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Saturday, June 22, 2024

In My Loneliest Hours, 'Persona 5' Reminded Me of Friendship

It’s been six years since Persona 5 burst onto PlayStation consoles in a riot of red, white, and black. It's a date fixed firmly in my mind, as Persona 5 released a year into my disability. At a time of incredible upheaval, its relationships, its individualistic narrative, and the anger that pervades its playtime helped me come to terms with monumental changes in my life.

Now, its expanded edition, Persona 5 Royal, initially released in 2019, is receiving next-generation ports. On one hand, I’m reticent to revisit Persona 5, so strong are my feelings about it. On the other, I’m ecstatic that more people will get to play a game that not only changed how I relate to video games but reminded me what friendships mean after I lost mine.

As the game releases on Xbox Series X and S, Switch, PS5, and PC for the first time, I want to share just how important Persona 5 is to me and how it rescued me from the isolation of people’s indifference to disability. It’s a touchy subject, and one I might not be able to communicate without the virtue of the time that’s passed. But for me, Persona 5 represents just how much impact gaming can have.

Life Will Change

Much as Persona 5’s silent protagonist is haunted by the event that forced him to Tokyo, I recall with vivid clarity the moment my life changed. Wednesday, February 18, 2015. A few minutes after 8 pm, I was lying on my bed watching YouTube after work. Suddenly I felt a cold sensation on the crown of my head and the impression of an elastic band being tightened around my skull.

As my health began to deteriorate, friends became unsure of how to react to an illness that wasn’t getting better. Days, weeks, months passed without improvement. Doctors were baffled, then disinterested. I was a mystery, and contrary to what you see on television, medical professionals often would rather ignore mysteries than persist in trying to solve them.

I was catapulted back to my familial home, and pointed disinterest was the impression from all quarters. If I wasn’t going to get better and I wasn’t going to die, I was just … worthless. To my family and doctors, I was a dishonest burden. Why wasn’t I just getting on with it? Pushing through? Why pretend to be ill?

To friends, I became an obligation for a while, until I wasn’t. My moving 100 miles away may have made it difficult for them to reach me, but the emotional chasm of their apathy was even more untraversable.

By the time Persona 5 was released, everyone was gone. Ghosting into a void created by the invisibility of my illness. To them, I’d gone from someone seemingly possessed of boundless energy to suddenly disappearing. Unable to leave my house due to pain, fatigue, and seemingly never-ending migraines, I wasn’t traveling anywhere, and, embodying a reminder of the fickleness of human health, I couldn’t persuade them to come to me.

Isolated, disbelieved, and forced to hide my illness, I didn’t feel in control of my own truths.

Into that maelstrom came Persona 5, a game that surrounds the player with supportive companions in a war against adults demonized by aging, apathy, entitlement, and a desire for control.

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It was like the game was made for me—in that moment.

Beneath the Mask

Though I grew up in a house devoted to screens, in which family time consisted of sitting silently in front of the television—and where I often retreated to my room and to video games—I never gave gaming credit as a formative experience until I became disabled. Once I was shorn of energy, however, a way to pass long hours of discomfort became increasingly valuable.

With life frozen in place, gaming offered a sense of momentum and progress at odds with the rhythm of my chronic illness. It drowned out the criticisms that I wasn’t moving fast enough, that I was lazy, that I was a burden. It felt like I was doing something—even when I couldn’t leave my room.

In Persona 5, I found so much that had been taken from me available in vicarious form. I could go to the cinema like I used to, hit a few baseballs after school, explore new places, work out, meet people.

It wasn’t a meaningful substitute. Rather, an accessible way to remember the shades of my own life before being active became unsafe.

Never mind Persona 5’s dungeon-crawling, I wanted the routine, real-world things I was missing out on. In the game I studied, cleaned my room, remembered to water my plants, cooked, drank caffeine, even went fishing (and I hate fishing)—things I once took for granted but now couldn’t do, even if I wanted to.

More than anything, I wanted to hang out with my friends. In tasking me to maintain in-game relationships, Persona 5 granted me a glimpse of what real friendship looks like. I raced through the game’s required RPG elements just to spend more time on social links. To bask in unconditional relationships. Supportive, loyal, caring—all the things my friends hadn’t been.

As the protagonist met more people, I began to relate to their stories with remarkable intensity. Ryuji, whose athletic aspirations are stolen by injury. Makoto, bullied into being a perfect student, only to ultimately crumble under insurmountable pressure. Yusuke’s artistic pursuits, derailed by those around him. Yoshida, who just wants people to listen to him. Futaba, housebound by ill health and a misplaced sense of guilt.

Everywhere I turned in Persona 5, there were representations of my life in its people.

Getting to know Persona 5’s characters, I could invoke memories of times in my own life in which I felt companionship and support. Not just the realities of past friendships, but idealized versions of my own memories that kept me going in a period of enforced isolation.

It opened my eyes too: To how badly my friends had failed me when I fell ill. How easy people found it to use my disability to let me go. That’s not something that should be easy. I may have been buoyed by the wholesome friendships of Persona 5, but I was also swept up in the anger and frustration that drives its narrative.

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Even if it was only in an abstract, digital space, I felt everything I needed to feel at that time. In the disordered space between health and disability, in which the gaslighting by those around me left me constantly in doubt, Persona 5 gave me space to explore my condition exclusive of outside influence.

I watched disenfranchised people find a home; I saw someone overcome with the help of those who cared about him. In a story ostensibly about fighting chariot-borne penis demons, I could look at the love and affinity of its principal characters and, in moments, pretend that was me.

Life Goes On

Six years is a deceptively long time. As I grow older and develop an increasingly complicated relationship with my own past, Persona 5 feels indelibly linked to those older days. Playing it now is about nostalgia, not recapturing the feelings it emboldened in me back in 2016.

Now, finally, I’ve started to consider a future I didn’t believe I had before I played Persona 5. Part of that future, hopefully, is Persona 6. The original premise of Persona 5 was a global backpacking trip—something still visible in its sequel, Persona 5 Strikers. There’s little doubt Persona 6 will be bigger than Persona 5, but how might I react to a larger, perhaps global, scope as initially proposed for Persona 5?

How do I relate to Persona 6 when the connections that made me love Persona 5 so much are gone? As my confusion around family has cemented into a frosty distance, and as I’ve come to terms with my own illness—even if those around me have not—can I form as strong a bond to the social links of Persona 6 as I did in Persona 5?

Will it be just another game for me, or like Persona 5, will it provide another idealized cipher relevant to my future life? They’re questions I’m looking forward to answering.

Given the easy applicability of Persona games to all our lives, I’m betting it will be another meaningful experience. Not least as it’s bound to include the same—albeit more developed—social system, a system to which I owe so much as I continue to navigate the difficulties of disabled life in an abled world.

With or without that debt, I’m glad more people will be able to experience Persona 5 as it releases on all major platforms. It's a game that, at a time of anger, misery, and betrayal, when all I could consider was the past, started me on a track of bringing the future into greater focus. A process that led me here—to journalism—to WIRED—to you. Ultimately, to a better place.

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