First released in Japan in 2016, Persona 5 (hereafter P5) follows a group of teenage misfits who gain the power to control Personas, powerful spirit-like figures that allow them to fight malevolent manifestations of society’s subconscious desires in the supernatural realm of the Metaverse, and attempt to effect change in society by holding corrupt adults accountable for their actions. At first glance, the rhetoric of the gameplay mechanics appears at odds with the game’s narrative argument; while the plot encourages breaking free of societal constraints, the calendar structure and Confidant system are almost frustratingly restrictive on the player. However, as I will demonstrate in this essay, rather than weakening the game’s overall argument, this juxtaposition creates a ludonarrative dissonance that actually enhances it, bridging the gap between player and player-character and encouraging empathy and immersion.
The term “procedural rhetoric” was coined by Ian Bogost to describe the way a videogame’s model, mechanics, and theme form effective simulations of real-world events, therefore allowing them in their innate construction to “make claims about how real world processes do, could, or should work” (Bogost, 2007, p. 57). This procedural rhetoric exists alongside the narrative and other elements to form the game argument: the overall claims it makes about the systems it represents. In P5 the narrative is subversive in the way it challenges the power structures in Japanese society: young people are under immense pressure to conform to what is considered to be the ideal lifestyle, and those who can or do not conform and exhibit resistance or deviant behaviour are problematised and labelled under the umbrella of wakamono mondai [“youth issues”] (Furuichi, 2011, p. 3). P5 does the opposite, instead celebrating the deviants who challenge the establishment and treating them as brave and heroic. Game bosses are adults who have been corrupted by power; for example, an abusive teacher, a crooked politician, an artist who takes advantage of his apprentices; and the player must control a group of young misfits known as the Phantom Thieves to defeat them. The game narrative is mainly linear, meaning that the player must take part in these revolutionary activities in order to complete the game and “win.”
Despite the revolutionary and rebellious tone of the narrative, many of the game mechanics deliberately deny player agency. While in some cases this can detract from the game argument, it has been suggested that game developers may consciously subvert the narrative with contrasting mechanics to create what is known as “ludonarrative dissonance” (Seraphine, 2016, p. 3) in order “to create complex narratives of trauma and suffering” (Kuznetsova, 2017, p. iii). It has been noted that complicity is a significant part of how a videogame enacts its argument on the player, and that because the player is directly responsible for the events in the game world, “games are well equipped to draw the player in” to the extent that they can even “make [players] feel for characters who may be traumatized” (Smethurst & Craps, 2014, p. 278). In what ways, then, does the dissonance between narrative and ludic elements impact P5’s overall argument?
In terms of genre, the Persona games are often described as a cross between a dungeon-crawling Japanese role-playing game (henceforth JRPG) and a dating simulator. The two genres are extremely well balanced, with the JRPG elements providing the action and combat of the Metaverse, and the dating simulator elements adding structure in the form of a calendar and daily “activity” slots as well as buildable relationships with supporting characters. The rhetoric of time mechanics in Persona 3 is touched on by Todd Harper (2011), who notes that what he calls the “daypart” system, whereby each in-game calendar day is split into sections in which the player can perform a set number of actions, functions as a limiter. In P5, the player is obliged to choose whether they prioritise schoolwork, building relationships with classmates, working a part-time job, or building the experience level of their Persona in the Metaverse. On weekdays, the player-character automatically attends school, and the only dayparts in which the player can choose how to spend their time are “after school” and “evening.” Acknowledging that this is a markedly different time mechanic than is used in other JRPGs, Harper suggests that “the constant deadlines and inevitabilities remind the player that time itself is always moving forward and suggest certain discourses about how that time should be spent” (Harper, 2011, p. 407). In other words, limitations give the way in which the player chooses to spend their time more weight, and allow the player to “build” their own protagonist somewhat, within a certain framework.
Harper is correct, but in the context of P5 this time mechanic has several additional functions. The first of these is empathy: The tight constraints of the daypart system mirror the innumerable pressures on young people in Japanese society (Toivonen & Imoto, 2012, p. 1-26), and the frustration that might build in the player as a result of the time mechanic allows for better synergy and empathy between the player and player-character. At the end of the final daypart, if the player attempts to perform an additional activity, a dialogue box will pop up in which Morgana urges the player to go to sleep: the player-character must be “tired,” and so should not (and cannot) perform any more activities on that day. The frustration this prompts in many players has spawned numerous memes and posts on discussion sites like Reddit, where players bemoan Morgana preventing them from partaking in further activities. However, this tightly structured and restrictive schedule is not just for the developers’ convenience: it is mounting an argument about the nature of daily life as a Japanese teenager. There is a huge amount of pressure in Japanese society to conform to the image of an “ideal” citizen (Miller & Kanazawa, 2000, p. 3; Oishi & Diener, 2001, p. 1679), and as a result of that there seems to not be enough time in the day to keep everyone happy. Should schoolwork be the priority, or socializing with friends? Helping out at home, or spending time on personal growth?
Time constraints are not a problem unique to Japanese teenagers, of course, but the frustration a player might experience when their time is rushing by during school examination periods is the same as that which an actual high schooler might feel, drawing the player closer to the player-character and allowing for better immersion. The game’s narrative encourages breaking free of societal constraints while the mechanics force the players to conform to a tight time schedule, and the subsequent ludonarrative dissonance that arises forces an empathic response in the player. Indeed, the player-character is told that his life is an unjust game [rifujin na geemu], a theme that continues outside of the narrative and into the structure of P5 itself thanks to the daypart system and the time restrictions it creates.
The idea of an “unjust game” is present elsewhere in the game’s structure too; in the core mechanic of the Confidant system. The player-character’s relationship with other game characters is measured by a numerical social link, which can be increased or “levelled” by using up dayparts to spend time with them in-game. Strengthening the social link unlocks special dialogue options with that character, effectively giving you their backstory, as well as potential bonuses when that character is used in combat in the Metaverse. As discussed in the previous section, time is a precious commodity in P5, so the player must choose which social links to prioritize while balancing other aspects of their in-game life, and in most cases the game will end with some character backstories unexplored due to lack of time or desire to build the social link.
There is, however, a “perfect” way to play the game, in which the player can increase all of the social links to maximum while also completing all of the other tasks in the game. Doing so requires performing specific actions in a specific order to use the allotted time to the fullest, utilizing “bonus” effects such as only exploring the Metaverse on rainy days. All of the Persona games have a perfect way to be played, but the key aspect of this is that it is almost impossible to do so by chance or reason: the only way to get the perfect game is to cheat. Cheating in this context means looking up a play-through guide or the like online, where a cursory search for “Persona 5 perfect guide” immediately returns detailed guides that break down every action the player must take to maximize their in-game time and achieve the perfect outcome. Most players would likely prefer to play the game “organically,” making their own choices that result in a more personal or individual play-through, but the views on this particular guide are close to 90,000 (Optimussmart & Optinooby, 2019), indicating a clear interest in manipulating the game system to get the perfect game.
The inclusion of a perfect way to play the game that requires a form of cheating may seem contradictory to a narrative that champions truth and justice. However, at the very end of the game, it is revealed that the protagonist has been manipulated by a god of control known as Yaldabaoth throughout the entire narrative, and is actually involved in a constructed game of cat and mouse that has been engineered from the start. All areas of the game world are actually under Yaldabaoth’s control, and all of the protagonist’s efforts have been in vain: he “loses” the game, but by resisting execution, gains more power. The prison door that held him inside the panopticon of the Velvet Room disappears, and he banishes Yaldabaoth from the world on the condition that neither the protagonist nor the Phantom Thieves will ever have their achievements acknowledged by society. As such, any ludonarrative dissonance that may have arisen from the contrast between the narrative and Confidant system up until this point is resolved as the truth is revealed. The protagonist really has been playing an “unjust game,” just like the player has, and in this final battle the player and the player-character are closer than ever, drawn together by their mutual desire to rid the game-world of Yaldabaoth’s corruptive forces.
The possibility of a perfect play-through achieved through cheating finally makes sense: it isn’t an oversight or flaw, but a core part of the game’s argument. The only way for the characters to “win” is to give up everything that has made them powerful, unique, and different, or, by an alternative metric, deviant and non-conforming. It is the player who is complicit in this choice, making the argument more effective and convincing. However, choosing to allow the Phantom Thieves to maintain their level of fame in society will result in what is considered a “bad” ending, in contrast to the “true” ending that occurs when their achievements are left unacknowledged. By setting the player and player-character up to fail despite their best efforts, P5 convincingly demonstrates the frustration that comes with working within the constraints of a flawed and corrupt system, in a damning criticism of Japan’s social structure and those that blindly conform to it.
Discordance between narrative and ludic elements may, in some cases, be a mark of inconsistency that weakens a game’s overall ability to mount a convincing rhetoric. However, P5 demonstrates that ludonarrative dissonance can actually enhance the game argument, directly provoking the frustrations of the protagonists in the players themselves by forcing them to manoeuver through a restrictive and “unjust” system, and making them complicit in the protagonists’ rebellion. Developing a better understanding of the different ways that semiotic systems can interact with one another in this medium, as well as the ways ludonarrative dissonance can be used as a storytelling device, is not only beneficial to our understanding of game design, but will also make videogames a more accessible resource across the humanities.
Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Furuichi, N. (2011). Zetsubō no kuni no kōfuku na wakamonotachi. Tokyo: Akashi.
Harper, T. (2011). Rules, rhetoric, and genre: Procedural rhetoric in Persona 3. Games and Culture, 6(5), 395-413.
Kuznetsova, E. (2017). Trauma in games: Narrativizing denied agency, ludonarrative dissonance and empathy play. Thesis for Master of Arts at the University of Alberta.
Miller, A. S., & Kanazawa, S. (2000). Order by accident: The origins and consequences of conformity in contemporary Japan. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Oishi, S., & Diener, E. (2001). Goals, culture, and subjective well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1674-1682.
Optimussmart, & Optinooby. (2019). Persona 5 – Complete 100% walkthrough. PSNProfiles.
Seraphine, F. (2016). Ludonarrative dissonance: Is storytelling about reaching harmony? n/a: ResearchGate.
Smethust, T., & Craps, S. (2014). Playing with trauma: Interreactivity, empathy, and complicity in The Walking Dead video game. Games and Culture, 10(3), 269-290.
Toivonen, T. & Imoto, Y. (2012). Making sense of youth problems. In Goodman et al. (Eds.), A sociology of Japanese youth: From returnees to NEETs (pp. 1-26). Abingdon: Routledge.