Press ‘x’ to Continue

I’m two hours into Persona 3 Portable and I’m thinking about the illusion of control.  It’s one of those games that spins its own web for a while.  Your main act of participation is to press a button at the end of every line of dialogue—to give the speaker permission to continue.  If you don’t press ‘x,’ she stands suspended, with that final word still hovering on her lip.

It’s a silly mechanic.  After I enter my name, I sit through screen after screen of dialogue.  I like the dialogue, actually.  It’s endearingly bizarre—just Japanese enough to make the game into a cultural experience.

For an hour I have no options—just press ‘x’ to continue, but eventually I’m alone in my room, and I’m ready to do something.  The game presents me with a still picture and a cursor.  There are several points of interest that I can select, but almost all of them give me the same message: “You’re tired. You should go to bed early tonight.”  I’m tired, am I?  I open the menu and flip through the options.  I notice an interesting choice: Auto Text on/off.  It’s set to off by default.  I switch it to on.  And then, with nothing else to do, I go to sleep.

When I wake up, things have changed.  The first thing that bothers me is the timing.  Characters won’t wait for anything.  Once one has finished her lines, the next blurts in.  It’s like everyone is itching to speak, eager to make themselves heard.  It makes me feel nervous, jumpy.  My thumbs hang uselessly above the buttons of the PSP.  No input required.  It won’t stop; even scene changes are automatic.  The game charges ahead, eyes shut, losing its balance.

I want to open the menu and change it back, but I can’t, because the menu won’t open during dialogue, and the dialogue won’t stop.

My girlfriend asks me to do the dishes.  “I can’t,” I tell her, “I have to watch this.”  I can’t even pause.  I’m bothered that the game would go on without me.  That it would just run on its own for thirty minutes.  I haven’t pressed a button in so long, how does it even know I’m here?

Several years ago, my family went on a trip to Egypt.  It was summer, and it was unbearably hot—over 110 degrees.  In the temples there was never any shade.  The heat was so thick that it undulated in the dry air.

In Luxor, we had a blind tour guide.  I don’t know what sort of tenacity would lead a blind man to become a tour guide, but there he was, complete with sunglasses, cane and floppy hat.  He led us from place to place, tapping his way across the ancient stones, stopping just before he reached the next point of interest.  How did he do it—did he memorize the number of steps between monuments?

Whenever we stopped he would preface his history in the same way.  He turned to us and said, “Mr. David, do you see the hieroglyphics behind me?”  Mr. David referred to my father, whose first name is David.  “Mr. David, do you see the statue behind me?”  Of course he saw the statue; it was unmissable at twenty feet tall.  But the tour never continued until Dad said, “yes, I see the statue.”

Our tour guide was blind, and what he was really asking was, “are you there Mr. David?  Say something so that I know you’re there.”

In Persona 3 Portable, I turned auto-dialogue back off at the first opportunity, and our relationship returned to normal.  Are you here, asks the blind game, feeling in the darkness?  Don’t worry, I’m here.

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17 Comments

  1. The Machination

     /  July 17, 2010

    God, it’s like those games that prompt you into a dialogue list when there is only every one option to choose from. I always found that to be incredibly stupid.

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  July 17, 2010

      Oblivion does this quite frequently. I always wondered why they bothered changing it to the ‘dialogue option’ model when they already had the click-a-word system from Morrowind.

      Reply
      • The click-a-word system was oddly satisfying. I had forgotten about it, but I went back and played some Morrowind a few weeks ago. It was just as awesome as I remember it being.

      • Unless I’m mistaken, I think the click-a-word system exists as a matter of necessity in those games? Your character never speaks of his/her own accord, so you always have to select a menu option to progress your side of the conversation, even if there’s only one possible response. I much prefer the Mass Effect system, where Shepard frequently chimes in of her own accord, and you only get a dialog wheel when there’s an actual choice to be made.

        Harbour Master, I know you’re reading this. You really need to play Mass Effect.

      • I’m not reading this Veret. I’m not here. I don’t even exist. I don’t exist until I’ve read Kent’s words first.

        Forget this ever happened.

  2. I thought this was going to be about the illusion of control (the first line fooled me) but, no, we get something quite tangential.

    What I find interesting is how the game just didn’t need a player to rip through the dialogue. Not having played a Persona before, I assume these are actually games.

    So the future is here and games play themselves. Eventually all the lazy player will do is change the batteries. And then We Will Become The Battery – and we all know which well-known film series will become reality.

    Don’t scoff, I hear you sniggering at the back. The foundations are being laid already:
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/40th-anniversary/Embedded-Technologies-Power-From-the-People.html

    Reply
    • V. Profane

       /  July 17, 2010

      The Japanese have been making these odd, barely interactive, psudo-games for ages. They’re just an electronic presentation of a trashy novel or soap opera, basically.

      Reply
  3. Man, what a bizarre series Shin Megami Tensei is. I tried to get into Persona 2 once, but it was so frontloaded with dull text that I gave up before fighting a single demon.

    It’s funny that the illusion that the game cares one whit about the player’s presence can so easily be conjured up with that simple button press. The game is going to plow through the same forty pages of script whatever you do, but that “x” prompt is just comforting enough to allow you to ignore that. Pushing a button is a powerfully satisfying thing.

    Reply
  4. There seems to be a growing trend in Japan of giving players the option, if they so choose, of letting a game play itself. Devil May Cry 4 and Bayonetta both came with Auto-Combo options which if you turned them on meant that you could press the X button and the character would just do whatever they felt like and beat up on all the enemies.

    I always wondered if these things technically made the game more simple or more complex. All the underlying systems are still there, dutifully being simulated, but your part has been short-circuited. When you sit back and watch it, it’s a swirl of impressive motion, which is meaningless in context but is still encoded with all the same meaning that you would discover if you were the one in charge.

    Auto modes bring those games very close to where Persona starts off, with just one verb: a kingly “Proceed.” Maybe that’s all the player really needs. The jester is going to do his dance without your help, but by deferring to your order before it starts the game allows you to take ownership of it.

    Reply
  5. lauramichet

     /  July 17, 2010

    Interestingly enough, the text in Bioware games is almost humble, or maybe even tentative: you can cruise through all of mass effect without reading the codex thing once. Same goes for large swathes of dragon age. These games hide a lot of the text away, and just have to hope that we care enough to read it–but the writing is so good that people go after it anyway. Much better, I think, than what I’ve seen in Persona (though I’ve only watched those giant bomb gameplay videos, and then not very many of them.) Though it might not be entirely fair to criticize the writing in japanese games, since the best kinds of translations only happen when the translator is confident enough to be as much of an artist as the original author was.

    Reply
    • I think it’s kind of an apples-to-wrenches comparison between Bioware’s RPGs and the Persona games, since I love them both but for such different reasons. The Persona games work on me in the way that a good TV show does – any one episode of a show might not hold up as great writing on its own, but if the cast is strongly characterized and likable then you grow attached to them over time and eventually it becomes more than just the sum of its parts.

      I think part of what helps foster that kind of character connection in Persona is the more mundane settings. Bioware’s games go for the epic sweep of history thing, where you are reading codexes full of backstory and learning all about the politics of great nations and taking part in wars and apocalypses, while Persona games essentially take the horror movie model of the supernatural invading familiar places and do a lot of interesting playing around with the balance between your normal life and the monster-fighting RPG part.

      I guess I turn to the two types of game for two really different reasons. At the end of a Bioware RPG, I feel like I just went on this huge journey, became a hero, saved this really strange universe and became a part of history. At the end of a Persona game, I feel like I just finished a really crazy year of school, met some people who I like, maybe solved a mystery, and now it’s time to get on with my life. They’re very different kinds of stories that scratch some very different itches, but I like em both.

      Reply
    • Final Fantasy 12, for all its myriad problems, takes a similarly unintrusive approach to text. The game proper is pretty economical with its story bits, but just about every new enemy and location you encounter will unlock 2+ pages of supplemental text in your fantasy-codex. It’s all world-building stuff, and it’s almost universally more interesting than the main narrative thread. It’s clear that some talented translators were given free reign to do whatever they wanted with it.

      Reply
      • Speaking of games that play themselves, what bothered me about FFXII wasn’t the text, it was the combat. I had my gambits set up so that I didn’t have to do anything at all.

  6. Leigh Alexander loves P3P: http://sexyvideogameland.blogspot.com/2010/07/more-like-heart-arus.html

    I agree with Switchbreak. Persona games and Bioware games are totally different from one another, and there is A PLACE IN MY HEART for each of them.

    Reply
  7. Det store spørsmålet er vel om kelbon fortsatt er av glass, eller om den er av plast. Den me hev, som endå ikkje har knust, er av glass. Men me har òg ei anna, litt mindre, til kjøkkenmaskina. Den er av plast :)

    Reply

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