I have always liked Persona 5, but it never fully clicked with me enough for it to be a game that I could love. There are a few reasons for that, not least its sluggishly long runtime, but for the most part, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. But after playing through Persona 5 Strikers and enjoying it significantly more, I think I’ve figured out why. Joker shouldn’t be the lead of Persona 5 – Ann should be, and the whole game just feels lopsided with Joker in control.
I get that Joker is the new kid in town, that he lives in the hideout, that Morgana stays with him, that he can enter the Velvet Room, and that he not only awakens first but also has access to a range of Personas. Structurally, he’s obviously the lead. Narratively, I’m not so sure.
Throughout Persona 5, the different palaces the Phantom Thieves invade are motivated by personal stakes. As new members join the gang, they do so because they’re personally invested in taking down the latest enemy. The first of these bosses – and by far the most traumatic connection – is linked to Ann. Kamoshida is a gym teacher who has been grooming Ann and her friend Shiho – the game is coy about exactly how far this abuse goes, but Shiho attempts suicide to escape it, so we can infer that it’s severe. Persona 5 is a game about friendship and redemption, but it’s also fuelled by vengeance. It’s a group of teenagers helping set the world right, but it’s also kids targeting adults for crimes that are often overtly capitalist, and in this era of vast generational divides and financial ladders being hoisted up, it’s a very righteous, relatable vengeance. While Ann’s tale is more personal, it seems fitting that she be at the core of this story.
Abuse victims are constantly kept in that box in video games: victims. Not full people, but a prop at a crime scene. While Ann’s personality is given full room to shine throughout the story, it feels as if the trauma at her core is never explored. We never see any after effects from the abuse Ann suffered at all, and while her joyous kindness helps make the game brighter, it feels false her pain is swept under the rug. Persona 5 might help Ann break out of her ‘victim’ pigeonhole, but that’s only because it erases it entirely.
It’s because of this erasure that the game is able to get away with the gross stylistic choices around Ann. In the Metaverse, each of the characters get a more eccentric wardrobe, and Ann’s is a red vinyl catsuit, zipped open to show her cleavage, while she struts around in red thigh highs, brandishing a whip and using the language and body movements you’d associate with a dominatrix. Ann is 16 years old and still at high school.
That’s not all – although that really is enough. She’s 16 and that’s the outfit the game puts her in? I’m a big fan of Persona 5, especially Strikers, but a lot of the stuff around Ann is disgusting. Ann’s awakening comes in the Palace of Kamoshida; not only has he been grooming her and her friend, he also keeps what amounts to a near-naked and obedient version of her inside his imagination. This triggers Ann awakening her Persona, and puts her in this outfit for the first time. It’s a scene so deeply laden with sexual trauma and loss of innocence, but it quickly turns vulgar when the solution offered to the 16 year old sexual abuse victim is to reclaim her sexuality by dressing like a dominatrix. Once Ann comes to (awakening a Persona can be discombobulating), her first reaction is embarrassment, desperately trying to cover herself up.
Rather than comfort her, Ryuji (and Joker, depending on your choices) mocks and berates her. Soon after, when Ann is only a tentative member of their friendship group, the boys tell her she must model naked for another creepy boy they have just met. This boy is Yusuke, who turns out to be nice but weird rather than a creep, but Ryuji and Joker don’t know this. Instead, they’re happy to force the girl recovering from sexual trauma to take her clothes off for a stranger.
This underscores Ann’s role in the gang – she’s the pretty one. There is considerably more to her than that; she’s kind, helpful, curious, feisty, and creative, but the gang often downplay her contribution and keep her trapped in a stereotypical role. Conversely, Makoto – the second girl to join the group – has her ideas listened to more often and is assigned the role of ‘the smart one’. However, in return, she must dress plainly, keep to sensible stylings, and constantly nag. She’s still pretty, and Joker can choose to pursue a relationship with either of them, but it feels like Ann’s femininity comes at the cost of being taken seriously. With her in the lead role, that wouldn’t happen.
Finally, all of the big narrative clunkers in Persona 5 come specifically because of the angle the scene is shot from; Joker’s POV. The boys overhearing the girls compare breast sizes – why not just make them pillow fight or spray whipped cream on each other? – is incredibly invasive and coarse, even if the boys don’t mean to spy. It might be an accident on their part, but the game deliberately chooses to humiliate the girls this way. This scene actually occurs in Strikers, where Joker fits the protagonist role better, but it still speaks to the lack of respect given to Ann.
Maybe if Ann was the lead we’d finally see her slap Morgana too. I know it’s meant to be cute because he’s in the body of a cat, but what it basically amounts to is the close friend of a teenage girl constantly and openly ogling her. Persistently talking about her body, offering to shower her with gifts, and almost literally drooling over her. There’s some debate over Morgana’s true age, with some suggesting it could be as high as 30, but there’s not really a number you could suggest that paints what Morgana does as normal behaviour. It’s yet another example of the game focusing on Ann in all the wrong ways, and I can’t help but feel like if she had been the lead, these issues could have been avoided.
Next: Trans Day Of Visibility: Claire, Cyberpunk 2077, And Me
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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