Building a better RPG: How Persona 3 will save us all

Quite often these days, we hear it said that “nobody wants to play 60-hour RPGs anymore.” Many of us even say as much ourselves, especially as an entire generation ages and finds itself with less time to pour into protracted experiences. Yet I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say we’re done with them—the truth is, nobody wants to play the same RPG anymore. It’s generally recognized that, while most games continue to grow beyond the boundaries of genre, employing (or, just experimenting with) new technology and the maturation of a sophisticated audience, console RPGs are still far from a perfect science. It’s a genre that once inspired legions of gamers to near-thoughtless devotion—and now draws ire from its once solidly-ensconced core fanbase for its perpetual stagnation. Because the RPG experience is comprised of so many correlated elements, it can be hard to identify precisely where these games continue to fall short; this is the third installment of a multi-part series that will attempt to pinpoint the weak spots in the structural integrity of console  role-playing games.

What makes a game an RPG? There are many signature elements—expansive worlds that develop in scope as you travel, heavy storylines, a party system, turn-based battles, perhaps. Still, any one of these could appear in another genre—it’s difficult, then, to say that any one factor “makes” an RPG. But if you had to define a single element that comprises the core of any RPG, it’s the concept of a journey.

By this, I don’t mean traveling, although that’s often part of it. Rather, what signifies the genre is the character’s journey; a protagonist who begins as a boy and ends up as a man, or who begins as a humble small-towner and becomes a hero. This is the element that often defines all others around it—the scope of his world must expand to accommodate the protagonist’s broadening vision and increasing sense of purpose. The villains must increase in depth and reach to make a vague threat into a personal vendetta. Other members must join the party, each with their own role to play in the protagonist’s climb to grace. New weapons, new skills, new information appears to assist in his evolution.

Abstractly, we call this character growth. Concretely? It’s called the old level-grind. I know you guys hate when I get serious, but this is what happens when my box of wine is gone. Hit the jump to read more before the hangover hits and then Mama won’t be able to control how mad at you she gets for no reason at all. 

There’s certainly a breed of gamer who enjoys stat management, XP hoarding and endless monster battles. This is the gamer who doesn’t want a story, for whom elaborate cutscenes get in the way of baiting random encounters and slaying hordes of identical sprites. It’s the old-school style of play, and there’s definitely a place for it. But when we talk about evolving the genre, the turn-based battle and the level grind start to feel a little archaic, and more than a bit limiting.

Yet, the level-grind is somewhat of a necessary evil; as RPG players we want to feel that our sweat and blood goes into growing our hero from lad to badass; the story’s end culmination feels hollow if it is too easy. We want a sense of attainment and of evolution. Games wherein the evolution-by-battle element is too simplified feel hollow. We don’t want to become gods, and easy victories feel cheap. An RPG without its usual battle system and menu windows feels like nothing more than an interactive movie—it’s the heart of the gameplay. On the other hand, being forced to haul through random encounters just to get anywhere, being made to cycle through the optimal battle plan via menu again and again is also arresting, interrupting, and damn tedious.

How, then, to evolve the leveling system so that it meshes organically with the entire experience of play?

Persona 3 takes these essential concepts—growth, evolution, the accumulation of  strength—and uses it as a core story element, applying it equally across all areas of the character’s “life”. In the discussion around one of my earlier Building a Better RPG articles, I concurred with a lot of the community’s expression of preference for the “silent protagonist”—a nameless, voiceless construct on whom we could suggest our own selves, our own impulses and wishes. The archetypal RPG protagonist’s story can often be hyperbolic, disjointed, even surreal (think Cloud or Fei), peppered with the much-despised emo moments and no guarantee that we’re willing or able to “go there” with him. It often presents as a bizarre overlap between third and first-person experience, attempting to be both and yet falling into a strange limbo of neither. Persona 3’s first big win is the re-introduction of the voiceless protagonist—he lacks even a default name, and there are few of his expressions, beyond default acquiescence in obvious cases, that are not within the player’s control.

Persona 3’s second major victory is precisely that—the element of choice. RPGs thrive on player choices, and the consequence of an overbearing story is that these choices become fewer; it’s always obvious what your objective is in terms of location or goal, and powering up is the only directly controllable means to that end. Persona 3 contains so much player free-movement that it plays almost like a sim—think Harvest Moon, set on the structure of passing hours, days, months. There are key story events that happen daily in various locations, but it is your choice how to travel among them. You’re the sole manager of your time, and everything—even forays to the mysterious tower that only appears at night to battle the mysterious monsters called Shadows—is entirely up to you.

That’s right. You decide when you want to fight. And there are no random encounters, either—your sprite confronts another sprite and you swing your weapon (hopefully before it attacks you first) to determine initiative.

The crux of this game’s beauty, though, is the way that leveling isn’t based solely on XP—that’s only a minor part of it. As anyone familiar with the more dubious prior incarnations of the Persona series knows, your power’s based on the ghost-like alternate selves, called Persona, that you collect either by finding their tarot cards or by fusing them together. And when the Persona come out with you to fight at night (shoot yourself in the head to summon them– WHOA), they draw their strength from the way you’ve spent your time, in school, in town, and among friends, during the day. Each Persona is on its own arcana of the familiar Tarot, and each relationship you forge as the story progresses—again, according to your choices—corresponds to one of those arcana.  Spending a little extra time, for example, with a friend on the Chariot arcana, beefs up those Persona you might be carrying who are Chariots, too. It’s called the Social Links system, and it’s brilliant.

There’s more to do to increase your strength during in-game days, too—you have not just the usual stats, like strength and agility, but academics, charm and courage, too. Choosing to spend your time studying, trying new restaurants, even singing karaoke, will boost those stats—and make you a more appealing companion to new potential Social Links, as well as allow you access to new areas of your home and school stomping grounds. Studying might seem like a bore, but it’s worth doing when it allows you to earn approval by passing your midterm exams, or enter an area previously denied you because its signage was in a language you couldn’t read.

You can’t do it all in one day, obviously—the days are divided into different segments, and you can choose one activity per. Load your plate too full, though, and you’ll become ill or tired, rendering it dangerous for you to try and explore the enemy’s stronghold at night.

The story progresses as the days pass; it’s intriguing without being intrusive, and as you feel your role complicate, you almost want to race through the days to see what will happen. There’s none of that dead time, campaigning blindly through a featureless field with only one way to get stronger.

Perhaps it’s premature to call Persona 3 “the perfect RPG”—I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway, as it’s the first experience I’ve had in years where the “necessary evils” feel like—and let me be blunt—TOTAL JOYGASM. I’m highly in support of the idea of a fully integrated experience, one that doesn’t segregate fighter from character, that doesn’t load you down with meaningless party members (largely, your friends can—and will—care for themselves). And despite being last-gen, it uses the hip, ultra-modern anime vibe to its advantage. It’s piercingly stylish with a genre-blending soundtrack to blow your brains out over. The fact that it’s hard to predict whether such a spot-on game will be successful tells us just how niche what was once one of our broadest genres has become; But you should be bummed the release is delayed, and you should consider it highly worth waiting for.

Above all, Persona 3 captures a sense of genuine, pragmatic evolution. Not the sort that sees you essentially mutate into some kind of power-gaming, god-slaying stat monster, but the kind that makes you feel like you’re becoming ever better as a person, ever more entrenched in the story, and strong not just in terms of physical or magical power, but in all the ways that matter. This core element could give a lesson to future games, when it comes to growing a hero.

At the end of the day, when we finish an RPG, we want to feel like we’ve taken a journey—not merely watched one. We want to have become that character, evolved with him, taken up his cause, felt the time pass as the new land spread out beneath our feet. When’s the last time an RPG really gave you that sense of first-person, where you felt so involved it might as well have been you on the crux of maturation into something much bigger than you were when you began?

[If you missed previous installments of Building a Better RPG, about characterization and character deaths , check ’em out!]

Leigh Alexander
I'm a game writer, which means I spend all day in a bacchanal of fabulous nerdiness. My fave games are Ys I & II, Phantasy Star 2 (!!) old Sonic (not the emo RPG crap), anything on Turbo Grafx, Zelda, Metal Gear, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame (pretty much all survival-horror), most Final Fantasy, Shadow Hearts, RPGs that don't suck (are there any?) and for my gentle side, I like me some Katamari and Harvest Moon. Hearts for Destructoid!