I started playing Persona 5 a few weeks ago. It’s my second Persona game after playing Persona 3 Portable in 2013, and while I’m enjoying it so far, there’s some jarring moments in the game that take me out of the experience of playing it. Specifically, the treatment of the character Ann Takamaki bothers me almost every time she appears. While at first I thought it’s because of the blatant sexualization of her character, I think that there’s an underlying case of ludonarrative dissonance behind the sexism that makes it even worse.
Warning: this post contains spoilers for Persona 5.
What is ludonarrative dissonance?
Before I keep throwing around the term, let me take a step back and explain what I mean by ludonarrative dissonance. Ludo means game, and narrative is, well, story. Ludonarrative dissonance is when the narrative told through the story and the narrative told through the gameplay come into conflict. For example, after killing dozens of other characters in a level, you enter a cutscene where your character expresses regret about murdering someone. The story is telling you to care about other people’s lives, but the gameplay is telling you not to. This is a common example of ludonarrative dissonance that is present in popular games like Uncharted and Tomb Raider, but ludonarrative dissonance through elements besides violence is infrequently explored.
So, what about the character of Ann Takamaki in Persona 5 makes her an example of ludonarrative dissonance?
About Persona 5
First off, some background on Persona 5. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Persona games are, gameplay-speaking, a combination of dating sim and turn-based dungeon crawler. Playing feels like living through a shonen anime series, and in fact there are separate anime series and manga of the game’s story. In that vein, the story has a lot of similar tropes, including a personality-less main character and the blatant sexualization of the female characters. As a female player, the way the Persona series treats women is unfortunately something I just have to ignore or overlook to enjoy the rest of the game. But the ludonarrative dissonance of Ann’s character is too much for me to ignore.
Ann in story vs. gameplay
Ann is introduced as a girl in the MC’s high school that is undeniably attractive and is even a model in her spare time. School gossip paints her as the school slut who is sleeping with a popular teacher. We, the player, see that she is deeply kind and compassionate, hates the advances of the popular teacher who she is not sleeping with, and is isolated from her peers not through any fault of her own but because of the untrue label of being “easy.” The moment that she gains her Persona—representing a recognition and acceptance of her true self—is when she gains the willpower to stand up for herself against the creepy teacher and refuses to let people dictate who she should be. It’s a tragic but compelling story of a girl dealing with the sexism of society and finding the inner strength to be herself despite it, right?
Except that when she gains her Persona and transforms into her Phantom Thief outfit, she changes from her school uniform to a skin-tight bright red catsuit partially unzipped to show her cleavage. She wields a whip in battle. Her idle animation during fights makes it look like her spine is broken! Not to mention the half dozen other ways her character is implicitly but obviously sexualized during dungeon-crawling gameplay sequences (like the way she falls if she’s knocked out… her butt conspicuously in the air). Ann’s introductory character arc is all about how she doesn’t want people to just treat her like a sexual object, but that’s all the game does.
The worst part is that this dissonance between her character and the way she’s treated is even reinforced in-game. In the game itself she says that she doesn’t like her Phantom Thief outfit. Later in the story she’s pressured to pose as a nude model and is vehemently disgusted by it. She’s written to protest against the way the game treats her, but the game still sexualizes her. It’s ludonarrative dissonance in the worst way, because it’s not being done to critique and call out sexualization in these games. It’s essentially saying “Hey, isn’t it funny that Ann keeps being put into these sexually provocative situations without her consent?” and does nothing about it.
Sexism is bad game design
The sexism on its own is gross, but the ludonarrative dissonance really highlights how Ann’s character is sexualized for no reason other than the sexualization itself. As my friend put it, with Ann wanting to be something other than a sexual object but the game only treating her as one, Atlus is “trying to have their cake and eat it too.” And while perhaps an extreme example, Persona 5’s treatment of Ann is emblematic of the sexism in video games even today.
Developers seem to have finally caught wind that openly treating female characters as two-dimensional sexual props isn’t great for their public image, not to mention that it pisses off a decent demographic of players, but they’re unwilling to give up the sexualization of female characters entirely. So they stick with the fake feminism of having a character declare herself strong and independent while wearing skin-tight clothes and high heels.
The point I’m trying to make here is that treating female characters like this isn’t just sexist, it’s bad game design—ludonarrative dissonance, unless done on purpose, takes the player out of the experience of the game. I love the Persona games, but Persona 5 came out in 2016. I expect game studios—especially AAA studios with plenty of money and nothing to lose—to do better.
Cover image is official art by Atlus. Source (Note that even in the official art her spine is broken to draw attention to her boobs and butt…)
Images of Ann in battle are by user sillyfudgemonkeys on Tumblr. Source