I’ve long wondered when I’d start to feel like an “older” gamer. As a kid, I swore I’d never outgrow games like Pokémon, Kingdom Hearts, and Yu-Gi-Oh—all things I’ve since fallen in and out of love with—as proof of how powerfully they informed a part of me. Pokémon was especially crucial. The first game I remember playing was Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on my uncle’s Sega Genesis, but the first I truly fell in love with was Pokémon Red; I’d seen an episode of the anime on TV and knew it would be my next obsession, and managed to get my hands on a yellow Gameboy Color featuring Pikachu and Jigglypuff.
These days, when I see people discuss Pokémon as an integral part of their childhoods, I see a lot of discussion swirling around Pokémon Emerald. It’s here that I realize the inherent schism between me and some of my peers—I’m sometimes half a decade older than them. It seems like such an insignificant difference (in many ways, it is), but with the rapidity in which the gaming industry has grown, boomed, and become a matter of ecological crisis, it’s easy to feel generations apart. When I was a kid, home consoles were still relatively new. Because of the increasing affordability of home consoles as well as the burgeoning popularity of single-player games, children were able to play videogames in the comfort of their home without having to beg for pocket change from their parents to flock to arcades with friends and strangers while waiting to use a Street Fighter II box. Videogames suddenly became a rather introverted hobby.
As videogame fans like myself slowly reached adolescence, we started to seek out edgier, angstier, and more mature games. Two of the first games of this nature I remember playing were The World Ends With You and Persona 3, both of which concern sullen teenagers coping with the myopic world of the mid-2000s. In these games, culture is depicted as existing on a hi-speed railway; it’s impossible to keep up with the thousands of faces passing you on a busy urban street. Each person’s eyes are downturned to some kind of device—a PDA, a DS, an MP3 player, or whatever else we were taken with in 2007 before Apple trapped us in a stranglehold—which broadcast news and updates from friends with an equal sense of gravitas.
I found this theming extremely evocative, something I struggled to find anywhere else. Other “young adult” media of the time seemed carefully constructed by middle-aged creators desperately trying to appeal to the youth of the era. The conversations these teens had in Smallville or Cassandra Clare novels felt too grandiloquent, too proper, and not nearly depressed enough to accurately mirror the way I felt at the time.
The games of the time, on the other hand, were unafraid to put teenage characters in situations these TV shows would shy away from. There was a level of agency attached to them. In Kingdom Hearts II and Persona 3 alike, you rarely ever see an adult, let alone a parent. In The World Ends With You the characters are dead at the start; there’s no one there to tell them how to feel, to go to school, and certainly no therapists to help mediate their unstable emotions. Later, Persona 4 would deal directly with teen traumas and the aspects of ourselves we dislike so much they become borderline septic, which lay in direct contrast to the schlocky nature teens’ emotions are handled in TV shows of the time. Contrary to their more recognizable counterparts, these games treated the problems of teens with care and attention, and despite the urban fantasy elements surrounding them, they eschewed dramatics when portraying characters at their most vulnerable.
Games meant for teens, ones that truly “speak their language,” are so vitally important. The industry seems to have become keen to just how well-received they can be, too—after the successes of Persona 4 and Life is Strange, so many games have been released concerning the quintessential teen experience, from Cibele to Ikenfell. There is no greater time to be a teen enjoying games than now, because of the great many options that represent the exact experience they are going through. There’s also no better time for a game like NEO The World Ends With You, the much awaited follow up to The World Ends With You, to finally be available.
NEO The World Ends With You is a wonderful game, and may have done the impossible: it allowed me to put to rest my teenage years, and realize I know longer have to revisit high school over and over again in the games I play. There’s a deep veracity to the way in which the teenagers act in NEO; they aren’t just teens, but Gen Z teens. If they have a question, they know Googling it is quicker than asking. They meet friends through Pokémon Go-esque app games, and react to weird things happening on the streets as if they’re witnessing an ARG or bizarre street promo in action. They communicate through LINE stickers and dress like the characters from their favorite manga. There’s a ton of care put in to making them actually feel like the teens of today—far more than, say, Persona 5, where the characters text in proper grammar, treat their very online friend like an anomaly, and, in its Strikers spinoff, react to social media as if they’re encountering it for the first time.
I enjoyed Persona 5 the first time through because it had people like me in mind. I’m a young millennial, one who was a preteen when Persona 3 released. Persona 5’s writing of teens failed to evolve with the times; at every juncture, the characters feel like flaccid attempts to capture Gen Z kids. They, in a way, feel like those CW shows where a writers room full of older men struggled to figure out how teens might actually talk, interact with each other, and react to the drama of high school.
But NEO helped me realize it wasn’t just the writing of Persona 5 that made me so uncomfortable with following along with these teen stories. NEO is largely about youth culture, and that’s not something I can wholly relate to anymore. I don’t need another story about teens figuring out their place in the world because I’ve lived through that experience so many times already. I enjoy NEO, but I grew to view the characters more as cute kids than anyone I relate to beyond that.
Even when faced with what may be the current peak of “games for teens,” I feel alienated and unseen. I yearn for the same kind of care attached to the emotional weight of teendom but for 20 somethings and older, like in, say, Yakuza: Like a Dragon or Disco Elysium. But mostly I don’t know what I want at all from games anymore—being caught in the lurch of your mid 20s while seeing how the swiftly necrotizing gaming industry only adds to the environmental, spiritual, and political woes of our current landscape further distances me from the medium as a whole. Even if it’s not for me, though, I’m happy to pass the torch of optimistic teendom to the next generation. I’m glad a game like NEO exists, and I hope kids feel seen when they play it like I did back in the day playing Persona 3.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire