Note: I've put together a playlist of a set of videos that a user named SplitInfinity put together on YouTube. I reference a few of the videos in this post, but I've included all of the videos in the playlist for those of you who'd like to watch the full thing.
Here's what I learned from the intro to Persona 3 (see the first two videos in the playlist above): a blue-haired, headphone wearing teenager is on his way somewhere; a teenage girl is about to commit suicide; wherever the guy was going is a messed up place with bloody (literally) streets, creepy contract-bearing, blue-eyed kids, and teenagers that carry guns when they're not in school.
Blue-haired teenager? Check. Close-ups on shaky-eyed crying? Check. Creepy looking kid with discolored eyes? Check. Teenage girl wearing a short skirt? Check. Yep, I'm definitely playing a Japanese role-playing game.
While the introduction animation to P3 is jarring and - let's face - strange, it does a great job of giving me a taste of the world I'll be experiencing. It also leaves no question as to the content and theme of the game's story and presentation. It tells me that the game is going to be weird, dark, mature and complex. There's no chance I'm going to get a couple hours into the game and suddenly be put off or surprised by mature content. In stark contrast to the intro animation, the first few minutes of gameplay (the second video above) are incredibly friendly and lighthearted. I'm eased into the world through verbal and textual explanations of what I'll be doing. But, it's all contextual and doesn't feel out of place. These first few minutes of gameplay also tell me that the game is going to be story- and dialog-heavy, and that it will have a unique and strong focus on school and relationships.
Relationships and butt-kicking
As shown in the third video in the playlist, I'm playing as the blue-haired guy (I called him Doogie Mac), a transfer student attending Gekkoukan High School, in modern day Japan. I start school the next day, and am directed to find my way around. I end up learning more about my identity by talking to various students and teachers, and I establish my relationship with these students by selecting responses during conversations that have various contextual meanings but essentially boil down to, "I like you," "I kinda like you," and, "I don't like you." The emotion of the person I'm speaking with it shown in portraits as I talk to them. For example, notice Yukari's reactions and expressions as her mood changes while she talks.
Following a conversation, I'll occasionally be told that I made someone happy, or impressed or charmed them. When I do this enough with people, I form relationships with them. Talking to another student about the crush he has on a teacher strengthened my relationship with him. Helping out a fellow student in class by giving him the answer when the teacher called on him caused other students in the class to comment on how much I pay attention and raised my popularity. At this point, it's was clear that relationships are important in the game.
I proceed through a few more school days, making friends and getting accustomed to the interface of the game and how school "works" as a game mechanic. Then, the "Dark Hour" is introduced (see the sixth video in the playlist). The Dark Hour is an extra, "hidden" hour between midnight and 1 AM when only a select few people are conscious of their surroundings, and it's a time when the world fills with evil creatures called "Shadows." It turns out I'm one of the people that can stay awake through the Dark Hour which means, in short, it's the time when I get to kick butt.
Learning to play
Through all of this introductory material, which has now lasted for quite some time, I've been engaged in discovering the game world, learning about my surroundings, and figuring out just what the heck is going on. While I don't know it yet, I've also been learning about key game mechanics. I've learned how to use the game's interface by walking around in the consequence free zone of school. I've learned how to build relationships with characters, and that those relationships are important. I've learned that the Dark Hour is a time for fighting and that crazy stuff happens while I'm in it, and I've learned how to fight, shop, equip and use items and more.
During this time, I've realized that the designers of Persona 3 have streamlined the traditional role-playing game experience into something that's very easily digestible for new players. While I have experience playing role-playing games such as Final Fantasy, the simplified approach of P3's presentation is much appreciated. There's very little wandering around, and the game takes control over what's happening at just the right times, so you don't feel like you're wasting time getting from place to place or doing things you don't need to do. The game is also chock-full of just-in-time learning, whether it's learning how to use battle skills just as you need them or learning how to save my game right at the time I'm presented with the tools to do so, new material is presented in just enough detail to help me accomplish the task.
I'm now about 10 hours into the game. A lot of stuff has happened since the videos you see above, but most of what has happened is repeating and ramping up the difficulty on the things you see in those videos. Me and all my friends have started to get pretty good at fighting Shadows during the Dark Hour, and I've built up some strong relationships with quite a few characters. As I played through the first few hours, I learned that my relationships with other characters influenced the skills and abilities of my Personas, which are summoned beings that help me fight the Shadows. I even got a new Persona by having a strong enough relationship with the kid who's in love with his teacher.
Personas are all based on certain character types, such as leadership, love, solitude, humor, etc. For example, I joined student council, which raised my leadership skills and, therefore, my ability to use Personas based on leadership. I tried to join the track team, which I'm guessing would raise something related to athletics, but I didn't have time for it due to my other school and social obligations. I can also "fuse" Personas, which allows me to create new Personas that are a melding of two or three existing ones. The strength of these fused Personas is based on my social relationships, and the ones I can and should use are based on those relationships as well.
The Persona system is pretty complex, but it's introduced in phases, and only then when the information is needed to proceed. In fact, once I was eight hours into the game, I was given the ability to "store" existing Personas for retrieval later - kind of like a bank. Many games don't even last eight hours, let alone try to teach you new things eight hours after you started. Yet it wasn't painful or awkward. It was just what I needed at the time, too - I had run out of room for my existing Personas.
So much more...
There's quite a bit more to mention about regarding the game's mechanics and how they're presented, but I could go on for hundreds of more words about traveling around the city, shopping, participating in various social activities, building relationships with shop keepers, learning how battles are initiated and much more. For the rest of entries in my EDT791 journal, I'll be focusing more on the various educational implications of the game, and I'll explain these sub-systems when necessary. Overall, I'm incredibly impressed by the game's tactful presentation of complex systems and rules, and I'm excited to explore them in more depth over the coming weeks.