a shot of Mae from the game Night in the Woods

Aimless Protagonists and Complicated Friendships: Videogame Perspectives on Delinquency

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This piece contains endgame spoilers for The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa and Night in the Woods.

Many stories center dropouts or delinquents, someone who isn’t beholden to the conventions of their society. Someone who can do the fun and strange things that videogames let players do, like put on masks to invade alternate cognitive dimensions and punish wrongdoers. Or bum around a small, decaying rust belt town as a college dropout. Or slouch around a Japanese suburb looking for a fight. But delinquency isn’t just a game mechanic or convenient plot excuse – it’s a way of being, a way of being seen. It’s something that manifests in a character’s relationships with their friends, with adults, and with their enemies. Some games recognize that and follow it out, seeing where it will take the story and their characters. Others use it as it is convenient, but fail to understand the consequences of being an outsider.

One of the most definitional qualities of delinquent characters that they have nothing to do. Think of the marketing slogan for Mallrats – “They’re not there to shop. They’re not there to work. They’re just there.” As tempting as it apparently is to make a game with a delinquent protagonist, the aimlessness of that kind of character is at odds with other typical game mechanics like objectives, progression, and healthy relationships. If a character is all about saying, “fuck it,” then it might not make much sense for them to run around saving the world.

This can be a tension for games like Persona 5, which hangs its plot on a protagonist that, at every turn (in the opening few hours, at least) is told by adults that he’s a screw-up. He’s been arrested for assault, although that’s presented from the outset as a perversion of justice, since he was standing up for someone else. Throughout the game, the Persona 5 protagonist is largely a pretty stand-up guy. While the anonymous students of his high school continue to whisper about him when he does shocking things like appear in the library to study, soon enough he’s dating the student council president and saving the world from cognitive distortion and injustice.

That’s the total opposite of the picture that The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa paints of Japanese high school delinquency. The titular Ringo lives alone and has no agenda. It’s up to the player to decide whether or not to attend school, to hit the gym, to hang out at the local dive bar, or to start brawls with other local gangs. While Ringo can level up by brawling, working out, or studying, it’s unclear why any of those things matter in an existential sense. The plot doesn’t depend on whether or not Ringo shows up for his job at the video store, whether he passes his weekly history test, or if he learns a new way to dodge and roll.

Ringo’s friends matter to him, but he has trouble expressing it and they’re rarely better off for being part of his life. There’s Ken Nakamura, the boxer who has tried to stick with it as a sport, but who keeps getting dragged into street fights for his and Ringo’s gang. He repeatedly loses his shots at competition as a result. Less centrally, there’s Masaru Takahashi, who has a gambling problem and is in too deep with some shady characters. It’s up to Ringo whether or not to do anything about it. There’s Shiro Abe, who’s on the rocks with his girlfriend. Ringo’s solution is for him to dump her. Then there’s Goro Yamaguchi, whose sole passion in life seems to be the gang, particularly the moments where he gets to hit other high schoolers in rival outfits. Maybe he’s a little too into that, so the gang tells him to get another hobby. When he does, in the form of acting in school productions, the gang mocks him instead of celebrating that he’s finally found something that interests him. Through it all, there’s Ringo – not quite a good friend to anybody, but someone who is still generally respected as the guy upholding the name of his gang and, with it, the local youth.

Similarly, although in a very different context, there’s Mae Borowski, the protagonist of Night in the Woods. Mae is a college dropout who returns to her hometown of Possum Springs, a small town that’s been on a long decline since the local mines shuttered years before. On her return to Possum Springs, Mae rolls into the local bus station and walks back to her parents house, where she moves back into her teenage den in the attic. Much of the game is about her attempts to reconnect with her friends from before she left for school, but they all have some form of responsibility that Mae has, for the time being, shed.

Her friend Gregg, an irrepressible punk with a job as a clerk at the local minimart, welcomes her back, trying to make room for her amidst his life with his boyfriend Angus. Angus is likewise supportive, in a quieter, more bookish way. Then there’s Bea, a childhood friend who has inherited the responsibility of running the local hardware store and taking care of her dad. There’s also local teens, a few friendly adults (including Mae’s parents), and the missing Casey Hartley, who initially appears to have skipped town with no plan and no communication to his old friends and bandmates.

Both Ringo Ishikawa and Night in the Woods push their stories forward by leaning on the player’s desire to get to know their protagonist’s friends a little better. Doing so doesn’t yield a straight line of magical progression or growth for either Ringo or Mae. Ringo is averse to giving advice to his friends, especially because he has no plans of his own beyond continuing to lead the gang and fighting. But there’s an expiration date on that – even delinquents have to finish high school sometime, to make room for whoever is coming up and to find something to do in the rest of the world.

Mae, for her part, doesn’t do much better, at least at first. She doesn’t know what to do – all that she knows is that her college life away from Possum Springs caused her mental illness to flare up, so she’s decided to return and put a brave face about how she’s disappointed just about everyone. But that face can be grating even to her old friends, especially Bea, who would have loved the opportunity to change her own life by moving away, but instead finds herself trapped by family and economic circumstance. One of the most moving scenes of Night in the Woods follows Bea as she brings Mae along to a college party in a nearby town. Surrounded by college kids, Mae starts to aggressively question why Bea would want to hang out with those people. Losing her goth cool, Bea runs off into a rainy night, furious with Mae for both embarrassing her and for throwing away an opportunity that she will never have.

Meanwhile, in Persona 5, friendship is beholden to the game’s mechanics and progression. Sure, there are conflicts to be overcome in the relationships that are formed by the nameless protagonist. But the more recent entries in the Persona series, 3 and 4 included, treat friendship as a means to an end. Hang out with this person a certain number of times, and they’ll have a new power in combat. Hang out with that person and you’ll unlock a new ability. Hang out with any female character in the game enough and, no matter the other aspects of your relationship, you’ll have the option for romance. It’s all very directed and regimented by the Persona series’ trademark calendar, which tells the player when they have to go to school, how late they can stay out, where they can go and who they can hang out with on any given day.

It makes for an insubstantial portrait of delinquency, repression, and rebellion, especially in contrast to games like Ringo Ishikawa and Night in the Woods. This carries through to the conclusion of each game. In the ending of the latter Persona games players and their teams of friends are pitted against gods and demons. Ringo Ishikawa’s send-off is to ride the local train alone, going to confront a rival gang. His friends have either abandoned him or been put in a coma from fighting. It’s the end that gives the strongest callback to the work referenced in the game’s title – in the novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the title is a dry joke about the absence of true friends or strong ties of any kind in Eddie’s life. It’s ambiguous whether the endless waves of goons that Ringo takes on at the end put him in the same place that Eddie winds up, but it’s a sad and empty ending, regardless.

Mae’s story ends on a more upbeat, although still disturbing, note. After a series of small, but strange events and increasingly surreal dreams, Mae becomes convinced that there’s a murderer stalking Possum Springs. Her friends, though dubious, follow her into the woods and the old mines, discovering a local cult that murdered Casey as a blood sacrifice. In the end, it’s Mae who has a connection to the town and its old god, not the cultists who believe that they hold the key to its survival. That’s the difference between Mae and Ringo in the end, too – one grows through the pain of rekindling old relationships, and the other can’t see how to move on.

Don Everhart is a sociologist who thinks games are good to think with, especially when it comes to how they refract culture and society. Find Don on Facebook and Twitter.