I finally got around to finishing Persona 3 Fes[t]. Outside of the members of SEES, the characters were a bit more shallow than those in 4, but at the same time, less overtly optimistic. Some characters remained relatively unchanged after spending a year around you, far from the profound revelations more common in 4. The characters ended up feeling more real by the end, and it got me thinking. There are minor spoilers ahead.
I once tutored a high school girl who spent her time skipping school, shoplifting and generally causing a ruckus. Her mother was desperate for someone not only to get her academics in order, but also to get her to live a life with less familiarity with the police. Shoplifting was the least of her crimes, I would find out, as she opened up to me quite a bit over the several months I was tutoring her. She wasn't a good student, and I was pretty convinced she had ADD. She didn't study, she didn't do her work, and she rarely remembered what we had gone over previously. She really wasn't a good student, but she was something that I never was while growing up: thinking about her future.
That may sound odd, a school-skipping shoplifting teenager being thoughtful about what's to come, but this girl wasn't stupid. She knew she hated school, I knew it, her mother knew it, and this girl was full of questions (one of which pertained to whether or not I thought it was a good idea for her to become a stripper, but this was just part of the larger concern she had for how she was going to survive on her own).
Recently, I got a text from her. She's working now, apparently with a coworker who has the same name I do. She got a job, damn it, and spends money to buy things. She's taking her life seriously. When I first met her, I wondered whether I could actually help someone who could barely pay attention to me. I didn't do much for her academics, but I think I got her thinking about how her decisions will affect her future. I almost cried. Okay I did a little.
This is the what the denouement of Persona 3 did to me. It didn't accomplish this on its own; it was the reminder of the good in my own life that switched on the lacrimal glands. Something about meeting that little girl Maiko's dad again, or running into Akinari's mother after he had died (sure the man was maudlin to the core, but it still meant something damn it) really makes it clear that Persona offers a rare experience. In Persona, you get to see how the people you've gotten to know are doing once all is said and done, for better or for worse. It's not just the end of a story. It's life going on. Some people needed to change and did, some didn't, and some needed to remember who they were.
The characters in these games are people who are deeply affected by your actions, and despite the linear and regimented progression of each social link, it's your decisions about who to spend time with and when that drive the narratives forward. To see them again as they move on with their lives makes these characters feel personally connected to you.
One might ask how this is any different from the commonly employed cinematic trope of listing short blurbs about the events in each major character's life following a movie's conclusion. Part of it is the time it takes to get there: every relationship developed in the game was on a slow boil for however many hours it takes to beat the game (minus randomly generated dungeon crawling). A larger part of it was that these relationships developed because of what you did and said. This is what video games do that other media simply can't. It's not just a matter of player agency, the emotions evoked because of that agency are unique. You can feel with the characters, rather than for them.
Now as I am about to graduate, my little brother is heading off to university for computer science, my sister is starting law school, and I've just gotten back in touch with some old friends. It's all very bittersweet, leading to several nameless emotions only felt in life or in games.