Elaborating on the Ephemerality of Persona 5’s Dungeons

(audio version)

I just got this comment from WordPress user The Otaku Judge:

I think the dungeon in P5 are better than those found in P4/P3. You have to actually think to get past obstacles rather than walk about on randomly generated floors. All that said I do wish that the dungeons were shorter, as SP is hard to come by.

This is a common sentiment, and I can definitely see where it’s coming from. Broadly, I agree with it, but I feel that it misses some important nuances about the totality of a game’s design. Here’s why:

Persona 5’s dungeon design definitely seems a lot better than Persona 3 and 4’s at a glance. The levels have actual design to them, as well as area-specific events that tie in with the story. In addition, there are more ways for the player to interact with the environment, and the areas have a verticality to them that P3 and P4 never even tried to utilize. In those respects, Persona 5’s levels have better design. However, this is another piece of the flashy, ephemeral, fleeting nature of Persona 5 that I was talking about in my last post. While the dungeons are really cool the first time around, I dread the idea of ever having to go through them a second time, and this sentiment seems fairly common in conversations I’ve had with an admittedly small group of other people. The dungeons are too long to really have fun going through them a second time. In contrast, Persona 3 and 4’s monotonous randomly-generated floors work just as well on subsequent playthroughs because they’re working to a different end than Persona 5’s dungeons.

The dungeons in Persona 5, by virtue of their more structured design, take on a greater role in the story than the dungeons from the earlier games, and should be judged according to what they contribute to the story. The same should be said of the dungeons in Persona 3 and 4, so let’s do that. In Persona 4, the dungeons are mostly inconstant, with set events happening at various points in the progression. The dungeons deal with an individual person’s problems. The layout of the dungeon itself is less relevant than the fact that it provides a challenge. I’d read this as aiming to be more of a metaphor for the struggle of getting through to other people. That’s fine, that works. It’s a gameplay representation of what the characters would be feeling if the dungeon is a metaphor for making friends. From that view, the length of the dungeon becomes a representation of how hard it is to make a friend. Yukiko’s pretty easy since you become friends with her best friend early on, so the dungeon is shorter. I could go on, but the point is that there’s some depth there if I wanted to go into it. It’s a similar deal with Persona 3, probably a metaphor for school, but I’d need to refresh my memory on Persona 3 to be sure.

Persona 5’s dungeons don’t have that degree of abstraction to them. That’s not the point, and that’s fine. In opting not to go for that degree of gameplay abstraction, the dungeons have become another vehicle for the story to be told and for more events to happen within them. They lay everything out front and explain all the abstractions so that nothing is missed. The dungeons’ layout and visual design emphasize those points, and that’s really cool the first time, but they leave nothing to interpret. Once you’ve been through a dungeon, there’s nothing else to really be gleaned from revisiting it, except to go through a series of rooms and hallways that drag on too long solving puzzles you’ve already worked out. There’s nothing else to the dungeons. The developers realized this, which is part of the reason why the player can’t revisit dungeons after completing them.

Persona 5’s dungeons aren’t badly designed. They’re great fun to go through! However, they lack the sort of depth that one finds with a bit of examination into Persona 3 and 4. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind, but it does contribute to the broader sense of ephemerality I get from Persona 5. The dungeons are stylish and look cool and are mostly fun to go through the first time, but they don’t have substance beyond that. Are they better-designed in terms of general layout, visuals, and mechanical interaction with the environment? Yes, absolutely. Are they better-designed in terms of serving as a vehicle for communicating parts of the story that couldn’t be explained better by encounter design, cutscenes, text or audio? No, they aren’t.

If I ask what a specific room is trying to communicate in Persona 5, the answer I feel from the game is exactly the answer the characters are saying. I don’t find new information or new nuances when I take a look at other elements of Persona 5. Everything is on-message and saying the exact same thing the exact same way. This is great for a first playthrough, but it kills any sort of critical examination in the long run. It makes the game ephemeral– lasting only as long as the game can entertain people on social media.


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