On Dating, Gender, and Identity in Persona 4

It’s been half a year and over 160 hours, but I’ve finally completed Persona 4 Golden. A JRPG hasn’t been able to captivate me in such a way for a long time.

Out of the entire Shin Megami Tensei library, I had always been curious about the Persona series the most. I’d never heard someone give Persona 4 a mediocre review. Even before playing the game, I could identify these cosplayers at conventions due to sheer ubiquity. The cast supposedly included a teddy bear mascot, a pop idol, and a gay character. A story encapsulating the problems of high school students sounded way too good to miss.

Yukiko, Chie, Yosuke, and the Protagonist

Yukiko, Chie, Yosuke, and the Protagonist

The dating sim element intrigued me as well. Most Japanese dating games I’ve tried offer flat, one-dimensional characters. They fit too nicely into a certain “type.” Do you like the suave pretty boy, the quiet nerd, or the cheerful jock? The Persona games are lengthy, intense RPGs. Certainly they’d provide the opportunity for more character building and deeper relationships?

Yosuke, I have something to tell you...

Yosuke, I have something to tell you…

Kinda! Except you have to play as a boy, and you can only date the girls. Video games have put me into the shoes of a heterosexual male many times, but Persona 4 lets me make choices that will directly impact my love life as a teenage boy for the first time.

I looked forward to seeing what kind of girl would strike my fancy. What would be my criteria for picking a girlfriend? Would it feel any different from the other times I got to choose a guy?

There’s plenty of buzz surrounding Chie. Several of my friends love her. Apparently she’s a spunky meat-lover who kicks ass (literally). But beyond this, I really have no clue what to expect from her and the rest of the girls.

And so, this silver-haired Japanese boy curiously named “Kelly” begins his schoolyear at Yasogami High.

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On the second day of school a boy named Yosuke introduces himself. I take to him almost immediately. I like to joke that I would date him if I could. It’s all too easy to project my old high school girlishness onto the protagonist. This cute, clumsy boy talks to Kelly with ease, but it’s probably because he is, in fact, NOT a girl. I can tell he’s interested in Kelly, but not in “that” way. This still didn’t stop me from choosing the more intimate dialogue options. It’s funny–when you just listen to the game, you simply hear two friends in the midst of lifetalk. However, if you pull back and see the young woman (who was boy crazy once-upon-a-time) pulling the strings, then the context shifts. Imagine my avatar suddenly morphing into a girl and saying the same things to Yosuke–the scene might very well end with a kiss, if not for the fact that Yosuke would probably get tongue-tied from talking to a girl.

Chie and Yukiko are also in my class. Chie invites me to sit next to her on the very first day of school. She takes charge, introducing herself as well as her best friend, Yukiko. Yukiko is shy and oblivious to that fact that boys take interest in her. She even turns down Yosuke. She’s an exemplary student, insecure about her future, and prone to laughing fits.

I fell for Yukiko. Or rather, I wanted Kelly-kun to fall for her.

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Projecting yourself onto a blank slate can be surprisingly difficult, especially when you’re a woman playing out the tale of a high school boy. I can craft the protagonist into some semblance of myself. For example, I choose band over drama club for the activity, not the potential girl I can meet (but they’re both pretty terrible choices). I try to choose compassionate responses instead of the curt ones.

But overall, Kelly-senpai bores me. He’s got that kakkoii charm to him–the strong, silent-type. He fishes, cooks, and builds models without much emotion or inner-dialogue. As I’m building up his stats, he’s presumably becoming a more realized personality, but I don’t really feel it. My friends always look up to him/me and the inexplicable power I possess. They call me “leader.” I always seem to have the last word, one of three equally acceptable quips from which I choose. Somehow, the girls love me and I have the opportunity to go after any and all of them.

I know the feeling, gurl.

I know the feeling, girl.

At first, I dismiss Yukiko as a stereotype. The cynic inside me labels her as the beautiful yet quiet, uninteresting girl. Her innocence seems to be a major part of her appeal. Shallow dudes probably go after her.

But as the game progresses, I find myself empathizing more and more with Yukiko–much more than I do with any of the other girls. She doesn’t emote nearly as much as Chie or Rise, but it hits hard when she does. While the other characters cringe over her laughing fits, I’m laughing along with her. I know the pressure to take over a family business and the feeling of having no control over your life. She downplays herself with a modesty some may find irritating. Inside, she self-deprecates, calling herself “useless.”

Despite all this underlying uncertainty, Yukiko has plenty of redeeming qualities. She may be a bit of an absent-minded daydreamer, but she’s also a brilliant student. She wants to learn new things and become a better person. As you get to know her, she lets loose more often. She knows how to play drinking games. As the others tremble over Yosuke’s ghost story, she laughs with glee.

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One of my favorite scenes occurs after class on the school roof. Yosuke begs Chie for a taste of her instant soba noodles. Chie hands hers over to him with some hesitation, while Yukiko, smiling, generously offers me her bowl. Yosuke and I accidentally wolf down all the food, as voracious high school boys are prone to do. Chie characteristically gets angry, while Yukiko’s eyes turn downcast, muttering “M-My fried tofu…” to herself. Even after Yosuke offers to buy them steak (much to Chie’s delight), Yukiko repeats, “My tofu…” I don’t even know if I can explain why I find this so endearing. I would be pretty sad if someone ate my tofu, too.

Yukiko gradually embraces her experiences and transforms herself. Kelly-kun helps.

Yukiko gradually embraces her experiences and transforms herself. Kelly-kun & friends help.

I don’t have any desire to actually date someone like Yukiko. I don’t gush over her the same way I do for, say, Garrus from Mass Effect. She reminds me of myself in a lot of ways, as do several of the other female characters to lesser degrees. Her lines make me wonder, “Would I have said something like this in my high school days?”

In the end, I chose to date Yukiko so she could get the guy, not necessarily because I found her qualities to be the most desirable to have in a partner. I picked the girl I identified with the most.

Not really, you're usually pretty weird.

Not really, you’re usually pretty weird.

Assuming the role of a different gender or a different orientation allows you to recognize the attributes you value in yourself versus others. You start questioning whether your methods are fair or not. Even if your avatar is more or less a blank slate for you to fill, you still might see yourself in the other characters more easily. Characters like Yukiko make me look inward and recognize traits of my own that I value as well as the ones that can use a little work.

Kelly Burke Kelly Burke (16 Posts)

Kelly Burke loves writing and talking about video games. She co-hosts and edits the VG Bandits podcast. She's a regular on the Cell Shock Podcast.


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