Persona 5 and Structure
StoryScan: Weak Point
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Persona 5 (Atlus, 2016), the popular role-playing game and most recent entry in the Persona series. This essay will cover content up through the end of Persona 5‘s base game, but does not cover the extended rerelease, Persona 5: Royal. Players who have not completed Persona 5 may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
In 1996, Japanese publisher Atlus released Revelations: Persona, a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei series that would spawn its own popular franchise. Twenty years later, Atlus added the most recent addition to the Persona line: Persona 5, a role-playing game set in modern-day Tokyo starring high schoolers with incredible powers. In Persona 5, players assume the role of an unnamed protagonist nicknamed ‘Joker,’ a transfer student who was framed for a violent crime. As Joker, players gain the ability to enter illusory realms created by people’s distorted desires, and once inside, heal the darkness in their hearts. As Joker gains both allies and experience, his skills are increasingly tested by the dark desires of those around him, leading to a final bout that determines the fate of the world.
Persona 5′s story has been met with critical and commercial acclaim1, but its staggering length creates some notable weaknesses. With a base completion time of almost one hundred hours,2, Persona 5 begins to drag at the halfway mark and gets progressively more repetitive as the game goes on. While some of this is attributable to sprawling dungeons plagued by tedious mechanics3, the narrative’s structural deficiencies are also responsible for the protracted length. The third act is particularly troubled, as several story beats are repeated, resulting in a false climax. Since a false climax gives players the impression that the story has ended, this bait-and-switch saps some of the strength from the actual ending. While the actual climax is still thematically and narratively significant, the repeated beats make for an exhausting experience.
Defining the Third Act and the Climax
The first step to finding an act’s weakness is to define the boundaries of the act. Act Three, the final act in a three-act structure, begins when the protagonist pulls out of their Act Two crisis (screenwriter Blake Snyder’s All is Lost beat4) and ends with the final image. The final image is an easy one—it’s the end of the story—but the All is Lost moment takes more work to find. It’s the lowest point in the protagonist’s journey, the point where everything seems impossible, and the odds against them are higher than ever. This moment often has a feeling Blake Snyder calls ‘the whiff of death,’5 where the protagonist and the audience) are reminded of their mortality. In Persona 5, The All is Lost moment occurs when Joker is arrested and seemingly killed by a former ally, Goro Akechi. When it soon comes out that Joker is completely fine, and his death was only a trick, this marks the end of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three. Every scene from this point until the game’s ending combines to form that final act, which is where Persona 5’s most significant problems lie.
Persona 5‘s third act falls flat because of its false climax, a sequence of scenes that contains all the beats of a climax without segueing into an ending. According to Blake Snyder, the climax, also known as the finale, can be divided into five beats:6 Gathering the Team, Executing the Plan, the High Tower Surprise, Dig Deep Down, and the Execution of the New Plan. While these names are mostly self-explanatory, each one has its own definition that goes into more detail. The first beat, Gathering the Team, involves rallying all of the allied forces, including those that may have abandoned the protagonist during their low point. The second, Executing the Plan, is the initial attack against the forces of antagonism; it’s when the protagonist brings the fight to the enemy. Beat three, the High Tower Surprise, functions as a mid-point twist. As a result of this twist, the protagonist and his allies must look inside themselves and develop a new plan. This process is beat four, Dig Deep Down, and the result of their hard work is the fifth and final beat, Execution of the New Plan. Together, these beats form a sequence of scenes that mirrors an entire story arc, creating a natural segue into the final scenes.
Persona's Two Climaxes
Persona 5’s false climax begins like a true climax: after the recovery from the All-is-Lost moment. In the first beat, Gathering the Team, Joker reunites with his friends after evading death and escaping prison, all according to plan. Once the team is assembled, they target the man they believe is behind the recent disturbances in people’s hearts: Masayoshi Shido, a cabinet minister who’s planning to seize control of the country for himself. To stop him, Joker and his Phantom Thieves plan to travel inside the realm built from Shido’s desire and change his heart. Their journey through the realm of his desire fits the second beat, Executing the Plan. The third beat, the High Tower Surprise, occurs when ally-turned-traitor Akechi appears to fight them on Shido’s behalf, only to be killed by Shido in a double-cross. The twin traumas of fighting a former friend and then witnessing his death forces the Phantom Thieves to Dig Deep Down (beat four) and pull themselves together for a final bout with Shido—not just for themselves, but Akechi, too. In the final beat, Executing the New Plan, the Phantom Thieves expose Shido’s crimes to the entire world, then confront him in the realm of his desire. The battle ends when Shido is defeated, and the realm comes crumbling down, forcing the Phantom Thieves to flee. It’s a tense scene that almost costs one of Joker’s friends his life, but when all is said and done, the Phantom Thieves are triumphant. It’s the perfect segue into the closing scenes—or it would be if that were the climax.
While the Phantom Thieves’ confrontation with Shido has all the classic beats of a climax, it doesn’t answer every question the narrative asked. As a result, there are too many plot points to tie up in a denouement, putting the story in an awkward bind. Either the questions remain unanswered, resulting in an incomplete story, or the questions get answered through an extended third act, resulting in an unbalanced story. Persona 5 takes the latter route, repeating every beat of the climax in a sequence that reveals the powers behind Shido and Tokyo’s darkening hearts. After Shido’s defeat, the Phantom Thieves come together to visit another illusory realm (Gathering the Team), find another distorted heart (Execute the Plan), uncover another traitor in their midst (High Tower Surprise), escape from a distorted prison (Dig Down Deep), and fight the entity who was behind it all (Execute the New Plan). It’s a beat-for-beat match of the climactic showdown with Shido; the only difference is that when it ends, the story does, too.
Persona 5‘s story isn’t hurting for positive qualities. It’s got a compelling concept, strong characters, and thought-provoking themes. Unfortunately, its false climax increases the length of the third act beyond its reasonable limits, resulting in a back-heavy story that overstays its welcome. Writers who wish to avoid the pitfalls of Persona 5‘s dueling climaxes should take stock of what questions their story asks early on, then figure out how to answer them in the bounds of one climax. Those who don’t may find their audiences growing tired of their story in their quest to reach the end.
1 “Persona 5 – Reception.” Wikipedia, 2021.
2 “How Long is Persona 5?” HowLongtoBeat, 2021.
3 DismArchus. “Persona 5 Royal | Turned Into Mice Scenes.” YouTube, 2020.
4,5 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 86). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
6 Brody, Jessica. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (p. 67). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: SphericAlpha. “Persona 5 Playthrough/Walkthrough (No Commentary).” YouTube, 2018.