Please note that there are spoilers for the opening hours of Persona 5, as well as spoilers for Nier: Automata and Mass Effect: Andromeda. If you don’t want to be spoiled, please look away now.
Let’s be frank. In this day and age, there isn’t really any subject matter too dark or too taboo to address in mainstream media. Late last year, the grim subject of World War One and the beginning of mechanised war was realised in Battlefield 1, gaining critical acclaim for breaching a subject that was considered either ‘too complex’ for a game to possibly reflect the situation, or just forgotten by popular culture. This year, Persona 5 escalated the stakes quickly within the first five hours of gameplay; without wanting to spoil too much for those who haven’t grabbed a copy of the game yet, it becomes clear that PE teacher Kamoshida has not only been physically abusing the volleyball teams he coaches or using his influence to do whatever the hell he pleases in Shujin Academy, he’s also been sexually harassing at least two female students, Ann Takamaki -who joins your ragtag team of thieves after a brutal Persona awakening- and her best friend Shiho. What’s even worse is that he’s been manipulating both of them, so they think they’ve been helping/protecting each other during the whole sorry mess.
The trigger though comes when Shiho attempts suicide by jumping off the roof, something Persona 5 does not shy away from despite the fact that you only see Shiho fall off screen rather than the fall itself. No, instead it focuses on Ann’s reaction and the reaction of the student body. Ann is distressed and runs to her friend’s side, ignoring every teacher that is failing to get everyone into classrooms; she even volunteers to go with a barely conscious Shiho to the hospital with the paramedics while teachers find excuses not to go. The student body’s reaction is noticeably less empathetic: phones are out, photos are taken. Ryuji is quite understandably angry and disgusted that everyone else’s first response is to take photos rather than get help or even to show some form of distress, sympathy or anything. And its this unflinching portrayal of what a world so attached to their phones these days would most likely do in a crisis like this is what’s most shocking. It was even more shocking when a pre-reformed Kamoshida plays the false concern before revealing how unrepentant he really is, threatening the protagonist and Ryuji with expulsion for daring to stand up to him.
It’s this lack of empathy and the apparent normalisation of abuse from the higher powers that continues to shock more than the actual purported acts being committed by the Phantoms targets. The artist that abuses his position of trust in order to achieve fame and fortune by any means, the gangster that blackmails vulnerable students out of greed, even the father willing to sell out his own family members in order to further his political interests, these are less shocking than the fact that those that know of the crimes just accept and do nothing to stop them. There is no doubt that Persona 5 covers a breadth of heavy subject matter, but what it truly excels at is showing that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that those who know but choose to do nothing do it because it’ll be easier on them. That’s what I hadn’t expected from it.
This hasn’t been the only game to surprise me with a big issue. As mentioned in a previous article, Nier: Automata has been facing a a more philosophical big issue, one that it’s enigmatic director Yoko Taro has more often than not looked into in his games. Not just what it means to be human, but also the darker aspects of people. The fact that I had actually stopped playing the game and stared at a bunch of robots effectively trying to make babies with each other still haunts me to this day!! But more to the point, what Nier: Automata made me pause to contemplate was that I was effectively playing a character who thought she was fighting for the right belief, while also fighting robots that were not only starting to form free will and independent thought, but also developing belief systems of their own. The Forest Kingdom had formed a nation with the intent of protecting it and their king; the factory level first explored in the early hours of the game would later be established as the base of a religious cult that goes insane; this is also the game that made me feel extremely guilty if I dared to attack one of the robots from the amusement park, as they were friendly until provoked – I was a player that did fight the parade float tank boss… only to find out later down the line that I could have ignored 9S’ insistence and left it alone. It’s these sort of things that make you question yourself as a person, especially when in other games shooting or cutting down the enemy is normalised to the point that there are no heavy consequences to your actions. I mean, what if I, through 2B, just destroyed the very beginnings of an entirely peaceful robotic civilisation through an act of insanity??? What if that parade float’s robot buddies decide to take revenge on me later down the line??? What then???
Of course, sometimes games can handle big issues pretty clumsily. Step forward Mass Effect: Andromeda as an example. Okay, now I’m fully aware that BioWare are no stranger to issues such as sexuality, gender, and many others. I’m also aware that BioWare is also a fan of revealing consequences of actions made early on in the game or indeed in the series. Yet with Andromeda, with the storytelling quality yo-yoing like there was no tomorrow, you get the feeling that now its just treading familiar ground rather than trying to break into new ones. Even when there’s a chance of relations between you and anyone else becoming tense, or even the chance of tensions between the Initiative and the Angara, being caused by your decisions and actions, the consequences don’t seem that long lasting. Maybe its because its gearing up for the next in the Andromeda series -let’s be realistic, there probably will be one since there are still Arks with cyro-napping colonists heading towards Andromeda, not to mention the possibility of being able to travel beyond the Heleus cluster- but at present its not obvious. Seriously, just deciding on whether to destroy the Kett facility with the Angaran resistance in it or saving the Angara but sparing the facility only decides whether or not the Angaran resistance will be able to help you in later missions. Sparing or killing the Cardinal in charge of it only affects the final mission and nothing more. So it becomes less a case of whether its the right thing to do or not, but more of a case of what’s tactically better for you in the game. An even better example of consequences not covered adequately enough is in the aftermath is what you decide to have done to Spender for his part in the Krogan exodus from the Nexus; he’s either exiled or demoted, but nothing changes. Nothing. Nada. It’s not even obvious if there’s some sort of consequence further down the line. Sorry, but this isn’t how you address the theme of heavy consequences for the decisions you make.
Not even finding out the truth about the Kett is handled that well (unless you have Jaal with you of course), but it just becomes more of a case of ‘oh dear, there’s this rather nasty militarised parasite we’ll need to squash’ rather than delving into the trauma of the Angara realising just what they’ve been fighting for decades: their own people, ‘exalted’ into Kett. That’s a bit of a shame, especially since as plot twists go, it is a pretty shocking one for all involved. One feels that there are some war-based games that could or indeed have handled the underlying issue of fighting against your own better than Andromeda ever did.
That being said, if done the right way and by the right kind of people, gaming can be a viable way of challenging our perspectives of the world. There are plenty of games out there that have proven that its possible to do just that, and there will be more games that will tackle the big issues in the future. I myself am looking forward to the release of Ninja Theory’s Hellblade, especially as it tackles the issue of mental health and getting a chance to experience the world through the mind’s eye of someone who suffers from schizophrenia. Can’t wait!
What do you guys think? Any other games you can think of that tackled a big issue really well or terribly badly? Leave a comment down below! See you next time!