The power of emergent behavior in video games, courtesy of Persona 5

It’s no secret that I generally prefer video games to television. While you’re binge watching Netflix and getting all worked up about Game of Thrones I’m banging away on a control pad and not giving a shit. Golden age of television? Meh.

Lately, that means a shit ton of Persona 5. The latest entry in my favorite Japanese RPG series stars a ragtag group of high school students who, as Phantom Thieves, enter the cognitive worlds born from the twisted desires of evil adults to steal their hearts and make them confess their crimes to the world. It’s a tangled mess of psychobabble and heavy-handed symbolism, but somehow it really works. The game’s J-pop soundtrack and super hip design ooze style and sometimes make me think I’m not cool enough to even play it. Combat’s a turn-based mixture of physical attacks and magic abilities executed by summoning the titular personas, demons from myths around the world that represent the characters’ rebellion against the status quo. More important than combat, however, is spending time in the real world maximizing your character’s affinity with his various confidants. As your relationships with them improve, these confidants provide in game bonuses and allow you to create even more powerful personas. Hanging out with the other members of the Phantom Thieves gradually gives each of them the ability to randomly heal status effects, tack on extra attacks, or even step in front of a killing blow intended for the main character—important, giving that his death ends the game. Socializing, and raising your social stats via various activities so you can perform certain tasks for your friends—is a huge part of the game. The main character can even end up dating several of the female characters. My character’s dating Makoto, the smart, spunky student council president who serves as one of Phantom Thieves’ front line fighters and their chief strategist, because of course he is.

I’d guess I’m about 80% through the game. Last night, I spent a good half hour on an interesting battle against one of the game’s main antagonists. Throughout, dialog between the two sides framed the conflict as a fight between a selfish individual and a selfless team. My enemy was convinced he could beat my team because he’s naturally just better than them. My crew acknowledged that the only reason they stood a chance against the bastard was because they functioned together as a coherent unit. I wanted to beat the bastard. Teamwork! Let’s go!

I got him down to a sliver of health. The game indicated that he was about to target the main character with something powerful. That’s bad news; again, if the main character goes down, the game’s over. I weighed my options and went on the offensive. Each member of my four person team would get a crack at the guy before his turn came back up. I could’ve pushed the guard button to significantly reduce the incoming damage and ensure my survival, but screw defense. Let’s get this asshole.

He survived my onslaught, but just barely. I cringed and gritted my teeth when I recognized the name of the skill he was about to unleash. I knew I wouldn’t survive. Fuck. There goes half an hour. And it was my own stupid fault.

That’s when I heard it. “No! I won’t let you!” It was Makoto—my character’s main squeeze—randomly triggered to use the life saving protective ability I mentioned above. She stepped in front of the main character, pressed herself to his chest, and took the deadly shot intended for him. She survived with one hit point because that’s how the skill works.

My jaw dropped. I sat and stared at the screen. In a battle pitting the strength of an individual against the power of a team, the strongest relationship I’d forged in the game had just saved me from my own stupid mistake. How about that for storytelling? I could’ve been wiped out. One of my two other party members could’ve saved me instead. Neither of those things happened. The random number generator that first decided my main character would survive and then chose his girlfriend as the mechanism is a better storyteller than I am.

And now I get to the point that finally provides a bit of context for my opening paragraph. I realized as I stared slack-jawed at Makoto’s last remaining hit point that this is why I prefer video games to TV. That combination of interactivity and randomness just can’t be found in scripted entertainment. Anything that happens within the context of gameplay happens at the player’s behest, adding a sense of ownership and agency to the experience. Makoto saved me because I chose to put time into hanging out with her and getting her the necessary skill, and she only had to save my stupid ass in the first place because I fucked up. That’s amazing.

Let’s see Jon Snow do that.

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