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.