It’s morning on a normal school day. I head to class and get put on the spot by the history teacher, who asks some obscure question about something I was just not listening to. I answer, and to my delight get the question right, feeling like I’ve learnt something today. Later I’m meant to meet a friend for lunch. Or perhaps go to that band practice I’ve been skipping out on. But it’s also raining so I know my favourite noodle place will have that limited special on too. And that’s ignoring the fact that I only have a few more days to rescue that person about to be murdered in the TV. So, really, what should I be doing?
That’s the sort of internal crisis I face while continuing to slog through Persona 4: Golden on my Vita. The PS2-era gem (which is soon getting a sequel in Persona 5 next month) is a newfound obsession of mine, primarily because of how it pressures me like few games have in the past. Time is fleeting, and Persona 4 not only emphasizes this through its gameplay, it hinges on this very idea to create a real sense of player agency within its world. An agency that comes with its own sorts of consequences.
Persona as a series has a pretty rigid structure. Playing as the hero, you’ll undertake tasks throughout each day over a calendar year, with every one of them filling a specific purpose. You could choose to read a book to boost a stat, spend time with other characters to improve your relationship with them (which help you create more powerful Personas, the real offensive and defensive characteristic of the game’s combat), or grind out dungeons for loot, experience and gear. Each of these actions are crucial to your year long journey, but you as a player are forced to pick between them. Choosing one locks out the rest for the day, and briskly moves you onwards down the calendar.
Easy enough, right? If it weren’t for impending murders in the background, sure it would be, but Persona (and more specifically Persona 4) always reminds you that there’s a challenge around the corner. As victims are thrust into its dangerous alternative worlds, you as the player are tasked with balancing progression by completing your heroic duties. Fail to save the victim in time, and the game ends, throwing you back to a past save. Manage your time poorly, and you could find yourself in an inescapable position: too weak to progress, and too near the untimely demise of your friend to make any meaningful difference to the past couple of outcomes.
It sounds frustrating on the surface. A game that punishes you for frugality in your actions, only to lock you in a position of futility. Except that’s exactly why a limited-time game like Persona is engrossing. Unlike so many other adventures, there’s a tangibility to the impending danger that you need to intervene in. Without the careful management of your time, the bad guy wins – just as you’d expect if a hero spent too much time eating steaks and not enough time honing their abilities to vanquish greater foes.
Being selective inhow you spend your time now becomes an inescapable part of the game, and by virtue imbues your decisions with a lot more weight. It’s also dangerously easy to fall into a pattern of complacency, where Persona makes you feel as though your daily routines will work for the rest of the adventure. Those patterns are often turned on their head in new dungeons, as different foes demand flexibility in your offensive options. Which, as you may have guessed, are only possible if you spent time accruing them in the days beforehand.
Persona isn’t the only series to employ this sort of mechanic, although the various others strewn across gaming history don’t always pan out as well. Dead Rising and its sequel, for example, urges the player to keep moving forward with a continuous timer ticking down to a Game Over screen. While you’re frantically throwing weapons together and seeing how many zombies you can take down with your new toys, there’s a constant reminder of a bigger story at play.
This sense of urgency and purpose is what elevated the games above simple, silly action – a lesson that was desperately forgotten in the games’ immediate sequel. Without the constraint, Dead Rising 3 allowed players to engage with the sillier aspects of the game – crafting a multitude of weapons to hilariously take down never ending hordes of the undead. While the doubling down on crafting sure starts the game off on a good foot, the engagement quickly fades. The lack of urgency is certainly not the only fault of the sequel, but it’s a crucial part of why a lot of the game’s tension evaporated into thin air.
Equally so, it would be short sighted to apply this ideal to every game in the question for player engaging tension. Games like the recently released Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feature their own sorts of narrative tension, with Link again pressed for time to stop Ganon from running things in Hyrule.
Except time is missing from that equation in execution. Link is free to roam the snowy mountain tops and bubbling volcanic landscapes of Hyrule with leisure, never encouraged to hurry his adventure along and bring peace to the land. Injecting that into the game would only serve to detract from its core strengths, which allow the player to wander its world without care. Happening upon hidden treasures and witnessing true scenes of emergent gameplay wouldn’t be possible with the stress of an ever-present timer, even if it detracts thematically from the narrative at play. Ganon is certainly there, waiting to strike, but players are never urged to finish up with what they’re doing and engage him.
It’s a trade-off that’s made in most games, where players are certainly catered to in being able to play the game in the manner they choose. Escapism demands that sort of freedom, but it should never come at the expense of tension. Persona 4 might not be the most cathartic game to play at times, but it’s a game where a decision can have a truly tangible ripple effect on the next handful of hours of your game, at a core mechanical level. That sort of tension is rare in games now, and it takes a special type of balancing act to pull it off in a way that’s both challenging and rewarding for its players.