by Brianna Lawrence, @brichibitweets
The end of 2016 was not a good look for me.
Neither was the beginning of 2017.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that I was rather… distraught… over who was elected into office. Trump’s America feels like an unaired episode of The Twilight Zone that never should’ve seen the light of day. As a black, queer woman, I know that our country has never been immune to racism, sexism, and homophobia – no matter how many wyt and/or problematic black folks try to convince me otherwise because, “Stop living in the past” or “Slavery was a choice.” Trump’s America basically made being ignorant “great again”, encouraging toxic behavior that ranges from straight up violence to a frantic 911 call because we out here BBQing.
So yeah, I was a mess in those beginning months of MAGA hats. Thank goodness for video games, more specifically, thank goodness for Persona 5. Released in April 2017, the game still serves as one of the best forms of self-care I’d ever dedicated 200+ hours to.
I’ve always been a fan of Shin Megami Tensei titles, especially the Persona series. Each game tells a brand-new story and offers hundreds of hours of slick ass battles, catchy music, well rounded characters, and a whole lot of symbolism. After playing the third and fourth game back in the PS2 days, I was eager to get my PS4 ready for Persona 5, I just didn’t realize how much I would come to rely on its story.
Persona 5 Spoilers below.
Persona 5 begins with you spending a year in Tokyo to live your best high school life… if by best you mean on parole for a crime you didn’t commit. As you name and take control of the main character, you find out you were charged with assault. Why? Because you had the nerve to stop a drunken man from abusing a woman.
Remember that drunken man. He is the crux of this piece.
As soon as you get to your new school you already have a reputation of being violent and hostile. No one’s interested in the truth of the matter, constantly labeling you as a delinquent because you have the nerve to exist in their space. Eventually, you do make friends, but all of them are the kids that have either been discounted as troublemakers or have nasty rumors circulating about them. This comes to a head when you meet the school’s gym teacher, Kamoshida, who, let’s be honest, looks like the guy you shouldn’t let near your kids. Turns out your tingling creeper senses are spot on. Not only is he abusing the volleyball team he coaches, he’s trying to blackmail a student into sleeping with him. The other teachers don’t care, though. He’s an Olympic gold medal winner and gives the school a good name. Huzzah.
Since this is a weird ass JRPG, you take the dastardly teacher to task by entering a bizarre, other world called the Metaverse. It reveals his true nature via turn-based battles and that symbolism I mentioned earlier. In the Metaverse, Kamoshida is the sleazy king of the castle, the castle representing the school and the half-naked, underaged girl by his side representing the student he wants to diddle. Gross. You and your friends take on the alias of the Phantom Thieves, each character awakening their powers once they reach their breaking point. They set out to “steal hearts” from corrupt adults, which is a fancy way of saying, “Make them change their shitty ways.”
That concept in and of itself was therapeutic for me. Can you imagine being surrounded by problematic folks and having the power to get them to just… stop? Imagine that moment where you’re just done with that friend, family member, coworker, anyone you feel like wasting your breath on. Instead of banning them from your space, you summon a giant monster and make them see the error of their ways. Not only do they finally come to terms with their behavior, they apologize, actually mean it, and willingly face the consequences of their actions! That’s what Persona 5 let me do, and in a time where people I trusted voted for a literal political cartoon villain, it was everything I needed.
But it wasn’t done.
Because one of the main antagonists is, in fact, a literal political cartoon villain.
In your months of exploring the Metaverse and stealing the hearts of several rotten adults, you discover that a man named Masayoshi Shido has been orchestrating a crazy plan to use the Metaverse to murder anyone who stands in the way of his ultimate goal: becoming Prime Minister of Japan. Oh, and he’s the drunken man who got you sent to prison. To the rest of Tokyo, he’s a charismatic leader who they’re more than ready to vote for. With winning phrases like, “Steering Japan in the right direction,” he’s well on his way to the highest government position in the country. Only you and your group of friends know the truth about him… which means he wants you all dead. You all have to lay low while he continues his false campaign promises, your friends lamenting that it’s considered “un-Japanese” to be against him.
The kicker? If folks actually paid attention, they’d see that he’s trash. The way he handles any statements made against him is sloppy, at best, even if it’s high school students speaking up against him. His goon squad will shove them away – literally – and he’ll make thinly veiled threats about kids needing to “know their place.” All the red flags are there, just like they were with a certain American candidate who continues to “surprise” folks whenever he does something colossally stupid.
Let me tell you something. The high I felt when I did battle against Shido was insane. Y’all. I beat this man down. Summoned an army of persona to destroy him. This battle cleared my skin. Watered my crops. Restored my HP. It was one thing to change the hearts of teachers, parents, and loved ones, but Shido? The corrupt politician? Whose Metaverse battle took place on a cruise ship that sailed through a flooded, apocalyptic looking Japan? All that was missing was a bright red hat on his bald head.
Seeing him confess his crimes on live television was the icing on the decadent cake. I sat back and waited for the people to skewer him the way they’d done Kamoshida and every other societal shit stain I’d defeated.
But the moment never came.
There was no communal dragging of his name, no parade in honor of the Phantom Thieves – the plucky teens who made a political nightmare reveal a laundry list of horrific fuck ups. Society shrugged the whole thing off, as if Masayoshi Shido hadn’t admitted to straight up murder to advance in the polls. When you and your fellow Phantom Thieves go to investigate the deepest parts of Mementos, you make a heartbreaking realization. Much like Kamoshida and anyone else who enters Mementos, you see their true desires. And what is it that the people of Japan desire? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The people don’t want change. They don’t want to have to make their own decisions and would rather sit back and let the problematic world pass them by.
This was the hardest of pills to swallow.
All I could think about were the people in my life who told me to “give Trump a chance” before I decided that he would doom us all. I thought about all the red flags, Trump wearing each one proudly like a sadistic badge of honor. Racist statement here. Homophobic statement there. Mocking the disabled. Building walls. Grabbing pussies. All of it came rushing back to me as I watched these kids walk through the symbolic prison cells of their country, listening to person after person say that it was much better to do nothing at all.
I thought about those same people posting how shocked they were every time Trump did something unbelievably tone-deaf and flat out dangerous. They probably still make those kinds of posts. I wouldn’t know. I cut them out of my lives – or rather, I think I did, cuz folks can let you down at any given moment. Allies can be draining, too, here for one aspect of your life but not the other, making it about their feelings instead of the feelings of the groups they’re supposedly here for. It all hit me when the Phantom Thieves faced off against the literal god who resided in the deepest reaches of Mementos. His viewpoints were all kinds of fucked up because, according to him, he was simply following the will of the people. That’s why no one was protesting against Shido. It was all because Bizzaro God (Yaldabaoth) decided to give them exactly what they wanted: a world where they didn’t have to think for themselves.
The real kick to the shins is the fact that the game lets you decide what to do next.
You can follow “God’s plan” and let him keep humanity in a state of permanent disinterest, becoming his loyal servant who makes sure things stay just the way they are. Or, you can follow the true ending path and tell this dude to fuck the fuck off. Listen. I’m not gonna deny the fact that there’s something almost seductive about not having to think for yourself. What would life be like if we weren’t woke? It’d be much easier, that’s for damn sure, because ignorance is bliss, as they say. I thought of the times I was told that I was the one ruining the friendship. I was the one making everything about race, or gender, or sexuality, or anything else that affects my livelihood. All I had to do was agree to disagree, grow a thicker skin, and learn to take a joke. Why let nasty ol’ “politics” ruin your friendships when you can let your best bud laugh at your expense, all for the low, low price of your emotional well-being?
But in Trump’s America, I decided that I was done. Yaldabaoth be damned, I took my Phantom Thieves on the defiant path. After all, it is the “true” ending of the game.
When I finally beat the game I started New Game+ right away. I’d never done that with any video game before. I wanted to play through the adventure again and do all the extra things that I had missed. More importantly, I wanted to feel that euphoria of “stealing hearts” again. I wanted to take part in a story where corrupt politicians and other troublesome members of society could be stopped with just enough level grinding and boss battles. In a way, that’s what we’re trying to do when it comes to equality, right? All of us are Phantom Thieves, out here “stealing hearts” to try and rid our society of the supremacists, the bigots, the “I’m not racist, but-” and “I don’t mind gay people, I just wish they’d shut the fuck up…”
After Trump got in office I’d forgotten, for a moment, that we could fight on. I was surprised to get that much needed reminder in a video game, but here I am, in 2018, with a better outlook than I had before I popped Persona 5 into my console.