For all Paul McCartney’s worries about ageing, at least he’s not had to worry about impersonating teen JRPG heroes into his sixties.
As a Persona fan in my mid-thirties, I face a looming problem which draws nearer with each new entry in the series. With the mainline games coming out at an average of every 5 years, I’ll be in my 40s when Persona 7 comes out. And honestly, it’s getting more than a little bit weird.
I was 19 when I played Persona 3: FES for the first time. I already lived that teenage life – minus the dating prospects and battles versus ominous supernatural forces. These days, nearly 15 years later, I’m still playing the same teenage Casanova, ignoring my real responsibilities and actual girlfriend to fret over which teenager to date and worry about upcoming history exams.
I’m an adult. I have a big-boy job, or at least a medium-boy job that fits a bit small. I organized an educational retreat recently where I was responsible for 60 teenagers the same age as the Persona kids. And it was at this event, yelling out names on the coach, phoning parents and trying to project an aura of reassuring competence where I had the horrific realization: I AM TWICE THESE KIDS’ AGE.
Now don’t get me wrong, these teens are great. Their carpal-tunnel free youthful energy, intelligence, surprising interest in learning (and even more surprising disinterest in talking me into buying them booze) left me with a rare sense of hope for the future. But playing Persona on my rare breaks left me facing a crossroad every bit as intimidating as Shibuya’s frantic Crossing.
The world of Persona is just not my world anymore. Back in my uni days, maybe I got a kick out of Persona’s teenage dating opportunities – the games are often compared to Buffy, and in dating terms the experience is exactly like the episode when Sunnydale’s entire female population is magically and ferociously attracted to Xander. While I was hopelessly incapable of setting up dates for myself, in Persona I could enjoy an atmosphere as steamy as the ramen me and my date slurp down between lingering glances. These days, it just makes me feel like Leo DiCaprio – and I don’t mean the nineties heartthrob version.
Will I stop playing these games? No chance. But should these games do better by an increasingly aging fanbase? I mean, it can’t be just me feeling the tiniest bit uncomfortable! Is it so bad to swap out the Midnight Channel for the Midnight All-Hands Meeting? Atlus gave us a sense of how an adult JRPG approach could look in 2011 with Catherine, a raunchy Freudian nightmare-puzzler about a two-timing commitment-phobe.
Something of a creative palate cleanser for the Persona 4 team, it focused on adult life with the 32-year-old Vincent Brooks, and a sitcom-esque cast who hang at their local bar The Stray Streep instead of shopping malls and school rec-rooms. It explored adult themes of commitment, infidelity and guilt, completely overpowered by a lurid art style that skipped straight past erotic frisson into the lasciviously softcore.
Catherine didn’t kickstart an adult JRPG renaissance. Atlus’s next games didn’t make players grind for mortgage deposits or battle noisy neighbors partying after your bedtime (how inconsiderate at 9:15pm!). It remains a horny 2010s curio, sulking in its underwear as it watches Persona’s teen heroes reach the heights it never could. Other series like Dragon Quest and Xenoblade Chronicles stuck with their miraculously acne-free teens, and don’t tell me Chained Echoes’ heroes look old enough to drive.
Fortunately, not everyone has given up on my demographic. Square are making an effort to cater to an older fanbase in recent years – which I appreciate as I draw closer to Auron’s age, Final Fantasy X’s graying elder statesman at a wizened 35. Final Fantasy XV and VII Remake are at least past high-school age in their early 20s.
Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin went older yet, giving us the 32-year-old Jack Garland. The gravel-voiced Limp Bizkit fan came dangerously close to bringing a regrettable noughties celeb who thought backwards baseball caps were the epitome of cool to the world of Final Fantasy I; even Tetsuya Nomura was unsurprised by the game’s mixed reception. And coming up in June, Final Fantasy XVI’s Clive Rosfield will be 28; fingers crossed he has a better stylist and less fondness for nu-metal.
The modern standard-bearer for aging JRPG players may have come from outside the genre. Of course, I’m talking about the Yakuza series. At 42, Like a Dragon’s Ichiban is a rare middle-aged JRPG hero. The bestselling game in the series makes it clear there’s appetite for JRPGs set in later adulthood, featuring heroic quest against a backdrop of regrets and chronic back pain. An adult world with adult problems, that’s more like it.
The audience is there. SEGA proved it, Square knows it. Don’t get left behind, Atlus. Just, for the love of God, don’t make another horny puzzle game.