I can’t decide if I’m going to play Persona 5 or not. It’s 2 AM, my eyes are fixed on the searing blue of my computer screen, and I’m railing on Atlus with the two people closest to me, a week’s worth of frustration and feeling condescended to by randos, peers, and friends alike pouring out. I don’t love Atlus. Well, scratch that, I want to love Atlus, and that’s what makes this so painful — like a specially tailored hurt that’s at once callus and personal.
I wouldn’t be writing this piece if I didn’t care. I do care about these games, and I find immense value in having played them. It was in my freshmen and sophomore years of high school that I took the Atlus plunge headfirst into Persona 3 and 4. I was sick back in those first two years of school, mostly bedridden and trapped in a bubble of close yet distant friends. Two friends — no, then one friend — were the only social interaction I had every Friday night, and my schooling consisted of a personal tutor in a public library for around two hours a day. I couldn’t walk without a cane, and the level of exhaustion I felt always tethered me back home.
In his recent review of Persona 5, Kirk Hamilton described the game as an ideal high school sim, but for me, these games took on a special meaning — a perfect escapist fantasy where I could explore themes of identity and friendship during a time when I felt so hollow. I could have a small shred of wonderment satisfied, suspend disbelief, ignore my social famine, and pretend to soar outside myself.
While I used to feel so strongly tied to these games due to their affect on my life, it’s been just over a year since I began transitioning, and my perception has changed. Those early months were something of a marketplace, where a feeling of gut-sinking betrayal was the currency paid to gain an understanding of my place in the American medical, political, and social cosmos. I could no more identify with my old icons than find any solace in them. It felt like a betrayal of the value I once found in these games.
It was exhausting to believe that so much of the world hated you, and to flare up and hate it back. I still get that way sometimes. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that the games I once found refuge in harbored the same contempt for me that I was so often faced with in the real world. While personal, my experiences in those early months have inflicted a trauma that mirror similar bruises felt by many trans people. And the queerphobia present in the last three Persona games brings a piercing attention to these experiences due to the associations they’ve forged between moments in my life and the text.
The transphobia in Persona 3 is upfront, cliché, and something of a groaner. It’s the trap motif all over again, which frames trans women as a commodity for the consumption of men while simultaneously invalidating their identity. A femme-presenting person is used as a cheap gag to elicit disgust, shock, and derision from the main characters and the audience. Whether or not this person identifies as trans is ultimately irrelevant to the stigmatization it perpetuates against gender non-conforming people — especially trans women. It upholds political myths that frame us as predators, or just bad copies of “real” women. These tangible implications are often violent, especially for trans women of color.
It’s painful, though a common scene in comedy, and its prevalence often informs how cis populations perceive us. This myth has, to no small degree, affected my own life in very tangible ways. I’ve been shouted and jeered at in public, pressured to leave jobs, and forced to adapt a state of hyper-awareness in social situations. It can become incredibly stressful, and to have these perceptions reinforced by a cheap gag is a crude reminder of the pain I so often feel, but it’s hardly the worst offender from Atlus.
Catherine is notable for featuring Erica, a waitress whose gender is explicitly addressed by her friends, one of whom is Vincent, the game’s protagonist and player character. While Persona 3 features a one-off offense, Catherine’s transphobia is routine and pervasive. Erica is subject to constant harassment by her peers like misgendering, grumbles about her dead name and past, and explicit mention of her “being a man.” In the game’s final scene, Toby, visibly shaken, cries: “I want my damned V-card back!” Erica shrugs it off, saying: “Once that card is punched, there’s no refund.” She’s not allowed to be offended because to acknowledge this scene’s damaging message is to validate her identity.
These beliefs — while held by the characters — are featured without criticism for the purpose of cheap laughs, the crux of which is the implicit assumption that the players agree with a ‘hard truth’ in the jokes’ underlying rhetoric. Catherine is absolutely venomous towards Erica — hell, the villain treats her better than any of the protagonists do. But unlike Atlus’ presumed audience, I don’t find these moments funny; they hit too close to home. And to top it off, the game’s Japanese artbook explicitly dead names and misgenders Erica in her character profile. The result is not just innocuous queerphobia represented in a game or book, but a representation of bigotry that tacitly upholds the social and political status quo that have dangerous effects on the lives of actual queer people.
And while I could address my thoughts on Persona 4, its particular issues go far beyond the scope of this piece. There’s simply too much to unpack — but I will say that Yosuke’s gay panic jokes regarding Kanji evoke similar rhetoric. At least the writers allowed Kanji to fight back.
It’s frustrating to see so many mainstream critics give this single development team — whose artistic and creative vision has been honed throughout the years to fabulous audio/visual effect — a general pass on their increasingly troubling queerphobia. Exceptions like Phil Kollar’s Persona 5 review, which features an aside discussing the game’s homophobia, tend to get dunked on by commenters, while more in-depth discussions on Atlus are relegated to smaller indie sites and blogs.
I wonder: will queer folks be failed again by critics? I still remember when Erica was lauded as a great example of trans representation, and while the character is empathetic and complex, her representation is anything but positive. Despite the fact that Atlus has mastered their craft as a result of their relatively consistent team, the lack of prominent, diligent critique gives me little reason to believe that Persona 5 will be any better in its representation of queer folks.
And, personally? All of this hurts.
Persona’s androgynous aesthetic and focus on self-interrogation felt like a mirror where I could reach in and congeal my own reflection. These stories held power for me, and they meant something — a way for me to understand and explore my identity in times of illness and trial. It’s hard for me to appreciate them now. These games have moved me to tears, and I’d be lying if I said that I’m not still affected by my time with them. It’d be easier to just move on, but they matter too much to me.
Still, the Persona games continue to betray their own thematic declarations of diverse self-actualization and acceptance if they can’t represent the humanity and complexity of queer and marginalized people. I realize that I’ve come to resent the games themselves and my cloying attachment to them. How can I move on? Persona 5 doesn’t benefit from that important time and place for me like past Atlus games, so I wonder if — when played on its own merits — will I be able to appreciate it despite the ache I feel in my chest? Despite the anger I harbor?
My personal feelings are valid, but they’re not my call to action. It’s perfectly fine to find value in Persona, and I’m certainly not asking anyone to feel the animosity that I do. Trust me, I’m envious of you — I want to love these games, too. I want this conflict in my chest to be resolved. Rather, we need to do better at nurturing these conversations and holding developers accountable for the stories they tell and, perhaps most importantly, by promoting the diversity of storytellers themselves. Representation cannot end at the screen.
I was hoping that, during the process of working on this piece, I could come to some sort of conclusion as to whether or not I’ve decided to play Persona 5. Is it worth my energy to forgive, my supportive for this company, and my energy to make peace through the several dozen hours of its playtime? I still can’t answer that, and while writing might not always heal, I feel as though the wound is being examined.
[Author’s Note: A quick shoutout to the Zam review of Persona 5 by Kris Ligman, published just prior to this piece, for also calling direct attention to the issues addressed in my article.]