SLB #1: Persona 4 Golden, Interiority, and Exposition
(also something something Dawson's Creek, command lines, and high school)
Welcome to Spaces Left Blank, a newsletter about digital, interactive texts—whatever that means. You’re receiving this mail because you signed up…hopefully. Assuming this template works, you should be able to unsubscribe by clicking the link at the bottom of this letter. If it’s not there, please DM me and I’ll fix it.
I spent a lot of time wondering what this first newsletter would be about. It had to be interesting to read, right? So far, the crowd appears to be a mix of friends (hi.) and writers/critics/games industry folks who should totally be my friends. So, stakes, pressure, an urge to impress—it's all there.
I'll spare you the endless list of questions and doubts. After a reckless Twitter poll asking what I should play next, the Online People decided that the comedy answer, Persona 4 Golden (P4G), was in fact the best one.
And, uh, well. They sure helped me out.
Going into P4G, I expected anime and JRPG tropes. I expected turn-based combat, dethroning god(s), a possibly boring protagonist with a mysterious power, grinding XP, and definitely an annoying plush-type character I would never, ever include in my party because we don't know each other like that.
However, I didn't expect the game to do this:
Let's look at something like Zork, one of the OGs:
To be clear, I'm talking about this thing:
You'll have to pardon my French since I am French, but what the actual fuck is the greater-than sign doing here?
That's old school command line stuff. It predates the days of frustratingly rebooting into DOS to play Monkey Island 2 because Windows 95 sucked at managing RAM. The command line harks back to the 1960s, and it remains crucial for many people today. For many devs, coders, and countless other "power users", terminals and command lines are efficient, no-bullshit ways to carry out human-machine interactions. In the grim past, present, and future of the Internet, some command line die-harders wage a never-ending war against cowards who dare rely on icons or a mouse. More on that in Neal Stephenson's In The Beginning Was The Command Line. I won’t link to Reddit, but you can head over to /unixporn if you want to see what such workflows can look like. Gorgeous, but not for everyone.
The command line has played a special role in Interactive Fiction (IF). Since the genre is primarily text-based and relies on player input in the form of typed words, a game has to inform users that their input is required. Traditionally, this has involved a command line prompt. Big emphasis here on prompt because players are asked to respond, to perform, to communicate. The system, like a game master, needs you to play your part. It's an exchange, however skewed. If you want to go north, you wait until the greater-than sign pops up, then type "go north" or "north". Rinse, repeat, don't get killed by grues.
But as Jeremy Douglass wrote, considerations of IF often:
tend to elide the crucial fact of how the command line prompt enables exploration and acts as a locus of experience: that it marks a gap between what the interactor knows and does not know, that it is a site of closure and coming into understanding (p. 7)
Right, the command line is a blank space, but what’s blank isn’t empty. Someone might even say that the name of this newsletter is about that. That's me, I'm saying it. And I can't tell you whether the author was right, in 2007, to claim that this dynamic has been under-discussed. What I can tell you is that no one has talked about how finding > in Persona 4 is weird as hell.
It's weird because Persona 4 isn't IF. We can wax poetics about the ties between IF and RPGs, fuzzy sets, needless genre distinctions, spatial navigation, or the interplay between prose and rules. But if we're sticking close to surface labels and genres, Persona has graphics, and you use a controller, and you don't type words at the screen. It's a stylish-as-hell JRPG with teenagers feeling teenage feelings (which should not be dismissed or minimized), otherworldly forces, relationships and social bonds of all kinds, bombastic attacks that make half the screen explode, and plenty of dark, unsettling moments.
How dark and unsettling? Well, you play as the new kid in town. You moved from The Big City to the small town of Not-Twin-Peaks-We-Swear. You meet your new high school classmates, life get awkward in myriad ways, and then like two days later life gets even more awkward because someone's corpse ends up impaled on a TV station antenna. Gruesome murders (yes, plural) aside, there's plenty of messed-up themes—adults being nauseating monsters, society sucking a lot, and relatable characters wrestling with all-too-real insecurities and self-loathing. NPCs literally end up fighting the darkest parts of their psyches. In many ways, Persona 4 shows you that everyone's a mess, and one step on the road to getting better means facing that mess rather than trying to run away from it. Kevlar vests and big swords can help with that, but they're useless without acceptance and empathy.
You engage with this supernatural/existential horror mystery through menus or by moving your character around. You fit into the narrative. What's next is already written and pre-materialized for you. Granted, that's always the case. Games don't pull their content from the ether; one is always situated and has a limited performative range.
But what’s the point of something like this if players don't get the illusion they can type something back?
> Your life at this new school has begun. Will you be able to fit in here...?
Some more examples from P4G:
> You can hear people around you talking about you...
> You find yourself alone with Nanako... You might want to strike up a conversation...
“What does your dad do?”
“It must be tough.”
In some instances, you can respond, but choices are limited. In other instances, we're looking at bare-bones, declarative transitions: "You enter the room" or "You open the door". But those phrases, with nothing else attached, are uncommon. In other words, the command line-like appearance is not just a way to differentiate descriptive lines from dialogues. Instead, a simple symbol, because it keeps reoccurring, becomes a frame. By and large, players are dealing with prompts—albeit not in the conventional type-words-here way.
Consider this example:
> You arrive at Dojima's residence. For the next year, this place will be your home...
The text doesn't merely establish that you arrived at Dojima's residence. You're also made aware that this unfamiliar place in the middle of nowhere, and which you'll share with people you barely know, is home now. The player is situated practically ("hey, this is where you are") and emotionally ("imagine how that feels?" or “see how [protagonist] feels?”).
And then there's this:
> You'll be living in this town for one year, starting today... You wonder if everything will be all right... School starts tomorrow. You should hurry to bed.
Greater-than, second person, ellipses (think/feel/wonder), ellipses (think/feel/wonder), period (fact), period (fact/no possible choice). That is all over the place in P4G. Sure, the game breaks convention here and there, but that doesn’t erase the convention.
Through these lines, the stage is gradually set—and so are you. It’s a move IF players have seen a million times. You are repeatedly prompted to understand or feel something. It's all immersion and exposition in whatever flavor's needed at that moment. Echoing Douglass' words, the command line acts as a bridge between what the player doesn't know (or doesn't feel) and what their character knows (or feels). Narratively speaking, it's telling, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s a form of telling which shapes the play space, but without defining future movements.
Too much ink has been wasted preaching the dubious wisdom of showing rather than telling. I am strictly in the Ursula Le Guin / John Rechy camp on that one. Rules like "show, don't tell" (and "write about what you know") have limited uses. They can steer writers away from Writing Terrible Things (narratively or ideologically), but that doesn’t make those rules invaluable. Far from it.
Or, in Le Guin’s own words:
As guides for beginners, [these rules] are useful. Expanded into laws, they are, as Rechy says, nonsense.
Rechy's thoughts on the matter:
Show, don’t tell
Nonsense. Good writing involves “showing"—that is, dramatizing—as well as “telling"—employing exposition. An avoidance of “telling” may convolute clear motivation (exemplified by “showing”). It compromises setting. It obfuscates situation.
We do not speak of “story-showing”; we speak of “storytelling.”
Returning to P4G, how else are you supposed to know what your character is feeling? They could express their fears out loud, but that's assuming a teenager would be willing to show that kind of vulnerability...on their first day...to non-existent friends. Instead, the game taps directly into the character's interiority. Because of how it's done, it's inevitably successful. Worst case scenario, players know what their character is experiencing. It's information, but information is knowledge, and knowledge isn't devoid of narrative properties—especially not when it comes to internal landscapes.
Another, possibly even more impactful alternative: these moments tap into your interiority in unique ways. That was the case for me.
For a brief beat, I was fourteen again, and I had recently moved from eastern Paris to the city's southern banlieue. Rephrased, I moved from white, middle-class suburbia (and all the grossness baked into those environments) to something that matched my mom's working class income and my ethnicity. A video game prompt snapped me back to wandering my high school’s halls, skateboard in hand, as other brown dudes in tracksuits stared at my baggy jeans and dope Osiris kicks like, "sup with that?"
It brought me back to the second day of school, when another kid prowled the halls with a hunting rifle because someone had slept with his sister. No one was hurt, thankfully.
Then reality clicked back into place and, two seconds later, I was still staring at:
> Your life at this new school has begun. Will you be able to fit in here...?
P4G made me aware of what so many RPGs don't do. It made me wish the Final Fantasy series, among others, was way better at telling you what its cast is wrestling with. I don't need an ontological breakdown of God, although that can be fascinating. I'm more interested in what Cloud, Squall, or Lightning are really worried about when their worlds are falling apart. I believe there’s a lot of power in the unsaid, and even more so when the unsaid is revealed strategically. Show me glimpses of who these characters are as they're about to fall asleep. Once the outside world has gone quiet, yet their thoughts are so, so loud—who are they then?
Some might argue that it's reader response territory. “Oh, your character said ‘...’? Well, it means whatever you think it means.” Okay, but reader response doesn’t quite function like that. Others could claim that Persona 4's main character isn't like Final Fantasy’s heroes. My answer to that is, actually, they’re all similar; they're simply presented differently. P4's main character has a past, a family, a whole life prior to the player's involvement. The protagonist isn't a blank space (heh.) and the absence of a pre-determined name doesn't change that. By now, "traditional" JRPG ellipses (read: intentional, signaled omissions) don't do much other than frustrate me. Maybe that's because Xenogears is somehow one of my favorite JRPGs, and the damn script contains nearly 7,000 ellipses of various kinds. I'm over it. If P4G’s script shines, it’s because it keeps hinting at the complexities of what goes on beneath a character’s appearance and observable performances.
CRPGs with six or seven digit word counts, as if remediating popular forms of fantasy literature, have text boxes filled with endless paragraphs of prose. Players get big, wordy chunks of lore and descriptive passages to chew on. When decent writers are involved, it works. But purposeful inclusions, rather than omissions, don't have to be explicit or deterministic—hints, in other words, are enough. I've been thinking a lot about some experienced authors whose language grows more concise with each new story or poem. This sharpening, this trimming away, can unfold over decades and with no end in sight. See, for example, the awe-inspiring work of Amy Hempel—someone whose style wasn’t prolix in the first place. I don't believe the term minimalism captures what these writers do. I think they become better at leveraging gaps between what can (or should, or needs to) be said, and what is best left up to others. These authors skillfully play with the (un)said, just as P4G plays with light and dark, outer and inner worlds, dialogue and exposition, person and persona. To be clear, I’m not fond of these binary distinctions because I don’t believe these dynamics to be binaries. That’s precisely why playing with them matters.
The concept of gaps, like "show, don't tell", is nothing new to anyone familiar with literary theory and narratology. But the word itself, as yet another binary, suggests a lack—absence rather than presence. This understanding runs the risk of occluding what's truly going on with some gaps: space-making.
The best writers, in my opinion, open up spaces, plant seeds, and walk away. And why wouldn't they? The longer they stick around, the more they risk polluting what they’ve created. Maybe they check up on you once in a while, throw a few suggestions your way, or cryptically allude to the weather. Then, they vanish again. They understand the difference between telling and occupying. Inferences and allusions are more than enough to set entire worlds and lives in motion. It makes sense. Isn't that a core part of how we experience whatever reality is, anyway?
Could P4G's writers have pulled this off without using ">"? Don't other writers do that? Sure, of course. However, I think there's a purpose there, or at least something very effective that goes beyond punctuation. It has to do with textual forms, echoes, and choruses—as well as the matter of how games “ping” us. That’s something I'll dig into in another post.
This specific newsletter also sets up larger issues I aim to explore: genre conventions, meaning-making, and the ways in which games/texts play with the audience’s subjectivity. Let me be blunt: long-term, I’m interested in how games (especially those with a lot of textual elements) fuck with us. Sometimes in beautiful, life-altering ways. Sometimes in ways I believe are outright threatening and harmful.
So, this is just the beginning. I hope you’ll stick around.
Anyway, my word counter is screaming at me. I'll keep playing P4G, and I hope some of you will give it a try since it was recently released on PC. However, that comes with a serious heads-up. I would urge readers to read articles regarding Atlus' garbage handling of LGBT characters. It's uh, capital B Bad. Depending on how the next plot line unfolds, I may bounce entirely and just read P4G’s script to get some closure.
Maybe you can start by reading this piece by Jordan Youngblood. For those of you unfamiliar with academic essays, fear not. Youngblood provides an excellent introduction to people like Adrienne Shaw, Judith Butler, and Donna Haraway. It's very readable, and it's good for your soul.
> You suddenly remember that this newsletter's title said something about Dawson's Creek. You're not sure what that was about... You should remind the author about it...
Hey, didn't you mention Dawson's Creek?"
Are you team Pacey or team Dawson?"
So uh, what's a 'Dawson's Creek'?"
In high school, for a couple of weeks, I might have tried wearing Hawaiian shirts because I thought Pacey Witter was cool. It was a terrible mistake. Had to fight my shadow self over it and everything. TEAM PACEY, BAY-BEE.
Thank you for reading.