[Discourse] Persona 5 and the abandoned misfits

For many years and through countless delays, Persona 5 was my most anticipated game of the year. Persona 4 was an amazing starting point for the Persona series’ examining of real-life issues, and Persona 5’s concept of being a slave to society and needing to break free resonated with me on many levels.

The game is all about taking down corrupt adults, looking critically at people you think you can trust, and how all this hidden evil can hurt young people. A group of misfit kids ending oppressive systems is very punk rock and really fun. I wanted to love it and in many ways I do—it may still be my game of the year. The game asks players to critically engage with the world around them, and I took the game at its word. However, Persona 5 is a prison of its own creation that fails to live up to its themes.

Persona 5 presents itself as a game about misfits and about exposing the unseen evils underlying Tokyo. Yet these misfits adhere to the same norms and assumptions as the oppressive adults the game claims to challenge. The game assumes you’re a straight cis male. Joker, the player character, is a paper-thin self-insert character that’s supposed to be the player, but he in no way represents me or much of the audience. The player can’t romance other men or select another gender.

By excluding the option to choose, Persona 5 demands players accept the cis straight male protagonist, despite being able to name their character. It’s a game about rejection from society and trying to fix it. However, the biggest social rejects in Japan are not straight cis men, but queer people, trans people, and other marginalized folks who face issues because they don’t fit the social norms just by being themselves. For these people it isn’t as simple as hair dye, getting arrested once, and so on; it is a core aspect of their very being.

A street corner with store fronts and posters in the background. In the middle, a blonde young man in casual clothes is facing two effeminate men in brightly colored clothing. A close-up of the blonde boy is at the bottom of the screen. Text indicates that "Ryuji" is speaking. He says "You just gonna leave me here like this?! C'mon, your best friend's in trouble here!"

When the game assumes the player and all the characters are straight, it misses the potential to tell the stories of real youth being affected by homophobia in Japan. In fact, the game makes fun of gay men and has them more or less commit implied sexual assault on Ryuji, one of the party members in the game. Its trans representation isn’t much better with Lala Escargot, a peripheral trans woman character, who receives nasty comments from Mishima after he meets her.

When we look at what’s happening in the Japanese LGBT+ community, this isn’t just a cultural difference, but a serious issue that they missed out on the chance to explore more. Homophobia and transphobia are well documented in Japan, despite recent progress.

The characters could have attended Pride, which is held yearly in Tokyo. Japanese queer folks often hold protests. This wouldn’t be out of place considering the Sun confidant route is about politics. Any character you could romance could have been queer; you don’t need to be able to date every girl in every game. Hell, Sae already isn’t dateable, so if she were a queer woman, nothing else would have to be changed. I mean, seriously—you can date your teacher, an adult woman in a position of power over you, but it’s too weird for you to date a boy?

I could go on and on about places where LGBT+ representation could be included and ways to do it, but that would be a whole other article. Many fans of the series are queer, trans, or both, and these real people should not be excluded.

A screenshot of a video game. Three teenagers (2 boys and a girl) in casual clothes stand in a studio while another young man in a beret leans forward over what appears to be an easel. A close-up of the boy in the beret slashes across the middle of the screen. Text across the bottom denotes that "Yusuke" is talking. It reads: "I will put my heart and soul into creating the best nude painting ever!"

While the game struggles with LGBT+ representation, the way it treats women is even more shocking. The game starts out making a strong point about sexism in schools and its dire consequences for youth. The Phantom Thieves face Kamoshida, a vile man allowed to abuse students because he brings the school money and prestige because he won an Olympic gold medal in volleyball. The party members talk about how disgusting what he’s doing is, and since the game wants us to like the party, we obviously care what they think of people.

However, not long after defeating him, other party members convince Ann Takamaki, one of his victims, to strip in order to get information about another target. Ryuji constantly pervs on girls who clearly do not want his advances. He isn’t alone in the game either: Morgana obsesses over Ann, despite her never indicating she’s interested, and we’re introduced to Yusuke when (as mentioned previously) he tries to force Ann to strip. While he didn’t have ill intent, it’s still harassment.

The game leers at teen girls’ bodies during the animated cutscenes for the audience’s pleasure, such as looking down the girls’ shirts while driving through the desert. Sae, who became a prosecutor at a young age, talks to her younger sister Makoto about how hard it is for a woman to crawl up the career ladder, which is also demonstrated through her interactions with her director. Sadly, the game undercuts itself by also offering swimsuit DLC. It’s enough to give me whiplash, going from characters I adore to being encouraged to download sexist fanservice of them.

A game menu with multiple options. The highlighted open is "Persona 5 Swimsuit Set." There is a small image of four young people - two boys and two girls - wearing swimsuits.

All these sexism issues really boil down to the game assuming the player is a heterosexual male and prioritizing that audience. The game assuming you’re a straight male forces the player to watch their character think about random perverted curiosities that could further disconnect the protagonist from the player. I love dating cute girls in the game, but there’s still a disconnect because they decided that my demographic is not worth marketing to. And it becomes that extra bit worse when we consider the serious real-world harassment girls are facing in Japan and across the globe.

Female main characters aren’t without precedent in the Shin Megami Tensei or Persona series. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment and Persona 3 Portable both include female avatars and dealt with sexism less than Persona 5. While Persona 4’s discussion of queer themes was flawed, for many fans it was a springboard to discovering their queer identity or realizing they were trans. There was something there that could be scaled up, but was ignored.

That is the real shame, since these marginalized fans contributed to making Persona a hit franchise. Personally, I got into the whole Shin Megami Tensei series thanks to queer friends recommending Persona 4 and have played many other games in the franchise because of that. It feels to me like they decided that straight men must be pandered to with fan service, while other audiences are an afterthought.

A young woman wearing a skintight red catsuit and mask and holding a whip leans forward suggestively, showing off both her cleavage and butt. On-screen text reads "Ann" and points to her.

I love Persona and Shin Megami Tensei. I really like Persona 5, but it doesn’t change the fact that Persona 5 is its own biggest enemy. It struggles to support its themes, properly explore them, or expand on their promise. While it does many interesting things for its female characters, it still circles back to pandering to social norms that hurt women. It starts as early as not holding Yusuke accountable for attempting to force Ann to strip to the normalization of men perving on their female friends. It insults its queer fans when it could have empowered them.

We should ask for more from our games, because they can provide. Persona 5 asks us to be critical of the world around us and we should be. Hopefully, if we talk about it now, when Persona 6 or Persona 5 Portable rolls around, we can make it so more people can enjoy the game. Hopefully the next game can steal even more hearts than previous ones.

 

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  • Infophile

    By excluding the option to choose, Persona 5 demands players accept the cis straight male protagonist, despite being able to name their character.

    This seems like part of an overarching problem with the main character of P5: The game can’t quite decide whether you’re playing an empty self-insert character (as in P3 and P4) or roleplaying as an established character (as in P2). You’re allowed to push the boundaries of characterization far enough to date your (character’s) teacher, but you aren’t allowed to push them to date any men. I wrote a blog post a while back in fact about how the game stumbles with this in the main story, railroading you into choices in the main story that you might not make in the character’s place, snapping you out of immersion.

    Aside from that, I agree that it’s striking how much P5 is a step back from P4 in terms of representation. While P4 tried and stumbled, P5 didn’t even bother to try, which is quite a shame. I do wonder what could have caused it – some key person or people leaving the studio? Being watered down in an attempt to make it more palatable to the mainstream? Ah well, I suppose there’s little point speculating. We can only hope Atlus will get the hint and try to do better in the future.

    • If Joker was his own character with his own story that I didn’t make choices for I’d care a lot less. Hell I’d prefer it to a half assed self insert. I’d rather everyone be their own character, I can control any of the games characters and they each have their own personal relationships then being put into a dating sim that I’m playing someone super far away from myself. Idk but I totally agree this is really an overall JRPG issue in my mind where they love letting you name a character but it just makes for super weak leads that I wish I could make more me.

      • Andrew Currall

        I’ve not played Persona, but yeah, it does seem like this is the worst of both worlds. Either have a fully-developed interesting character (or try, at least), or have a totally blank slate. Don’t have a blank slate, but then fill in just a few details.

  • epowa

    Great article, thanks Alexis. It’s always mind boggling when writers manage to contradict their own themes like this.Although I’m very tempted, I’ve not played the game yet, because I had heard about some of the stuff you mentioned.
    It drives me nuts that, in a game with this kind of production value, selecting the gender of the protagonist is not an option. Just looking at the beautiful visual design, makes it clear how enormous their budget must have been.
    Adding a female version would have made no real difference, purely from a money perspective. Especially since the protagonist hardly (if at all?) speaks and doesn’t have overly masculine animations.
    I mean we are not talking Final Fantasy XV or The Witcher here. In those cases it would add considerable costs, due to the high detail of the 3d models and a ton of extra voice acting and motion capture recordings (not saying it wouldn’t be worth it). Also it would have bigger implications on the story since those protagonists are actual people, not just vessels.

    Considering all that, it’s as if the developers are so dismissive of a part of their audience (however small or big), that their thought process must have been something like “Sure, we could add a female protagonist, but why would we do that? Obviously the people who play our games are men…and men obviously don’t want to play as women.”
    And don’t even get me started on all the other issues =(

    • Caitlin

      I actually talked this over with Alexis while this piece was in editing.

      While it may not make a huge difference to the animation to do a simple skin swap, the writing is not gender neutral. Many parts of the game would have to be rewritten, including all of Kamoshida’s arc, your relationships with Ryuji and many other characters, the initial setup with Shido… and that’s just for starters. As a game that at least attempts to tackle sexism, it wouldn’t make sense to act like everyone would treat the main character the same regardless of gender.

      I’m not saying it’s not something that would be worth pursuing. I would love to play that game! But it’s just not as simple as switching character models and pronouns. And as for budget, don’t those writers deserve to get compensated for basically writing two scripts?

      • epowa

        Hmm that’s true, nobody wants a half hearted skin swap or a female protagonist that feels like an afterthought. Especially if sexism is actually a theme of the story.
        I didn’t meant to say that it would be simple in general. But also maybe not quite as costly as in other, fully voiced and less stylized games. After all, writing is definitely a cheaper aspect of a game production. While I haven’t seen any official numbers, a very, very rough calculation would suggest a budget of at least $ 33.000.000. That is just based on the amount of people that worked on the project over five years. With that kind of money, the team could find a way to afford a female protagonist if they wanted one.

        And from a creative point of view, I mean it’s hard to judge for me because I haven’t played it, but if they wanted to make the protagonist’s gender an integral part of the story, he wouldn’t be “a paper-thin self-insert character”. At least it’s hard to imagine how that could work =)

        • My biggest problem with the game is “why was it that the protagonist had to be male (again)”?

          Like why was this the “creative vision” or was it the director never considered it and the story suffers from it. I mean I think I’d walk away a lot less annoyed if queerness was really involved but main character women can’t be gay cuz then if you can only be male you can’t date them and goddess forbid your asked to relate to women uninterested in you cuz they are into each other.

          • Timothy Li

            Likely due to Persona series becoming Atlus flagship title, and the suits taking more of an interest. Persona got away with more as a niche spinoff than the cashcow it became post P4

          • Not like including queer representation makes you fail in the Japanese or American market. Nothing proves that. FE Fates added a (pretty bad) bit of it and did amazing in sales, Sailor Moon is a global smash success anime. Like I think a lot of corporate “fear of anti lgbt boycotts effecting sales” is them just making up a problem to hide their own bigotry.

      • They could just make you a trans girl and deal with the real world transphobia of being treated as a dude or whatever. That require some work and be much easier to fuck up but it be less work since it add lines not reworks.

        • epowa

          It definitely can be done. In the recent Prey for example, the protagonist had a canon ex-girlfriend, no matter whether you play as male or female. I guess the alien invaded space station setting makes that kind of trick easier to pull off than Persona’s coming of age story, but still.

          Having a trans protagonist would be so fucking cool and after Persona 4, that idea didn’t even seem all too far fetched…I thought, in my youthful naivety. Well…
          https://www.polygon.com/2017/4/5/15190808/persona-5-female-main-character-protagonist

          “Honestly, to put that [female character] option into the game, we’d have to cut out other things to compensate for the workload, and every time that’s the situation we’ll basically say, ‘it’s not worth it,’” – Katsura Hashino

          I’m just going to hide in my little corner and cry for bit

          • yah sadly that statement is exactly what I thought they were thinking. Women aren’t worth their time. A large portion of the planet, ehh not worth it cuz it cost money and women will buy playing a man, not the other way around. People didn’t let Assassin’s Creed get away with it but this is darling Atlus.

  • Caitlin

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but your privilege is showing.

    There’s a few layers to your comments about “repetition” here that I want to address. First, it assumes that fans are satisfied with Kanji and Naoto’s arcs, when many are not. While Kanji and Naoto are extremely likable and a lot of people connected with them, P4 basically shied away from true solid representation by declaring Naoto a girl struggling with gender roles and not a trans man dealing with dysphoria. That makes Kanji’s attraction ambiguous and easily interpreted as straight. Many, many fans were disappointed with that conclusion and hoped for something more definitive in Persona 5 than Persona 4’s fumbled representation.

    Persona 4 and 5 both have themes that resonate with the LGBT community. Persona 4 dealt with identity and staying true to oneself, even if the world at large doesn’t understand them. Persona 5 is about marginalization and striking back against an oppressive system, which should by all rights should include characters from marginalized groups. So yes, it absolutely should have had dungeons related to LGBTQ identity, just as it had a dungeon that related to sexism (even if it fumbled with that as well….) Instead, it treated the queer community as jokes and predators, which is extremely hurtful. I mean hell, it doesn’t even have to have a dungeon related to that. They could have made Yusuke gay or Makoto bisexual or Futaba trans without changing anything else about their arcs. You can have queer characters without their stories being ABOUT that.

    So yes, complaining about a lack of representation in every individual work is a pretty useless critique – it’s more about the patterns. However, Persona 5 is a missed opportunity.

    • alecksis

      “So yes, it absolutely should have had dungeons related to LGBTQ identity, just as it had a dungeon that related to sexism (even if it fumbled with that as well….) Instead, it treated the queer community as jokes and predators, which is extremely hurtful.”

      100% agree with this. Persona’s handling of queer rep is offputting to me, to the point where even though I’m really enjoying playing the game, I’ve had to set it aside and I don’t know when I’ll get around to finishing it. I really liked Kanji in P4 starting out, but Yosuke constantly makes him out to be some type of perverse deviant and actively tries to exclude him. P5’s only queer rep has been the two awful stereotypes who sexually assault Ryuji– it feels like an extension/validation of Yosuke’s prejudice in the previous game. It feels like P5 is “for the marginalized, but not queer people, that’s just TOO FAR.”

  • I think we should be demanding representation in media in any place we see fit because media asks us to take part in it. If we are invested, creating fan art, sharing trailers, buying copies for friends, putting it on lists, etc then we’ve done the job of marketing for them. It’s only fair we can complain a little cuz we should feel happy with the end goal. For me it matters way more then a little bonus.

    That said Persona 5 is a narrative that cycles around real world issues and there for needs to even more so be taken more critically. When it queer codes a character like they did with a main party member it’s fair to ask why he isn’t actively gay? The game on nearly every level asks you to ask questions and be critical. The Phantom Thives are about looking harder at stuff.

  • Eric Iacono

    While I totally get the “the camera “leers” down the shirt of the girls in the desert bus scene, it is actually the boys from the backseat taking a look” thing, the camera doesn’t also need to objectify that character at the same time. Like you can just show characters checking other characters out, without needing to switch to that character’s point of view. It’s not like this game is first person or often in a first person point of view, so a switch to a first person view means its trying to communicate something about what it’s showing (namely, Ann as a consumable object).

    As an inverse example, Catherine did this as well. The difference is that Catherine also spent a significant amount of time in it’s cutscenes from Vincent’s point of view (there’s also an argument that Catherine is specifically offering herself up as a tempting object for story reasons, but whatever).

    Oh and hey, Catherine is also a game where they just had a trans character like no big deal, and it was fine (okay, it was a big deal for one character, but everyone else in the cast shamed that character for making a big deal of it)

  • Kazuya Prota

    Honestly, I think that the whole dating adults stuff is by far the biggest issue of P5 sexism. Remember that they legitimely though that Sae could be a love interest, Sae, the serious worker law obsessed dating a teenaged.

    The very idea of it makes me sick.

    The biggest issue with P5 is how much Idealized is the MC, for much that it tries to be the social outcast, the game put a lot of emphasis in how the MC is actually a brilliant devilish genius that had the right skills to fix the world. The casual sexism is just a derivate of it, because the game sort of devalues everyone that is not the MC.

  • Brandon Christopher

    This has been on my mind for a while. It is funny since as soon as somebody is critical, it means you hate it, and that is completely baseless, especially since I played through the game 3 damn tries to get that platinum trophy.

    Anyway, I roll my eyes when a lot of the western fans justify head tilting elements and lack of representation by essentially saying that LGBT folks are nonexistent in Japan, or that it is not an issue worth discussing. It is why I tend to be a bit pessimistic in regards to supposed rebellious themes- you can date your highschool teacher, but god torbid you want to be LGBT.

    I also disliked the blank slate portrayal since as you said, the game railroads you a lot, or gives you options that you dislike (especially that instance in regards to Morgana’s gender, and those times where Joker was perving). That isn’t inherently a problem. In fact, I prefer player characters to be their oqn since it is usually more interesting, and devs tend to severely limit the freedom of choice anyway.

    The first arc of the game was the best by far, showing how people can become trapped in a vicious cycle. But after that? It wanted to have its cake and eat it too. The messages sometimes came off as lip service, especially the ending since there will probably be more Persona games, though I do admit the “humans are good” thing is a pet peeve of mine. I also hate how Ann and Makoto like to abuse poor Yusuke.

    • Yah I really love this game, when I care enough to be critical about something I tend to really care about the series or the game in question. In this case it was both, finishing up my top 10 games list of the year and this is up there.

      I totally agree on the humans are good thing as a thing that annoys me to. I can roll with it but the less they give me to believe it the harder it is to swallow.

      I think a big reason I felt like I wanted to talk about this is that Persona 5 isn’t just Persona 5 it’s probably going to be a spin off anime, it is Persona Q2, Persona 5 Dancing All Night, Persona 5 Arena probably. Like this is going to be a big thing and sparks of stronger representation could have made all these games have a reflection of more people instead of just head canons.

      • Brandon Christopher

        I completely agree. I hate how you can’t critique something without hating it, or people trying to gaslight me into thinking I have no idea what I’m talking about.

  • Hey, I think other people have other points covered, but in regards to Yusuke…

    I’m an artist, and yeah, I’ve drawn nude people. The difference is, any model I’ve had for that has consented to it fully. They haven’t been pushed, pestered or forced into it in any way. I’d agree that P5 plays it without Yusuke having any sexual intentions, but that doesn’t really change the fact that Ann’s obvious lack of consent and comfort with the situation is played for laughs and ignored, which is not good.

    Flip your perspective on it; the important part isn’t his intentions, it’s her discomfort.

  • FlopIA

    I actually LOVE this article almost as much as I love Persona and Shin Megami Tensei series. They give you an empty shell… for you only. To create it and re-imagine the original empty image. But that falls as soon as they give you only “heterosexual” romance options. Not just that. They mocked two male (one bi, one potentially gay) characters. They think they can touch these serious topics, and mock them. It’s the biggest Persona’s flaw. Just because you can make a story that involves serious and dark themes, that doesn’t mean you can half-ass it.

  • Too Tall Greg

    First off, I agree with everything in the article.

    I actually had a number of issues with the Persona 5 story compared to Persona 4, and I think part of why they’re more glaring is the fact that it’s set in Tokyo. The overall lack of LGBT representation in Persona 4 outside of Naoto and Kanji (depending on how you interpret them) could be excused to a degree by the rural location: less people means less LGBT people in general, more conservative attitudes than in a major city, and less safe places for them to be honest about who they are. Persona 5 has none of those excuses, and then has the sexual assault for laughs added on top of that.

    • I hadn’t even considered Rural vs City but that is a great point. I mean looking at the years from when P5 started development and ended Tokyo had made a ton of progress inside a lot of districts for LGBT people.

  • orion

    I read that the direction theme for Persona 5 was “pop punk” and honestly? I feel like that sums up the game pretty well: while Persona 5 adopts the trappings of rebellion, in the end it fails to say anything truly revolutionary or controversial. In fact, as you said, it even manages to shoot itself in the foot on the few stances it does take.

    I mean while I’m on that topic…

    ***minor spoilers for the ending of the game***

    Does it bother anyone else that the protagonist ends up leaving Tokyo to go back to his parents? You know, the parents who pretty much ditched him and let him fend for himself alone after being falsely accused? It really felt hollow as an ending to a game which had pretty much been about building up relationships and how a “found family” is just as (and sometimes even more) important and real as blood ties. Especially after maxing Sojro’s s-link. Ouch.

    ***end spoilers***

    On the other hand, I can’t say that I was surprised at all. Disappointed maybe, but not surprised. As a longtime fan of Atlus and the entire Shin Megami Tensei franchise it has been disheartening to see the company shy away further and further from addressing “controversial” issues, most notably lgbtq+ issues. While people like to point to Persona 4 as an example of Japanese media which discusses queer issues, and I do agree that queer folk like myself have found meaning in it, it is nevertheless true that this “discussion” remains purely subtextual in the final game. Meanwhile, in Persona 2: Innocent Sin you could actually be a dude who chooses to date a dude (and this option has been stated to be the “canon” pairing by writers) and Digital Devil Saga featured gay and nonbinary characters in major roles (don’t want to be too specific because spoilers; please play this game).

    So when you take the franchise as a whole, Atlus has regressed and continues to further regress on these issues.

    • ** Reply to Spoilers**
      I totally agree, I am like why in the world would you go back to them? There is no reason, he has a family and friends here now, he is doing amazing at the school.
      **end of spoilers**

      I agree, I didn’t mention other Shin Megami Tensei games other then 4 because 4 is by far the most popular. It is a shame that they have regressed and they keep doing so. I think the representation in a lot of the SMT games that does exist is very flawed but like “Here is a great building block to do better” that generally gets stomped on.