Being raised in a fairly strict Muslim household made a lot of things more difficult during my teenage years. I wasn't allowed out with friends until I was 16, having girls over or any sort of relationship was a bit of a taboo—yet all my friends were out having fun and getting up to typical teenage debauchery, and I felt a little bit left out.
Growing up Muslim wasn't the issue in itself—it was the restrictions on going out that often limited me to chatting to friends over MSN or during school, where I'd get incessantly jealous of what everyone did at the weekend. My family hardly ever went on holiday aside from the odd trip to London for a weekend, meaning that during school holidays I was left bored out of my mind.
My only real tedium killer during summers holed up inside was to get stuck into a video game. Other years that'd prove to be Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike: Source, but one holiday I decided to pick up Atlus's Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. I'd always had a soft spot for Japanese role-playing games, JRPGs, but this looked a little more off kilter and certainly different from the standard fantasy romps of the Tales of… titles I adored.
In Persona 4, you assume the role of an exchange student coming to an old, idyllic Japanese town named Inaba. Investigating multiple murders and getting to know both the setting and intricate systems gave the game a great structure, but what made me really fall in love with Persona 4 was its large number of characters.
From the outset, some of the cast might seem a little one dimensional—I remember hating Yosuke, but as time goes on you learn things about what makes him tick, you both eventually bond and have the standard teenage boy chats—about girls, getting accustomed to city life, and dealing with universal themes like loss and grief. This is made even more prevalent with the main cast when you face their "shadows"—physical manifestations of their repressed feelings about themselves. Through a mechanic called Social Links, you strengthen your own powers by spending time with friends, encouraging the player, you, to actively interact with the vast and varied array of NPCs.
But it's not the overarching story or dramatic character arcs that made me attached to the cast. The little events and conversations you have with them, the antics that you got up to outside of the wider plot is what gave this game its heart, and it also gave me an insight into what I thought I was missing out on in real life. To me, going on a camping trip with Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, and Kanji gave me some sort of fulfillment that at least made me think that I was having the social life I figured my schoolmates were. In retrospect, getting attached to video game characters in that way was probably unhealthy, yet I was obsessed by the game and posted way too many Facebook updates about it.
It didn't feel as if I was playing a game. In Persona 4 I had a schedule; I had to go to school, hang out with friends, study, maybe pop into the drama club. All the while I was also leading an investigation team and attempting to solve a murder. I settled into the role pretty comfortably, and I was getting drawn into the game even further. That's when it started to present its romance options to me. And for my teenage self, this brought back painful memories.
I wasn't a complete stranger to the elusive world of teenage romance, as at 13 I'd had a secret girlfriend, who none of my family knew about. It didn't last long; she kissed me once when I helped her with a paper round and then we broke up a week later. I was distraught. With Persona 4 came new opportunity, I thought that maybe once a game showed me the way it was done, I'd be able to open up to girls for real. I decided that I should hook up with Yukiko, a demure, traditional Japanese girl who worked at her family's hotel.
I made sure I kept her in my party at all times, and take her into dungeons—you know, the usual. As the relationship progressed through the game, I found myself more attached to the character and even kept her as my romance option in subsequent playthroughs. As I came closer to the more intense moments nearing the end of the game, that attachment grew and started to influence the way I would act in real life.
As the summer ended, the new school year began and, after playing Persona 4, I decided to try to socialize more and attempt to convince my parents to let me hang out with friends. To my surprise, it worked. The game gave me the courage to try something new, talk to new people, and help me schedule activities to keep me occupied, and not just holed up at home playing games all day. Persona 4 was the catalyst of my teenage rebellion: it showed me a healthier way of living and helped me come out of my shell. I am still attached to the game, and it seems to have also resonated with many others who also played it. It has since been followed up by fighting games, a Golden remake, two anime seasons, and a rhythm action dancing game.
So there's clearly something about Persona 4 that makes it special for a lot of people. Personally, it helped me face my own "shadow" and overcome my social obstacles. Eventually, I had an investigation team of my own, and it was all thanks to Persona 4. There's a fifth game proper scheduled for release in the summer of 2016. I doubt that I'll have the same connection with the cast of Persona 5 as I did its predecessor, but I'll never forget what the series has done for me.
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