entering the secret world inside the TV to raid a dungeon and engage in combat.  And in the evening, you could choose between working a part-time job, studying or just going straight to bed to dream.

There are times when you must knuckle down and study because exams are a fact of life and there are some things you have no choice over.

Every option contributes in some way to your goals.  Some actions will boost your personality stats (like Expression or Courage); some actions will earn you money; some actions will upgrade your social links, which help you in combat with support moves and more powerful personas (summoned avatars); and raiding a dungeon will help you level up and progress the story past critical points.

In a sense, nothing is a waste of time because every action has value.  But nevertheless there are some actions that are more worthwhile than others, depending on the situation.  There are times when you realize you must improve your social links to create a persona powerful enough to succeed in a difficult dungeon.  There are times when you must work hard in your part-time job to earn enough money to buy a new weapon.  And there are times when you must knuckle down and study because exams are a fact of life and there are some things you have no choice over.

So time has value, and wisdom exists in knowing how to use that time in the best way for the current situation.  And yet, the ultimate wisdom comes in knowing what we all learn sooner or later in life: you can’t do everything.

Any one action might permanently exclude another action from your entire year

By design, there is not enough available time in the year to do everything in Persona 4 Golden.  You simply cannot max out all of the social links, personality stats, personas and character levels on a single play-through.  Life, it turns out, is too short.

Knowing that you cannot do everything, your choices about what actions to take in any available time slot are not determined only by what action is most profitable in the current situation but also by the knowledge that any one action might permanently exclude another action from your entire year.

Persona 4 Golden has given us a ticking clock with real choice but also real stakes.  A year might seem like a long time at first, but it doesn’t take long for you to realize that the time is flying by.  And with that comes the dread feeling of pressure and responsibility – the need to choose and to choose right, because you might miss a good opportunity and it will be gone forever.  In other words, Persona 4 Golden makes the ticking clock work dramatically and mechanically.

This is one of those occasions where a video game can affect you more powerfully than other media.  The combination of context and mechanics working in harmony puts the onus on you, the player, to understand and accept the situation, and then to find a way to deal with it.  Books, theatre, film – they can all do the first part – they can make us see.  But only video games like Persona 4 Golden can follow through with the second part – they can also make us do.

You may spend your time after school however you wish - choose carefully
Choose carefully

And it’s through doing, not seeing, that we learn our lessons best.

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