My favorite place to go in Persona 5 is a bar called Crossroads, which, of course, I can’t drink at because I am an underage high school teenager. I didn’t expect it, but that moment is where the fiction becomes my reality: going off to gay bars alone, in secret, and underage just for the thrill of something unknown (read: not straight). To try and belong somewhere.
I knew going in to Persona 5 that there are only heterosexual romantic options for the protagonist, but I found out that the dialogue options were varied enough that I could shyly demur every time. And I did—I was enjoying playing a gay kid, a kind of tongue in cheek queering of a straight narrative. I ate it up. I could easily dodge “straight” questions and confront my male friends with frank statements that read, as a queer player, as almost flinchingly honest confessions.
I came to the slow realization that I was playing a character in the closet. I thought I was clever to subvert the game mechanics in order to queer the narrative in a way that suited me. Instead, I was smacked in the face with bitter nostalgia, pining after my best (straight) friend in high school and watching him chase after girl after girl. But I pressed on: I never got the Temperance social contract because I didn’t want to see an exploitative maid service with other high school boys; I went to Hawaii and co-opted an infantile romantic moment as an escape with a (girl)friend just so I wouldn’t have to hunt down a woman to hook up with. Staying true to my closeted, queer, high school teen became more important than maxing my stats and contracts in my playthrough. I only ever prioritized leveling up my skills so I could get a part time job at Crossroads, where you chat with patrons (the mini-game being that you guess the customer’s disposition and respond favorably) and can sleuth out a Mementos questline. I didn’t get to work at Crossroads as much as I wanted.
I stayed in this closeted playthrough because it was, at least, still a queer narrative and also because the narrative wasn’t any less poignant. No, I couldn’t gossip with the gay couple you meet the first time you go to Shinjuku or drag Ryuji to the gay dance club—no kissing Akechi on a ferris wheel—but the feeling of tension when I suggest Yusuke take his shirt off because he is warm is no less narratively impactful for the sensory memory I get of the back of my neck flaring up red from embarrassment. I remember boys in summer—being a boy in the summer—laying around doing nothing, which was everything.
I wish I did not have to choose the closet to play a gay character. I wish that the protagonist’s queerness could actually be a choice, with or without confrontation, closet or mechanic subversion. I wish I did not have to create my own subtext to play a closeted character with no hope of escape. I accidentally entered into a romantic relationship with Ann late in the game and I realized that, for all of the time I spent carefully constructing my playthrough, the game is written to achieve a girlfriend. I was foiled from the start: have a stunted playthrough (avoiding social contracts, missing out on maxing party members contracts, unbalanced skill progression, …) or execute yet another heteronormative narrative—worse, from a high school boy’s perspective. I never finished my first playthrough of Persona 5 and I’m still not sure which version is better. But it was exciting, for a moment, to imagine an organic narrative that could expand and contract to be as queer as a player wanted.
- Hashino, Katsura, dir. Persona 5. 2016; Tokyo, Japan: Atlus USA, 2016. PlayStation 4. https://atlus.com/persona5/.