Persona 4 Golden: why I’m glad I made the wrong choice

Modern video games give us lots of choices.  Be a nice guy or an evil bastard; choose your class; pick your favourite ending from three endings.  But those choices often have little riding on them except how to satisfy the player’s preference.  Persona 4 Golden presents us with meaningful choice, where the wrong move will send you down a deadly path.

Video games have, in general, adapted to a post-modern perspective on choice: that every choice must be equally valid.  Whether you want to be good or bad, the game must accept both choices and allow the player to be successful with either one.  Whether you want to be a warrior or a mage, whether you want to put your skill points into armour or stealth, the game must reward you not for making the right choice, but only for making a choice at all.

I understand why game developers make their games in this way.  It avoids the frustration of having made the wrong choice.  It makes it more likely that your customers will finish your product with a smile on their faces and with an inclination to buy the sequel.  But by making the majority of our games in this way, we’re missing out on something crucial.

As the video games industry strives to be taken seriously as an artistic medium, it is foolish to ignore the power of bad choices.

We all know that real life doesn’t work this way.  Sometimes, given the chance to choose one of two options, one option turns out to have been the wrong choice.  When we go to an unfamiliar restaurant and order a new dish, sometimes it’s just bad.  When we invest in stocks and shares, sometimes our equity loses value.  When we decide to take the motorway instead of the backroads, sometimes we end up in an infernal traffic jam.  In each case, these choices do not contribute to our success and wellbeing in the same way as the alternative might have done.  They are all, quite simply, the wrong choices.

As the video games industry strives for realism and emotional response, and to be taken seriously as an artistic medium, it is foolish to ignore the power of bad choices.  They are an integral part of real life, and summon powerful feelings of sadness, regret and humility.  Allowing players to make bad choices, and forcing them to live with the consequences, could be one of the most important things that video games can do.

Think about how we have been robbed of those experiences by many big-name games in recent years.  In Bioshock, it didn’t matter whether you killed the Little Sisters for their Adam or rescued them: the game did not punish or reward you either way, either mechanically or narratively.  In the Mass Effect trilogy, it does not matter whether you allow the Rachni Queen to live: either way, when you get to the final game, there is a Rachni Queen in the service of the Reapers.  In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it does not matter which ending you choose: there is no judgement, no continuation of the narrative, no consequence.

In every case, these meaningless choices – when they are exposed as meaningless – rob us of the possibility of feeling happiness or sadness, satisfaction or regret.  For if we cannot fail, how can we succeed in any meaningful way.  The great irony is that by protecting players from feeling sad, game developers have prevented players from feeling truly happy as a result of their actions.

If you’ve been following this week’s Expansion Pack series on Persona 4 Golden, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that P4G does things differently.

It’s not so easy to pursue a glimmer of truth when there’s an easy way out and all your friends want to take it.

Persona 4 Golden allows you to fail.  And I don’t just mean it allows your character to die in battle.  It allows you to make a succession of bad decisions that leads your group down the wrong path.  At a critical point in the game, you have the opportunity to pin the blame for all the game’s troubles on an obvious suspect, or you can keep on pushing and pushing to find the truth.  Failure to say the right words and lead your friends towards the truth results in the whole game ending prematurely.

Sounds like an easy choice, right?  Well yes, but at the time it doesn’t feel like it.  The suspect seems obviously guilty.  And your friends are so sure that this particular character is the one.  Some of your friends are so sure that they are determined to take justice into their own hands and punish this character.  It’s not so easy to pursue a glimmer of truth when there’s an easy way out and all your friends want to take it.

Your uncle asks if you are satisfied with your year in Inaba, and you’re left with a niggling feeling: no, you’re not satisfied.

Peer pressure sounds like something that shouldn’t exist in games.  But it does in Persona 4 Golden.  Your friends consist of a bunch of people you have spent tens of hours getting to know, growing closer together.  You have trained yourself to listen to them, and to take their feelings seriously.  And yet at this critical moment, following your friends is the wrong choice.

The consequences of making the wrong choice are severe.  It’s not just that the game ends prematurely, but how the game ends.  Just like real life, the game does not immediately make it obvious that you have made the wrong choice.  The suspect is deemed to be guilty, an injured character recovers, and the small town goes back to normal.  But a few things aren’t quite right.  A mysterious fog continues to cover the town.  Time flies by and your year in Inaba ends, without a chance to experience your last three months.  Your uncle asks if you are satisfied with your year in Inaba, and you’re left with a niggling feeling: no, you’re not satisfied.  Your friends say their goodbyes, and you climb aboard the train leaving town.  The credits roll, and then it hits you: that’s it.

That’s it.

You’re never going to see those people again.  There was still so much you had to say to your friends and family.  There were still problems to fix.  And was that character really as guilty as they seemed?

Still the game doesn’t tell you that you have made the wrong choice, and it doesn’t suggest that you reload your last save file to try again.  It trusts that you will know for yourself that you screwed up.  And the feeling really is inescapable.

I felt horrid when my game ended that way.  At first, I hated the game because it had allowed me to fail so badly and without warning.  But having reflected on this experience, I would not have it any other way.  Persona 4 Golden gave me a choice just like the choices real life throws at me every day: I had one chance, and the “good” choice wasn’t conveniently highlighted in green.  I made the wrong choice, it was my fault, and I had to live with the consequences.  It made that moment significant in a way few gaming moments have ever been.

The sweetest victories are those hardest won, where we have overcome the greatest challenges and tasted defeat along the way.

When I realised my mistake, I reloaded my last save file and tried again until I made the correct choice.  This is one artifice that I’m glad Persona 4 Golden has preserved.  I had my chance to correct my mistake and finish the game in the best way possible.  This time, when I said goodbye to Inaba, I felt elated.  I had done everything I needed to do in Inaba, made the most of my relationships there, and I knew I had discovered the truth.

Would my ending have felt so good had I not lived through the consequences of choosing badly?  I don’t think it would have.  In real life, the sweetest victories are those hardest won, where we have overcome the greatest challenges and tasted defeat along the way.  For without knowledge of failure, how can we truly know and appreciate success?

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