Persona 5 Royal and Choice in Gaming

Every year or so, the Wheel of Video Game Discourse lands on “let’s talk about how choice in gaming usually means save the orphanage or burn it down”. The usual suspects appear here. People bemoan the fact that, despite a critically-acclaimed story that does indeed give the player choice, the Mass Effect Franchise’s moral choices are neatly divided into good vs. evil. The example of Bioshock is brought up as a study in what it means to gamify a moral decision as players who want to make the “right” moral decision will miss out on many upgrades. Undertale will be cited as a game that was built entirely around that framework, intrinsically linking gameplay with the player’s own sense of right and wrong, and playing with the morally hazy areas in between by taking advantage of assumptions about how video games generally work.

And that’s all well and good, but there’s another discussion that sleeps just below the surface of this one, one that I find much, much more interesting: why do these games force you to choose between good and evil in the first place?

Even in the case of games like The Wolf Within Us, The Walking Dead, and Life Is Strange, hard decisions exist on this spectrum. All of these choices, from the most mundane dialogue decisions to literally choosing which characters to save, necessitate complex internal calculations about what a player values most, and that’s why these games are so beloved. They reward players for making hard decisions with beautiful narratives that seem to flow according to player choice.

But what happens when a game takes a single small step outside of that spectrum?

You get the final semester in Persona 5 Royal.

spoilers ahead, obv

There is one moral decision at the heart of Persona 5 Royal, and it’s an offshoot of the thought experiment at the heart of Persona 5, which revolves around the concept of self-determination, and what it truly means to embrace yourself, even the parts of yourself you’re scared of, in modern society.

Persona 5 Royal picks up where Persona 5 left off, but makes a hard left turn once the endgame begins. For most of the new content, you’re helping a new party member come to grips with her own trauma, shaking off a comfortable façade that she assumed in order to mask her grief.

Near the end, however, a trusted confidant (Takuto Maruki, your therapist throughout the whole game) reveals himself to be the extra semester’s main antagonist. In your conversations with him throughout the game, he talks to you about how, as a therapist, he wants to give people the power to fight against their own trauma, to give them the ability to self-actualize the way the Phantom Thieves can.

This culminates in Maruki revealing that he actually does have the power to shape the world in this way. His persona allows him to literally grant people’s wishes, to make their cognitions reality. His ultimate goal is to do this for everyone, creating a perfect world without unnecessary pain. This is a super-common trope in media, where a well-meaning but ultimately evil villain promises a utopia at some incalculable cost, but Persona 5 Royal makes it clear that this isn’t the case. Maruki would essentially ascend to godhood, yes, but people would still be able to do as they choose. Maruki would just be ensuring that everything turned out okay.

As the protagonist, you’re actually able to go along with this plan and receive a “bad ending”. This ending sees you and your friends out in the city having a good time, talking about their lives as if nothing has changed. You go to Leblanc and have a party. The scene ends with Maruki smiling, shrouded in shadow, just out of sight. It’s not foreboding, or at least it’s not meant to be. You’ve created your utopia.

If, on the other hand, you do what the game wants you to do, you get the game’s true ending, and get to perform the Persona series’s requisite deicide, striking a blow for free will and self-determination. But, like, are you, really?

The question at the heart of Persona 5 Royal is never really answered. It’s not so much a moral dilemma as it is a dilemma about what morals actually are. It’s probably the only choice I’ve ever made in a game that stuck with me, because really thinking about that decision necessitates really thinking about what you think life actually is.

Everyone would be fed. Cancer would be cured. No war. No murder. No crime. A perfect society, where even the most terrible people could be immediately, instantly rehabilitated. The one crucial flaw is that nothing in that perfect world would be truly earned, it would just seem like it’s earned. It’s the red pill-blue pill question, except there’s no overarching evil plot to harvest human energy and also everybody gets Matrix powers to live their ideal life.

How can you weigh that one flaw against the entirety of human suffering? And on the other side, how can you argue that this society is human at all, when it is literally controlled by the whims of one man?

There’s so much tied up in this question for me personally. I’m codependent. I have trouble making the decisions necessary to living my own life without external validation. If I know one of my friends is stressed, or sad, or sick, I feel an overwhelming uneasiness if I’m not able to help them get through it. Maruki’s utopia is incredibly attractive to me.

Paradoxically, therapy has caused my pendulum to swing the other way on the subject. My sadness, my grief, my loneliness, my anger, my flaws, are all things that make me me. Accepting them and dealing with them has made me into a better person. In a world like Maruki’s, that kind of personal growth wouldn’t be possible for me or for anybody else.

I wish that more big-budget games had narratives that allowed players to grapple with morality in this way, sidestepping a good-evil approach for something more abstract. Those are the kinds of decisions that stick with me.

The Problem We Don’t Talk About

It’s a dream job. Games writers get to spend all day writing about something they’re passionate about, something that makes them and their audience happy. We get sent review codes for many of the most exciting upcoming titles, and we get to play them early. It’s hard work, and anyone who has received a review code for a game 4 days prior to launch will attest to that fact. We do painstaking research for features, we spend hours pixel-hunting in order to create accurate guides, and we bust our asses to track down sources for reported pieces. This often goes unrecognized for all but the most prominent writers in the games space, largely because the games writing industry still struggles to be respected the way other entertainment writing spheres are. It can be a thankless job sometimes, especially when you’re spending all week cranking out guides for a mobile game you don’t even really like.

I majored in theatre in college, and one of the most common refrains I heard from professors and acting coaches was “only try to be an actor if you feel like nothing else will make you happy.” I think about that advice all the time, after over a decade in the games writing industry.

To get at why, exactly, that advice is so relevant, we need to play some inside baseball, so forgive me. Most people who read Polygon, listen to Waypoint Radio, or follow Uppercut know that the games writing industry, like most online media now, is broken. And yes, that’s true. It’s incredibly hard to make games writing a career no matter who you are, but it’s almost impossible if you don’t have the background I do — that is, if you’re not a white dude who could presumably ask his parents to help with rent money for a bit when freelance work dries up. That’s not exclusive to the gaming industry. All of online media has this problem, where it is necessary to do months (if not years) of free or low-paying work while simultaneously holding down another job to get your name out there before anybody will take a chance on you for that first high-profile freelance piece. I don’t say this to put myself down, I say it because it’s heartbreaking that the barrier of entry for online writing as a career preemptively silences the voices that we need to hear from the most.

The rise of Patreon, and a flourishing of critically-acclaimed independent outlets make me optimistic about the industry’s ability to tear that barrier down in the future, but that leaves another, more immediate problem. Every games writer is aware of this problem, but it’s one that we don’t talk about — I think because it just makes us all incredibly sad.

Think about the ideal career path in your industry. It makes sense, right? You start at an entry level part-time position, get promoted to a full-time gig, put in a year or three of work before being promoted to a leadership role, and then move on from there with higher job security and a comfortable paycheck to boot.

This career path exists for media too, where junior or freelance reporters get hired by outlets on a full-or-part-time basis, and then ideally get promoted into editorial roles, are given regular columns, or put into mentorship roles, all of which come with pay bumps and increased job security.

The career path for games writing looks something like this: Pitch articles to every single outlet you can think of until one of them bites. Grow that relationship over the course of a few months, writing constantly so that other outlets start to recognize your name and take your pitches. Apply to every single job posting, knowing that for some reason, many of the most recognizable outlets don’t allow remote work, so in the meantime, you’re putting together a moving fund. Keep doing that until you actually land a full-time job with one outlet.

This is where, I believe, many of us stop thinking about a games writing career path because just having a steady full-time job doing this seems like such a pipe dream. That initial goal seems so huge that it’s not worth looking further, but that’s where the rot lies.

You can see this play out among some of the most talented writers in the industry. There is no plan for advancement once a writer lands that full-time job. The best a writer can hope for is to either land at a workplace with a strong union and mandated regular raises, or to constantly apply to other jobs, bouncing, mercenary-like, every few years when an outlet can offer them a better deal. And not even this can fix the fact that by and large, writers are still subject to layoffs due to the whims of an ownership group that doesn’t understand the games writing industry at all.

It’s not sustainable unless you build a huge audience outside of your outlet, and then leverage it for your own gain by doing even more unpaid work in setting up monetized content on Twitch, Patreon, Substack, or just writing a book.

It’s so fucking bleak.

The worst part is over the past few years, this rot has seeped into other industries as well. Media criticism and journalism as a whole is starting to show signs right now of the cancer that has been spreading throughout games media for years, and why wouldn’t it? Nobody would do this kind of work if they didn’t really care about it. Nobody would do it if they didn’t love it and think it was vital. Given how important the work is to us, it was only a matter of time before our willingness to sell ourselves short for a dream job was wielded as a weapon against us.

The frustrating thing is this problem has been solved. Defector Media shows that if you get a good group of folks together, you can build an independent, sustainable, subscription-and-ad-supported outlet. The problem is that because of the way the games industry works, very few of us have the financial resources, or the audience, to build something like that.

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that we’re all going to be crushed under the boot of capitalism together, and that in 5 years, there will be no place for games writing that isn’t a guide.

The other way of looking at it is that where we stand now, it only takes one domino to fall in order to set off a series of events that posits an alternative for games writers, one where deserving folks aren’t disqualified from the industry before they even try.