Persona 4 and the Detective Story (Part 5) – The Trick of Life



Authority and Deception

Characters and the Obvious

The Trick of Life

Excitement for the sake of excitement might work for a more sensationalist version of detective stories, but you can’t just keep doing it throughout the story (hence Persona 4’s slow pacing). Deus ex machina and coincidences work best in small doses, not as the very foundation of the story (i.e., the writers got lazy and bored). The element in question needs to demonstrate itself as a natural, and elegant, part of the background as we look at the foreground; in a word, it needs to belong. Chesterton goes further:

A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious. For the detective story is only a game; and in that game the reader is not really wrestling with the criminal but with the author.

Chesterton emphasizes the “trick” portion, mainly because he believes that the central aspect of detective fictions consists in the whole style being a joke. In a way, of course, the whole genre rests on incredibly artificial constructs. Real life does not often offer a forensic scientist clear answers to a murder mystery. Still, in our fiction, the author needs to delight the reader and tickle their mental fancy. In the dance of the writer and reader, the latter will participate in the waltz only if there’s true fun and enjoyment to be had. I do not find the Persona series often leading you away from the trick; it dares you to stare it in the face and see it right there. What’s the nature of Tartarus? What about the Midnight Channel? The things in plain sight often usurp your expectations in both games, and they’ve both the better for it.

The artifice in Persona, though, shines much more clearly through the foundation than it does in traditional detective fiction, In other words, the realistic should not usurp the artistic. You know the whole medium dips right into what delights, rather than total accuracy to reality. It hits the truth in spirit, and not always in tone (even if the rules are totally consistent with the world in the story – an important point).

…one of the first rules I repeat, for the maker of a tale that shall be a trick, is to remember that the masked murderer must have an artistic right to be on the scene and not merely a realistic right to be in the world. He must not only come to the house on business, but on the business of the story; it is not only a question of the motive of the visitor but of the motive of the author. The ideal mystery story is one in which he is such a character as the author would have created for his own sake, or for the sake of making the story move in other necessary matters, and then be found to be present there, not for the obvious and sufficient reason, but for a second and a secret one.

Allowing yourself to be taken into the artifice of the plot construction will determine whether such tales work for you at all. Persona often makes the world interesting enough that you don’t question the crazy nature of the premise. Seriously, why would a demon-fighting organization hole up in a dormitory, and why high school students of all things? Why do teenagers suddenly develop the power to jump into television screens? Neither game bothers to explain much of anything, and you’re just supposed to dive into the absurdity with a wink and a smile. If you don’t….well, most JRPGs won’t work for you either, I suppose, or mystery fiction in many cases.

Persona 4 Glasses

Look, the Evokers from Persona 3 were cool, but the glasses in Persona 4 literally make no sense.

Your final solution bears down on the story in both the realistic (he is the murderer!) sense and the artistic (Why did he do it? What do I learn?) sense simultaneous. Certainly, that reflects Chesterton’s love of paradox, but Christianity is paradoxical anyway – not exactly a big deal for me. None of this prevents detective stories from their primary function: pointing toward the truth. Isn’t that the heart of all good detectives? They want to find out what happened, the objective events so far laid out before us. They might fascinate, go against expectation, or amaze us with what lies before us.  No matter how fantastical a truth is, it’s still a truth. The form of a detective tale functions from within, the central conceit, rather than all the fun stuff that surrounds it. A hollow version of the same will reveal the same hollowness at its end. In clearer words:

The essence of a mystery tale is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true.

And nothing’s more true in that sense than Christianity.  Rachel Kellogg puts it in a different way:

God himself is mysterious, and He has given  humans curiosity that makes them interested in both the  Creator and his Creation. The whole Bible can be seen  as a detective novel; it begins with the introduction of a  “death” (sin). The consequences of this death are  played out; we meet more characters. But instead of the  detective adding up clues to figure out the solution to  the murder, justice is served in an unexpected way. The  clues are given by the redeemer—HE (God) will pay  the justice owed to himself. Why? Because of His
mysterious nature: a Love that we cannot understand.  The “story” ends not with the retribution, but with  mercy, leading to redemption, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The solution comes right out of left field, but it was there all along. Sometimes the logic’s crazy, weird, or convoluted, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Why would a holy God love sinners? Beats me. But the important part isn’t understanding, but comprehending and seeing how truth works its magic in the craziest ways in the most mundane circumstances. That’s the heart of Christianity and detective stories alike:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Out of left field, and yet it makes perfect sense. Is there any better reason NOT to see the beauty in such a pop culture fixture?

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.