Be warned: this editorial contains heavy spoilers for Perona 4 Golden.
When you get about three quarters of the way through the year in Perona 4, a big event happens. You catch the guy, Namatame, who has been throwing people into the TV world in an attempt to "save" them (they actually die if you don't rescue them in time), and dear sister Nanako is knocking on death's door in the hospital after her trip into fantasy land.
And then Nanako dies. You and your group of heroic friends are thrown into a rage, and you go to confront Namatame, who is being held at the same hospital because he is crazy and sick. You all surround him, and you debate tossing him into the TV in his room in order to enact justice. Namatame, meanwhile, claims innocence.
At this point, the story branches, and it appears as though you have two options. The first option is to toss Namatame into the TV, as your friends suggest. I didn't want to do that, because it was pretty obvious that there were more layers to this situation than we could see then.
So I tried to talk my friends down, and after much hand-wringing I succeeded, and we left Namatame to the police. We returned to Nanako's room to discover that she had been revived but was still very ill. We leave, and then the game skips ahead three months to my last day in town, and the game ended. This is called the "neutral ending."
But it hardly felt neutral to me. Though Nanako lived, the serial murder plot was left unresolved, and we did not find out who the real mastermind was. I have never been more crushed by a game in my life.
The developers of this game could have given you a "game over" screen when you don't figure out the plot at the appropriate time, much like what happens when you fail to rescue a main character from the TV world before he or she is killed. But instead they decided that failing in this way would be a proper ending.
And I love it.
It makes me think back to Heavy Rain. I strongly dislike that game, in general, but I love how it allows you to screw up and force you to face the consequences. At my ending for that game, two of the playable characters were dead and the antagonist got away as a result.
And here we were in Persona 4, facing a similar situation. My inability to come right out and say, "Hey, we need to find the mastermind here," led to an unsatisfying ending. This ending didn't come about because of an active choice I made, but rather because I messed up in a key moment.
Some folks like to use gaming as an escape mechanism, and games of that sort are just fine and dandy, but I love it when a game gives me the chance to make a lasting error. Black Ops II's awesome set pieces are very memorable, but it sticks in my mind because the narrative punishes you for not being perfect.
I eventually went back into Persona 4 in order to correct my mistake, but I didn't really want to. I wanted, rather, to have to live with what had happened. I wanted to have to go on with my life with this incredible sense of disappointment. That disappointment will make this game stick in my head for far longer than it would had I done everything right on the first try.
I want games to give me the chane to fail in a tangible way, rather than have the consequences simply be a screen asking me if I want to reload a checkpoint. Make more games like that, developers.
Dare to make an unsatisfying experience.