PERSONA 5 has some great coffee mugs

image credit: Persona 5 press kit

I made the argument once, on a long defunct site, that JRPG casts operate more like coffee mugs than E.M. Forster-approved characters. My science isn’t exact, but the idea runs like this: You have a coffee mug, you love it, it is your coffee mug. You spend a lot of time with it. You bring it with you to many places. But a lot of the time you’re not thinking about your coffee mug’s inner life — maybe just when you take it out of the cupboard. Mostly, you use it as a tool. It gets caffeine from the pot to your central nervous system. Still, you spend hundreds of hours with that mug. Hard not to get attached. If my favorite mug broke, I’d be devastated.

What is PERSONA 5?
A social simulation and role playing game developed by P-Studios and published by Japanese video game publisher Atlus.
You play a 17-year-old male protagonist arriving at a new school outside Tokyo’s Shibuya district. As you cozy into your new home — on juvenile probation after intervening in an assault and being sued by the assaulting party — you make friends at school and gradually discover that a metaverse exists underneath the vanilla reality. In this metaverse, the hero characters discover, accept and bond with their “personas” to battle with “shadows” to right wrongs perpetrated in reality. It’s all very Jungian. When you’re not fighting in the metaverse, you literally go to school, study, hit up the batting cages, play video games, read, walk around Tokyo and hang with friends. It’s a lot of coordination.
PERSONA 5 is for people who like project management software.

Role playing games set you up to spend a lot of time with colorful tools. PERSONA 5 — a visual novel with a rock-paper-scissor simulator built in — leans heavily on dungeon crawls. A good player is going to put at least half of their 90-hour run into non-narrative combat and exploration. Neither activity develops character, it doesn’t build or resolve plot — even if it’s thrilling and creates dynamic stories in its own right. In combat, your characters are tools.

You get it. They’re coffee mugs.

There are a lot of character arcs in PERSONA 5. They’re all pretty familiar if you’ve ever read a book before — or played a video game for that matter. Nothing’s going to knock your socks off.

For example: I know from the second I meet Haru Okumera, newly orphaned corporate heiress stuck in an arranged engagement with Patrick Bateman, that she will rise up against the board of directors to reclaim and restore her family company’s ethics while ditching the fiancé. All with a little help from me, her Player Character friend. It’s a near-facsimile of other character’s narratives, with just the names and specifics changed.

There is a lot of conflict and resolution in PERSONA 5’s character arcs, but none of it ever surprises you. This keeps the characters a little two-dimensional.

So what draws us to two-dimension characters? Why did, closing down the software for PERSONA 5 after its post-credit sequence, I feel a lingering loss? Why did the characters feel almost like friends?

I was shelving my coffee mugs. I was saying, “We’ve had a good run.”

The characters in PERSONA 5 are sold short by a lot of things: objectification and fan service, awkwardly localized dialogue, tropes and predictable beats… But there’s a lot to recommend them as well.

The overall character design is excellent. Art Director Masayoshi Suto developed a group of young, weird guys and gals that feel and look appropriately teenage. They have anxieties, desires, opinions and a whole lot of disillusionment — perhaps the defining characteristic of adolescence. And they actively grapple with that disillusionment, which is still cathartic, twelve years after having graduated high school myself.

(LENGTHY SIDE NOTE: Sex isn’t handled nearly as well. This could be a subtle commentary on sexual repression and Japan, but the sparse sexual agency among female characters, homophobic stereotyping and casual objectification [of both sexes] feel lazy or pandering. No one is comfortable with sex, and yet everyone is designed to be sexually appealing. These teenagers [and adults] come off as super repressed in a video game with a literal title that doesn’t truck w/ repression. Everyone’s an ingenue in PERSONA 5.)

(Worth noting: There’s an enemy with an circumcised penis for a head. It’s co-existance with the above is delightful.)

Here’s the thing: I just need my coffee mug to be well-designed, interesting to look at, functional. PERSONA 5 brings all of that. It’s menus are snappy, and so are its characters. You admire the efficiency of their arcs. Their awkwardly translated dialogue grows on you. Their character portraits blink, grin, scowl. You notice that when they lie or are uncomfortable, they tend to squint out of one eye. This doesn’t explain to my satisfaction a subreddit devoted to Haru’s forehead — but I’m charmed it exists.

It’s also hard to be down on a game that, at its core, is just about friends being friends. Walk a character through their story arc and he or she always closes it with a variation on: “You were there for me when I needed help, so know that I will always be there for you.” It’s exceptionally silly, overly earnest, and yet, powerful.

A coffee mug doesn’t swear fealty to you, granted. But it has a reliability. It follows you from apartment to house to apartment to apartment. It’s always where you left it: cabinet, dish rack, sink. It’s ready to go when you are.

By comparing Makoto, Ann, Yuske, Haru, Morgana (the talking cat), etc. etc. to coffee mugs, I don’t mean to belittle the writing on PERSONA 5, or the character design or even tea cups — although no one relies on tea cups like they do coffee mugs. JRPGs live and die by their heroes. And a good coffee mug and a well-drawn fictional character are two very different things serving two very different purposes. First, and semantically, there’s the old ludo-narrative dissonance — the fact that games can’t give you fully-realized characters because they’re games and thus not static. Second, even when we get compelling, full characters… they’re not built for 90-hour journeys. The language of games is still too cinematic, and games are too utilitarian.

PERSONA 5’s cast is built for its purpose. They’re charming, if a little familiar, and built to last. They’re ergonomic.