Persona 3 Portable’s setting: A pop-cultural window onto the world

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

Compared to other RPGs, Persona 3’s modern-day world may seem mundane. The main character buys healing items not from armourers and apothecaries, but from the pharmacist at the shopping mall. He/she traipses through school hallways rather than half-sunken temples or bridges in the sky, and his/her haunt is the dormitory lounge rather than a castle.

 

But there are a couple of twists. First, Persona 3 is set in modern-day Japan, and to a Western gamer, odds are that will be at least a little exotic. The game takes place in the big city, so many of the differences will be muted. But there are some you’ll notice straight away. The dialogue is laden with “-san”, “-kun” and other Japanese honorifics. The main character can pray at a Shinto shrine, either to boost Academics before an exam, or divine his/her fortune and strengthen a relationship. School clubs are a Big Deal. There are even love hotels.

 

Second, Persona 3 contains a bunch of little touches that help preserve the internal consistency of that setting, and hence, the player’s suspension of disbelief. Trees change colour in between seasons. NPCs change their outfits depending on the weather and on whether they had school that day. But for something a bit more substantive, take the game’s scheduled exams, two sets a semester. They form part of the time management aspects of the game. They’re well flagged, in dialogue and on the in-game calendar. They do have an in-game effect. And so, it makes perfect sense that right before exam-time, your party members lock themselves in their rooms to study – leaving them unavailable for dungeon-crawling.

 

That said, Persona 3 mostly limits you to a single city, unlike the typical RPG, which has you travelling across cities and continents. While this is also consistent with the game’s premise – most high school students stay put in one place – it does mean that this isn’t really a game about the joy of exploration. Still, when the characters do get out of town, on holiday or on school excursions, the destinations are well-realised enough for me to delight in running around and talking to every NPC – and they’re also host to some of the funniest scenes in the game*.

 

How does that single city hold up over the course of the game? Pretty well (though not perfectly), actually, helped by the little touches and the odd change of scenery I mentioned above; by plot sequences that take place in new parts of the town; and by constant interaction with NPCs through plot sequences, other social encounters, and  even the periodically refreshed dialogue from nameless townspeople. That’s no small feat, after all the time I’ve spent with the game. I’m not that far from the end, now, and I‘ll be interested to see how the designers might wrap up the player’s experience with this world…

 

* Which, I suspect, owe more to anime tropes than to real-life Japanese culture.

Series Navigation<< Roleplaying and time management in Persona 3 Portable: Who says there’s no roleplaying in JRPGs?Combat in Persona 3 Portable: The quick and the dead >>
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3 Responses to Persona 3 Portable’s setting: A pop-cultural window onto the world

  1. Pingback: » Combat in Persona 3 Portable: The quick and the dead Matchsticks for my Eyes

  2. SMZ says:

    Thanks for all the posts on P3! I just started playing and it’s great to hear an in-depth point of view. On your topic of the game being a cultural window, I am finding it interesting that answering questions correctly in class raises the main character’s charm. Every time that happens, I wonder, “Does this happen in North America?” lol.

    • Peter Sahui says:

      Thanks, SMZ – I’m glad you like them! And, hah, that’s an interesting point you make!

      If you enjoy Persona 3, might I also recommend Persona 4? I haven’t blogged about it in detail, but essentially, it takes the exact same concept as Persona 3 (a game in which the main character splits his time between fighting monsters and living his everyday life) but improves its execution in every way. P4 offers more variety – both in the dungeons the player explores, and in the activities that are possible in town – and also does a better job of exploring the idea that a Persona is a reflection of one’s true self.

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