Content warning: homophobia, transphobia and sexual assault mentions.

Persona 5 was released earlier this month to critical acclaim. The JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) boasts 100 hours of gameplay, and provides almost perfectly-polished gameplay that has been adopted from every past installment of the series. Gamers appear to agree – the game currently holds a 94% rating on Metacritic. However, the game has its issues. In what is perhaps a combination of influence from stubborn, masculine gamer culture and Japanese prejudice, the game yet again fails to correct a long-standing record of poor LGBT representation. In fact, it’s arguable that this entry in the Persona series has become worse.

Persona 5 is set in a fictionalised version of Tokyo, and follows a largely silent protagonist as he and his allies fight baddies in an alternate reality which is given form by the ‘distorted’ desires of mankind. After discovering their powers, the group, which call themselves the Phantom Thieves, target high-profile criminals, abusers and exploiters, whose ‘distorted’ desires manifest in personalised dungeons of which they are the rulers. By infiltrating these dungeons and conquering them, the protagonists can affect a change of heart in ‘real life’, forcing the bad guys to publicly renounce their ways and confess to their crimes.

When the protagonist and his allies are not fighting ‘Shadows’ in the alternate reality, they are normal students – the player must navigate the silent protagonist through his studies, skills, hobbies and social relationships, all of which have a profound impact on gameplay. Stronger skills and relationships allow the player to create stronger tools and ‘Personas’, the inner alter-egos which employ magic and brute force to fight Shadows. The beautiful design, exciting storyline and masterful dungeon-crawling and turn-based combat system makes this a game that I could not recommend highly enough.

The Persona series, particularly 3, 4 and 5, have enjoyed near-universal critical acclaim for their gameplay and depth of character development. However, all have included derogatory references to LGBT people, whether it be through off-hand jokes or blatant homophobic or transphobic themes.

Common to all installments is an overarching and restrictive compulsory heterosexuality. The silent protagonist, ironically remaining silent to introduce a sense of ambiguity to his personality and psyche, is forced to be straight in countless situations. Whether it is via the development of in-game social relationships, which are romantic with women and platonic with men, or through various lecherous comments made by other characters that the player is forced to agree with, it is not possible to explore sexuality in any other way.

Persona 3, 4 and 5 all include at least one scene in which the protagonist and his male allies go to the beach to hit on women. It is clearly designed to provide comic relief, however the tired, sexist delivery leaves much to be desired. In Persona 3, there is a blatantly transphobic scene in which the last woman the school-aged boys hit on makes herself sexually available. She is labelled “Beautiful/Pretty Lady (?)”. Upon closer inspection, one of the boys notices and rudely comments on a patch of facial hair on the woman’s face. The crudely-outed transgender woman is mortified, and informs the boys that she seems to have ‘missed a spot’ – to which the boys recoil in horror. The woman tells the boys that they should come back when they are ready for something wilder.

Image from duelingdog on Youtube

Persona 4 includes what is perhaps the most insidious treatment of transgender people, despite the presence of a bisexual squadmate. It ought to be noted that this character is more-or-less handled well. Kanji is a street tough with a penchant for textiles and a suppressed attraction to men. In this game, the allies must infiltrate various character’s personal dungeons after their existance is revealed on a secret TV channel in order to prevent them from being murdered by an unknown assailant. Kanji’s dungeon is a giant sauna (how’s that for gay imagery!) and his ‘Shadow’ is a hypersexual, mostly-naked, mincing, gay version of himself, complete with a lisp. He transforms into a giant, muscular monster that wields two giant Mars symbols as weapons, and is flanked by two smaller men who provide healing support.

This crude depiction of homosexuality is acceptable in the context of the game – where these images are the consequence of Kanji’s internalised homophobia and deep hatred of his perceived femininity. This dungeon is conquered and the monster destroyed in order for Kanji to accept all facets of his personality, even the ones he is afraid of. This allows him to access a Persona and join the team.

However mid-game, a new ally appears – a male-presenting junior detective named Naoto. Naoto is dressed in a trenchcoat, hat and trousers, and is explicitly uncomfortable with being read and perceived as female. Before the protagonist and his allies are made aware of Naoto’s gender (assigned at birth), the men express discomfort about finding Naoto ‘cute’. If the player chooses not to begin a social relationship with Naoto, this is where the problem ends. However, should one choose to do so – which is inherently encouraged due to the opportunity to acquire further abilities and Personas – a story arc begins which sees the protagonist pressure Naoto to conform to their ‘true’ identity as a woman. One particularly uncomfortable scene sees Naoto thankful that the protagonist has finally convinced them to wear a dress.

Image from omegarevolution on Youtube

There is ongoing debate in the Persona fandom as to whether or not Naoto can be considered transgender. Regardless of whether or not this distinction is made explicitly, Naoto’s anxieties about their gender presentation is highly relatable and is not immune to player interpretation and imagination. Whether or not Naoto is canonically transgender is irrelevant; what matters is that they can be perceived to be. The way gender non-conformity is treated in the Persona universe matters, as it places value on the concept itself, thereby influencing how players interpret and react to it in their lives.

Returning to Persona 5, the game again provides no opportunity for same-sex romance, and contains problematic representations of homosexuality. The first time that the player goes to the Shinjuku district with their ally Ryuji, the two are accosted by two extremely offensive gay male stereotypes, complete with limp wrists and sexualised stances. The two men talk about wanting to take Ryuji away and have their way with him, and he is kidnapped, as a joke, before the player’s eyes. Later on, Ryuji contacts the player to let them know how awful it was, and while Ryuji doesn’t reveal that he was raped or anything of the sort, he did not enjoy the time he spent with them, or having been hit on by a drag queen.

Unfortunately, these two men appear again, while the male protagonists are on the beach looking for women to hit on. The men approach Ryuji after recognising him, and demand that the (high-school aged) boys remove their clothes under their authority as ‘fashion police’. Naturally, the boys recoil in abject horror and sprint away. The gay-man-as-paedophilic-rapist trope could not have been hit more clumsily if the developers had tried. These terrible, homophobic jokes stand as a betrayal of the themes of liberation from oppression – and from abusive and predatory men – that run consistently through the game.

The only opportunity that is provided for the player to express their same-sex attraction is when ‘negotiating’ with Shadows for items, money or to absorb their power (a game mechanic brought forward and changed from Persona 1 and 2). Some Shadows, depending on their personality, are placated with vague, aggressive or joke answers. There is a chance that a Shadow will ask the player what kind of women they are into, to which “I am interested in men” is the ‘joke’ reply.

In an almost cruel irony, Persona 5 also demonstrates what could be a positive LGBT characterisation with bartender Lala Escargot, who wears striking makeup and women’s clothing. Lala is treated with warmth and respect by the protagonist, the bar’s patrons and particularly by Ohya, a possible social connection for the player.

Atlus, the developers of the Persona series, are repeat offenders in the disappointing treatment of LGBT characters. In the 2012 puzzler-platformer game Catherine, the bartender at the Stray Sheep Bar where the protagonist and his friends drink is a transgender woman named Erica. The group of men went to school with Erica, and though they all enjoy a close friendship, constant allusions are made to Erica not being a ‘real’ woman. For example, when Erica offers advice about what women do or don’t like, she is cruelly slapped down by the protagonist, who hisses something along the lines of “what would you know?” When Erica expresses interest in participating in women’s wrestling, the protagonist tells her that she would not be allowed. Erica brushes these comments off with mock threats of violence, and appears unfazed. Another otherwise fantastic game by Atlus, Catherine‘s problematic treatment of Erica will likely stick in the back of the mind of any socially-conscious or trans gamer.

Almost like clockwork, homophobic apologists materialised online to defend Persona 5 against accusations of homophobia, waving around the straw man that critics are demanding every single character to be canonically and explicitly homosexual. This is not the case, and there are several examples where characters are allowed – or even encouraged – to explore their sexuality in dignified ways. BioWare does this particularly well. The Dragon Age and Mass Effect series both allow the fluidity of sexuality, while also having characters that are canonically straight and canonically gay. The character Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition is an imperfect but positive representation of a trans man in gaming.

Image from Fluffyninjallama on Youtube

In Mass Effect 3, the previously heterosexual character Kaidan is made available for a male protagonist to romance, his shift in sexuality a testament to the long and tumultuous relationship that the two men share. In Mass Effect Andromeda, a male protagonist can hit on squadmate Liam, to which he offers a graceful ‘thanks, but no thanks’ response. In all of these games, interactions with other characters can be made romantic or platonic, depending on the wishes of the player.

Surely, it’s not that hard.

The Persona series is truly a hidden gem for gamers looking for a long, complicated and exciting story with thrilling gameplay and interesting characters. However, the developers continue to make offensive missteps in how they deal with LGBT characters. Rather than a policy of invisibility or tokenism, as is usually the case in mainstream gaming, Atlus actively chooses to make LGBT people the butt of derogatory jokes, or put them in positions which have problematic real-life consequences for the perception of queer people.

With the introduction of LGBT-friendly themes and characters, I would not hesitate to declare an installment of the Persona series among the best games ever created. However, it remains to be seen whether this will ever occur.

Persona 5 is available from EB Games.