I don't know what it's like to be a teenager growing up in the rest of the world, but as someone who went through those years in 1990s Britain, I was forever told by my seniors that these were the best days of my life. How I scoffed. School and college exams; that post-puberty desperation to work out who you were now that PJ and Duncan had become Ant and Dec (I got you, America); fake IDs and sickly alcopops in the park: surely, the future held more.
And, through most of my 20s, whenever those words would rattle around my brain again, I'd send them scurrying away. How can my teenage years be better than this life of "expendable"—i.e. repayable, with interest, eventually—money, several I'm-on-the-guestlist gigs per week and a virtual loyalty card for the grottiest boozers of Camden Town? All while spending untold hours in the company of close friends, tight circles maintained both in my childhood home and across the pubs and clubs of London.
Everybody's path is different, of course, but now I'm uncomfortably into my mid-30s, I've come around to the whole "best years of your life" thing. My parents, friends' parents, other relatives and teachers, they might have been onto something. As responsibilities have replaced recreation, and spending time around my children has become more important than maintaining friendships from my childhood, so I've become isolated, in a way: by middle age more than geography. I no longer regularly see the people I did aged 13, 19, 22, 28; the friends who I raced around on bikes with, hopped trains into town beside, before progressing to doing next to nothing of note in cars of our own.
Related, on Waypoint: 'Persona 4' Was the Game That Showed Me a Childhood Beyond My Muslim Household
Unexpectedly, a video game highlighted this strain of loneliness to me in 2016: this realization that, actually, somewhat cruelly, I'll (most likely) never have friends in the future like I've had them in the past, because circumstances won't again allow it. Persona 4 isn't even a new game, either, but it's been a companion on many long-distance journeys this year, in its Golden Vita guise. I finished it a few weeks ago, and since then, I've felt this unexpected emptiness that, while somewhat embarrassing to admit, is no less palpable for its relative triviality versus the myriad ills of The Real World.
No explicit story spoilers here for what happens in Persona 4, as it's still readily available—and really, it's the kind of experience that everyone with a Vita should stick a handful of hours into, for a feeler, at least. I bought it myself on an informed whim, having known about the high-scoring reviews, seeing its low price, and having the slightest history with JRPGs—Chrono Trigger was, and remains, a favorite of mine from the 16-bit era, and I'm not ashamed to say I saw enough quality in (or at least blocked out the worst aspects of) Final Fantasy XIII to finish the thing. That battle music, am I right?
And I'm glad that I took the calculated chance, as the cast of Persona 4 became something of a surrogate friendship circle for me over the middle months of 2016. The game's protagonist is a silent, 17-year-old chap who moves from a big city to rural Inaba in April 2011, the start of the school year. The game typically ends the next March, assuming you make the decisions necessary to get the better conclusions (as it can wrap in December 2011, or skip on to the summer of 2012), essentially giving you an entire year to forge new friendships and develop them to their deepest, richest potential.
The game ranks each connection you make with a score between 1 and 10, which grows as you spend more time together. Reach that maximum level and said friend won't only be one for life, and potentially a romantic interest, but will provide the best-possible assistance in the battles the party faces in the game's weird Midnight Channel world. Now, none of this is anything you'll see In Real Life, where nobody sticks an out-of-ten rating on the side of a school chum, switching it up after sharing some steak skewers. But nevertheless the game successfully had me caring about every connection that I made—and you can't make them all on a single playthrough, so selectivity plays a part, just as it does when you're of school age and torn between whose same-day party to show up at.
So despite disliking her at first blush, I'd almost always agree to hang out with the ostensibly bitchy and materialistic Ai, because that's the path my game had set itself on. I helped my drama club colleague Yumi through some rough times, even while wanting to do more fun things with Yosuke or Chie. I never really took to Rise whatsoever, but I saw how my other friends liked her a lot, so to maintain group harmony I'd take her to the cinema when she got excited over a new film, and reassured her that a pop-star past wasn't anything to be ashamed of.
As with many video games, movies and fiction in general, the incidents that affect the investigation team in Persona 4, aka the protagonist and his closest colleagues, represent extreme versions of happenings we'll all stumble through. Downhearted sorts who need a shoulder for an evening; peers who need to share a profound loss with non-judgmental ears, to make sense of things; friends that need just that nudge of encouragement to help them meet their potential; who fancies who. And when I think back, a lot of the time spent doing nothing in those late-teenage-years cars was actually time spent sorting precisely this type of shit out—be that girl trouble, parent trouble, college trouble, all the usual suspects.
Do I relate to these characters because of nostalgia for what was in my own life, before distance and distraction put pay to regular social interactions?
In the weeks since finishing Persona 4, I've been rolling questions around my head. Do I want to like these characters because of where I am now, in this place with few real friends to easily call upon? Or do I relate to them because of nostalgia for what was in my own life, before distance and distraction put pay to regular social interactions?
Soon after completing it—well, seeing it through to an ending, with a "new game plus" run a very real possibility—I met up with some people I've known since I was as young as seven. We went out, caught up, debated the highs and lows of where we've found ourselves—two of them are about to have kids, while one is staring at a divorce (hey, 30s, you're a turbulent time and no mistake)—and then separated again.
It was great for the three hours or so that it lasted, but so quickly we've fallen back into our playbook routines, silently going about our various businesses. Policeman. Electrician. Journalist. (And how it amuses my oldest friends, those with more traditional trades, that I make a living this way.) Three of them aren't even on Facebook, making the slightest maintenance of a friendship, a like here or a comment there, impossible. There is no plan for another get-together, although Christmas brings with it opportunity; but a decade ago, they'd be happening relatively spontaneously.
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The evenings out and afternoons in spent with your Persona 4 pals appear to happen that way, though: at a click of someone's anime-slim fingers, on the tip of the spur of the moment. Of course, there's beneath-the-surface code at play that I couldn't hope to ever understand, but the colorful unreality it creates is convincing, enough to have me always surprised by what was coming next, above and beyond the game's central plotline. Sometimes that could be something mundane, like going for Chinese food—but when your last two hours were spent battling malevolent shadows in a surreal bathhouse, a deep bowl of steaming ramen is just what's needed. And some of the best times any of us have ever spent with real-world friends didn't need much more than the company alone.
In the wake of Persona 4, I've been looking at other ways to spend my travelling time, Vita in hand, hoping for something of comparable substance. I've started both Broken Age and Final Fantasy IX, but after being annihilated by a particularly savage boss in the latter, I turned on indie dev Will O'Neill's Actual Sunlight. It's not a happy game—we have an article on exactly how not happy it is, here—but it was a recent "free" PS Plus acquisition, so why not, let's give it a whirl.
And there it is, another question to consider beside those already puzzling me since finishing Persona 4: have I been deluded by design? At an early point in Actual Sunlight, the game's text—of which it has a lot—reads, in relation to what's presumably a favorite video game of its protagonist, Evan Winter:
"It is not 'filled with rich, textured characters whose relationships and dialogue will pull at your heartstrings'. It is hours of endless drivel that proffers completely childish conceptions of intimacy and togetherness for the sole and pandering purpose of tricking you into the fake warmth of delusionally believing that you relate to something you only wish you did."
A thorn in my side, a thumb tack in my balloon. For a second, a minute, and more, I sit without pressing X, considering what I've just read. Do I feel duped by Persona 4? Misled into committing time and emotion into a group of (what I know to be entirely fictional, I'm not that deluded) people that I'll never meet, and subsequently draw parallels to my own past and experiences? Two stations pass by the window: no, I don't think so. But the pause for perspective is valuable nonetheless, as it solidifies my takeaway from Inaba.
It's not that these virtual sports club colleagues, mealtime gossip gatherers, and after-hours confidants are substituting anything, or anyone. It's more that they're highlighting the necessity to not let go completely of the ties that once bound the fabric of my personality, built up as it is, as we all are, by the actions and individuals that surround us. These on-screen avatars are hollow, useless, set on courses that I can only subtly direct, but never really control. That's not true of what I'm potentially letting slip, by not taking better care of affairs that used to be carried on the illusion of automation. How I manage my social life is in my hands.
So, thanks, Persona 4: for reminding me to be a better friend, to send a text and try to arrange a re-connection December. Not to wallow in memories of our so-called best years, as powerfully bright as they now appear from the other side of teenage tribulations; but to make new ones while we can, accepting that there are no barriers to this, save for those we place ourselves.