*Warning: this article contains spoilers about Persona 5*
Video games are often seen as a means for escapism. By throwing oneself into another world, video games can allow someone to avoid the mundane, dangerous or troublesome aspects of life. During the hours that the player is immersed into the fictional world of the game, she can forget the troubles in her own life and instead focus on seemingly simple worlds of science fiction, fantasy, or sports. Yet, can we say that a game promotes escapism when it addresses topics such as bullying, abuse and suicide?
The other day I explained to a friend of mine the reason why I am not able to play the video game Persona 5 for more than one hour straight. Persona 5 portrays the high school life of a student, the silent protagonist, set in Tokyo. While a high school setting is not unusual for a Japanese role-playing game, almost all of the main characters in Persona 5 are presented to be suppressed by something in their life. This enslavement is already depicted from the beginning of the game, which means that the game starts on a dark note. The protagonist for example, is charged with assault, put on probation and expelled from his high school after he tried to defend a woman from being molested. This all happened before the start of the game, making the protagonist a stoic and sober person who tries to avoid the rumors about him on his new high school.
This new high school is also everything besides peaceful. Teachers are portrayed as either aloof or unsympathetic towards their students. Rumors go around that the volleyball coach abuses the students of the volleyball club during their training, but every volleyball team member refuses to open his or her mouth. The player is clearly put in a grim environment where the protagonists themselves hardly know what to do against their situation. Anne Tamaki for instance, is blackmailed by the coach who threatens to do something to her best friend, a member of the volleyball club, if Anne does not do as he says. As he forces himself onto her repeatedly, she tries to protect her friend, but is unsuccessful nonetheless. Her best friends tries to commit suicide by jumping of a roof. She survives, but it is questioned if she will ever be able to regain a normal life.
Until now I think I have played the game for a total of six hours maximum, and while it is amazing to play (the visuals are incredibly pretty!), I just can not engage with it for more than one hour a day. The topics that the protagonists have to deal with are difficult for the player to process. The silence of the students witnessing the physical abuse, the implied sexual abuse, the bullying of the teachers are topics that make the game heavy. And these are only topics which Persona 5 starts with. One can only wonder what other affairs might be thrown at him during the game.
Luckily, the game is all about how the protagonists deal with these problems to overcome them. Her best friend might have attempted suicide, but that was exactly the action that prompted Anne to get into action instead of passively putting up with the volleyball coach’s abuse of his students. The game starts on a dark note and shows a seemingly hopeless situation, but is quick to show that there is hope when one gets into action. This makes the game interesting as it engages with themes that one does not quickly comes across in video games, but also makes it a difficult game to use to escape one’s own problems, since the player will be confronted with problems that might be as heavy as her own (or even heavier). Regardless, I think it is a good development, as it also demonstrates that video games cannot simply be considered forms of entertainment with which one can mindlessly engross with. Instead, it shows just as much how video games can be devices to address heavy themes that can occur in real life, while simultaneously be incredibly entertaining.
Persona 5 is a Japanese role-playing game that was released in Japan on September 15th 2016 in Japan and is set for release in the West on April 4th 2017.