My long-term memory is questionable at the best of times. I frequently forget birthdays and struggle to recall details of significant events from my past. And, as I’ve been working from home and subject to near-continuous lockdowns since COVID-19 engulfed the UK, I feel my memory deteriorating. I’m not alone in this regard, as it appears that routines in isolation are detrimental to many people’s memories.
Accordingly, this notion of memory loss has permeated my recent gameplay experiences of late, and being conscious of my (hopefully temporary) memory difficulties has unveiled how concepts like amnesia are recurrent within quite a few videogames. Recently I’ve been blasting through the explosive Persona 5 Royal (2020), a gargantuan JRPG where the notion of memory is a key narrative element. For instance, the game’s first half actually takes place in the past, and is being described from the protagonist’s perspective.
In this essay, I’ll focus on the story of the original Persona 5 (2017). I’ve played through roughly 45 hours of Persona 5 Royal, and its narrative is broadly similar to the original Persona 5 game thus far. I’m aware of some changes to the original game’s ending in Royal, but it currently feels like I’m replaying Persona 5 note-for-note, which is definitely no bad thing!
Persona 5 sees you playing as Joker, a high school student who is forced to move to Tokyo after being falsely accused of assault. Over one year, you control Joker as he maintains an inconspicuous lifestyle under probation, while also honing superpowers in the “Metaverse,” an alternate universe where he and his confidants enact vigilante justice on society’s evildoers. Because of Joker’s double identity, Persona 5 feels like two games mashed together: a social-simulator by day and turn-based dungeon crawler by night.
Leading this double life has never been more intoxicating than in the context of a lockdown. This is somewhat ironic, given that Joker is technically under probation, but he is free to explore the nooks and crannies of his world in a way that I haven’t been able to in months. Persona 5 enables players to relish the fantasy of exploring a pandemic-free urban landscape as an able-bodied, seemingly neurotypical teenager. The game wants you to make the most of your limited time, and it is wonderfully easy to do so.
Throughout the game, Joker develops a party of renegade heroes determined to restore justice. One party member is Morgana, an amnesiac feline creature who seems to be deeply connected to the Metaverse. Because of his ability to communicate with Joker and his attraction to another human party member, Morgana insists that he must have been a human in his past. As the story unfolds, Morgana gradually regains more memories and it becomes increasingly obvious that he is unlikely to have ever been human. At the end of the original Persona 5—and I cannot confirm if this is true for Persona 5 Royal yet—Morgana remains a cat. There is the suggestion that he may still become human, but this is not confirmed in the game’s epilogue.
Despite his recollections, Morgana stubbornly holds on to the idea of restoring his humanity. In actuality, it appears that Morgana chases after a life that never really existed. Replaying Persona 5’s familiar story makes me frustrated, as I recognise Morgana is likely incorrect in his assumption, and that wanting to become human again is almost like viewing the past—whatever it may be—through rose-tinted spectacles.
For Morgana, the singular route to normality is mistakenly bound up in becoming human again. This idea of returning to a sense of normal (whatever that may be) resonates deeply with many of us stuck indoors due to the pandemic. Like many people, I am craving a return to pre-pandemic life and am eagerly awaiting vaccination. For me, this life would involve going outside freely, traveling beyond walking distance, and—God forbid—reorganising my birthday bowling party that was postponed from last March.
However, like Morgana, we must question what it is we are after, and whether we view life from before the pandemic as unrealistically idealistic. I’m guilty of believing that all my problems, and many in society, will magically drift away. But once we are able to carry on about our lives as we did before, the problems that once existed may linger, or even worsen. This isn’t a call to pessimism. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. We can return to the normality we are craving, but we would be chasing the same falsehoods that Morgana does in Persona 5. Instead, we can use this opportunity to question our values and to meaningfully learn from this hellish experience. Anyway, why desire humanity when you could be a cat?