Note: The following paragraphs contain details of the opening scenes of Persona 5. There’s also brief, general discussion of some other early plot points. Don’t read on if you want to remain 100% unspoiled. I will get into deeper spoilers later, but I’ll give a warning for that.

Persona 5 is a very linear game. It starts in media res, with the nameless protagonist in the middle of a heist in a casino. Just as it looks like he’s about to pull off a daring escape, he finds himself face-to-face with a swarm of police officers. One of them throws him to the ground, stomps on his head, and tells him he’s been sold out. He’s dragged to an interrogation cell, drugged, beaten, and forced to sign a confession under the threat of further torture if he doesn’t comply.

At this point, I actually tried waiting out the prompt to sign (which the game uses to name the protagonist), just in case there actually was a hidden choice here, but to no avail. You have to sign. Afterward, the police officers who were roughing you up are replaced by prosecutor Sae Niijima. In an unplanned good-cop-bad-cap routine, she recognizes you and is horrified by the treatment you’ve undergone. Instead of just getting a confession out of you, she lets you sit there and tell you your story. She’s not your ally, but she’s at least an enemy willing to listen to you. And so, with this faint glimmer of hope, you begin to tell your story.

This interrogation forms the centerpiece of the story. In addition to framing it at the beginning, the story periodically flashes forward to it, never letting you forget it. When you form a bond with a new “Confidant,” you’ll flash forward briefly to see Sae’s musings about your skills and resources, hinting at her suspicions as to the presence of this confidant. At the end of each chapter of the game, you’ll go back to the interrogation, closing out with Sae’s thoughts on what you’ve told her, and ending with her asking you about what happened next.

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There’s no avoiding this interrogation. It’s coming in your future, and you won’t know what happens next until you play through every day in between. You start at point A, and this interrogation is roughly point T of the story. You’re going to go from point A to point T, hitting points D, H, K, N, and P along the way. The only way off this path is an early game over (which is easily avoidable if you pick the lowest difficulty setting) or giving up on the game entirely.

However, between these points, the game is incredibly nonlinear. On most days, you’re given the freedom to choose what you want to. As long as you spend a few days every month working on the plot, you can do with the rest of your time whatever you want.

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You can devote yourself to your studies, studying in the school library every afternoon and in the cafe below your room every evening.

You can hang out with your friends, making time for each of them or just focusing on that one special someone.

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You can spend some money at the batting cages, the public bath, the movie theaters, the diner, the burger chain, the fishing pond, the maid cafe, the gym, the shrine, or just spend some time doing your laundry.

You can read a book, introducing you to new parts of the city, teaching you skills, or giving you tidbits of lore.

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You can hide out in your room playing video games (interactively), training by yourself, or making tools to help with your next heist.

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You can get involved with an ex-Yakuza member trying to be a good father, a star Shogi player struggling with her mother’s expectations, a video game whiz caught in a tangle of bullying and an overbearing mother, a failed politician trying to redeem himself and get elected again, a reporter with a drinking problem and a past she can’t let go, or get some tips on making coffee and curry from your guardian.

You can date the punk-rock doctor; the part-time model; the proper, studious class president with a secret love of action movies and the biker aesthetic; or other characters I won’t spoil here, a couple of whom should definitely know better.

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Or you can don your mask and go out into the meta-verse and work on making the world a better place, one stolen heart at a time.

Almost every person’s playthrough will be unique (unless they follow a guide to optimize it, but that really takes the fun out of it). Even those following a guide will have the freedom to choose between some options, like which character(s) to date, personalizing the playthrough just a bit. By the end of it all, you don’t feel like you’ve been pushing along an established character, helping them follow the route laid out before them. You feel like that’s you, living out this fantastical life. Well, that’s the idea, at least.

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But then the plot hits and you’re pulled back onto the railroad. It’s time to hit stop H. No, there’s no more time to go hang out with your friends. You’re not even going to get a chance to return that DVD on time. You’ll be given a few token choices during the plot scenes, but there’s no getting away from it. Even if you feel like the character you’ve been playing as would want to get off this train, you can’t do so. The endpoint has already been set. This is all just a flashback, after all, as you’ll be reminded the next time you find yourself facing Sae Niijima in the future. Somehow your character got to that point, and so you have to play out that path.

It leads to an odd contradiction in the game, and we’re not even at the worst moment of it yet. Unfortunately, that part will require some discussion of spoilers, so before moving on to that, let’s go back and look at the previous two games in the series which used this formula, Persona 3 and Persona 4, and how they handled this.

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Both of these games had the same general setup. There’s a series of plot events which will play out the same for everyone, with a lot of free days in between. Late in the game, certain plot events will branch off into different endings depending on player choices. All of this is pretty much the same as in P5, but the feeling of immersion was never broken in those games (at least for me). I think the difference there comes down to the nature of the fixed points in the plot.

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In Persona 3, the fixed plot points for the majority of the game revolve around a series of Shadows who run wild in the city, causing the standard death, mayhem, and destruction. You’re one of a small group of people capable of taking them out, and so you do so. You’re not given a choice about whether to do so or not, but it’s not a particularly difficult choice to do so. Most people play games to feel heroic, and so it pretty much goes without saying that they’ll jump at the chance to play hero. Even though you don’t have a choice here, it doesn’t break the feeling of immersion as it’s a pretty obvious choice that few players would want to go against.

The case is similar in Persona 4, except this time instead the fixed plot points revolve around an individual (usually, but not always, someone you know) being in trouble and you needing to save them before the fog rolls in and they die. Again, players aren’t likely to stand back and let these characters die (well… maybe if they’re particularly annoying, some might be tempted, but even so, it’s not much of an immersion breaker).

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In Persona 5, however, things are a bit murkier. There’s always some deadline before something bad happens, though it differs each time. The first time, an abusive teacher who you confronted about his abuse is going to recommend you be expelled at a meeting on a certain date, so you have to force him to have a change of heart before then. In this case, it’s not much of an immersion breaker to imagine you’d do this. But stepping back a bit, you weren’t given the choice about whether or not to confront him, and that’s what got you into trouble. It’s quite possible to think that a player might not choose to do this - they might not want to let it go, but they might want to go to someone else first, like another teacher or the principal.

This is actually a common pattern in Persona 5. While the final deadline is generally something you obviously want to avoid, you still aren’t given any choice in the events that lead up to it, even when the player might well want to do something else. A good example is with the second villain you face off with. The only reason you’re in conflict with him at all is because the heroes decided that they wanted to continue fighting evil. Unlike P3 and P4, there’s no immediate threat, and so it’s not as clear cut that the player would seek out evil to fight, especially as the game goes on and it becomes clear that the more the heroes do this, the more the government wants to arrest them. It’s reasonable to consider the risks in this, but you’re never given the choice to do so.

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The difference here is that while all three of these games follow linear paths in their main stories, in P3 and P4 these paths are morally unambiguous and focused on handling pressing dangers, and so players aren’t going to feel like they’re no longer immersed in the protagonist when they have to deal with the main story. In P5 however, the story is more morally ambiguous and often not related to immediate dangers (at least, not until the heroes go in and get themselves in danger), and so it’s a lot easier for the player to find themselves disassociated from the protagonist.

Now, let’s talk about the endings for a bit, in general terms to avoid spoilers. In all three of these games, the player gets some choice which will determine whether they proceed to a “bad” or “good” ending. In Persona 3, it’s abundantly clear which choice will lead to which ending, but the game still allows you to head toward the “bad” ending if you wish, as in the circumstances in the game, it’s understandable that the characters might make this choice. In Persona 4, you get challenged to identify the murderer you’ve been tracking down throughout the game. If you can identify them, you go toward the good ending. If not, you get the bad ending.

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Both of these cases leave the player in the protagonist’s shoes. You don’t know anything they don’t (well, if you don’t want to and haven’t spoiled yourself), and they don’t know anything you don’t. You’re allowed to play this moment out just as if you were in the protagonist’s shoes yourself. (Persona 4 actually has three such moments in total, but I won’t go into them all here. In all cases though, the state is the same; you’re put exactly into the protagonist’s shoes.)

In Persona 5, however, this isn’t quite the case, but I can’t really talk about it without getting into spoiler territory. If you don’t want spoilers, scroll down to the “END SPOILERS” label below.

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~~~SPOILER WARNING for after 11/20 in Persona 5~~~

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The interrogation which has been the thread through Persona 5 finally takes place on 11/20. As the story proceeded to this point, flash forwards to the interrogation showed that Sae was beginning to trust that you might be telling the truth. You even made a deal with her that you’d tell the truth, and she’d try to believe you. Now, in the present day, she offers you a deal. She lists the names of your co-conspirators, and asks you to confirm that she’s correct.

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From the previous scenes, it’s obvious that you’ve been hiding some details from her, including the names of at least some of your allies. However, you do tell her the name of one ally - her sister, Makoto. You mentioning her helps put some pieces together in Sae’s mind, and it’s what leads her to think you might actually be telling the truth. And since she fully believes her sister is a good person, she doesn’t want to believe Makoto would be involved in something sinister.

Makoto’s name is the last of those Sae mentions (with noticeable reluctance). You had a deal with her to tell the truth. If you lie now and say that these aren’t your allies, she’ll know you’re lying (at least when it comes to Makoto), and you’ll be breaking your deal with her. The game has hinted so far that this will all hinge on gaining her trust, so blatantly lying to her would seem like a bad idea.

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But if you say she’s correct, then you’re selling out your allies. This is the one golden rule about being heroic (or in maintaining honor among thieves) when captured by enemies: You never sell out your allies, even if it would lead to your own death or imprisonment.

So what do you do? Do you honor your deal with Sae in hopes that you’ll be able to convince her to help you somehow get out of this, or do you break your deal with her in hopes that somehow not selling out your friends will pay off, even though there’s no obvious reason why? When I first played this, my instincts told me that taking the deal was the wrong option, and so I took it first to see the bad ending before continuing. It turned out I was right, though it wasn’t clear why until a fair bit later.

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It’s a tough choice you’re given here, but it’s also an unfair one. What the player probably doesn’t realize at this point is that the drugs the protagonist was given affected his memory. Certain things happened which he doesn’t remember, and which you didn’t play through. These events are all “conveniently” exactly the events related the true plan that the heroes were working on for this moment. What the protagonist had forgotten is that they’d realized who was about to betray them, and set up a plan to make it look like they’d gotten away with it. This plan involved letting the protagonist be captured and interrogated, and relied on him making sure Sae showed his phone to the turncoat. When you see this take place, even comparing the bad ending to the continuation, it isn’t clear why this makes any difference, until you play through the game a bit more and get an explanation.

The plan is horribly convoluted and only explained in full after the fact, but it is fully thought through and does make sense. The problem is, you have the chance to trigger the bad ending before the game starts to hint to you (through returning memories) that you need to give Sae your phone. Even if you know this, it’s not clear which dialogue path will open up this option. It seems more likely she’ll listen to her if you confirm the truth than if you blatantly lie to her, but it doesn’t work that way in practice. You have to deny her suspicions, play the part of an honourable thief for a few more dialogue choices, and then before she leaves, get her to agree to your plan.

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There are two aspects to the problem here. The first is that it’s not clear at all in the moment which choice will lead to the good or bad ending. If you pick the “wrong” choice, the game will give you a subtle hint, asking again if you want to do that before confirming, but that’s the only help you get. Compare this to Personas 3 and 4. In 3, you know well that one choice will definitely lead to a bad ending, and the other might lead to a good ending. In 4, you know that you’ll get a bad ending if you can’t identify the culprit, and a good ending if you do.

The second problem is that the choice to have the protagonist lose parts of his memory (and the player thus not play through those scenes) breaks immersion. Granted, it does make sense to do it this way, but the end result is still that the game is suddenly telling you, “Oh yeah, this guy made a bunch of choices and set up a convoluted plan with his friends while you weren’t looking.” It feels like you’re suddenly pulled out of the protagonist’s shoes when it hits you that you didn’t see some ridiculously important events that took place.

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It’s a common trope to have the heroes unveil a clever plan which they’ve been enacting for a while but never revealed to the audience, but it gets problematic when the audience is playing as one of those heroes. In a game like Persona 5, where you’re expected to immerse yourself in the character quite a bit, suddenly finding yourself not privy to their plan can be quite disorienting, even when the game gives you memory loss as a reason for it. The fact that this was entangled with a non-obvious choice to avoid a bad ending compounds the issue, making it feel even more like the player isn’t truly in control here.

Could this have been done better? I think perhaps it could have been improved a bit. It would have helped if there were more obvious indications that portions of the protagonist’s memory were missing (there were some, but I don’t think it was enough), so the player is expecting that to come up later. It would also help if the ending choice were handled a bit better. Even though this part isn’t as immersion breaking, fixing this problem would help decrease the disassociation felt by the player at this point, and so it would be easier to accept the memory loss conceit.

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I think the best way to do this would be to give a dialog option to, instead of lying to Sae or accepting her deal, finger only the traitor on your team, and then lead to you telling her that they’re a problem. Even though the player doesn’t know there’s a plan to handle them at that point, they do know that a traitor exists, and they have enough hints to have a reasonable chance of figuring out who it is.

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~~~END SPOILERS~~~

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Overall, Persona 5 is a great game, and it improved on its predecessors in almost every way. I just felt that this was one aspect where it briefly stumbled when its predecessors didn’t, and I wanted to examine why. This is all just my opinion, and why it felt off to me. Has anyone else felt the same way at any point? Please chime in in the comments here. Do mark spoilers though, please (preferably noting the in-game date), for the sake of people who want to join in without reading the spoiler section.