Warning: I'm about to talk about something that, by necessity, requires significantly spoiling the video game Persona 4. As in, this is a mystery story, and I'm giving away the murderer. If you haven't played the game, and ever want to experience it the way you're meant to (and you should, it's excellent), read no further. Otherwise, meet me after the jump.
So, Persona 4 Golden, the expanded re-release of 2008's Persona 4, came out in Japan last week (it's set for release in the US in October). The new game adds a bunch of features - a new character, new events, sound tests, all the sort of stuff you'd expect in a "Director's Cut" style re-release. It also adds a new Social Link to the existing cast: Tohru Adachi.
In the game, Adachi is your police detective uncle's bumbling assistant. He's clumsy, he's funny, he's a little dim. Despite appearing throughout the game, he's a relatively minor character - occasionally sharing a dinner with your family at night, offering tiny amounts of help to your team when he can be bothered. Good-natured comic relief, essentially.
He's also a bitter, narcissistic, nihilistic murderer, the human face of the deadly mystery that plagues the small, fog-shrouded town of Inaba and drives the game's plot.
P4 is a game about finding the truth, about pushing your way through lies and apathy to find the reality within. Adachi's facade is the (pen*)ultimate representation of this theme. He has to be directly accused of his crimes before his true self begins to bleed through (and that accusation takes the form of picking the murderer's identity out of a list of all the town's named inhabitants on precious few clues- and this is no "But Thou Must" scenario; wrong choices in that moment lead to the game's worst ending). This is AFTER you've already realized that the obvious suspect you've been pursuing for the previous few hours is a red herring being manipulated by the real killer.
Adachi is a liar. An expert at hiding his true thoughts from the people around him. Which begs the question - how the hell can you have a Social Link with him?
Social Links are one of the key narrative devices of the recent Persona games. They represent an emotional bond between the Protagonist and another person, and strengthen as the relationship deepens. Each is associated with a major arcana of the tarot, and Links confer additional power when fusing Personas of their associated arcana (the idea being that Personas, as weaponized aspects of the Protagonist's personality, become more powerful as his connections to others and emotional strengths increase). The progress of Social Links differs from character to character - each is essentially a short story about the growth of a friendship - but they tend to share one key trait: an increase in understanding.
Adachi is, by design, beyond understanding for the majority of the game. It is vital to the game's theme of having to fight like hell to find the truth that his mask have as few cracks in it as possible; a Social Link that preempitively hinted at the cold hatred he hides would weaken one of the game's great twists - and one of its most important challenges. But at the same time, a Social Link with the false, bumbling Adachi calls the entire Social Link system into question.
In both Persona 3 and 4, the Social Links have been portrayed as REAL - a tangible force derived from authentic emotions. In both games, in fact, it is the power derived from these links that gives the Protagonist the ability to overcome overwhelming odds when faced with nigh-omnipotent antagonists. A link in which one of the participants is lying at every moment, secretly seething with contempt for the world around him, seems to run entirely counter to one of the series' key themes: that the only force that can stand against the inevitability of death (P3) or the impossibility of ever truly knowing something (P4) is friendship, and the honest bonds that form between people.
Of course, all of this might be hand-wringing for nothing. Not speaking Japanese, I haven't played Persona 4 Golden. And there are ways an Adachi Social Link could be done well - perhaps using the discrepancies I pointed out here to present the player with a link that is broken by design, an interesting divergence from the idea that every person you meet is capable of becoming your soulmate. Maybe the Persona 4 team will blow me away - after all, they're the ones who put together all these themes and concepts in the first place.
But more likely, we'll disappointingly get something that fundamentally redefines Adachi's character - showing that, hey, he really does have a heart after all! (My guess - the Social Link actions all take place with the "bumbler" Adachi, but the kindness you show him will make him slightly nicer once he reveals his true self.) Reports that people with a high Adachi Social Link will be able to destroy the evidence of his crimes and let him go free (as Michael (aka @patchworkearth) pointed out on Twitter, a huge "fuck you!" to the entire point of the game) don't leave me feeling especially confident.
* I can't believe I left Persona 4's final, nasty trick out of my piece on Games That Lie - after defeating Adachi, and the mystic force empowering him, the player is presented with a full, complete ending. All of the characters have moments of closure, the majority (but not, tellingly, all) of the game's mysteries are answered and resolved. And once you've said goodbye to all your friends in Inaba, you're asked if you're ready to leave.
If you choose to leave, the ending sequence has no note of sadness or incompletion. You get on a train, ride away, and it's happily ever after. Except... you'll never know why all this REALLY started. The only way to reach the game's TRUE ending is to reject this apparent closure, turn back around, and keep asking questions. Persona 4 isn't as thematically perfect as Persona 3, but damn, does it have its moments.