Class has just ended and a ping rings from my pocket.

A friendly face pops onto my phone’s messenger app. After spending tens of hours with them at this point, I’d say I know them well. We’ve been on adventures, learned each others’ backstories, and felt our bonds grow over time. They ask if I’d like to meet up for coffee, that they’d like to discuss something important with me. A single bead of sweat runs across my brow. I know what’s next. We’re about to start going out.

The Persona series is full of encounters just like this one: the awkward first declarations of love when you’re young, silly, and in high school. In some ways, it’s sort of what the whole series is about. A spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei games, Persona has grown in popularity over the past 20 years to a fever pitch, finally breaking through to the mainstream with its latest release in Persona 5.

For years, the Persona series has been highly praised for its interesting combination of traditional JRPG mechanics and visual novel-like life management systems. They’ve built a reputation for themselves by allowing players an impressive level of agency, letting you build relationships with a wide cast of important characters. While not all of them are romantic in nature, perhaps the most memorable ones of them are. It’s a part of the series I’ve always adored yet as I play through Persona 5 I can’t help but be reminded of how irresponsible video games can be at representing love and all that comes with it.

Imagine that you find yourself in the exact position I stated above, where you’re ready to take the next step in a relationship. It’s a point in the game that has required hours of work. First gaining the right prerequisites to even interact with the character outside of the main story; then slowly making time for them in the highly hectic life of a high school student that moonlights as a Phantom Thief. It’s undoubtedly a moment you’ve deliberately set out to accomplish yet because you’re playing a game, it feels a part of a grander design.

On its own, this is just another important part of the already fantastic sum that makes up Persona 5. It perfectly encapsulates what makes Persona so… Persona. A game series that has long focused on how difficult it can be traversing the modern social landscape, Persona has always done this by giving players a large amount of choice in their day-to-day activities. Yet, when framed exclusively around the idea of pursuing potential romantic relationships within the game it creates an unsettling dilemma.

Romance storylines are not created with any sort of algorithmic randomness. Instead, they are deliberately designed ahead of time, meaning that to pursue a character’s affection, the player simply needs to accomplish the required goals set before them. It’s a necessity that leads to better written experiences, but it also means that every character is a potential love interest for the player within the parameters the developers have set in place. In Persona 5‘s case, almost every female Confidant is a potential love interest. It perpetrates the notion that if you work hard enough at it, you are entitled to successfully romancing anyone who is possible. That for your work you are owed a reward.

In the real world this is known as “male entitlement syndrome”. It’s something that I’ve found myself taking part in, despite my unwillingness to believe it so.

During the same years of my life that Persona 5 explores so thoroughly, I became infatuated with a girl. Like the protagonist in the game, I was young, silly, and in high school. Looking for love, I tried every day to slowly gain more and more of her attention. When a fellow friend of mine was able to ask her for her number before I could ever muster the courage, I became enraged, picking a fight with another friend of mine in the process. In my mind we were meant to be together. The sheer thought of her being with someone else made my stomach twist and turn. I spent the remainder of the school-year trying to make her realise something that I myself assumed to be true until I slowly began to blame her for not seeing what I saw. That it was her fault we weren’t together, not mine.

The idea that this girl never owed me a second of her attention was a hard lesson to learn. That what I had concocted in my head was just a young boy’s silly fantasy based on nothing more than a crush. It was one that I didn’t fully embrace until many years later, once I had put high school far behind me. While certain “men’s rights” forums would have me believe that my circumstance was a case of “chivalry being dead” or some other hogwash that simply shifted the blame to someone else, I know now what I wish I knew then; that nobody owes me anything – especially love.

Male entitlement is a problem that almost every game with a romance system deals with, each to varying degrees. Since the original Mass Effect, I’ve seen it become a more prevalent problem as games attempt to widen the amount of experiences a player can have. Like in Persona 5, games very rarely ever present the option for other characters to disregard the player’s advances for reasons other than their own sexuality or position in life. You never run into anyone who simply isn’t that into you. Why would you? You must be some sort of Adonis, right? At least, that’s the idea these games continue to push. Of course, that’s not to say that that’s true or if this an unsolvable issue.

Take for instance the way Dragon Age has evolved to be more responsible with its portrayal of the LGBT community. In Dragon Age 2, if you turned down any homosexual characters’ advances towards you, you then received rivalry points in that particular relationship. It presented the false stereotypes that homosexuals are A) always asking straight men to be gay with them and B) that homosexuals will think of straight people as their rivals. However, in the game’s sequel Dragon Age Inquisition, this system was thrown out. More importantly, Inquisition has been highly praised by the LGBT community for its diverse representations within the game. It shows that games haven’t fully figured this stuff out, but if given the chance, they can tackle and approach these things more responsibly.

For Persona 5, the answer isn’t very complicated and while I, a straight dude not purporting to be any authority on the topic may try my best, there will most likely be far more knowledgeable people to discuss this very topic with. Yet, here we are. I having written the thing and you currently reading it, I guess I should continue: games need to stop approaching characters as stat-based objects but as real people with real motivations and desires. Persona in particular could simply remove the option to romance certain Confidants, justifying it by simply having the characters not being attracted to the protagonist. After all, our protagonist isn’t a God. He’s a kid, and not everyone needs to like him. While life of course is more nuanced that this and there are plenty of stories that would argue that persistence can sometimes work out, like how I assumed a fellow classmate owed me her attention, this perpetrates the idea of entitlement.

But to say that Persona 5 is a bad game because of these criticisms would be missing the point. In fact, the issue becomes even more noticeable and disappointing because it’s just so damned good to begin with. It stands out, like a dent in a luxury sports car, sticking out above over every other inch of its beautifully designed metal. It flies in the face of some of the game’s most important themes as it often tackles stories about the abuse of privilege and authority. That for a series that has so eloquently explored the difficulties of exploring the modern social landscape, to not talk about this would render Persona‘s main thesis meaningless.

For as much work as Persona has done to talk about topics most other games would shy away from, this is a chance for the industry to look at the trend and to learn from it. While choice is something many players enjoy, it’s important that if we’re playing games that are attempting to say something about our lives that they do so in realistic and meaningful ways. Despite what many wish to be true, games can at times be influential. For Persona 5, it seems specifically so.

I suppose all we can hope for is a future where we see a more understanding approach when games, as art, attempt to emulate life.

  • Matthew Bryant

    You’re over analyzing a video game. It’s pretty ridiculous. You know what other differences there are between real life and a video game? In real life you’re not the saviors of the world by fighting psychologically imbalanced monsters in a collective subconscious that for one reason or another believe that humanity actually just wants to end it all. This idea that you’re an adonis in video games (you can be one of either sex in quite a few games by the way) is nothing surprising given that you’re also the savior of the world or the entire universe in plenty of RPGs. A game isn’t meant to be realistic. If it was, it wouldn’t be very fun.

  • PorchettaMan

    Interesting piece, but I disagree.

    While it tackles some very real issues, Persona is not meant to be a realistic game. Persona is first and foremost meant to be a hero fantasy, wish fulfillment, an “anime protagonist simulator” which puts making the player feel good ahead of any kind of realism.
    The fact all female characters are ready to fall for the protagonist is definitely unrealistic, but it’s something that makes perfect sense when keeping the game’s purpose in mind. It’s one of many ways to make the player feel good, and I’d argue the game handles it relatively tastefully as well. Besides, it’s something that extends to male characters as well, just not in a romantic sense: nearly everybody can become your loyal friend for life if you meet the right conditions, no matter how hard you try you won’t find somebody you simply will never get along with.
    Ultimately, unrealistic relationships help Persona accomplish its goal, and if anything, they’re proof of good design. I don’t think the game can be faulted for them. The issues you’re talking about exist, but they arise when the player doesn’t understand all of this, that he/she is dealing with fantasy people and that fantasy people standards do not carry over to real life. In that case though, the blame lies on the player. It’s not the game that should be more responsible, it’s the people.

  • aFriendlyAgenda

    What could be worse then the normalizing of smug liberal gender-baiting

  • reallydude?

    I think you answered the problem pretty early on in the article. You were rejected in high school and learned the lesson. Boom, problem solved. Video games aren’t meant to be a direct representation of real life. Games like Persona are designed to allow multiple romances so that the player can choose rather than forcing a specific person on you. What if you don’t like the person forced on you? Well in real life you can reject as well, it would suck if that wasn’t an option in video games.

    That’s not to mention the insane amount of work you are asking developers to put into a game for an arguably minor part of the game. Relationships are just a side activity and it’s not like it’s required. Are you asking devs to put more time into the relationship simulators than the rest of the game?

    Something important you missed, RPGs are Role-Playing-Games. Key words there: Role Playing

  • Kageyama

    Don’t you people care about diversity? Because turning everything into some homogeneous experience across the board is as far away from being diverse that you could possibly get. People are not the same we are all different and care about different things, we want different things and everyone’s artistic expressions are different too!

    You want pandering? You already have Horizon Zero Dawn and Mass Effect Andromeda, 2 of the biggest AAA games of the year yet here you’re complaining about a little niche game because it does not comply with your standards, which BTW are obviously different from mine’s and from the guys that made the game.

    If the game normalize male whatever, so what? It’s fantasy, it’s an escape, it’s entertainment and nobody’s forcing you to play it either, so what exactly is the problem? Learn some tolerance, respect the diversity of thought and stop being an intolerant regressive lefty.

  • asadachi

    I need you to take your clickbait crap and shove it waaaaaaaay up your butthole.

  • bruce livingston

    It’s a fucking game…
    Christ, this is retarded.
    Can you morons just stop with the cancerous identity politics?

  • Danny DeMent

    Someone doesn’t seem to understand the line between real life and a video game.

    Lemme break it down for you son: video games thrive in algorithms and predetermined outcomes for certain actions. It’s what makes them video games. It’s what makes them fun. Would I have fun playing Dark Souls if I could just randomly scuff my toe mid-attack, faceplant, and get skewered from above? Probably not, and that happens in real life. But thankfully not in the game, which isn’t entirely bound to those rules.

    The same is true in any video game that presents a romance option. You will have to meet certain conditions to advance down that route, but that’s what makes the route worth pursuing in the game. It’s why the option even exists. Imagine if, instead, you COULD pursue that only to then be turned down because “I like you, but just as a friend”. completely at random, after investing hours into that game. Sure it’d be more realistic, but it makes less fun and more a chore, at which point there’d be no point to include it.

    But again, video games aren’t real life. A normal person KNOWS that they can’t raise their charm or kindness to a set, numeric level. We know we can’t simply meet the right requirements and then every girl we talk to will invariably offer us a shot at a relationship. But we like it in the GAME because it adds more fun and fleshes out the game world. If you want to date one of the girls, you can work toward it. If you want to date more than one just to see what happens? Possible. If you decide you don’t want to at all, you can completely forgo it.

    Nothing about this game correlates 1:1 to real life, from the story, to the romances, to the “psience”. There are pieces of real world philosophy and theory within, but they’re taken to literal extremes for the sake of a fantasy tale. Healthy people can see this.

    If you can’t? You may need to examine yourself instead of asking developers to make it easy for you, Kyle.

  • Turn Into Liquid

    Yeah, it’s a video game. It’s fantasy. I’m not looking to be realistically rejected by a girl in this game. Before I even played it I knew I wanted Ann. In the most base way, I think her character design is completely flawless and I already knew if I wanted it I could work to romance her. I didn’t see it as “entitlement” but as a goal in the game. Because that’s just what it is: a game. I’ve been rejected plenty of times in the real world to not have this game create any illusions for me that I can have any woman I want in real life. I’ve had many years to tell me otherwise. This is a game where if I want the hot blonde airhead, the smart girl, the cute and naive shut-in, or a woman that’s way too old for my character, I can have it. Because it’s just a silly (awesome) game. And if anyone feels they’re entitled to any woman they want after they play this game, they have other problems. Or they’re Dan Bilzerian.

    Also, Kyle: a girl like Yukiko would probably hate your guts in real life. But I bet you still romanced her, didn’t you, you entitled jerk?

    That was a joke.

  • Yojimbo

    OMFG please do not hold an Eastern game to Western PC tree hugging standards.

    They hate that and now you know why the entire world despises the West.

  • Brandon Langrock

    Hey everyone,

    Let’s remember that this is a discussion piece – that is, it’s meant to facilitate discussion. Disagreeing is totally fine. We’re not meant to agree with everything that everyone says. That aside, we’re not here to target the author for trying to share a perspective that extends beyond the confines of the game or clashes with what we believe. The best video games are those that can provoke a constructive conversation, and we at GameSpew love to see exactly that: constructive conversation. Thanks for listening.

    • J.j. Barrington

      Although I’m seeing some insults, most people are expressing WHY they disagree. And, frankly, it seems like a pretty common sense reason, to me:

      It’s a video game.

      I’m a one woman kinda guy. Always have been. Never even tried to cheat, though opportunities have come my way. In this video game, where I can change the cognition of people through delving into the world’s shared consciousness, I can date multiple women.

      I don’t have to, though.

      I don’t have to date even a single one of them.

      When P3P included a female protagonist, she could do the same thing: date a whole bunch of guys at once, no consequences. I’ll bet the author raised no fuss about that. Are there complaints about the ability to do so as male or female in Mass Effect or Dragon Age? Or is it only a problem in gaming when a specific game doesn’t have that option for both males and females?

      People are upset with the author- and understandably so, I’d say- because this is such a shallow thought. It’s neither new nor honest, and a lot of folks are just tired of this stuff.

      • Brandon Langrock

        Hey, thanks for your response.

        I’m all for people expressing why they disagree, and we’re in agreement that many of the comments are quite constructive. This article is one facet of thought from the author in an attempt to facilitate thought and discussion. My concern stems from one-line statements that target the author directly, rather than mentioning anything about the article itself.

        I don’t think anybody would deny that video games involve a certain level of suspension of disbelief – the Persona series is no exception. I feel like I can comfortably say that we don’t want our video games to completely mimic society either, as that would defeat much of the purpose of video games: escapism. With Persona 5 especially, many of the themes involved are meant to be controversial and clash with our perception of conventional society. Presumably, that’s done in part to get a response out of the player and provoke thoughts and discussions regarding the subject manner, alongside creating a more engaging story experience. At the same time, the option to date multiple characters at the same time in P5 is treated as routine, and I think that new and interesting conversations can still come from that notion.

  • KingTeta

    So did you go out of your way to romance every girl just to make this shit article? Plenty of people pick only one character and wife her up. You’re bashing on a role-playing game because you roleplayed in a manner you didn’t like. Here’s a tip man, you can choose to romance no one at all.

  • SingingBrakeman

    Neat article, thanks for writing it. Overall I agree with your perspective, and it’s an issue that you rightly point out has bedeviled RPGs since they introduced widespread romance options in the mid-2000s or so (apologies if my timeline is way off). It’s nice to see some developers, like Bioware, moving forward in the case of Dragon Age: Inquisition, though I’m sure there will always be a place for more entitlement fantasies, as exaggerated portrayals of life are the norm for other aspects of this style of art – extreme violence in many games, social control fantasies in strategy games like Civilization, etc.

    One area that I found interesting, but that didn’t have much space to breathe in the article, is the issue of whether characters in games actually should be more like real people instead of stat-based pseudo-caricatures. In moving towards a more realistic presentation of people, I would say that a developer may inadvertently run a greater risk of presenting situations in a more lifelike way, only to fall short on fostering a more complex understanding of real-life due to the inability to write for all realistic outcomes; reality, after all, necessarily has no protagonist or predetermined, neat end point. Of course, moving in the direction of less realistic characters – seeking to avoid the burden of representing real-life experiences entirely – raises its own issues: immediately, one is to wonder whether avoiding engagement with reality is an expression of privilege, avoiding making a statement and therefore reinforcing the status quo. Additionally, the very value of a piece of art or entertainment can more easily be called into question if it offers no meaningful statement – why does this thing exist and why am I engaging with it if it has nothing to say?

    I don’t know, I’m just rambling on here. The most important thing is that your piece made me think, and I appreciate the prompt.