The UI and UX of Persona 5
Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There
Last week, I read Charlie Deets’s in-depth UX analysis of the seminal Breath of the Wild. I was impressed with his take, and wondered why someone hadn’t applied the same lens to the stylish, recently-released Playstation RPG, Persona 5. While plenty of (virtual) ink has been spilled about the game — Eurogamer scratched the surface by writing about the game’s beautiful menus and I touched on design elements in my import review — it doesn’t seem anything has been written from the perspective of UI or UX designers.
A few notes before we dive in. First, writing this article is a learning exercise for me, and isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review. Even the few elements of Persona 5 I chose to focus on cover a lot of ground. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Second, I played the Japanese version of the game when it came out in September, so my analysis is mostly focused on that version of the game. For example I’ll touch on how English and Japanese text are combined in the Japanese release. However, I’ll also discuss the English typography of the U.S. release. Since I haven’t played the U.S. release, though, in most cases I’ll be referring to game concepts by translations of their Japanese names.
Third, when I envisioned this article, it was only focused on UX, but Persona 5’s UI is so compelling and often so intertwined with its usability, that it became an important part of the article as well.
Finally, since part of my objective in writing about Persona 5 is spread the gospel of Persona to designers, I’ll avoid narrative spoilers, especially beyond the game’s first dungeon.
Developed by Atlus, Persona 5 is a standard Japanese RPG —the meat of the game is in a turn and menu based battle system like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Persona’s claim to fame is its juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic; the player-avatar, a Japanese high-school student, balances everyday tasks like classes and part-time jobs, with battling fantastic demons (the titular persona) based on creatures from world mythology and folklore.
Visually, if Breath of the Wild is a Studio Ghibli film, Persona 5 is more like anime, though a stylish anime, like Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo. Despite the evolution in art and technology, it shares this aesthetic, and emphasis on style, with the previous two Persona games. Each game also emphasizes certain thematic colors in its interface.
For Persona 3, the narrative theme of isolation, learning to depend on others, and ultimately of sacrifice, is expressed in blue throughout the menu system.
The re-release of Persona 3, Persona 3 Portable introduced an optimistic female protagonist, and a pink UI that reflected her personality.
Persona 4, also a more optimistic game, expressed its world view in a bright yellow color scheme. Indeed, the Playstation Vita re-release of the game was titled Persona 4: The Golden.
In Persona 5, the narrative is modeled on the picaresque novel, adventure stories about rogues (indeed, it overtly references those characters, including Carmen, Arsene Lupin, and Zorro among others). The main characters of Persona 5 assert their individualism by “stealing” the hearts of their victims. They do so by entering a shadow version of the real-world and finding treasure locked in the hearts of their targets. Ultimately, the stakes encompass the battle between order and anarchy, which is manifested in the disparity between the main character’s real-life persona as a mousey high school student and his secret identity as the brash leader of the games heroes, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. These themes are represented by red throughout the game.
Both the red/white/black color scheme and the punk-influenced English font seems to recall both ransom notes (the Phantom Thieves) and amatuer punk magazines (individuality and anarchy).
By means of comparison here are a few punk fanzines from the 1980s. Persona 5’s reference to that style — and the connections to “anarchy” and individualism — is obvious.
Overall, Persona 5 threads a fine needle. Its roots as a strongly menu-based Japanese RPG are clear, but the developer’s confidence in those established conventions allow the game freedom to have a bold and stylish interface that simultaneously encourage player engagement and reinforce its themes.
Freedom and Security: Analyzing the Battle Screen
A standard menu-based Japanese RPG, Persona 5 has more in-common with a game like Final Fantasy VII than an action RPG like Breath of the Wild. The menu based systems for battle and other gameplay was common in early Japanese RPGs like Dragon Quest (1986).
These menus didn’t change much in later RPGs like Final Fantasy VII (1997). On Final Fantasy VII’s battle screen players use the direction pad to move up and down in the menu, generally with their left hands, their position represented by the finger cursor. The player chooses a command by pressing a button (circle in Japan, cross in the U.S.) on the right-side of the controller. In some ways using the d-pad (or later, thumbstick) to move up or down a menu is a pretty natural motion, but it does hide some functionality.
Even Persona 5’s immediate predecessor, Persona 4 (2008), has a battle menu operationally similar to Final Fantasy VII, even if it’s more visually appealing.
In Persona 5, battles are also conducted through menus, but they look drastically different. It’s a theme we will see through the game — Persona 5 doesn’t re-invent existing Japanese RPGs conventions, but instead uses elements of design — typography, layout, color, animation — to improve the user experience and support the game’s themes. The screenshot below is a battle scene similar to that of Final Fantasy, but the difference in how the game chooses to display the same information is immediately obvious.
For example, instead of using the direction pad to cycle through menu choices, the game attaches one battle command (Order, Gun, Persona, Item, Sword, and Guard) to a button on the Playstation controller, which are all displayed on-screen. The button glyphs are even color-coded to the actual Playstation 4 controller. While the controls are complex, this is classic Don’t Make Me Think. In an ideal situation, the user wouldn’t have to think at all about what button to press, but failing that, the game makes it clear, with minimal cognitive load, what to press in order to access each command.
Persona isn’t the first game to do this. Action games had button prompts for QTE events, and a few RPGs, including Super Mario RPG (1996), displayed button prompts on their battle screens. However, it’s still not a common feature, and few games have implemented it as stylishly as Persona 5.
The direction pad (left and right) is used to choose a target. The current selection is marked by the red gun target overlay, which makes it clear which enemy is being targeted, further reinforced by the Lv 2 — Enemy Description (literally “The Young Lady Tempting You Astray,” an apt description for the Pixie, which is described as luring people away with her voice).
Compare this to Persona 4, which mostly resembles Final Fantasy, even though there are more hints and explanations. The Persona 5 screenshot is more complex, in that it adds a “Gun” command, which wasn’t present Persona 4 (or Persona 3). The command adds a new damage type, and contributes to the picaresque “Phantom Thieves” theme of the game, so is likely worth the additional complexity. There are clear moves to simplify the menu too, though; the Persona 5 menu condenses Persona 4’s menu by hiding commands like Tactics and Escape under an overarching Order command.
While the button graphics are attached to each command throughout the game, with no option to turn them off, perhaps the best endorsement of Persona 5’s battle menu is that it eventually fades into the background (as one would expect in an one-hundred-plus hour game).
In the Japanese, the game also features explanatory text under the English command (the English version does the same, with an English explanation). For example, under Item, the explanatory text is “アィテムを使う" literally “use an item.” It’s pretty basic, almost more a translation than an explanation.
English speakers may wonder why the game would use the English text at all. Like bad French t-shirts or kanji tattoos in the U.S., in Japanese, English has a certain cachet. Using English in these menus makes further emphasizes how stylish it is (and particularly recalls those punk fanzines). Additionally, English education is mandatory in middle and high school, so while overall English ability in Japan isn’t great, most Japanese can sound out simple words, which is exactly what Atlus asks the player to do here.
You can see from the screenshots that some of the English is (charitably) non-standard. Order is probably better standardized as “Orders” and “Sword” refers not only to swords but other character weapons (bats, whips, knives) and may be better in English as “Weapon” or “Melee.” The game eventually opens a feature allowing the player to “Baton Touch” another character on their turn. The English version of this phrase is “baton pass,” which is what the English localization uses.
Similarly winning a persona over as an ally during a battle surfaces this wasei-Eigo (Engrish), “Persona Get.”
That said, these phrases are less of a concern for Japanese speakers. The English text is almost decorative for Japanese users. Additionally, some phrases like “Baton Touch” or “X Get” are standard in Japanese, as in the screenshot from Super Mario Sunshine (2002), below.
Like its predecessor, Persona 5 displays the characters on your team, their health and magic on the battle screen. This is vital information for the risk-vs-reward game of attacking and defending against enemies. Compared to Persona 4, Persona 5 simplifies this information, especially the character portraits, by making them smaller and black-and-white (which further makes them resemble those fanzines pictured above). The color scheme also makes the health point or HP (turquoise) and magic points or MP (pink) pop off the screen. The graphics change shape and are larger for active characters, so the game efficiently conveys a lot of information in those small images.
That essential information is different from information the game wants to hide from the player. For example, enemies in Persona are weak to specific elements, but that information isn’t immediately obvious when you first face an enemy. Instead, much of the gameplay revolves around finding the right element. In the animation below, it’s clear the enemies are weak against fire once they’re hit with a fire spell. The enemy characters change position, and the “Weak” text, outlined in bright red, contrasts against the dark screen.
One other thing to note from the screenshot above: the menus feel light weight. It may be hard to tell from the GIF, but the animation is buttery smooth (check this Youtube video to see it in action) and the fact the menus are translucent overlays keep them from feeling like a heavy distraction from the battle itself. In games like Persona 5, players live in the menus, so it’s vital they don’t feel obstruct the view or distract from the gameplay.
A final point about Persona 5’s battle screen is to reiterate how it reinforces the Phantom Thieves theme. Each command is highlighted in red, the game’s overarching thematic color, and the English text looks like ransom note text. As noted already, the text and character portraits below looks like they could have been taken out of one the punk magazines above.
Another common screen in Japanese RPGs is the post-battle victory screen which displays the experience, money, and items the player gained. Here’s a typical version from Final Fantasy VI (1994).
Persona 5 has a similar screen, but like the battle screen, animation, color, and an innovative layout make the screen look and feel different than the typical victory screen. The red theme runs throughout, and the yellow pops on the otherwise dark colors, making the important information (experience, money, and items gained) obvious.
The version above is after an “All-Out Attack”, while the one below is after a standard victory. Note that the bottom animation shows all the party-members who participated in the battle, in addition to the post-battle loot. One of the coolest thing is that this screen animates seamlessly back into the game’s action. It’s really a beautiful, informative, and visually engaging reinterpretation of a standard Japanese RPG screen.
Break it Down: Menu Systems
The choices we see in Persona 5’s battle screen are consistent through the game’s other menus. This is especially important for three reasons: the consistency supports the game’s narrative and color themes, like most Japanese RPGs a lot of the game takes place in the menus, and the menus are where the game’s UX and UI goals seem most in opposition.
Let’s take a look at the menu. First, the typography, layout, and black and white images all recall the punk fanzines we saw above. It’s interesting to note that the menu choices here are also all in English, without the immediate explanatory text. It still exists though, as you cycle through the entries, under “Command” (here again, it’s pretty basic — “スキルを使用” or “use a skill”).
The menu itself seems very busy. The left side shows the current gameplay, overlaid with the game’s thematic crimson. The right side features art of the main character, the health and magic points graphic we saw on battle screen.
Down the middle, the actual list of action breaks several typographic rules. It’s not easy to read (character size isn’t consistent, characters in the same word can differ dramatically), and other than the fact the lists goes from top to bottom, there isn’t a lot of hierarchy to show what’s most important. The clutter on the screen, the legibility of the font, and the relatively simple color scheme seem problematic from a UX perspective.
The menu takes some steps to make it clear what’s important. Like in the battle screens, animation helps emphasize the important part section, the menu list). In the animation below, the protagonist literally slams the menu into the center of the screen (and by doing also furthers his own punk cred — “Don’t Look at Me Like That” indeed).
The menus also visually display the subject matter. Above, the player goes into the “Gun” menu, and the game displays the protagonist with a gun in a slick animation. Other menus that involve your fellow party-members and cooperation partners (non-playable characters in the game that feature in their own side stories) show black and white art of each character, making it immediately obvious who the menu pertains to. The example below shows Morgana’s menu, and like the Gun menu, the animation is lovely.
Note also that the screen has a few button prompts for actions; the ones at the bottom of the screen reference the Playstation buttons, again colored the same as the physical controller. The prompt near the top of the screen for left and right on the directional pad highlights the buttons to press to move back and forth in this menu.
In this main menu, it’s clear that “the rules” are less important than a fluid, dynamic menu that ultimately proves usable.
Another example of the potential friction between design and usability is the System sub-menu, which moves the main menu to the left and the Japanese explanatory text to the bottom. From a pure usability perspective, moving the menu is more confusing for the player, but it also helps contribute a sense of dynamism.
This screen also uses an animation to change scenes (and likely cover loading the next screen). My issue here is that Data Save is likely the most used entry on the menu, but is second from the bottom. If I were to make a guess, the entries go from least impactful (story review, the tutorial system) to more (loading or saving the game, returning to the title screen), but even under that logic saving the game seems less impactful than reloading saved data (which would cause you to lose any unsaved data).
However it is conventional to keep the Return to Title menu item at the bottom, and to group save and load functions near it, so ultimately the placement makes some sense, but I would have liked an easier way to make the most useful entry the default one.
Despite UX concerns, from a narrative perspective these menus are brilliant. In a battle between order and anarchy, with your player-avatar representing individualism the menu is possibly the game’s most obvious reference to the punk fanzines that promoted anarchy (or at least looked the part). The dynamic text and animation contribute to the energy of the game itself.
Overall, the menus aren’t as illegible as they may initially seem, and a lot of the design decisions reinforce the game’s narrative. There are, however, some areas where usability could be improved without compromising the those narrative points.
There’s one interesting localization point from another menu — the persona subscreen, which lists information about the game’s hundreds of persona monsters. Along the top, the screen lists the attacks and magic elements each persona is strong and weak against.
In the Japanese version of the game those icons can switch between kanji for each element (above) and icons (below). The English version removed the ability to switch to the kanji icons. While more or less useless for most people playing the game in English, for a game set in Tokyo, it does seem a chance for more verisimilitude was lost.
Big Bang Burger March: Shopping in Persona 5
Charlie discussed the shopping experience in Breath of the Wild; that game allows your character to move from item to item in (the game’s) physical space, something I was initially confused by, because most RPGs, including Persona 5, handle shopping differently. The player character initiates a conversation with the shopkeeper character, and choose items to buy or sell from a menu. Here again, Persona 5 doesn’t re-invent the systems pioneered by its hallowed forebearers, but it does amp the stylishness to eleven.
Unlike previous Persona games, you can strike up cooperation relationships with some of the shopkeepers in Persona 5, meaning that talking to them opens you up to several possible actions. Take the weapons shop, a military goods seller in Shibuya as an example. The menu below opens when you talk to Iwai and choose the shopping option.
Here, the player has the option of buying standard weapons, guns, armor/clothing, and accessories.
Despite how bold and stylish the shopping menu is, many elements make it easier to use. For example, the amount of money you have, an important attribute in any shop, is constantly visible in the right-corner. The English explanation of the shop is clear in the upper-left corner. The animation between it and the next explanation (“BUY WEAPON”) helps establish the relationship between each step. And like the main menu we discussed above, each menu is broken up by character (since each weapon, gun, and arm can only be purchased for a specific character (the dog tags list each party member’s name), while accessories can be used by multiple characters.
Notice also how the menu reinforces information about Iwai. The large black and white animation of the character reinforces what menu the player is in, and what they’re doing. The military stencil typeface, dog tags, and even the radar overlay and animation help reinforce the idea of Iwai as a shady dealer of military equipment. It all screams “you’re buying weapons!”
The game makes another smart move in the weapon shop menu — it changes the overall color scheme depending on what you’re doing. Buying items, the most common action, is in green, and reinforces the shop’s reputation as a military shop. On the other hand, buying custom guns, shows up as red, while selling items overlays in yellow.
I do wish the game used character art in some of these submenus, like it does in the main menu. Likely, art of the character would interfere with the graphic of the shopkeeper here, but would make it more clear who you’re shopping for. The game does prominently display each character’s names on the dog tags, however.
Compare the Persona 5 weapons shop to the one in Persona 4, which is essentially a static menu, though an attractive one.
Shopping for black market medicine with Tae Takemi, the punk-rock neighborhood doctor, is a similar experience. There’s no need for character specific art, since the items she sells can be used by anyone in your party. Ultimately Tae’s menu is less complex than Iwai’s, but it makes clear what you’re doing (アィテムを買う or buy an item is displayed prominently in a heavy Japanese font with blue highlights), how many of an item you already have, and how much money you have on hand. The animation is stylish, and draws you in, even late into this long game.
New Beginning: New Users
Persona 5 is a contradictory game. If, like me, you’ve been playing menu-based Japanese RPGs since the jurassic period, it makes total sense, and in fact, Persona 5 does very little fundamentally different from those games. On the other hand, if the the player hasn’t play many of those games, Persona 5 can be confusing (and with the game’s popularity since it’s U.S. release, it seems likely that many people will be playing this genre for the first time).
An additional complication for me in assessing the game’s accessibility is that this is the first Persona game I played entirely in Japanese (other than Persona 4: Dancing All Night, which was a much simpler game).
That said, the game has a number of features to ease new players into the fray, especially at the beginning of the game. It starts with a tutorial on basic movement and battle, and incentivises the player by starting the narrative at pivotal moment in media res.
The gameplay gets more complex from that initial tutorial, but the game has a few methods of aiding the player. As new complexities are added to the basics, the game pops up modal dialogue boxes, like the one below (a video example from an early battle is available here on YouTube). These dialogue boxes can be a several pages long and often include helpful screenshots.
Moreover, Morgana, the cat-like cat burglar who joins your party early in the game offers advice, especially during battle, in text dialogue that is also spoken out loud (you can see Morgana and its dialogue across the top of several battle screenshots above).
The downside, especially for those of us familiar with the Persona-series structure, is that much of the first dungeon and even into the second, there is little freedom. In the grand course of the game (again, over one-hundred hours) it’s not that much time, but it does feel restricting. Certainly the game’s process of onboarding new players is not as seamless and invisible as the learning curve in Breath of the Wild, which thoughtfully teaches the player game mechanics without even appearing to (itself a reinvention compared to the last few The Legend of Zelda games).
Persona 5 has a few other minor features that help new players. As a non-native speaker of Japanese, the ability to roll back through previous dialogue and even have it respoken was extremely useful. As shown in the main menu screen above, there’s also the ability to access information from the tutorial, and to review the story so far. The latter feature is especially useful for anyone who has that have put down an RPG, come back after a while, and completely forgotten the story.
Unfamiliar Anger: User Hostile “Features”
It’s clear that the developers of Persona 5 thought deeply about making the game more accessible for players by improving the established conventions of the Japanese RPG. However, there are elements in the game that make the game harder for players.
Some of these obstacles are “game” features, like hiding enemy weakness. It’s counterintuitive coming from a SaaS worldview, but sometimes a game wants to hide the ball to improve the gameplay. Saving is similar — unlike Breath of the Wild, which allows the player to save anywhere — Persona 5 limits the ability to save. Yet, this is part of the game, and the feeling of rushing to a dungeon’s safe room to regroup and save is part of the excitement. In fact, Persona 5 actually makes this easier than previous Persona games; in this game, outside of dungeons the player can save anywhere, whereas previous games had specific save areas.
Another poor UX experience is loading times. As the game transitions between scenes, when the player-character moves through locations, the game is forced to load the next section from the game’s disc and into the console’s memory. Load times are almost always bad, as no player likes to wait for the next scene to load. Some games hide loading intelligently; for example Metroid Prime (2002) hides this heavy-lifting behind its door open animation.
Here again, Atlus doesn’t re-invent the wheel. Persona 5 has ample loading times as the player moves from section to section (either locations within Tokyo or floors in dungeons), but tries to liven them up with animations of the main character jumping and sneaking. Like other animation in the game, it makes otherwise boring, static sections dynamic, reinforces the main character’s alter-ego as the leader of the Phantom Thieves, and helps alleviate some of the boredom of loading screens.
It’s not perfect by any stretch; I complained about multiple loading sections, especially in the game’s last dungeons in my import review. Indeed, toward the end of the game, some large dungeons have multiple load screens — especially annoying since defeated enemies respawn when a section reloads!
Moreover, some screens use a less-interesting “soft” loading screen like the one below with a rotating static image (though even that image changes based on the situation). If the game’s developers took advantage of the PS4’s hardware, perhaps they could have hidden loading, and improve the user experience. Atlus didn’t innovate the problem away, but instead saw an opportunity to add visual interest to an existing limitation.
There is, however, one other “feature” that is thoroughly hostile to the player. If you recall the picture of the Playstation 4 controller above, you’ll remember there’s a “Share” button on the left side of it. The PS4 has a dedicated share feature, run through the machine’s OS, allowing players to share screenshots and videos (including streaming to Twitch or YouTube) from the games they’re playing. Most games are pretty liberal in allowing users to share screenshots, but not Persona 5.
Outside of the title screen, Atlus switches off the share features. The system can’t even take a screenshot when you earn a trophy (an in-game achievement), as it does with most other games.
On the one hand, I think I understand why the game does this. Persona 4 begins with a plea for users to not spoil the game’s murder mystery for other players. While Persona 5 doesn’t have the same suspenseful plot device as its immediate predecessor, there are a few major twists that could be spoiled.
That said, I don’t think preserving those mysteries is worth breaking player expectations by turning off a major console feature. There are people who will spoil the game’s plot, through camera phones or even plain text, while most other players will avoid spoilers until they finish the game. Moreover, people are used to these sharing features on the PS4. While Nintendo has previously taken steps against sharing content like screencaps and video, even Breath of the Wild allows you to take screencaps on the Switch. I see little practical reason for Atlus to completely block sharing.
The Poem of Everyone’s Souls: Typography
I’ve mentioned the Japanese version of the game’s use of typography several times already. The English text recalls ransom notes, especially when using boxed characters, and the creative lettering pulled from punk fanzines. Both references reinforce the themes of the game, focusing on the Phantom Thieves and the conflict between order and disorder.
For example the ad below clearly connects the ransom note-like text and the idea of the Phantom Thieves as picaresque heroes.
The graphic below, with its monochromatic character profiles, cheap Xerox-ed/newspaper look, and blocky text characters of various sizes (particularly the Cooperation text and Ann Tamaki’s name in kanji) recall those punk fanzines we saw above.
Other text in the game helps personalize other characters. Iwai, the weapons dealer, uses a military stencil style typeface for the English explanatory text, character code names (Joker), and to display your money, appropriate for the owner of a military surplus shop.
Tae’s black market pharmacy is a masterclass in attention to detail. The white silhouette of the doctor is holding a clipboard and the theme of a clipboard page permeates this menu. In fact, it looks like a form page from the clipboard, with “Takemi Medical Clinic”, and the Japanese kanji for month and day “printed” across the top. The date, prices, yen, and even the item names are written in a neat pencil-like typeface (even the second “1” in the date is off-center to resemble handwriting!). The item descriptions at the bottom appear to use the dialogue typeface, but the two faces go together well. This shop menu is a great example of letting a theme (the doctor’s clipboard) decide the appropriate typography. Finally, also note how Tae’s shop uses a color that is very different from the three used by Iwai’s weapons shop.
Like many RPGs, Persona 5 has a lot of written dialogue. As we discuss that text, let me recap a couple of typography terms. Legibility refers to whether the reader can read the text. Readability, on the other hand, is how much the reader wants to read the text. The distinction becomes important, especially as we look at the English-language localization.
The Japanese dialogue typeface is a little heavy (perhaps medium or semi-bold according to Thurston Parkreiner), but (in my opinion) ultimately both legible and readable. Check out how Morgana’s name even has a white-on-black character, ル, which looks like it was cut out of a magazine. Persona 5 wastes no opportunity to support its narrative themes.
The dialogue box, with its dynamic rectangle shape, sets off the text well from the surrounding action. The bold white outline and translucent black background invites you into the textbox itself, while the word balloon “tail” almost acts as an arrow. The large, colorful character art also does a good job of attracting attention. These portraits even feature some limited animation, upping the visual interest. All these factors contribute to the text’s readability: the player wants to read this text.
The English localization did a good job of picking typefaces in some places. This menu, for entering a Palace, uses a reasonably legible font that looks like it might be from one of the magazines we saw above.
However, the typeface used for much of the “standard” text leaves a lot to be desired. See the font used for Succubus’s name, spells, and the “Succubus has learned a new skill” dialogue below.
It’s not especially pretty, but I find the fat sans-serif acceptable on this screen, since there isn’t a lot of text. It’s less appropriate in other parts of the game. In the battle screens below, the English-localized text looks almost pasted in. Whether on purpose or accidental (I’m guessing accidental, based on other type decisions), that actually recalls the history of the punk fanzines as well, but far less elegantly. In these battle screens, the chunky localized English text also doesn’t look good set against the beautiful original English UI text from the Japanese game, which is taller and smoother. Simply put, these two typefaces don’t go well together.
The type looks even worse with a lot of text (not to mention some of the nonsensical English translation, an article unto itself about the pitfalls of localization and translation).
There are several issues with the dialogue typeface. First, it doesn’t look very good. Every character looks like it’s bold, which to my eye is tiring to read in blocks of texts (compare to the Japanese text which isn’t). Second, the individual characters also lack definition; the shapes are too similar and the strokes in each character aren’t different enough. The character x-heights seem short, and their counterspaces aren’t very distinctive. All these factors make it harder distinguish each character than it should be.
Finally, while Japanese text gets away with using a san-serif, using one for the text-heavy English version wasn’t a great decision. All of these characteristics make the text in Persona 5 unnecessarily hard to read. Maybe that’s acceptable in a game without much text, like Super Mario Bros., but it’s a real mistake in game with as much text as Persona.
The game even makes some very basic typographic errors. Connor Krammer’s PersonaProblems.com explains that the English version of Persona 5 uses closing smart quotes for opening and closing quotes (one assumes this is a mistake and not a bad stylistic choice, though perhaps it’s an indictment that I’m not sure), and uses hyphens instead of the correct em dash.
The typeface actually also causes issues with dialogue itself. PersonaProblems.com notes this example from the game:
I said, hello! 07734. If you read the numbers upside-down, they spell out the word hello.
In fact, in the dialogue typeface, 07734 doesn’t look like “hello” upside down. Connor notes that this would work if the typeface looked like a calculator (something they could have done just for the numbers in this dialogue).
The translators here were trying to localize the “code” of Japanese number sounds being used to sound-out words. 4649 sounds like yo-ro-shi-ku, or yoroshiku (if you’ve played Yakuza 0, you have seen these codes used on pagers).
My theory is that Atlus USA opted for a cheaper typeface that seemed to — at least superficially — resemble the heavy Japanese original (this English typeface isn’t used in the Japanese version of the game, as far as I can tell — Thurston Parkreiner backs me up here). In addition to simply looking cheaper, the issue with picking a look-like is that Japanese and English are different (surprise!). In Japanese, the use of complex kanji characters with native Japanese syllabic “letters” (hiragana and katakana, collectively kana), creates an interplay that naturally breaks up text and introduces white space in a way that does not happen with English. Ideas like nouns, verbs, adjectives, tend to be kanji, while grammatical points, like prepositions, postpositions, and conjugations are in kana.
It’s easy to see the rhythm of Japanese writing in a larger block of text (here, the IGN Japan review for Persona 5). Without this rhythm, the English blocks of text are harder to read.
When corresponding with Connor, he noted that he believes the English font is actually a subset of a Japanese character set — perhaps even the one used in the Japanese version. As evidence, he noticed that the English text lacks accent marks and that the game renders plain (dumb) quotes as a “smart” closing quote. “I can’t imagine even the worst type designer making that mistake for a font designed for Western consumption.” Certainly it makes sense that a Japanese font may overlook such details in its Western character subset, though it’s possible this is (mind-bogglingly) an ongoing technical issue for Atlus USA.
Unfortunately, in either case the end result is that the poor-quality English typeface stands out next to original, high-quality UI elements, text characters in dialogue are hard to differentiate, and typographic mistakes are distracting. While the dialogue boxes (present in the Japanese original) improve readability, the English typeface‘s legibility — the ability of the reader to read the text — is poor. Maybe good type is expensive, but Persona 5’s English dialogue is headache-inducing, a real problem for such a text-heavy game. I wish Atlus USA would have sprung for something different, even if it didn’t “fit” thematically, since legibility is more important.
Beneath the Mask: What I’ve Learned
UX/UI are as applicable to games as they are to SaaS software. For me, writing this article was in large part to apply what I’ve begun learning about UX. I theoretically understood that UX principles were applicable to games before reading Charlie’s article. For example, Nir Eyal mentioned mobile games extensively both in Hooked and a talk about bad practices I saw him give in San Francisco. However, reading Charlie’s analysis was eye-opening on how to specifically apply UX principles to a game. Intuitively I knew that games could be more or less accessible even when playing them, making the “real life” application of what I’m learning onto a game I’ve really enjoyed has been immensely useful. It’s been a great chance to combine my interests.
Style and usability are not in a zero-sum conflict. One of the UI/UX lessons I’ve learned from Persona 5 itself is that “usable” doesn’t mean dull (or vice versa, that something stylish isn’t unusable). Indeed, stylishness and usability aren’t diametrically opposed in a zero-sum game. Instead, there’s a process of deciding what priorities are, and how a UI can reinforce a product’s overarching themes. Making the user interaction in Persona 5 both stylish and usable took the developer’s time (both in implementing new ideas in each previous game in the series, and specifically in the development of this game), but with care and practice it is possible.
UI and UX are a part of storytelling, and can reinforce a product’s overall narrative and themes. Designers are storytellers. Persona 5 makes it abundantly clear that UI and UX decisions are an active part of story-telling. Persona 5 takes every opportunity to reinforce its overarching themes — whether it’s color, the Phantom Thieves, individualism, or the battle between anarchy and order — through it’s designs. That thoughtfulness can’t just be slapped together. It takes planning from multiple teams, confidence in a designer’s ability to tell a story, and practice.
Good at storytelling through design takes practice and iteration. Note the Persona 4 battle screens at the beginning of the article. They incorporate that game’s thematic color, gold, into the menus and character portraits. They even have some elementary hints — the note to use Triangle to rush, explanations of the commands, and a prompt to press Circle. Persona 4’s battle screens even look like an old CRT TV, which ties into the game’s themes about mass media. Analyzing those screens, it’s clear that Atlus, from one game to the next, tries ideas and new implementations. It’s not that the UI for Persona 3 or 4 is bad (even today), but that Atlus was able to take the lessons they learned in each iteration of the series (certainly they took advantage improving technology too) and apply those Persona 5’s amazing design.
A few bad decisions can ruin a lot of careful work. The English localization’s typeface and typographic mistakes also made it clear that some of the best products, made with expertise and thoughtfulness, can easily be damaged by bad choices in the production process (in this case, the Western localization). It’s unlikely that Atlus (the Japanese parent company anyway) cares, since their primary market is Japan itself, but it doesn’t take much for poorly chosen typeface to begin working against the story the UI is communicating, as it is here.
UI and UX can be intertwined, or totally separate. As I mentioned above, this article was originally envisioned as focusing on UX, but it became apparent that it would be impossible to discuss UX in Persona 5 and not touch on UI. Sometimes, they go hand-in-hand, as in the main menu screens, and sometimes they are separate (there’s no UI in Atlus’s decision to remove the sharing features, for example).
Thoughtful and intelligent design can improve a product and even make up for some shortcomings. The game is also a stark lesson in how important design is any product. One of the most interesting aspects of Persona 5’s history is that it started as a Playstation 3 game. The game’s graphics and load times doesn’t leverage the power of the Playstation 4 (let alone the beefier Playstation 4 Pro). Even on the Playstation 4, it is, essentially, a Playstation 3 game. Despite that, because of great artwork and intelligent art, UI, and UX decisions, Eurogamer has entire articles dedicated to how beautiful the game’s menus are.
Unlike Breath of the Wild, Persona 5 doesn’t blow up its predecessors, recreating and reinventing its series. Its roots go back not only to previous Persona games but through the history of modern Japanese RPGs. In remaining close to those established RPG systems though, the game’s developers were able to approach the its UI and UX confidently, thereby polishing those systems to a beautiful shine. It’s certainly not perfect; Atlus could have been innovative about load times or share features. However, by being well-versed in design, and caring about their product, they were able to use UI and UX to communicate the game’s themes at every opportunity, and to welcome new players to the dark, joyous world of Persona.
A warm thank you to Charlie Deets for the original insight and inspiration in his amazing Breath of the Wild article, for graciously agreeing to read a draft of this article after I tweeted him out of nowhere about it, and his insightful commentary and encouragement on the draft. Thanks also to Connor Krammer, who read and commented on this article, and generously let me use the graphic from his site PersonaProblems.com. Thank you also to Thurston Parkreiner for corrections about Japanese and English typefaces.