I don’t see any reason to beat around the bush here: Persona 3 FES is my favourite game I have ever played. I don’t mean to imply that it’s objectively the best, or that you’re a fool for not liking it yourself, just that it will always hold a special place in my heart. So I’m not going to try to change your mind about your favourite game, but rather describe what makes P3FES so special to me, personally.
Now, what I’ve found about people describing their favourite game, whatever it may be, is that a lot of similar terms or phrases come up to explain why they like it. Usually something along the lines of “I really connect with the characters,” or “I always found something new to do!” This much is true for me and P3FES. Every floor of Tartarus is another fun challenge, and the characters of Tatsumi Port Island really resonate with me. Unfortunately, the reason why P3FES had so much of an impact on me is kinda hard to explain without sounding pretty pretentious and literary, so you’ll just have to bear with me here.
I love P3FES because of its macro/micro approach to both gameplay and storytelling.
To break this down, I’ll discuss gameplay first, and then storytelling.
Macro Gameplay: Just your average high school student.
Considering P3FES is a Japanese game, it’s not at all surprising that it takes place in high school. I mean really, the chances were more or less 50/50 that it’d be set in high school or some vaguely European fantasy wonderland.
Still love me some vaguely European fantasy wonderlands.
The benefit of being set in high school extends beyond an implausible number of lonely high school girls, though. The academic year gives the entire game a very set time frame, a loose structure of when you can do what, and for how long. You start the year in April, and right from the start, your goal is to make it to the end of the year. There are benchmarks set throughout the school year that most in the audience are familiar with, such as midterms and summer break. Full moon events and Shadow attacks might be more unfamiliar, but they give the player something else to plan for every month. At every point in P3FES, there’s something to be planning for, whether it be beating a horrific monster or passing an exam. The entire game has an overarching framework that reflects both what will be happening in terms of gameplay and story, as well as when it will happen.
Beyond that, there are always distance goals to keep in mind throughout every other activity. Leveling up your character’s Charm, Intelligence, or Courage. Improving your social links. Grinding for levels and equipment in Tartarus. There is always a long term goal to consider, whether it be a goal implemented by the game's internal calendar (midterms mid-October!) or a goal the player imposes upon themselves (“I need to max the Star social link to be able to fuse Helel!”) The moment to moment gameplay is always in service of a longer, distance goal.
Micro Gameplay: Variety is the spice of life.
Having long term goals in a game is all well and good, but it wouldn’t really count for much if the nuts and bolts of gameplay was boring or unpleasant. For me though, P3FES excels at making a basic task seem more exciting than it might otherwise be. Again, the implementation of smaller scale goals affects both the combat and the school life sides of the game.
Be very quiet, I’m hunting Shadows!
A common complaint I’ve seen leveled at P3FES is that there’s only one dungeon, and it doesn’t take long for that to become boring or even annoying for different fans. Tartarus fatigue never really got to me though, as I always found some different approach or tactic to keep myself entertained. Whether it be using different weapons to try and get the drop on different Shadows, panicked runs to the stairs with Death on my tail, or even a simple change of soundtrack thanks to Fuuka’s selection, no run through Tartarus was ever the same. Grinding wasn’t a matter of charging into the next random encounter, but rather finding a suitable size or difficulty of Shadow, getting the drop on it, and executing it as quickly as possible with elemental weaknesses. Whether it was during or in-between battles, there was always something to consider.
Admittedly, the gameplay during the school life segments was much simpler, usually breaking down into a matter of choosing who to talk to and what to say to them.
You better not be saying you're sick of ramen...
It didn’t make it any less rewarding for me though; the school life sections simply offered a different kind of reward. Rather than gaining experience points or yen from a defeated monster, the player gained a deeper level of understanding and respect for the various people of Tatsumi Port Island. Unless you were talking to Keisuke.
That stupid fucking grin on his face just bugs me…
Considering the reward for the school life sections was primarily narrative, it only seems appropriate that I transition to the benefits of the macro/micro approach on storytelling.
Macro Storytelling: Remind my why this is a good idea?
I must admit upfront that the storytelling in P3FES is far from perfect. In particular, it suffers from rushing certain plot points (such as Shinjiro’s arc) and the occasional use of melodramatic dialogue. For these failings though, P3FES gets a lot right. For one, the events of the main plot are spaced out fairly well, the mystery of one full moon event building until (usually) reaching a climax at the next.
But things get taken to another level by the story’s conclusion. The true nature of the Shadow threat, only fully revealed in the final months of the game, puts a rather interesting twist on the archetypical "global destruction" scenario by referencing the idea of the collective unconscious, an element of Jungian psychology. The overarching story of the members of S.E.E.S. and their battle with the Shadows is made something special not by the fact that the world might soon come to an end, but rather why it would end. To say too much more might go too far into spoiler territory for those who want a fresh experience, but the important thing here is that the endgame conflict is essentially about finding value in life despite the bad that might surround it. A simple, yet very effective theme.
Micro Storytelling: Continuity from top to bottom.
If anything, this is where P3FES really sets itself apart from other games for me. The central theme of the narrative, finding value in life, permeates practically every element of the game design, bringing story details into the simplest of actions.
Finding value in life is a very personal thing. Something that I might devote my entire life to might be something that you never gave a second thought, and vice versa. Every member of S.E.E.S. is forced to find a reason for living, and continuing their own fight. Party members having their own story arcs is obviously nothing new in gaming, but the little details really bring the members of S.E.E.S. to life for me. In P3FES, the characters cast magic spells by putting a gun-like Evoker to their heads and pulling the trigger.
Needless to say, there’s a significant amount of suicidal imagery.
Yeah, that seems like a bad idea.
It’s not uncommon for stories to use the threat or application of death to more vividly portray the significance of life, and P3FES makes the most of this idea. But by having the imitation of death become a continual aspect of gameplay, P3FES turns the simple act of casting a spell into a short and effective encapsulation of a particular character. No two characters share the same animation for using their Evokers, and each animation brings out particular aspects of a particular characters personality or story arc.
Akihiko, for example, whips his Evoker out and points it straight at his forehead before pulling the trigger. There's no hesitation, evoking (ha!) his reckless and cavalier approach to dangerous situations.
Yukari, on the other hand, slowly pulls her Evoker out and stares at it for a moment before aiming it at her own forehead. This shows her attachment to life and fear of death.
Even the much bemoaned AI of the player's party reflects the characters themselves, at least when they are allowed to act freely. Junpei, desperate to prove himself as a hero on par with the protagonist, will deal as much raw damage to as many targets as possible. Other characters, like Akihiko, will methodically target an enemies weakness and finish them off, one at a time.
There are more examples of this theme permeating different aspects of the games design; certain social links in particular approach death and the value of life from a multitude of different angles, giving the player insight they might not have considered on their own.
Well, if you put it that way...
These four things taken together, P3FES becomes a game rife with both variety and commonality, both in gameplay and in narrative. The gameplay itself fluctuates between dungeon crawling and friend making in service of long term goals, yet there are ties to the games central theme and narrative in practically everything it does. This approach to gameplay and story takes advantage of both the big picture and the little details to make Persona 3 FES not only my favourite video game, but also one of my favourite entertainment experiences of any medium.
But what about you dear reader? Does your favourite game use the big picture and the little details of gameplay and story to create a memorable experience? Or does it take a different approach altogether? Are you like me in thinking that Yukari Takeba is the best girl in P3? Write your own response if you’d like!