From the Archives - Mechanics and Imagery in Persona 4's Boss Battles
From The Archives posts are posts which I’ve carried over from my old blogs and sites I wrote for that are now offline so that I can keep a record of some of my better and more important work that would otherwise be lost. They come from the entire length of my time in games writing, so you’ll probably notice a big jump in quality between the really old stuff and the more recent content.
This post is from one of my old blogs, and was posted on January 7th 2013. When I played through Persona 4 Golden after getting some games criticism under my belt, there was an aspect of it that blew my mind. Some of the boss battles used the actual game mechanics to help tell characters' stories. It was something I hadn't seen much of before (or hadn't noticed) and I felt the need to write about it. It's not as deep an observation now, but I was starting to take more notice of the deeper aspects of games after studying them at uni.
There's a game I've been playing lately that I've fallen in love with. That game is Persona 4 Golden on the Vita. There's something I really like about this game (well, actually, there's many things I like about it, but that's a story for another day), and that's the boss battles. The majority of boss battles in the game are what are called Shadows- manifestations of suppressed thoughts and emotions of a person that take on a monstrous form when someone denies that they're part of them. The boss battles and the dungeons they reside in contain some really powerful imagery that helps you understand the characters and their struggles better. The game’s characters face some difficult issues that you don’t see explored that often in games, and I find them really interesting. I'm not overly far in the game (I say that, but I've played for about 25 hours- it's a long game) but two of the boss battles I've encountered so far have really stood out from battles I've seen in other games- the ones with Shadow Yukiko and Shadow Kanji.
Yukiko Amagi and Kanji Tatsumi have inner conflicts which are represented by their dungeons and Shadows. There's some obvious visual symbolism here- Yukiko feels like she has no control over her life, and despite her love of her parents and hometown she just wants to escape from it all, and her Shadow is depicted as a princess, a damsel in distress searching a castle for her Prince to take her away. When she denies her Shadow, it takes on the form of a bird in an open cage, signifying her desire to break free and decide how to run her own life. Kanji on the other hand, deals with being uncertain of his sexuality, and being constantly rejected by girls throughout his whole life. He's a nice, gentle guy at heart who was raised in a textiles store, so has interests and hobbies one would see as feminine. He was shunned by girls as a result, and he became hardened and angry, picking fights with the local biker gangs who disturbed his neighbourhood. He gets confused when an androgynous girl starts showing interest in him, because he thinks ‘he’ is hitting on him, when she’s actually a female detective named Naoto, who predicts him being the target of a kidnapping, and is trying to prevent it from happening. Having being shunned by girls his whole life for seeming feminine, and seemingly being shown interest in by a guy, he becomes unsure of his sexuality. His Shadow is a stereotypically gay boy wandering a steamy bathhouse, who eventually practically begs for acceptance from people. When it transforms it is depicted as a David-esque sculpture wearing a flowery wreath, that is holding two Mars symbols. This is an obvious statement about his masculinity, as he feels that he’s not a ‘real’ man. Furthermore, he has two weaker enemies fighting alongside him- half black half white sculptures named “Nice Guy” and “Tough Guy” showing the two conflicting sides of his personality that make him who he is. The symbols and metaphors used by the game are really strong and easy to pick up, but what really interests me about the boss battles isn’t so much the visual symbols, it’s how they use the game’s mechanics to illustrate the characters’ inner conflicts. There’s some more obvious examples of this like a promiscuous Shadow a bit later on who fights using fire spells (fire representing passion, lust etc.), but there’s some much more interesting examples that I’ve encountered so far, which might not be quite as obvious.
Part way through the battle with Shadow Yukiko, she uses the skill “Summon”. When an enemy uses this skill it calls a random enemy to join in the battle, but when Yukiko uses it, she puts out a call to her ‘Prince’ to come and save her, and indeed summons a Shadow called ‘Charming Prince’, who fights alongside her. Eventually the Prince will flee the battle, and Shadow Yukiko will cast Summon again, but it fails. This isn’t a case of bad luck- the attack is actually scripted to fail every time, prompting Yukiko to call out for her Prince, wondering why he has abandoned her. Shadow Yukiko is left to fight for herself, much like the real Yukiko realises that can’t simply escape from her problems, and instead has to face them herself. She discovers that she’s not the helpless damsel in distress she thought she was, and finds the strength to stand up to people and make her own decisions.
Kanji’s inner conflict is all about questioning who he is in terms of character and sexuality. While it’s never outright stated what Kanji’s sexual orientation actually is, he still questions it through his Shadow battle. This is shown visually like discussed previously, but mechanically there’s some strong representations of his thoughts and emotions too. When Shadow Kanji confronts the real Kanji, he says he hates women because they’re “arrogant and self-centered, they cry if you get angry, they gossip behind your back, they spread nasty lies”. He sees them as venomous and spiteful who just won’t accept him for who he is. Shadow Kanji has two attacks that make the player see how women act and make Kanji feel through his eyes. At first I thought I was just being lucky and dodging his moves occasionally, but I soon realised that they actually target specific gendered party members. His first is ‘Forbidden Murmur’. It only targets male party members and inflicts them with a poison ailment. This is showing how the gossip and lies spread about Kanji makes him feel, and how it eats away at him. He also has a move called “Roar of Wrath”, which inflicts the rage status on female party members, making them attack targets uncontrollably with increased power, showing how Kanji sees women after their mistreatment of him. It’s this negative view of women that makes him feel more comfortable around men, and it’s his misinterpretation of the situation with Naoto that makes him wonder if he’s actually gay. There’s also the “Nice Guy” and “Tough Guy” minions brought up before. While they’re classed as two separate entities to Shadow Kanji itself, with their own strengths and weaknesses, they’re still a major part of the battle. They cast supportive moves on each other and Shadow Kanji, showing that Kanji has many different sides to his personality that he has to accept and come to terms with.
The way the boss battles have been crafted in this fashion is something I really admire. A lot of games have symbols and metaphors that can be identified pretty easily, which help extend the themes and ideas of the games, but very few actually use the game’s features and mechanics to do so. Spec Ops: The Line’s effectiveness in its commentary on modern shooters is achieved only because of it being a dudebro shooter itself, with it constantly questioning why you’re doing what you’re doing, and imposing serious consequences on the player and the protagonist unlike other shooters these days, but that approach doesn’t really seem like the same thing I’ve seen here. While Spec Ops was making you face consequences through its gameplay, and making comments on the action you take, Persona 4 ties symbols and metaphors into its mechanics, and it really adds to the development of its characters. Both of these games do what they do really well though, and it would be good to see more games doing something meaningful with how the game plays, rather than just using the gameplay to tie together the bits of storyline.