ByOliver S. Douglas, writer at
History student at King's College London. Technology and gaming fanatic. Feed me geek things! Twitter @GentlemanOrc
Oliver S. Douglas

Western RPG games are dominating the gaming industry right now. If we look at some of the biggest successes of the past few years, whether The Witcher 3 or Horizon Zero Dawn, we see an array of Western action RPGs. The recent releases of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Persona 5 have put JRPGs back on the map for the two most successful and exciting consoles currently on the market. While I'm yet to get my hands on a Nintendo Switch, I have sunk more than 60 hours into and it's a truly excellent game.

Yet, as somebody who has never really touched other than a couple of titles in my younger gaming years, I was suddenly hit with a culture shock. I asked myself if I could truly understand this game as a British gamer, or if some of the themes and content were lost on me.

Persona 5 Has A Lot Of Heavy Central Themes

[Credit: Atlus]
[Credit: Atlus]

The Persona series is known for addressing a variety of themes relating to modern life, and it is precisely this modern setting that allows the game to tackle them so effectively. Persona 5 boasts difficult and delicate themes, including sexual assault, identity, justice and suicide. It addresses them bravely, and for this developer Atlus must be given credit, seeing as too many video games gloss over issues that are very real for people.

The developers assess these topics from a distinctly Japanese cultural perspective, which is completely to be expected. But coming from an entirely Western upbringing, it is the case that perhaps some of these topics are not looked at in a way that will resonate with global audiences.

As I'm avoiding story spoilers, I won't go into any detail as to where these themes appear, but the oppression of youth, justice and identity are three of the most prominent themes in Persona 5, prominent at nearly every step of your 100-hour playthrough of the game. They are also some of the most distinctly Japanese themes in the way the developers address them, as for many in the West, we don't always consider these in video games, instead focusing on a far more individualistic perspective and actions.

How Does Persona 5 Treat These Themes Differently Than A Western Game Might?

[Credit: Atlus]
[Credit: Atlus]

While Persona 5 does talk about some themes in very different ways than a Western game might, the differences are more stark with some topics than others. Naturally, the cultural differences between East and West lead to some interesting, perhaps even shocking comparisons. However it is broadly true that the game is not so different that we in the West won't understand it.

Justice is one of the themes addressed differently than we might be used to in the West. In Persona 5, the justice is very collective, even altruistic, with our heroes less interested in revenge or a personal vendetta, but rather that their targets are doing something immoral or corrupt to lots of people, not just themselves. Take Madarame, for example, your second target. He's not an arch villain, just dishonest and cruel, his primary sin being vanity — and taking him down is good for society, which is the Phantom Thieves' primary consideration.

In a Western game, we'd be more likely to see a revenge story, like in Red Dead Redemption, or a quest of survival and galaxy saving, like in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Persona is a personal story, but also one about cleaning up society. Western games rarely look at society's problems, instead focusing on individuals or large-scale events like global conflict.

Persona 5, like the previous games in the series, focuses on a group of teenagers at high school. Much of the game, therefore, is set in a archetypal high-school setting. I recognized many of the motifs and dynamics in this setting from US TV and movies, so it felt familiar. This provides a degree of common ground between East and West within , which helps Western players relate to the characters in the game.

But There Are Major Cultural Differences At The Heart Of Persona 5

Despite the superficial and thematic elements of Persona, there are far deeper cultural differences in the game. Most of these relate to linearity and individualism.

In Persona, like most JRPGs, you do not create your own character, and while you get to choose their name, this is relatively inconsequential. Joker is also left silent and the narrative is pushed forward by the characters around him. His interventions in conversation have little bearing on what happens, with the effect mostly being who agrees with him in the next line of dialogue.

The structure of the game, also like most JRPGs, is quite linear. You constantly have a discernible goal to work toward and you can't really stray from it. The narrative is kept tightly to a single railway track with only a couple of branches. If you delay your central task too long, you'll end up on a "game over" screen — everything points you in one direction.

Compare this to Skyrim, one of the most open-ended RPGs ever created. Character creation is detailed and you are undeniably the star. You are allowed to choose everything about yourself, from your appearance to your combat style. You are then thrust into an open world with only a loose idea of what the hell you're meant to be doing. You go forth on a journey of discovery. It's all about you, there isn't a group of friends to take the limelight, and you can go wherever you want.

This is a dramatic difference. It's linearity against discovery, individualism against collectivism. In many ways it highlights cultural differences between the developers. The West, generally, is made of very individualistic societies, whereas Japan is more collectivist. The hyper-individualism in the US is reflected in games about self-discovery and personal journeys, but JRPGs often look more at a collective effort and about building relationships with friends to make yourself stronger. In this sense, beyond even the game's setting and central themes, the cultural differences are key to the very premise of Persona 5.

What Does This Mean For Players?

Frankly, it doesn't mean a great deal. What it does do is open up choice for the player. Some gamers will prefer the more open nature of Western RPGs, whereas some will prefer the premise in JRPGs. Neither is superior and it would be naive to suggest that a Western player would struggle to understand certain cultural aspects in Japanese games. With the influx of to the West for decades now, we are used to Japanese fiction.

Only small aspects in Persona 5 will jar with a Western audience. The game's treatment of gender is radically different, as is its presentation of people of different ages (the Japanese have a huge respect for their elders, hence the youth oppression theme). Not to mention the classic Japanese honorifics, which took me a while to get used to, but they soon became totally normal.

I also found myself slightly frustrated at the overly stereotypical presentation of some gay side characters. They were comical, and that's fine, but they also seemed to be the only gay characters, which is less cool. I want to see positive representations, too! However, for the most part, the cultural differences are far more embedded in the mechanics than the set dressing.

What Persona 5 does do is bring JRPGs back to the fore after a period in the back seat, something Dave Ramos looks at in his article. Many players who know little about the genre will make their first foray in to JRPGs with Persona 5 and will get an exciting window into Japanese culture. I for one learned a fair bit about Japan from aspects of Persona. Cultural differences in the game allow it to feel refreshing and different when compared to the thematically consistent Western RPGs coming out at the moment. In fact, I can't wait to get back to playing it.

Have you played Persona 5? Do you often play JRPGs or has Persona 5 tempted you to start? Sound off in the comments below.


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