Persona 5 and Games as the Voice of Social Unrest

Persona 5 and Games as the Voice of Social Unrest

Could video games become to this generation what embittered rock music was to our parents and grandparents? Anything's possible...

The 1960s were a time of radical social change, as each society rebuilt itself in the wake of World War II. The planet engaged in a collective soul-searching effort unprecedented in human history, and this top-to-bottom questioning of the roles and functions of civilization manifested in symptoms as varied as deadly race riots and gentle acoustic songs about the Zodiac.

Five decades later, headline news seems almost like a repeat of the volatile '60s. Race in America has exploded into a hot-button topic, with a leading presidential candidate openly promoting racist concepts and xenophobia while the reality of the police's institutionalized disproportionate enforcement directed toward black citizens sparks protests and riots across the country. Climate change, the systematic extinction of entire animal species, corporate misbehavior, economic stratification, American involvement in foreign wars, and the evaporation of the middle class rule the headlines. 2015 is the new 1965.

The U.S. hardly stands alone in its unrest — crisis seems to be the global standard of late. While I was in Japan last week for Tokyo Game Show, I saw honest-to-god protests, something I've never witnessed in all my years of traveling there. The government has recently pushed through an amendment to the Japanese constitution that peels away portions of the pacifist standard the company adopted in the wake of WWII. It's a policy that the more hawkish elements of the current administration have pursued to the dismay of the majority of Japan's citizens and can only further increase tensions in an already volatile corner of the world.

I've heard it suggested that the Japanese governments newfound stance of aggression is a symptom of, or response to, the country's ailments: The sagging economy, the negative birth rate, the strain an aging population will be putting on younger generations, and an overall shift in the nature of both personal and business relationships. Maybe that's true, and perhaps not, but there's no denying the fact that Japan faces crises and challenges unlike those of any other nation in the world.

Surprisingly, these themes seem to surface most frequently in Japanese media via videos games, and role-playing games specifically. Where rock and folk music served as the voice of an unhappy generation in the '60s, RPGs have adopted a similar role. Not all RPGs, of course, and not even all RPGs set in Tokyo. Plenty of recent and upcoming RPGs use Japan's densest and most vibrant city as a familiar backdrop but have nothing of significance to say about the setting; for most of these games, Tokyo could just as well be Ankh-Morpork or Whiterun, except then the landmarks couldn't be familiar subway stations or Tokyo Tower.

Every once in a while, however, a game comes along that makes more than superficial use of modern-day or near-future Tokyo. Perhaps the most notable, and surprising, was 2008's The World Ends With You; what looked like a silly and superficial Kingdom Hearts-inspired project turned out to have one of the most grounded and meaningful storylines in recent memory. The World Ends With You explored themes of isolation, encouraging people to break out of their shells and make real connections. While a good message for anyone, it particularly resonated with the "NEET" subculture — jobless, friendless shut-ins who interact with the world almost entirely through the Internet — that had begun taking root in Japan around that time.

The World Ends With You had much in common with Persona 3 in terms of its visual and musical stylings and its setting. It's perhaps fitting, then, that Persona 5 appears to make as much of a statement about the state of society as Square Enix's DS classic. In this case, though, the heroes appear to be casting off both literal and metaphorical chains. According to information from the latest Weekly Famitsu magazine, the protagonist "feels he has lost his way" and dedicates himself to helping others by using a cell phone app that allows him to enter an alternate world called Palace, where he and his friends work for the better by pursuing the hearts of "rotten people."

Persona 5's premise is at once faithful to the series — Shin Megami Tensei games have used technology as a gateway to a hidden, mystical world since the very beginning — and quite a change of pace. It's unusual for Persona to cast its main characters as anti-heroes, but the P5 crew definitely seem to be working from the shadows. They're glamorous thieves, reminiscent of Lupin III, and while they may be working for the sake of good the methods and presentation of their actions seem somewhat questionable. The overall concept bears a strong similarity to Mr. Robot: Young people who have lost their way, working in the thrall of a somewhat sinister older man, hacking computer devices and performing shady acts in the name of some greater good.

And, like Mr. Robot, Persona 5 clearly has its roots in, and seeks to channel, an underlying sense of social discontent. Previous Persona games have featured direct, concrete plotlines, but P5 has a more nebulous premise. It concerns its protagonists' ennui and sees them aspiring to better the world by striking at the corrupt and evil. Sure, there's a pretty good chance you'll end up fighting some sort of all-powerful god or something at the end (even Catherine, a game ostensibly about dating and relationships, ultimately had you dealing with eldritch forces) — but P5's emphasis on societal malaise and personal discontent puts the game squarely within the current zeitgeist.

I have no idea if P5 will have anything meaningful to say about the state of society or if it will follow through on its premise, but the fact that it's making the effort seems noteworthy. Video games may not have taken up the mantle of rock music as this generation's voice of counter-culture, but the potential certainly exists.

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