If you were to ask me when I came out as a gay man, then I’d probably have to ask you to be more specific. I spent my high school years out and proud among my classmates and my siblings, so my final years in public education were filled with a series of coming out stories. But the point where it was something I could acknowledge publicly and on social media came after my high school graduation when I came out to my parents.
What finally prompted me telling my mother I was attracted to men wasn’t just a desire to be true to myself in my home, but a frustration at her assumptions. When she spoke of my future, she would make references to a wife I was never going to have and she was the only person in my life who still imagined this distorted future. Over time, what she thought were harmless discussions became tiresome, as she projected expectations onto my life that would never come to pass.
It’s for this reason that Persona 5, a game I otherwise adore, has flashes of painful memories associated with it. For all of the game’s underlying themes of breaking through the shackles of societal norms, Persona 5 feels like a game made for straight men actively pushing people like me, who deviate from the status quo, away.
I tend to play as malleable protagonists with a self-insert mindset. While I’m more than happy to play games with a defined player character, if I’m given agency and the ability to nudge the story in different directions, then I naturally project a piece of myself onto them. Series like Mass Effect and Fable come to mind, ones that allowed me to make my character a representation of myself in more than just appearance and morality, but in who they were pursuing romantically.
Persona 5 focuses heavily on not only romantic connection, but also on a camaraderie among its core cast. The group of high school kids the game follows, the Phantom Thieves, are all brought together by tragedy and a desire to see justice realized against corrupt authority figures. The game does a fantastic job of selling that this cast loves each other like a family, and most of the time I felt like a part of that family, not like I was on the outside looking in.
But every now and then, the topic of romance came up, bringing out the same assumptions about my version of Joker, the protagonist, that prompted my coming out: everyone in this game assumed I was straight, and those expectations infected conversations like a disease. I couldn’t get rid of them no matter how many times I picked dialogue options that said I wasn’t interested.
Characters in Persona 5 don’t even leave room for interpretation when it comes to discussing your character’s romantic inclinations. My cranky caregiver Shojiro asked me several times if I had a girlfriend, and made snarky comments when I had a female party member at the house. Despite my assuring him nothing was going on, he still made his jokes. Haru, one of the Phantom Thieves, asked me if I had ever been in love; when I told her I had, she said she was jealous of not only me, but the woman she assumed was the subject of my affection. Photojournalist Ichiko Ohya and fellow Phantom Thief Makoto Nijima both forced me to pretend to be their boyfriend in order to progress our friendship, without even asking my permission or if I was comfortable and willing to do that.
Tragically enough, the character who is the greatest offender of this is the one I was referring to when Haru asked if me if I’d ever been in love: Ryuji Sakamoto. Cast as Joker’s best friend, Ryuji is undoubtedly the most adamant about prying into his love life. Within some of Persona 5’s earliest conversations, the dopey delinquent asked my opinion on the women of the game, as well as tried to rope me into his schemes to pick up girls at various points, and every time he did, I could only choose to tell him I wasn’t interested. This never led to Ryuji asking why I wasn’t interested, he was just annoyed that I refused to go along with his locker room talk.
Prior to the game’s launch, I was hopeful that Atlus would include gay romantic options this time around, a feature that has been absent from the series since Persona 2. However, when the closest the developer got to allowing me to tell Ryuji that my version of Joker loved him was with the repeated implication that I wasn’t interested in women, I felt I didn’t fit into the narrative that Persona 5 spins. It wants me out by any means necessary. It’s one of the few times a game not only went out of its way to not include me, but actively tried to push me out.
I couldn’t express myself in Persona 5 at all, but when characters existoutside of the game’s heteronormative spectrum, they’re treated as a joke. A gay couple appears twice in the game, and both times they’re portrayed as stereotypical and lecherous. The punchline of the thread is when they find me and Ryuji on a beach after our first encounter and order us to strip as music typically reserved for the game’s dramatic sequences plays in the background. Persona 5 isn’t content to just make me feel like I can’t be myself in its world, but it shows me it views me at best as a joke and at worst something revolting to be feared.
This fear of gay men and male intimacy Persona 5 perpetuates extends into my friendships with the two characters I would have been more than happy to have Joker enter into a romantic relationship with given the chance:Ryuji and the gun salesman, Munehisa Iwai. Both of them are afraid to be seen in public alone with me, as they’re worried passersby would believe we were a couple, an experience I became all too familiar with in high school, as some friends in my small southern hometown wouldn’t even show platonic affection toward me for fear of how it would be perceived.
Ultimately, when Persona 5 reached Valentine’s Day, when most players would see the culmination of whatever romantic relationship they pursued, I was, surprisingly enough, visited by Ryuji. I sat across the table at a diner from him, the character who both bombarded me with Persona’s heteronormative views and acted as my imaginary love interest throughout the Phantom Thieves’ adventure, and, for a moment, I thought Atlus was going to throw me a bone. After taking every opportunity to turn down the women who’d been pushed upon me for 100 hours of play, I thought I might get the chance to pursue a gay relationship in Persona 5’s final hour. But as Ryuji lamented about his lack of a companion, all I was able to do was comfort him, joke around and even ask if his visiting on Valentine’s Day of all days was a confession. He promptly said no.
Series like Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Fallout have all let me play as a character not unlike who I am now: a confident, unapologetic gay man who could express those feelings without fear of judgement. Persona 5 is the first time in a while that I had to play a character more along the lines of who I was: one who let others’ expectations of me go unchallenged, laughed off comments about who I was going to be, and winced a little bit every time the boy I had a crush on commented on the women he admired. Persona 5 presents itself as a story about freedom and liberation from the shackles of society, but when it counted, I felt more bound by this world’s expectations than I felt free of them. My time as Joker reminded me of what it felt like to be back in the closet and that doesn’t sound like a Phantom Thief at all, does it?
Kenneth Shepard is a Georgia-based freelancer who cries about video game characters in public places and on Twitter @shepardcdr. Along with Paste, you can find his work at GamesRadar+ and CGMagazine.