Persona 4 and the Detective Story (Part 4) – Characters and the Obvious

Introduction

Paradox

Authority and Deception

Characters and the Obvious

The Trick of Life

You need characters to establish a proper end, a meaning, for the story in question. The effect of great mystery fiction, as I said previously, requires that the author of said detective fiction creates actual, fully formed characters. That sounds like a pretty obvious factor for any kind of literature, but it’s especially true here: the central mysteries mean nothing if you do not care whether or not they’re solved. Sherlock Holmes isn’t interesting if people aren’t in danger, nor is Father Brown interesting in that same regard, or even Persona 4 with its familiar characters (quite endearing, all) stuck in the Midnight Channel.

I admit wholly and without fail that such works require a very strict set of characteristics, but that does not mean you cannot have actual characters inhabiting that world. And, further, that does not mean that your protagonists must always succeed in the full, either. It’s alright to kill them off! Persona 3 makes that very much apparent, and for what it’s worth that game contains one of the saddest stories I’ve yet witnessed in a video game (and for the sake of spoilers, I would not dare reveal it). Even so, it mostly revolves around seemingly mundane circumstances and conversations. In Chesterton’s words:

As a matter of fact, we may very well add the general principle that the most intense interest of a good mystery story does not consist in incident at all. The Sherlock Holmes stories are very good working models of a workmanlike type of popular mystery. And the point of such a story is very seldom the story at all. The best part of it is the comedy of the conversations between Holmes and Watson; and that for the sound psychological reason that they are characters always, even when they are not actors at all.

And man, does Persona have a lot of that. The series, at least in its third and fourth incarnation, revels in the mundane. Most of the time, you perform simple tasks like schoolwork, or do after school jobs. Sometimes, you hang out with people. Most of the time, just about every single one of these little actions brings with it some witty dialogue or character themes. Now, I imagine it’s literally impossible to connect all of these tiny vignettes into one single cohesive story, especially the separate social links (many of which you can miss if you’re not paying attention), but that isn’t the point. Rather, you choose to be friends or to study; some of these help you in battle, and some of them don’t, but all of them entertain. Aren’t these sequences what most people mention anyway when discussing the series nowadays? Clearly, the normalcy of even a completely different society struck a chord with Western journalists and gamers alike, for good or ill. It’s probably Chie!

chie

I understand the nerdcrush on her, but she does nothing for me.

Again, this hearkens back to the grand pagan and Christian epics, from Homer to Bunyan. All and sundry need characters with character. Everyone has their own favorite characters in any piece of fiction, and spending time with fake people somehow evokes real emotions (if vicarious). To relate means attachment to the central focus of the mystery and the fate of the protagonists, and that requires some deft handling of unorthodox logic and exquisite writing ability. Why do so many pieces of popular media go straight for the emotional jugular rather than explaining motivations and the construction of imaginary worlds? Because a good mystery’s hard to write without making the audience feel something at the same time. Most people assume that doing that makes the plot far too complicated. Logic and emotional do not often make proper bedfellows! So why bother, right?

Paradoxically, then, the true soul of detective fiction actually lies in simplicity. Many complexities appear to surround the central mystery, as you might expect. However, a convoluted explanation, more often than not, confuses the reader. The explanation should, in effect, explain itself and make perfect sense. I always feel mad whenever it doesn’t; this explains why I hate LOST so much!

The central mysteries of both Persona 3 and 4 feel pretty minor when you finally get to them (well, at least for 3, since I previously mentioned I didn’t finish 4 yet, but I will get there!), but they hold a lot of weight due to the aforementioned information. Many of them rely on information already revealed to you in advance, and acceptance of the internally consistent logic of the world’s supernatural characteristics, but nothing really comes out of left field. They just tend to surprise you!

The simple answer holds up the complexities only if the author deftly applies their powers towards weaving a strong narrative web. In the same way, you can explain Christianity in a very simple way, even though many complicated concepts and ideas surround that core of Jesus Christ’s love.

In a surprise to no one, then, the simple thing that explains all the other things (real descriptive language here, eh?) should be a familiar element of the story. If the mystery blindsides you with a heretofore unforeseen character or item, then the writer failed utterly in their job. That always brings the feeling of “wasted time”. I mention J.J. Abrams related projects like LOST and Fringe; they set up mysteries, and then the answers end up as ideas or concepts we could not ever figure out ourselves. It’s cheap, nasty, and disingenuous. When you play a 70-80 hour RPG, you can’t fudge your way through a story; a television series, on the other hand, deals too much with issues of cancellation and audience interest to avoid that sort of cheap thrills.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.