The Same Game Twice
If all the chips were down, Persona 3 (the FES expansion, to be exact) would be my favorite game of all time. It clicks with me in a very personal way. It captures that perfect feeling of desolation that I so often look for in video games. The odds are impossible. The stakes are raised as high as possible. You get to the final month of the game, and this becomes the background music. It just kills me. The whole last two months of the game just destroy me. And when it’s over I feel like I’ve really done something. Like something’s really happened. It is one of two video games to ever make me cry (the other being its only real competition for that top slot, Shigesato Itoi’s masterful Mother 3), and unlike Mother 3, which gets you at specific points, Persona 3 got me for about 15 hours of playtime.
It is my favorite game. I will soon own three copies of it (and I don’t even own a PSP to use the third with), and I’ve played it four times since it was released. I’m itching for number five.
P3 was a pretty important game for Atlus, too. If one game could chart Atlus’ movement from niche Japanese role playing company to a company that published a game that won a number of game of the year awards, it was P3. It was their Ocarina of Time, the game that anyone at all serious about RPGs had played and loved. Sure, it had its detractors, but they were few and far between. Everyone loved it. I love it.
And yet, I feel oddly noncommittal to its sequel, Persona 4.
This is odd because Persona 4 is pretty much the exact same game. In fact, it’s better than P3 in *every* mechanical aspect. Every one. It is infinitely more balanced. Infinitely more playable. The pacing is mind-bogglingly better; there’s plot in P4 for the whole game, as opposed to just 20 hours in 5 hour chunks throughout a 100 hour experience. The characters are less stereotypical, and much, much more compelling. It has Naoto, perhaps the only video game character I’ve ever had a crush on (well, the second, but the only recent one). It’s justâ€¦better.
I played P4 once. I loved it. I can’t play it again. Whenever I try to play it again, I just get the strong feeling that I’m not playing P3. My feeling for the longest time on the matter was that P4 was inferior because it didn’t have any soul. P3 was, above all else, a soulful game, made by a company who realized they’d probably sell moderately well in Japan and barely, if at all, in America no matter what they did. So they took some chance, showed the game some love, and you could tell. It was a game made with love, with soul, and it had an edge. It was a game that was about something, about destiny, about heroism, and it had so much soul it didn’t know what to do with it*.
On the other hand, we had Persona 4. Persona 4 was pandering, I thought. A game made by a company that knew that a brilliant, polished adaptation of the third would make them millions and cement them in the hearts and minds of gamers. A game made by fans, for fans, that stripped out the soul. P4 wasn’t about something, I thought, so why should I offer it my slavering devotion?
And that’s where I come to my revelation. It’s not a big revelation. I’m not going to go parting the Red Sea, or lead the Jews out of Egypt or anything. No, it was a smaller one. I didn’t dislike P4 because it didn’t have a soul. It has a lot of soul, a lot of heart. It’s a fantastic game. I loved it when I played it, and I’d love it if I played it again. No, I objected to it because it was the same. It was the same elements, the same package. It was like someone taking a pizza and trying to sell it to me as a SuperPizza, except it was the same game.
This may not seem like a major change to you, but it makes my world feel a lot more internally consistent. I don’t have to hate a game I loved to death anymore. I can see both games in their proper places, hand in hand, identical twins off into the sunset.
*I don’t want to go too in depth on Persona 3, because eventually I am going to launch a feature here and soon where it will be featured as game #4. It will be #4 because Mother 3 gets to be #3 based on importance, and because I’d feel weird making #1 or #2 my favorite games.