Where animation can excel as a medium for adaptation in a way live-action visual media cannot is in copying aesthetics or creating them; this allows for visual experimentation in a way which goes beyond attempting to recreate a character’s appearance and instead permits an exact visual replication of a world. The adaptation into television animé format of the video game Persona 4 provides a clear example of this total recreation – the first two episodes begin with very precise reproductions of the settings and characters of the game permitting all the stylisation which defines it to be recreated. This level of aesthetic faithfulness immediately establishes the series as an adaptation focused on recreating, if not the plot’s exact progress, but the entire experience of playing Persona 4.
This is arguably the best way of adapting a video game to a non-interactive medium; Persona 4, like a game like Mass Effect transpired to be, is a game where the player’s choices influence incidental details key to the gameplay experience along the path of a fixed story with a fixed endpoint. Thus while these incidental choices – and the responses to them – are one of the main draws of the game, the other is the entire aesthetic and how it contributes to the telling of the common story. To all intent, Persona 4 The Animation sets out its premise in the very first episode aesthetically; it recreates the entire experience of playing Persona 4 in a non-interactive form. This would not work if the recreation was an inexact one; the adaptation to television already takes one of the pillars of the game’s appeal away in removing the choices and so much more emphasis is placed on those that remain. Obviously, as the choice elements are removed, the version of the story being told is not a definitive one but instead one of many – something which gives the adaptation a different kind of appeal to someone who has played to someone who has not. Seeing one presentation of a story they are familiar with and comparing it to their own experience is a natural kind of extension of the way in which games foster conversation and are memorable. What defines the lasting opinion of a game is incidental detail and the potential for randomness and different experiences that individual players might have, especially as the trend for choice in games becomes more focused on creating decision points that are superficial in the long run yet seem significant immediately.
Thus Persona 4 The Animation appeals to fans of the game as a sequence of familiar scenes – backgrounds such as the flood plain footpath, or the department store’s electronics display or even just a school corridor are infused with significance because they are such precise reproductions of common areas of the game. What it does not so much do, though, is assume that familiarity is present. The pace of the adaptation is much faster than the game’s simply by virtue of the use of a different, continuous medium. A game must progress at the speed of the player – a rate driven by their reading speed, skill at the game and capacity to solve puzzles. By contrast, a television series divides itself differently to a sequence of play sessions and focuses more on narrative chapters than anything else. Each of the first two episodes of Persona 4 The Animation focuses on one “chapter” of the game; the period between one plot development and the next, retaining how comprehensive and expository this must be for setting up the plot and future mysteries while removing the significant investment a game requires in explaining its mechanics. It is in this way that the other appeal of the adaptation shows through; by focusing entirely on the plot (what is ultimately the result of the choices made via the game mechanics) it is, as described above, depicting one possible playthrough – a kind of intruiging unpredictability in a predictable frame. A player of Persona 4 watching the adaptation has a different set of mysteries presented to them to someone unfamiliar with the overarching story. A new viewer will watch and wonder what is going on with the main story of vanishing people in a small town. A fan of the game will watch knowing what the mystery is and looking for the places where this retelling will differ from their experience.
What makes the visual aspect of this adaptation particularly interesting, above the simple reproduction of the stylised characters and familiar locations, is how it copies the visual language of the game’s user interface. Part of the appeal of the Persona games is their style (which extends beyond the specific style of character and scene depiction into a visually unified and atypical design for menus and combat animations) and in order to communicate this in a non-interactive medium (which will not have the user-interface needs of a computer game) these stylistic touches must be applied to the requirements of television. In the case of Persona 4 The Animation this comes from credit sequences and ad-break transitions that use the trademark visuals of the game, as well as scene transitions using the iconic calendar graphic that separates in-game days. This is not wholly pervasive, and much of the structure of an episode is that of a regular television series, but its presence provides continual reminders to fans that this is an adaptation of the game. Furthermore, the fight choreography, while not an exact replication of the game’s strategic combat mechanics (which are by definition concessions to gamism over cinematic combat) uses the visual language of the game’s battle animations; cutins, closeups and gestures contribute to the Persona “experience” that the entire series tries to foster across media.
To conclude, Persona 4 The Animation establishes itself from the start as a comprehensive adaptation; it does not seek to retell the game’s story in a different medium so much as to reproduce the entire game experience in music, aesthetic and even structure at times. This is primarily appealing to fans of the game who will see the parallels and appreciate them while also enjoying the unfolding mystery of how this invisible, artificial “player” is directing his own Persona 4 experience – yet it also gives the series a unique and eye-catching style that in its challenges to the usual traditions of television gives it an aesthetic appeal to outsiders.