So I play videogames for the story, and Persona 5 is the best story I’ve seen in… well, maybe ever. I used to say that Planescape: Torment was, hands-down, the strongest narrative in videogames – and after playing through ninety hours of Persona, which had almost no slow spots, I may have to replay Torment just to see which is best.
Yet I’m debating recommending Persona to my friend Mishell Baker.
Now, Mishell is obsessed with Dragon Age and Mass Effect – she’s played the games through multiple times so she can hear every line of dialogue. And we’ve nerded out about videogames on Twitter before, having long conversations about ZOMG THIS CHARACTER and WHAT ABOUT THIS PLOT TWIST – and I want her to play Persona so I can hear her reaction.
And yet Persona’s a little face-punchy.
Which is to say that Persona is, unabashedly, the story of a straight guy. Which I have zero problem with – I think every type of character deserves a storyline, including straight cis dudes.
But that straightness permeates the game; literally every female character but one is romanceable. There are a sum total of three LGBT characters in the game, and two of them are joke characters who show up twice to sexually harass one of the straightest guys in the game. The third is a bartender of fluid but undefined gender, who is presented as a sympathetic, competent character…
But none of the Confidants you interact with – i.e., the people who have storylines – are gay or bisexual, or do they even appear to be aware of the concept. (One of the main characters clearly has something going on with their sexuality, but nobody mentions this or ever follows up on it.) Everyone is paired off into M/F boxes, and are all expected to act likewise.
And the game is literally about how society chains you into misery by forcing expectations upon you. Thematically, you’d almost expect a discussion of someone’s sexuality. Yet the game itself is overwhelmingly straight to the point where, if aliens learned about humanity from this ninety-hour game, they would not even know that gayness existed.
Here’s the issue:
Persona 5 was so good in everything else it did that you could go for hours before being reminded that oh, yeah, this game has weird issues with LGBT erasure and mockery. I’d be into it, into it, into it, and oh. There we are again.
And Mishell writes magnificent books – seriously, try Borderline – that do deal with gay and bisexual characters because that reflects her life. Like me, she can’t write a book without LGBT characters because LGBT people are her friends and why would she write a book that casually negates their existence?
How would she react to a game that, in a hundred hours filled with deep characters, has gay characters that occupy less than ten minutes of the game?
That’s a syndrome Ann Leckie once likened to going to a great restaurant with awesome food and occasionally the waiters punch LGBT people and women in the face. The straight guys, who don’t get punched, are like, “What, don’t you care about the quality of food?” and can’t understand why people might want to eat at a restaurant where they’re not tensed for elbow blows.
And Persona 5 is punchy as hell. It’s a quality storyline that requires some punch-dodging, if you’re gay, because there’s a difference between “A straight guy is the lead character in this story” (which is great) and “A straight viewpoint has nearly eradicated any concept of homosexuality in an otherwise-complex storyline that has beautiful things to say about love and being true to yourself and the costs of standing up to do the right thing” (which isn’t).
Persona 5’s story is beautiful, and glorious, and meticulously thought out. But to Mishell, who does speak out on LBGT issues a lot?
I don’t know how much it would punch her in the gay rights. I think it’d hit her a lot harder than it did me. It might change the game from “A beautiful story” to “A weird alt-history where people like her friends don’t exist.”
And it wouldn’t have been that difficult to alter Persona 5. One gay friend might have done it – hell, fandom’s pretty much decided he’s gay anyway, might as well have made a statement within the game. One conversation about someone investigating their sexuality. One acknowledgement that all male teenagers might have other urges than to go after the hot blonde with the killer body (or maybe that one female character also wants that hot blonde).
It would not have changed the central story one whit, and yet it would have avoided throwing punches.
Which is a shame. Because that small omission is the difference between me thrusting Persona 5 out to everyone I know, going, “HERE PLAY THIS OH MY GOD” and “I really loved this, and I think with some qualifiers, you might too.” It’s that difference between mindless, squeeing fanboying and a work I have to ponder whether I can recommend.
As it is, I think Mishell might very well like it regardless. If she reads this article, she’s at least braced for it. She might be able to boot up Persona 5 and go, “Okay, yeah, I know we’re not getting that, but I can compensate for the rest.” Or she might decide not to play the game because, sometimes, getting that disappointed when the rest is that good is somehow worse.
And I think, again, that it wouldn’t have taken much to be inclusive. I don’t think a talking to a few gay or bi characters in-depth would have ruined it for straight guys, or at least straight guys who aren’t ragingly homophobic. I don’t think you would have had to change much of the dialogue, even.
But there it is: Persona 5 is a great game. So much that I can froth out a thousand words on it. I recommend it highly. I think it’s brilliant.
I just wish I could say “It’s brilliant” instead of “It’s brilliant, but.”
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.