Why Persona 5's silent protagonist works
"Thanks, man," Ryuji says, running the back of his hand along his jaw. I've just watched him get decked by a couple of his former associates on the track team: a twisted, quintessentially teenaged-male way to bury the hatchet and settle one's differences.
I hesitate, wondering why I'm getting thanked for bearing witness to this and not interceding.
"All I did was watch," I say.
"You're tellin' me!" he laughs. "You just sat around while I got my ass beat. For real, though... you were a big help. It's kinda like I was doin' a sprint... and you were runnin' next to me."
It feels a little weird, Ryuji's gratitude for my inaction -- doubly so when his lines are all fully voiced, and my responses are little text snippets from a multiple choice menu.
Persona 5 is built on interactions like these, scenes in which members of its cast wrestle with personal demons and turn to the player character for advice or reassurance. This player character, like the heroes of other games in the series, is a stock JRPG silent protagonist -- his responses are short and often glib, one of two or three options the game will offer, almost never more than half a dozen words long. When you spend an afternoon hanging out with Takemi the doctor or an evening with Chihaya the fortune teller, you're not so much conversing with them as letting them talk at you.
In a way, this seems like a missed opportunity -- a silent protagonist can't ever really be a character in their own right, at least not outside the head of the player. In a narrative, character is shaped by action, and so the fewer opportunities for choice and action the player is given, the less they're able to define their character. A Persona protagonist will never be "yours" to the same degree as "your" Commander Shepard or "your" protagonist in a Telltale game. In the past, I've always thought of this as one of the weaknesses of the Persona games -- by sticking with silent protagonists, they don't allow their players to really shape their heroes.
But when I watched Ryuji get beat up in the courtyard of Shujin High and then thank me for being there, I realized that I had been missing something fundamental: This wasn't about me. By utilizing a silent protagonist, Persona 5 decenters the player character from the narrative arcs of its supporting cast, creating a bunch of stories about characters who mostly overcome their struggles under their own power.
Ryuji was self-actualizing. I was just there to back him up.
Persona 5 (and its predecessors) handle relationships like this: You choose to spend time with party members and non-player characters in order to get closer to them. Each relationship is a ten-part side story focused on that character ("Confidants," in Persona 5), and in each scene, the other character will inevitably ask your protagonist for advice. You'll be given a choice of responses (usually there are three options), and dialogue choices that most spur the character toward the resolution of whatever they're struggling with will put more "points" toward an invisible counter the game keeps that governs how quickly the relationship is advancing. Some characters need you to provide vocal encouragement, some need you to temper their short fuses, and some need you to give them tough love and not put up with their bullshit.
It would be easy to glance at a system like this and say that the games depict a world where friendship is earned by telling people what they want to hear, but that's not the case at all: Persona suggests that friendship is earned by telling people what they need to hear, and by continually showing up and demonstrating loyalty no matter what a person's going through.
The most important elements of friendship in the world of Persona are being present, being responsive, and being supportive. Those are far from the only aspects of friendship in the real world, but they're facets not often emphasized in other games, which is a part of why Persona has a special appeal. By using a silent protagonist, the Persona games shift the focus of these story scenes away from being a venue for the player to define what kind of character their protagonist is and toward the question of how best to support the non-player characters with their personal struggles -- whether that's getting out from under the thumb of an oppressive authority figure or coming to a better understanding of what their own values are.
In fact, short of your player character being an out-and-out jerk, your relationships with these other characters will develop along the same lines no matter what you say to them -- because you're not the impetus for their character development. If you get absolutely every dialogue choice "right" in a given Confidant relationship, you're not going to alter the outcome, you're just going to accelerate how fast it arrives. If your advice to your Confidant isn't good, then you'll need to spend more time with them before your relationship will deepen.
I've heard Persona described as an "emotional power fantasy," and there's something to that: In the world of the game, it's possible to help a dozen people work through their issues and earn their undying loyalty just by spending time with them and saying the right thing. It's unrealistically easy to get people to like you, doubly so when you consider you're limited to six words per sentence.
There is, furthermore, an incentive to get the "correct" answers in your interactions with these friends: The more correct responses you give, the fewer days you'll be required to spend with each Confidant to see their entire stories, and thus you'll be able to foster more relationships during the course of your limited time in Tokyo. If you follow a specific schedule and look up all the "correct" dialogue choices on GameFAQs, it's even possible to max out every Confidant relationship in a single playthrough. Viewed in this light, Persona 5's attempt at portraying friendship is mechanically basic and even a little mercenary -- and that has to be taken into account. There's no FAQ you can read to be a good friend in real life.
There's no "wrong" way to play a game, and so min-maxers are free to go wild spending their year in Tokyo with a cheat sheet in hand. But the vast majority of players will come away from Persona 5 having gotten the message that friendship is ultimately about making time for someone, listening to them sincerely, and then offering them the best advice you can manage. And, fundamentally, that being a good friend isn't about you. By having your player character be a mute cipher, the games force you to consider your friends before yourself. What is disempowering in the moment becomes empowering in the end, when your friends rally to your cause and offer their gratitude -- not for sweet-talking them, but for sticking with them to the end while they sorted through their issues (with, occasionally, a word of good advice from you).
Ryuji and I are sitting at the counter of a ramen joint he introduced me to a while back. He slurps down the last of his noodles and looks pensive.
"Hey," he says. "This ain't like me, but... I managed to change 'cause you were here helpin' me. I got you all wrapped up in this shit, but you stayed with me 'til the bitter end. ...You didn't abandon me. So... thanks, man."
I could accept his gratitude by saying "You're welcome," but I humbly defer. "It's all because of you," I tell him, selecting the second dialogue option. Because, well... It is. And that feels kinda good.