When the World Is on Fire, Persona 5 Royal Hits Too Close to Home

In times of crisis, a game about fighting against corruption carries more weight than ever.

Persona 5 Royal is the kind of game that works for being self-quarantined.

The enhanced version of Atlus’ stylish RPG is over 100 hours long, with constant forward momentum so it seldom feels like you’re meandering. Given the isolation I’m feeling while held up at home during the coronavirus outbreak, anything that resembles a social simulator is a win for the ol’ dopamine receptors.

On the other hand, Persona 5 Royal has felt suffocating for me in a way the original game wasn’t when it came out in 2017. Persona 5 is a game about rebellion, taking on corrupt authority, and doing it with the people you love and trust most by your side. Royal is here three years later, and somehow the story it tells feels just as much, if not more relevant than it ever has. 

But, my god. It’s weighing on me.

I’m hesitant to make 1:1 comparisons between the people and events of Persona 5 and the real world, but when the first game came out, it felt like a shot in the arm for me. Donald Trump had been in office for about four months, I was just beginning to write about the games industry for money and decided to make writing about the portrayal of social issues a pillar of my work. Between all of these things, when Persona 5 came to the west I was at a point where its ideas spoke to me. Even if I wasn’t in a position to enact a great deal of change myself (I was a college student in a small Georgia town), I was not going to suffer in silence as I watched a man endanger the lives of so many people. Especially when I was surrounded by family, friends, and strangers who saw the things he was doing and were unbothered by them. 

I got a bit of a reputation in some of my college classes for speaking out against professors and classmates who supported the current administration or talked down to me or other marginalized identities on issues of diversity. I used my platform whenever I could to call attention to poor representation, regardless of the vocalized irritation of various detractors. And it was the time where I stopped taking abuse at the hands of my employer lying down. That last part might have changed nothing for the people who hurt me, as those individuals are very much still in power, but I was able to sleep better at night after leaving the job knowing I didn’t roll over against targeted homophobic harassment and one of the country’s biggest retail companies covering it up.

It wasn’t much, but it was a start. The beginning of me taking the initiative to actively fight for these ideals, rather than just quietly going into a voting booth and hoping it all worked out for the best. 

Persona 5 wasn’t the catalyst for me deciding to use my corner of the internet for good, but in 2017 it was an incredibly alluring story as I watched people willing and in some cases eager to revel in an unjust world. One where I watched my own family members vote for a president on the basis that he promised to build a wall to keep immigrants out of the country while knowing they were helping to elect a known homophobic administration while my gay self was feeling tangible, shaking fear in our living room. One where billionaires sat on profits while I had anxiety attacks over medical expenses my employer wouldn’t give me the insurance to cover. 

In this game, the Phantom Thieves of Heart enter a supernatural other world shaped by the distorted desires of corrupt authority figures. Once there, the group of teenagers uses their own otherworldly powers to “steal the hearts” of these criminals, which leads them to confess their crimes to the public in the real world. This begins with smaller targets, like a high school volleyball teacher who is abusing his students, then eventually escalating to a local mob boss, all leading to a final target in a politician aiming to become Japan’s next Prime Minister.

Everyone knows about how corrupt these men are and how their positions of power allow them to use and discard people at their discretion, but when power runs as deep as it does for these people, no one can really do anything about it. Enter the Phantom Thieves and their ability to enact change by forcing people to give up their own power. It’s such an enticing concept, especially when I was where I was in 2017 feeling the force of everyone who was “above” me weighing on my shoulders.

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It’s been three years since that game came out. It was one that, despite some glaring problems in how it treated some of these injustices after they had their spotlight in the plot, helped radicalize me into the man I am today. If Trump being in the White House wasn’t enough, stories like Persona 5 were what I needed to give me that extra push to fight.

But in 2020, Persona 5 Royal is evoking those same feelings. That same fervor is inside me now just as much as it was then…but it feels like remarkably little has changed.

In spite of being impeached, Donald Trump is still in the White House. Right now, we’re dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, and we’re not only under a leadership seemingly incapable of handling this situation with a modicum of competence, we have a medical infrastructure in this country that is so concerned with profiting off the sick that people may very well die because they’re afraid of the debt they’ll go into if they seek treatment.

This outbreak has also resulted in the delaying of democratic primaries in states like Georgia, so one of the only things I can do in helping to fight against these systems and the people that are causing all this suffering is being taken from me until it’s safe for everyone to even be in close proximity to one another again.

Yet here I am, alone in my home and spending over a hundred hours in a game that’s not only about punching upward and fighting to take down abusers and authority figures, it’s about being among the people you hold most dear and fighting that fight together. Persona 5 Royal is the game I need right now, but it’s also one that feels like a power fantasy neither I nor the people who want and need to rise up right now can attain.

I’m not looking to be a Phantom Thief. I just wish I didn’t feel as powerless as I do right now.