4 years in Persona 4: Social Links in full bloom (2013-2014)

, | Game diaries

I’d been at Persona 4 for three years. Playing any kind of game for that long requires a different approach than what committing regular hours to it asks of someone.

This was like building a sand castle that would take all summer long — constantly at risk of being washed away or stomped on by some uncontrollable force. Construction would be put on hold for the tide to lower, or to recover from having to fight some beach jerk. Once I’d picked myself up, operations would continue. I’d refresh myself on the game’s story, re-familiarize myself with my registered personas, and soldier on.

The end of 2012, however, brought with it a tidal wave. After the jump, we will rebuild.

Since this isn’t a blog about the constant devaluing nature of unemployment, we can skip to late March when I had a job again. I probably only played an hour or two of Persona 4 between the new year and then, anyway. Where could I find the time if I was preoccupied with false job leads, fickle companies, and the ever-inviting notion of offing myself?

And how am I supposed to see the end of Persona 4 if I’m dead? Not easily, that’s for sure.

At this point, I was about 45 hours into the game. Now stable with work, I played a bit here and there, and in no time I was coming up on another summer. Considering how my plan to finish Persona 4 backfired back in 2011, I decided to see how things went without a mock recreation of my 2010 success.

Most people would have given up on a game by now, anyway. They wouldn’t string it along like an MMO, and I clearly didn’t have enough of an addictive personality to treat it like some grindfest. I was dedicated in a different way, more akin to passing infatuations of an old flame I never shook. Every now and then I’d go rummage through their Facebook page for a few hours, satiate my interest, and return to whatever else I had going on in life.

That’s what I’d done to Persona 4: I’d become its stalker. I spoke to strangers as if our relationship was an ongoing thing. I looked at the game as if our history had substance beyond a reality I conjured, where it had somehow changed alongside me over time, denying constantly that I knew volumes more about it than it did about me. Really, we knew each other equally — we must have. How else would it understand what we’d been through? Why else would it have kept coming back? It knew I wanted to play it. Even in the interim, it had to have known.

I would open its case and page through the full-color manual. They don’t make those anymore, you know. I wonder if they knew what they were creating when they compiled the gold master build? This is something to savor. I’m halfway through getting to know why Yukiko doesn’t feel comfortable inheriting her family business. I’m a few levels away from Bufula fully replacing Bufu throughout my party. Teddie is taking new forms, and at some point I bet they’ll change the battle music. If they don’t, I just might go crazy.

It was June. E3 was about to happen, with this notice a month in advance from Atlus PR:

“Q: Are you guys talking about a new persona game behind closed doors?
A: No.

Q: Are you just saying that because I don’t write for the New York Times or Game Informer?
A: For real, we don’t have any information on any new Persona game behind closed doors or not.”

I didn’t need cause to finish Persona 4, but this was enough to temper my interest in it. I’d been at this game for almost three years and it was about time we started to hear some rumblings about Persona 5. After a refresh of Persona 4 on the Vita and the fighting game, there was no way Atuls had forgotten. Denial was, in this case, almost an admittance that something should surface soon — some kind of reason to get back on the wagon and finish Persona 4, prepared for the next installment.

That’s got to be it: being prepared. I’ll do it. I’ll play your game, Atlus.

The only thing standing in my way was Animal Crossing: New Leaf, my only weakness. I was pining for its release for a solid year before this point, leading to a divorce from any ongoing games I would have played for at least up to October. In an attempt to multitask, I changed the town theme to the Junes jingle from Persona 4, stitching an hourly reminder of what I wasn’t doing into my daily routine of talking to little cherub creatures and harvesting fruit.

I did the same for my phone, setting a cute 8-bit ringtone of Persona 4’s intro music, and installing a Persona 4-themed weather app to perforate life with casual reminders that I had unfinished business. Reminders not just sparing me from Tom Nook, but the effortless distractions lurking in the endless fields of Netflix content, daring me to watch something, anything. Even my girlfriend was trying to keep me all to herself. My job already had me for 8 hours a day, and I had to sleep at some point. Nobody and nothing wanted me to play Persona 4. I’d become blind, like a fool.

I’d receive the call any time my phone rang, a metaphorical nudge in Persona 4’s direction with 8-bit notes beeping the theme’s lyrics: “We are living our lives/Abound with so much information.” Somehow, it eventually worked. When I finally came to, I’d strayed from my path again, for nearly 4 months this time.

Miraculously, I began accruing a healthy amount of progress to the point that I had gotten another 20 hours by December. We can debate what healthy means at this point, but in this case I was on top of the TV world, the king of Inaba, and I’m pretty sure I banged Yukiko by then.


I banged Chie, too.

Here’s the math. By February, I was about 68 hours into Persona 4. Joystiq’s annual Four in February was on the horizon, and according to How Long to Beat’s average, I had at most 10 hours left to go. Maybe the universe didn’t want me to finish Persona 4, but the stars couldn’t stop from aligning. The other three games weren’t as important as finishing this one, and I was going to make it happen.

That’s why I didn’t finish Fire Emblem: Awakening that month. I never played Brothers. It’s why I didn’t even play the last hour and a half of Ryse that should have helped put me to sleep some nights. Instead, I committed any console game time to Persona 4, which by the end of February found me at 86 hours and 44 minutes into the mix. I should have finished long before this, but thanks to hours spent fusing personas in the Velvet Room and leveling above requirements for completing dungeons, a margin of about 14 hours was attached to reaching the endgame and fighting a giant eyeball.

It’s a neat-looking giant eye, but even in its last moments, Persona 4 was still standing in parts of Persona 3’s shadow — one with a sense of danger and finality in its last battle. Here I was in Persona 4’s last boss, fighting a disco ball with a pupil.

It was a around 4PM on Sunday, March 2nd, and I with nothing to do besides wait on a napping girlfriend to wake, decided to finish what I’d started almost four years ago. I had a ways to go, since Jun was only at level 77, and it was recommended he be at level 80 for this boss. Somehow, it didn’t phase me to spend the next five hours grinding, wringing every drop of experience out of the dungeons. I even luxuriated with the extra in-game days I’d earned with aggressive grinding, eking out a few more S-Link interactions while figuring out how to make the most of my last moments in Persona 4.

I was also using a FAQ.

This is as good a time as any to admit I also kept links handy for navigating dialog in and out of S-Links. Probably the least incredulous of guides was the persona fusion table I had bookmarked, because get back at me when you find someone who knows by heart how to create Taotie off the top of their head.

Give me all the dirty looks you want, but at this point in the game, I would have been an idiot to not use some sort of walkthrough. I used one for Persona 3, not to be told what to do, but in order to move more efficiently through late-game bosses when my patience had run thin from experimenting on them. I’d soon run the tank empty with guesswork on how to reach my destination, and my pride had long since buckled in sight of a map.

And just like that, around seven hours later, I’d wiped the floor with the eyeball. Persona 4’s calendar warped to March to see the departure of Jun Seba to the city from whence he came, and bid a farewell to the mystery team.

For the first time, I believed the characters declaring that the story was complete. There wasn’t anything left to do but visit everyone I’d met in-game before leaving, although a sudden habit of the game was developing, prodding me to check in with more people, poking around Inaba.

Why was it nagging me? Had I missed something? Wasn’t this the borderline anticlimactic conclusion that the game had tailored to suit itself with? It seemed fitting enough.

Of course, that’s not what happened. It was March in-game and now in real life. I’d just been laid off, and to make matters worse, closed the month with all Four in February games still incomplete.

Looking back on that day, almost three weeks ago now, it could have been over had I agreed to leave town like I should have. If only I hadn’t insisted on checking the Junes elevator one last time. If only the game hadn’t had multiple endings.

If only I could have just let it die.

Next time: the True Ending
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Aaron Vaughn is a Midwest transplant currently residing in Oakland, California, where he is learning to endure the comforts of gentrification by playing and writing about video games, asking if he can try on your Google Glass, and honking at food trucks. His writing can also be found on Gaming-Age, or in the form of some dirty limericks under the far left coffee table next to the register at Coffee Works, located at 107 Pike Street, Seattle, WA.