Teddie's Got a TV Eye On Me

by Arthur B

The cosmic battle of good and evil has a soft, fuzzy champion in Persona 4.
So, after kicking off the Persona series with the first game and thoroughly reinventing it with the third game and its mix of classic dungeon-crawling action and slice-of-life social simulation, the Shin Megami Tensei team were riding high. For their Playstation 2 swansong, Persona 4, they opted for a refinement of the formula which worked so well for Persona 3. This time, our nameless protagonist (Jerry Cornelius, in my playthrough) has parents who are not dead, but are going abroad for work for a year. So, they ship their mysterious, silent, grey-haired son off to the sleepy rural town of Inaba to spend the year in the care of his uncle Dojima, a detective in the local police force who has been bringing up his six-year-old daughter Nanako by himself ever since her mother died in a hit-and-run accident.

Even before the protagonist arrives in Inaba, however, there's signs something is up; on the train down, he dreams of the Velvet Room, where Igor is once again waiting with a contract binding him to take on the consequences of his decisions for the coming year, along with his new assistant Margaret, sister of Elizabeth from Persona 3 who's mysteriously vanished. (This time around, incidentally, the Velvet Room is a plush limousine travelling through fog-enshrouded darkness, which is much less obviously Lynchian than most of its previous appearances in the ga- oh wait.) Once he arrives, things only get stranger. Rumours proliferate of the Midnight Channel, a mysterious TV station which only appears when it's raining and which is supposed to show the face of your true love. A television presenter who had been caught having an affair with a politician and had come to the town's historic inn to get away from it all is found dead, dangling from, of all places, a TV aerial; some time later, Saki, a girl from the school the protagonist is attending in Inaba and who was featured on television after she discovered the presenter's body, is found dead under similar circumstances.

The protagonist, experimenting with the Midnight Channel, discovers that he is somehow able to physically enter televisions; he's also able to extend this gift to others by bringing them along, although it's not so simple getting out. Further investigations reveal two things: firstly, that there is an entire other dimension inside the televisions, a place cobbled together from half-remembered programs and the subconscious thoughts of the people of Inaba, where Shadows prowl and those who end up lost in that realm are threatened by the Shadow-selves that represent the secret, hidden part of themselves that they have kept locked away for fear of society's reaction, a place where the murder victims were apparently dispatched to by the killer - for when the mysterious fog of Inaba shrouds the town, as it usually does after particularly rainy days, the fog shrouding the television world clears and the Shadows go wild, and anyone who has not become reconciled to their Shadow-selves by that point will most likely be killed by it. Secondly, the Midnight Channel does not show your true love, but the next person to be kidnapped - and whilst they are stuck inside the television world, it grants a shockingly frank insight into their inner psyches, their cavorting Shadow-selves laying out their hidden thoughts in unflinching detail.

The protagonist and the closest of his new schoolfriends - Yosuke, Yukiko, and Chie - soon resolve to counter the murderer by observing the Midnight Channel, trying to save the victims from being kidnapped, and failing that tracking them down in the television world and helping them to both defeat and accept their Shadow-selves. But the friends are not without an ally in this strange world, for out of the depths of the mists emerges a mysterious figure, an occult guardian of this mystic realm who will become one of their most important allies in their battle against the dark forces behind the murders, a custodian of the boundary between the exterior and interior worlds charged by higher powers with preventing the dark forces of the human psyche from overflowing and taking over both worlds, an entity who will help the friends realise their powers and become humanity's ultimate protectors against the forces of irrationality, nihilism and Chaos.

His name is Teddie.

Given the whole serial killer premise and the extremely dark tone of Persona 3, you'd be forgiven for expecting something similarly dark, perhaps with plentiful references to Videodrome. You would be wrong. Whereas Persona 3 erred towards a more horror-influenced take on the Persona concept, Persona 4 is more like a modern-day fantasy story - and until the very last stages of the main plot, it tends to be a lot more light-hearted than its predecessor. Your characters don't even shoot themselves in the head to summon their Personas. But the best representative of this lighter, funnier outlook is Teddie, who's such a cheeky little rascal that you can't help but be endeared to him. A lot of the comedy comes from his irrepressible curiosity about the human world, and concepts he's vaguely heard about such as "scoring with chicks"; in seeking to learn about humans, he comes into the human world, becomes a beloved mascot at the mall, and physically grows a human body inside his lovable plush exterior so that he can pass as human.

It's this latter point which is a great example of how good the writing in Persona 4 is. Plenty of JRPG series like to play with philosophical concepts, but of all of the ones I've played only Shin Megami Tensei has ever really succeeded. Teddie's construction of a human identity from himself comes hot on the heels of him having a near-nervous breakdown and a confrontation with his own Shadow-self when he realises that there's no "real" Teddie - like the rest of us, his identity is not constant and immutable, but fluid and changing in response to the current context. Faced with a nihilistic universe, Teddie constructs his own reason for living by literally constructing a body for himself; you'd be hard-pressed to cook up a better allegory for the basic premises of existentialism.

And before things get too serious, the writers use Teddie's human form as an excuse to get him to enter the school's cross-dressing beauty contest along with the other male characters. (He looks adorable!) The sequence in question is part of an extended parody of the tendency of other JRPGs (including entries in the Persona series) to shoehorn in an excuse to show the female characters in swimsuits - the boys get entered into the cross-dressing contest after Yosuke, who's usually the guy to do stupid, thoughtless things out of privilege and entitlement, enter them into a beauty contest. It should, however, be recalled that the game does in fact still show you most of the main female characters in skimpy swimsuits after that, so it can't quite claim to be bucking the trend there.

But that said, Persona 4 does make a better stab at diversity than Persona 3 managed. Kanji, one of the people who ends up getting shoved into the TV who goes on to become a party member, is struggling with an internal conflict between his interest in fabrics (his family own a fabric store) and his sexual attraction to men with the super tough-guy image he wants to project to the world. His Shadow-self demonstrates this plot point by being extremely camp (the dungeon it occupies in the TV world is a steamy bathhouse, for crying out loud), but it is made extremely clear that defeating the Shadow-self in no way "cures" Kanji of the gay - it just makes him able to accept that you can be a gay guy interested in sewing on the one hand and still a super-tough awesome dude on the other, and societal confusion about who he is and what he represents is, at the end of the day, society's problem, not his.

Kanji's story is an example of how the dungeon-crawling aspects of the game is tied in much more closely with the main plot and the main character's social world. Just as the Shadow-selves the kidnapping victims spawn are twisted versions of their own personal dilemmas and social anxieties, the dungeons they are found in are designed to reflect the Shadow-selves' general aesthetic. Furthermore, the Social Link mechanic (making a return from Persona 3) is more closely tied in with the dungeoneering experience. Whilst in the first game the other player characters' Personas would metamorphosise as a natural result of advancing the plot, this time around they only transform into their superior forms if you max out the relevant Social Link track. The Persona designs also seem more closely related to the characters' own personalities; for example, Rise is a former TV star so her Persona has a transmitter attached to its face, and Chie is really into kung fu action movies and has a Persona decked out in Uma Thurman's motorcycle leathers from Kill Bill. Along the way, as you boost the Social Link in question, you not only get experience bonuses when fusing Personas of the appropriate type, but the character in question also gets special abilities they can use in battle.

The process of dungeoneering is also a lot more fun this time around. When entering a dungeon you can warp straight the highest level you've managed to explore so far rather than being obliged to start from the beginning or from specified stopping-off points. You can set your party members up to take direct orders from you in combat rather than just doing what they want, which makes combat far less frustrating. The individual dungeons all have different graphical schemes which make them a source of constant interest, especially since they are each generated according to differing sets of rules (for example, in some dungeons the stairs to the next level will be in side rooms directly off major corridors, in other times they'll be in corner rooms with two exits, and so on).

The Social Links available in the real world, beyond the main party, are also more interesting. In particular, the decision to place the main character with a family rather than in a dorm with the other PCs was a fantastic decision. It made me value my Social Links with Dojima and Nanako highly, even though they were actually of less utility to dungeoneering than my Links with party members, not least because the family feels like a real family; even though Dojima got mad at me when I kept interfering with the murder cases which it's really his job to investigate, I couldn't get too mad with him because I knew that he, like I, was trying to make the town safe for Nanako, and I ended up feeling so protective of them that when inevitably the killer started endangering them it felt so much more significant than the bad guy in Generic JRPG 47 kidnapping Generic Love Interest.

Speaking of love interests, once again you have the opportunity to score a heap of notches in your bedpost as you max out your Social Links with the girls you meet. This time, however, there's a crucial difference - whilst in Persona 3 you automatically enter a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with appropriate female characters once the Social Link hits a certain point, here you can actually choose whether to go for that or to just stay friends. This has two important effects: firstly, it lets you choose to be good pals with girls you aren't dating without turning your character into a two-timing cad. Secondly, it reaffirms that men and women can have really good friendships that aren't based on sex, a point which Persona 3 unfortunately didn't catch.

Although it is in general a wonderful refinement and updating of the Persona 3 model, Persona 4 isn't absolutely perfect. Whilst the gay plotline in the form of Kanji is sensitively handled, there is a mild flavour of transfail when it comes to one particular character: Naoto is a teenage detective who, it transpires, is biologically female. Naoto dresses like a boy, presents him as a boy, has a male Persona, and his dungeon is replete with references to surgery. So... he's a transman, right? Uh, apparently not. Turns out that Naoto only thought she wanted to change her sex because she was convinced that a woman would never be taken seriously as a police detective. Whilst she keeps up the androgynous look because, let's face it, it looks neat, she's referred to as a she for the rest of the game and stops identifying as male. (She even enters the beauty contest, which she wins by dressing in her usual androgynous style, refusing to participate in the swimsuit section, and then getting all of the girls' votes.)

This is all kinds of not OK. I can sort of accept the idea that in real life some people might wish they were a different gender so that they can overcome barriers in their chosen profession. I find it scarcely credible that this would extend to contemplating surgery in order to counteract a professional disadvantage. What's most galling about this plotline that there is no suggestion anywhere in it that it would be OK for Naoto to identify as a man. Furthermore, there is no suggestion at any point in the game that it's ever OK for people to identify as a gender differing from the one the genes point to unless it's all for the sake of a bit of sexy fun (see the cross-dressing contest); there are no other apparent trans characters at all. Whilst the writers are clearly going for a message of "your gender identity isn't about how you fit into society's expectations of one gender or another", the surgery thing tips the whole package over the edge into saying "your gender identity is all about the junk you were born with and if you're considering having a doctor muck about with it with a scalpel you've clearly got issues you need to work through."

Putting down the Minority Warrior gun for a moment, I also felt that the progress of the murder plot was a bit too compressed towards the end of the game; everything comes out in the last handful of months, and prior to that you just end up failing repeatedly to come up with any solid evidence and scrambling to rescue the latest TV victim. The plot, when it does come out, is interesting and gets into fun ideas about voyeurism and public curiosity and privacy and all that jazz, but it still felt like it had a bit less meat to it than the plot of Persona 3. Furthermore, it's slightly easier to accidentally get the bad ending this time around than in Persona 3; in that game, it was extremely obvious where the crunch decision was, but it's significantly less evident here (and you have to make the correct dialogue choice several times in a row rather than just once).

These matters aside, though, I can heartily recommend Persona 4 to one and all. I think it's probably the best introduction to the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole. It helps that in terms of its graphical and musical presentation it's absolutely gorgeous - one of the best-looking games ever seen on the PS2. And the only thing that's more fun than kicking ass in a dungeon is kicking ass in a dungeon with a cute, fuzzy teddy bear cheering you on. Blood for Teddie! Skulls for the throne of the bear!

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Comments (go to latest)
http://idvo.livejournal.com/ at 03:57 on 2011-04-11
I love this game. I haven't finished it yet (I have this nasty tendency to get about 40 hours into a game and just...stop playing it), but what I've played so far has been great fun. Something I noticed was that I never had the feeling that I wasn't doing something. In a lot of other games, there comes a point where I feel like I'm just going through the motions, so to speak. In the Persona games, with the balance between high school life and dungeon crawling (especially in 4, with its character-themed dungeons), and the calendar system it uses, I never found myself wondering, "Well, now what should I do?" I also agree that the Social Links made me more invested in the story and in trying to figure out what was happening (character relationships are always a big selling point for me in cRPGs).

[Spoilers ahead for Kanji and Naoto's characterizations]

I 100% agree with you on Naoto's storyline. Atlus missed a great opportunity to be more inclusive there, with the bonus of adding some offensive ideas about gender identity. In a way, I feel that this also impacts Kanji. He finds himself attracted to Naoto as a boy, and is still attracted to her as a girl. I think the message, "Love the person, not their gender," and showing that guys can be attracted to androgynous or masculine girls are pretty progressive elements for a game to have, but Kanji's story is rooted in him trying to come to terms with his sexuality, specifically his attraction to guys.

I'm probably not wording this very well, but the game seems to be saying, "Naoto's a boy...but not really!" and that leads to, "Kanji's gay...but not really!" It's like having Naoto be a girl allows the game to stop "dealing" with Kanji's feelings towards other guys: he's attracted to Naoto, but that's "okay" because she's a she, so now we only have to worry about the fact that he likes to sew. However, you get into the possibility of Kanji being bisexual, but I got the feeling that this is something the game doesn't really explore. I can't recall from what I've played (and like I said, I have yet to finish the game), but are there any instances of Kanji being attracted to anyone other than Naoto, whichever gender that person is?

I think Persona 4 (as well as other SMT games) tackles a lot of themes that other games wouldn't dare, and that's something that should be applauded. It's just that sometimes it seems to pull back and not explore certain themes deep enough.
Arthur B at 04:25 on 2011-04-11
I can't recall from what I've played (and like I said, I have yet to finish the game), but are there any instances of Kanji being attracted to anyone other than Naoto, whichever gender that person is?

I seem to recall there's a point in one of the comedy high school hijinks segments where Kanji gets a nosebleed (which is usually shorthand in anime for being aroused) from seeing the main character in his swimming trunks. And if you follow Kanji's Social Link strand to the end he acknowledges that his Shadow-self's desires are also his desires, and that Shadow-self was absolutely not coy about what he wanted. So I don't think Kanji's attraction to men is negated in the way the reading of Naoto as a transman is negated, though I definitely think it's possible to read him as being bisexual as opposed to 100% homosexual.

Personally I ship Kanji and human-Teddie like there's no tomorrow.
http://idvo.livejournal.com/ at 04:57 on 2011-04-11
So I don't think Kanji's attraction to men is negated in the way the reading of Naoto as a transman is negated, though I definitely think it's possible to read him as being bisexual as opposed to 100% homosexual.

Ah, I see. I didn't know that about the nose bleed and the end of his Social Link, thanks! I still think it would've been interesting to have Naoto be trans and for Kanji to acknowledge him as a man still be attracted to him, but I might be dipping into a bit of counter-factual criticism there. My personal reading of Kanji is that he's bi, but he has a hard time accepting that he can be attracted to different genders and gender expressions, that he thinks he needs to conform to one stereotype or another in order to be "normal."

Personally I ship Kanji and human-Teddie like there's no tomorrow.

I quite like that ship, myself! And one of these days I'm going to re-start the game and actually finish it ^.^;;
Wardog at 10:38 on 2011-04-11
Great review Arthur! I love this game. And Teddy for President!

(I have this nasty tendency to get about 40 hours into a game and just...stop playing it)

God, I'm so glad you said that. I have that exact same problem. I don't even know *why* I do it, I don't get bored or anything, I just somehow stop playing. Atlhough actually in P4 I sort of stopped because I reached this lovely scene when you're sitting on the back porch with your friends and your kid sister, eating this melon, and the sun was setting, and I realised my year among these people was nearly over. And I felt honest-to-goodness genuinely incredibly sad. It's totally pathetic I know but I felt like I was really losing my friends and family in finishing the game. That's how embarrassingly much I loved it :)

I've only seen a bit of the Naoto stuff and I guess because she's quite a late addition to the game it doesn't seem quite as well articulated and explored as the other issues. I agree that it's quite problematic, especially compared to how sensitively they deal with Kanji.

I also read Kanjia as a card-carrying, straight down the line (no pun intended) homosexual to be honest - he seems so uninterested in girls. I guess it might just be because he doesn't struggle with attraction to girls but still. I'm not mad keen on his interaction with the Naoto stuff but I'm not going to deduct points for it ;)
Arthur B at 11:44 on 2011-04-11
Atlhough actually in P4 I sort of stopped because I reached this lovely scene when you're sitting on the back porch with your friends and your kid sister, eating this melon, and the sun was setting, and I realised my year among these people was nearly over. And I felt honest-to-goodness genuinely incredibly sad. It's totally pathetic I know but I felt like I was really losing my friends and family in finishing the game. That's how embarrassingly much I loved it :)

This is actually something that I was dreading about the ending, but it's actually remarkably well-handled. Without giving away too many details and throwing in spoiler tags anyway to be extra safe, so far as I can tell the bad ending* comes across with precisely that note -
you're being dragged away from all these great friends and this family you've put together for yourself, there's so many things unsaid and so much left undone, and you're left trudging away with a suitcase full of regrets. Whereas the good ending is much more upbeat precisely because it emphasises that these friendships you've made will last the test of distance, and everyone's keen to remind you that at the end of the day you're only a train ride away and you're going to be visiting each other often. The sequences are actually very similar, it's just that in one there's unfinished business and lingering regrets and in the other there's a sense of satisfaction that you've made the best of your time with each other and a promise that said time is not yet over.

Plus you can visit Teddie whenever you like just by stepping inside a television. He's always there on the other side of the screen, watching you constantly. Always watching. Especially when you score with chicks.

* That is, the bad ending you get if you don't quite manage to get to the bottom of the murder case, rather than the abrupt game overs you get if you get killed in a fight or if you let one of the kidnapping victims get eaten inside the TV.
http://idvo.livejournal.com/ at 01:00 on 2011-04-12
I don't even know *why* I do it, I don't get bored or anything, I just somehow stop playing.

Me, neither. I can't even count all the games that I haven't finished. I think it might have something to do with not wanting the game to end, because it's been so much fun playing. Especially in games like P4; you get so close to all the characters that you just don't want to leave. (I think the melon scene is one of the best in the entire game ^.^)
Orion at 22:44 on 2011-04-12
Re: abandoning games,

I haven't picked up Persona 4 yet, but I loved Persona 3 as much as the rest of the ferrets. Sort of. I played the first half of the game in the summer before college, then ignored it for years in favor of real life, then recently went back and blew through the second half. Except...

Generally they do a very good job of making sure the Full Moon boss at the end of each month is doable if you got to the top of the tower. Not the final boss, though. The final boss is just brutal. It didn't actually kill me, so maybe I was capable of winning, but the fight dragged on an on, my characters kept getting killed and I wasn't doing significant damage, so I quit mid battle. Fortunately, I kept a save from the beginning of last month to do some level grinding.

I gained a bunch of levels finishing all the sidequests and grinding out some heart items, but now I'm tired. I was planning to kill the Reaper and level in Monad, but it too is tough. Meanwhile, normal leveling has slowed to a crawl. I'm sitting here with a level 80 main, ~70 others, and I don't know whether to fight the Reaper now, fight the last boss, or just keep leveling. I really wanted to get Mediarahan on one of my allies, but it's still like 4 levels away.

Did anybody else find themselves unprepared for Persona 3's last boss? How much grinding do you need in Persona 4?
Arthur B at 23:41 on 2011-04-12
I never hit a boss in Persona 4 where I had to deliberately go back and grind to progress the game. But I leaned fairly heavily on the dungeon-bashing over the course of the entire game so it's possible I spread all my grinding over the game as a whole.

There is a mechanic (via a lovely fox) where you can buy healing which restores all of your spell points whilst in the Midnight Channel dimension. If you cultivate the social link with the fox (which I advise because it is adorable), the price of said healing gets lower and lower, so eventually you can pretty trivially grind indefinitely on a single night - so worst case scenario is that you get to a tough fight and you spend a while grinding and using the money you earn via grinding to restore your spell points and then go grinding again.
http://idvo.livejournal.com/ at 02:50 on 2011-04-13
Did anybody else find themselves unprepared for Persona 3's last boss? How much grinding do you need in Persona 4?

(Yet another game I have to finish... ^.^;;) I typically grind like a fiend in pretty much all my games, so I rarely find myself unprepared. Maybe that's a reason I stop playing: I grind so much and so frequently that I just get burnt out? I'd probably stick it out to get that ability, but I actually kind of like grinding, though, so maybe I'm just weird.

I agree with Arthur's advice about the fox's social link in P4; very cute, and very useful.
Wardog at 10:46 on 2011-04-13
Actually the thing I'm dreadfully bad at, with Persona games, is making my damn personas. I actually get all OCD and panicky at the thought of combining them, and I have terrible trouble combining them effectively - especially because I prioritise personas that look pretty over personas that are actually useful.

Wardog at 09:35 on 2011-04-27
Look, you can get Personna 4 glasses!.

No Teddie costume though...
Ash at 20:11 on 2011-05-03
I haven't played any of the Persona games, but I thought this was pretty awesome and hilarious regardless.
Wardog at 23:16 on 2011-05-07
I have to stop rezzing the Persona 4 article but I rather liked this blog post on the subject.
Arthur B at 00:59 on 2011-05-08
Couldn't find any Persona posts on that blog.

Are you sure you didn't read it on the Midnight Blog? Because if you did we need to go into the TV and save that blogger from themselves.
Wardog at 10:42 on 2011-05-08
Wow, that was totally the wrong wanky game criticism blog - in my defence it was late. Try this one :P
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