A Need For Productivity: Persona 4 & The Plan

Like a lot of people, I make lists.

Even when I write them down, I know I’ll never stick to them – I never have before – but in the moment of writing I feel so much better about myself. I take something from the idea that through writing these words I have been able to create a potential version of myself, a version of myself that succeeds and follows through, a version of myself that doesn’t have panic attacks, a version of myself that finishes what they start. I will never be that person, the goals I set for myself are far too lofty and unreasonable, as if I’m a six year old making shopping lists from a catalogue. But I still get to stand in the framework of that person, create them from nothing until they are a tangible idea. The words may never become true, but that doesn’t make them any less real to read on the screen.

As I write this, my hands are shaking. I spent most of the weekend sick and in bed, unable to work on all the things that have been stacking, and now I’m trying desperately to catch up. Over the last few months, I’ve been working on a future project that ballooned out of control, and after today’s few thousand words I am midway through the thirty-first article. I want to spend the rest of the afternoon working on important site maintenance before getting on with this month’s game club in the evening. I have two podcasts to edit, multiple games I want to finish, a university degree to prepare for, a screenplay I’m almost done with, and I’m trying to completely clear my room and reinvent my living space in order to fight the tenuous hold I have these days, as a depressed person on the autism spectrum, on my sense of self.

The majority of the sickness has passed, my throat is dry and my nose is blocked, but I’m able to work, so I’ve been doing just that. I’m constantly terrified that I’m making the wrong decision, letting something slip through my fingers, watching one of my plates stop spinning and come crashing to the floor. I know how it will happen – the plate will slow, it will begin to turn, and I will reach out to grab it a second too late, as it splits into fragments on the cold hard floor. “What did you go and break my plate for?!” I assume someone will say, even though I know that they won’t. Nobody is asking this of me, there’s no reason that I should drive myself harder and harder on this quest of production, save for harmful internalised capitalistic notions of value and worth.

So in those couple of days where I was sick, where I laid in bed frustrated and watching those impossible lists spiral further and further out of my reach, I had no option but to simply not participate in these ways of thinking for a while, if not so I could just breathe for a little while.

And then I went and played Persona 4.

Persona 4 is a game that attempts to communicate this tension in a way few other games come close to. Time will always keep moving, there is no way to slow it, no way to reverse it, and no way to change it. It is a game in which you spin a good twenty or thirty plates for no reason other than the fact that you feel that you should. The bonuses that the social links give you are nice, but the difference between a rank 5 and a rank 7 are negligible in the grand scheme of things. So Persona 4 in its best state is a game communicating what it means to be a healthy person with a job to do, in which you pick and choose the people that are and the work that is important to you, and be okay with letting the rest go.

But I don’t play it like that. I play it with a guide open in front of me, a chart of actions without context, relationships reduced to numbers in order to achieve maximum systemic efficiency. I have no need for the efficiency; I’m playing on Very Easy and will never be challenged. But difficulty isn’t the reason that when I forget to bring the right Persona with me on my first time hanging out with Nanako, I load a save from three hours ago and fast-forward through every scene, remembering to make all the correct choices.

No, it’s because Persona 4 presents a system that is possible. It may completely change my engagement with the game to treat it in such a passionless way, but here in front of me sits a list on which every item can be checked off, so why wouldn’t I follow the instructions? The core fantasy of is that if you say and do the right things at the right time, you can do it all. You won’t lose your friends because you were too anxious to talk to anyone for weeks and you simply drifted out of contact, you’ll have cleared every dungeon and catalogued every persona, you won’t have any books in your collection left unread. You’ll have lived as perfect a life that can be lived.

What Persona 4 provides to me is, in my opinion, as an offshoot of the new power fantasy that Austin Walker coined in his review of The Crew – he talked about the direct and measurable link between input and output, whereas this is more about fitting all the moments that make up a life into place as if you’re playing Tetris. Different systems, but essentially offering a similar thing: the certainty that you will be okay. Persona 4 allows me to treat merely living a life (albeit one with dungeons and demons) as a system that can easily be mastered, with no unknowns and no unfairness getting in the way. Both fantasies allow me to indulge in these incredibly capitalistic values that are the very things causing such great harm in my life, all within a world in which that harm is removed.

I think a lot about the idea of letting go, and how I’m not sure that I’ve ever let go of anything in my life. Every feeling that I’ve ever felt remains dormant inside me, ready to be reawakened when the right words are said. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time creating those lists, maybe that’s why I have so much trouble sticking to them. Persona 4 presents a world in which I don’t have to let go of the feelings I’m trapped by, I can follow the instructions and build the perfect life as easily as writing out words on paper.

But that isn’t what makes Persona 4 notable. Many games engage with this idea – Dead Risingpresents a world in which it’s impossible to save everyone in time until you have increased in power and knowledge through multiple lives, Cart Life presents a world in which failure is inevitable as an explicit capitalist critique. But Persona 4 isn’t about that, despite my engagement with the game dependent on that baggage that I bring, it’s about identity. Every character in the game gains their power by confronting their shadow self, by resolving their internal problems: by accepting these less perfect sides of themselves as valid and thus getting to a point where they can let go. Every character, that is, except Yu.

Yu never confronts his shadow self and is instead presented to us as a blank slate, his status as the player’s avatar made literal within the game’s universe. It is this lack of an internal conflict that gives him a greater and more versatile power than the others, that gives him the power to be everything to everyone, that gives him the power to keep all those plates in the air. And as I set the game down in the middle of Kanji’s dungeon, because my fever is clearing and I’ve got so much to do, I wonder for just a moment what that says about me.

It’s gone midnight now, and I never did get that site maintenance done.