In this interview for Dengeki PlayStation magazine, key members of Atlus’ development team discuss the making of the PlayStation RPG Megami Ibunroku Persona, a high-school-themed spin-off from their long-running Shin Megami Tensei series of dungeon crawlers that found wide acclaim through its adoption of contemporary, youthful character designs, fashionable music and narrative themes centered around aspects of analytical psychology.

Not only did Persona quickly supplant Shin Megami Tensei as Atlus’ premier RPG series, it was also the first true Megami Tensei game released outside of Japan; localized for North America as Revelations: Persona, the game cultivated a dedicated fanbase that would eventually turn the Persona series into a multi-million-selling franchise.

SMT interviews (1992)
“Next-gen” feature w/Kaneko (1993)
SMT x SaGa interview (1996)

Persona – 1996 Developer Interview

originally featured in the 12/96 issue of Dengeki PlayStation

Kouji Okada – Director
Kazuma Kaneko – Art Director
Seigo Aihara – PR Manager

—Persona is approaching over 500,000 sales! It’s a big hit. How does it feel?

Okada: It’s amazing. Right now we’re in the process of researching the player feedback we’ve collected, but the reception has been extremely positive, and I’m very satisfied right now—I’m so glad we made this game.

Kaneko: I have the same feeling, albeit on an even more personal level—it’s like, I’ve now succeeded in showing everyone what I’m all about. (laughs) It’s a kind of personal validation. We’ve managed to capture a whole new demographic with Persona, so it’s a blessing in that regard too.

Aihara: Yeah, we’ve seen a really wide range of players. For better or for worse, the Megami Tensei games were often called “hardcore” games. But with Persona, whether we’re looking at reviews, or reading player feedback postcards, that word “hardcore” isn’t coming up much. Instead, people are sharing their plainly stated feelings about what they found interesting, what was unsatisfying, and it’s giving us a good sense of which parts everyone found fun. So in that sense, too, it makes us really happy that we were able to craft a whole new, original series distinct from the Megaten games.

—And there are a lot of new players who have never player the original Megami Tensei games, too.

Aihara: I think the fact that we have more distinct, memorable characters this time made it a lot easier to get into. The commercials we made did very well, too.

Okada: We put a lot of effort into those commercials! We absolutely wanted it to use live actors, and were very insistent about that. It was a very difficult process but we ended up with something we’re quite proud of.

Kaneko: I was moved when I saw the commercials, too. The filming was something of a marathon but it was really fun. I actually made some fashion designs inspired by the Vishnu shown in the commercial. I had them made-up and thought I’d wear them myself, but I’m too skinny for them. (laughs)

Aihara: Persona’s managed to capture the interest of non-Megaten fans, but it’s also been welcomed by longtime fans too.

Okada: We’ve heard that a lot, yeah—”this isn’t Megami Tensei!” followed quickly by “But it’s really fun!”

Aihara: I think if you dig deeply into the game though, it’s actually pretty close to Megami Tensei. You can enjoy it casually, but if you look a little closer, you’ll see it’s quite a deep game. I really only have words of praise for Persona, myself. Though I would say the encounter rate was a little high.

One of two Persona TV commercials; click here for CM #2.

—Working people have also complained that the lack of save points makes it hard for them to play on the weekdays.

Aihara: Yeah, but thankfully, the criticism we’ve received hasn’t been all-encompassing—”this game sucks!”—but more measured and constructive. Perhaps we’ll have to add a Back Upper to the sequel?

—What do you think about the criticism that the battles are too long?

Aihara: That’s because we wanted players to enjoy the battles visually. I believe Okada said before, that the battle aren’t just about gaining experience, but we’ve added a lot of things to the battle screen for players to enjoy. Contacts and Personas, obviously, but also the variety of different weapons. Try hitting an enemy with your bare fists sometime, it’s funny. The way Maki hits people is a-ma-zing. (laughs)

Okada: Yeah. In addition to the idea of battles not being “just for xp”, another thing we were very conscious of was the idea that the battles themselves are also event scenes. We even had an idea, with the battles being so long, to have animation cutscenes included in mid-battle, but we knew then that people would really complain about the length, so it never went further.

—By the way, I’m sure there’s been a lot of challenges leading up to the release, but what were some of the biggest?

Kaneko: Good question… the thing is, I’m the type of person who quickly forgets those things. Though Okada’s face in the final days of the development… now that was scary. (laughs)

Okada: Hmm, in terms of hardships, I would say checking all the different dialogue and the animation patterns. Anytime you’re dealing with a lot of data, the bug checking takes a ton of time.

—I can see that. There’s a lot going on in Persona, in both the gameplay systems and the story.

Okada: Yeah, we stuffed it so full, I almost think we should have saved some of it for a sequel. At times I even thought, we shouldn’t have included the damn Snow Queen route1! (everyone laughs) Though I probably shouldn’t say things like that publicly. (laughs)

Kaneko: I personally love games that have time limits in them, that pressure. Maybe that’s why I kept urging the staff to add “just one more” thing… I suppose it was a beneficial kind of nuisance, in the end. (laughs)

—The Snow Queen quest comes up in the first half of the SEBEC route, right?

Aihara: In the normal flow of things, yeah, that’s right.

—Did you ever think of reversing it, and making the Snow Queen route the main quest, and the SEBEC route a hidden scenario?

Okada: No, from the beginning, we imagined the main story being the SEBEC route.

Kaneko: The SEBEC route really was the baseline. With the Snow Queen route, it was more like, we thought the ending of that storyline was really cool, so we decided to make it.

Okada: While most players probably want to be assertive and take the fight to SEBEC, we thought there were probably other players who had a more “defensive” mindset with regards to the school, and that’s where the idea for an alternative route came from. It was meant to be a bit of “extra value” for the player.

—That makes sense. I saw in the development planning materials that these were referred to these as the “ganbaru scenario” (“do your best/try-hard”) and the “mamoru scenario” (“defend”).

Okada: Yes, but we realized that if we over-emphasize the “defense” aspect, it would end up being too similar to the SEBEC route, so we tried to take the alternative scenario in a completely different direction. From there, we investigated a variety of possible subjects and themes to base it around.

Kaneko: It all started with a little suggestion from Okada, “Hey, weren’t there two routes in the plans…?” and after that he just kept casually dropping hints, leading us down the garden path as it were. (laughs)

Okada: (laughs)

—In the beginning of the Snow Queen route, there’s that scene where the tale of the Snow Queen is told in shadow cutouts. Was that based on something?

Kaneko: Yeah, there’s a Hans Christian Anderson story called The Snow Queen. So the way I see it, if our game serves as the inspiration for someone to seek out that story and read it, all the better. (laughs)

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Several of the fairytale-inspired cut-ins shown during the introduction of the Snow Queen quest line. (click to expand)

—It seems “mirrors” are a big overall theme for Persona’s story. Is there a special meaning there…?

Kaneko: When we look in a mirror, we think we see our own face, right? But actually, the face we see in the mirror is one that no one else can see. Only the person himself, seeing it in that moment, sees it that way. Your face, in other words, is something that is both you and not you. This idea is stressed in the occult too. In addition to the main theme of “youth”, then, another theme was “persona”, a dual personality… and for a concrete expression of that we used the symbol of a mirror.

—When Maki is in the hospital, her compact has a mirror in it. But when she joins the party, there’s no mirror in it… I don’t know what it means, but it seems there’s a deeper meaning there too.

Kaneko: It’s suggestive, isn’t it. We were hoping it would make that impression. (laughs) That mirror is Himitsu no Akko-chan! Sorry for the dated reference. (laughs)

—By the way, what were you trying to say with the bad ending at Deva Yuga, in the SEBEC route?

Aihara: I’d like to know too. I figured it was the “easy way out” path.

Okada: We wanted to show that if you only contend with the “reality” that lies in front of you, with what you can see… that isn’t enough. It’s not sufficient. I think the dialogue branches in that scene with Mai (Mae) help establish this, but as long as you keep the fire burning, keep pushing forward, you’ll be ok… Of course, our real goal with that scene, was we wanted to lay out the question in as straightforward a way as possible: how do you live your life? what do you stand for?

Aihara: I actually think “Stop!” (nigeru na) isn’t the easiest choice to make in that scene. The first time I said “Yeah, but…” (sou ka mo shirenai). Because in reality if you just yelled “Stop!” to a little kid like that, I’m sure they’d start crying. (laughs)

—In Persona, the character’s profile pictures will change their expression depending on the dialogue. So does that mean you actually went through every single line of dialogue and scripted those changes to match…?

Kaneko: Well, about that… yes!

Everyone: (laughs)

Kaneko: It was intentionally scripted. I know it sounds crazy, but it was. When we were writing the character dialogue, we thought about each line very deeply: “Ok, he has this personality, and this is his past, so I bet at this moment he’d be thinking/acting like this.” Then the expressions were drawn to match that. We really emphasized that mindset though, always keeping in mind the underlying character. A lot of insights the staff presented with regard to the characters, and how we expanded and built on them, is owed to that.

—It’s mysterious, the way those expressions match the dialogue.

Okada: The character dialogue itself was written by 5 different staff members. Every person had a different scene they were responsible for. Making it all match up with the larger themes and setting was extremely meticulous work.

—You can talk with every character in the adventure screen as well, right? That alone must have been a tremendous volume to write.

Okada: Yeah, it was. When we first saw Kaneko’s character illustrations, we were impressed by how much personality they had. We wanted to breathe life into these characters, to make sure their personalities shone through, and I think the amount of dialogue we created was the right amount for that… Then there were the Contacts. Those took a lot of space too. I’m really happy with what we achieved there though.

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As illustrated by Kazuma Kaneko, Persona’s cast of recruits (clockwise from top-left): Kei Nanjo, Masao “Mark” Inaba, Eriko “Elly” Kirishima, Hidehiko “Brown” Uesugi, Reiji Kido, Yuka Ayase and Yukino Mayuzumi, with Maki Sonomura in the center.

Aihara: The demons themselves have a lot of individuality too, in that sense.

Okada: Yeah, and I think that’s the result of our multi-faceted approach. A big premise for this development was that not only the characters, but the demons too, would have a lot of interactions/reactions. Figuring out how to accomplish that was one of our biggest priorities during this development, actually.

—Seeing as Persona is somewhat different from Megami Tensei, did you try any new experiments with the demons?

Kaneko: We had a couple developers dedicated to working on the demons, and yeah, of course, if they do the same thing every game it’d be boring. I think that’s why we ended up with a lot of weird, unusual demons this time.

—I imagine coming up with all the different reactions for the demons was tough too.

Kaneko: Not really, it went relatively smoothly.

—Really? There’s so much variation though!

Kaneko: Well, yeah. I mean, we basically brute forced it, but I’d say that coming up with the ideas for the demons themselves is harder than writing their dialogue. So the dialogue, unlike a lot of other things we did, was actually fairly straightforward. A good example would be Bukimi’s intense crying, it’s pretty cliche for that character, right? And that was a deliberate decision of ours. I would personally have liked to see a few more jokey lines though.

—Considering that there’s a whole graphical component to these demons, I think going with the expected “cliched” dialogue makes it easier to understand what you’re seeing. Their reactions are as you’d expect, after all: if you dance, it makes them happy, if you threaten them, they cry. (laughs) The toilet demons were real fun too.

Kaneko: I wanted to do more weird stuff like that, a lot more!

—How is it that the gremlin, with that small little frame, is hiding that whip in there. (laughs)

Aihara: It’s a little surprise he’s been hiding for players. (laughs)

—The demons have so much personality, I find myself imitating them. (laughs)

Aihara: You ever yell out “SUCHA!” ?

—Yeah, how did you know! (laughs)

Aihara: In the first part of the game, it’s fun because a lot of the demons have the Joyful personality. Later in the game there’s less and less of that, but the Vetala demon surprised me, the way he goes “Chikusho~~~!” (“Damnitttt!”). Before that you’re fighting one serious demon after the other, then all of the sudden this guy shows up yelling “Chikusho!”, I was taken aback.

Okada: Yeah, though one thing I’ll say about the voices, it’s really easy to mis-hear them, just like the tv show Soramimi Hour2 . (laughs)

Kaneko: A lot of people have been having fun with that. The pharmacy song, for instance, I have no idea how people are hearing that.

—It seems like many heard “hinshi taihen” (“when your friends are in trouble and almost dying”) as “pinchi taihen” (“when your friends are in a pinch”) or “rinshi taiken” (“near-death experience”). (laughs)

Kaneko: Oh, that’s great. That’s perfect!

Aihara: Amazing. We should have done it that way, right? (laughs)

The Satomi Tadashi pharmacy song, featuring silly fourth-wall-breaking lyrics about the utility of the items sold therein. This song became something of an in-joke and has received many remixes over the years across multiple games, including the recent Persona 5.

—Speaking of mishead lines, during battle I think Mark yells out “JESUS!”, is that right…?

Okada: It’s jesus, yeah.

—I heard that as “jiisan” (old man) or “juutan” (carpet). (laughs) The main characters were done by professional voice actors, right?

Okada: Yeah.

—Who did the demon voices then?

Okada: Um… our staff at Atlus. Not just the developers either, we enlisted people from all over the company.

—So the female demons were voiced by female Atlus employees, then?

Okada: That’s right.

—This is something we touched on back in your May interview, but could you tell us who were the inspirations behind the character illustrations? You had mentioned the protagonist was modeled after Tomoya Nagase from TOKIO, and Mark was modeled after Okada himself…

Kaneko: Mark’s mischevious personality was created in Okada’s image, yeah. When he wears a hat, he looks like some blond-haired Keanu Reeves style punk. Yukino was modeled after the actress Ryou (herself a model), who appeared recently in the tv drama series Long Vacation. Maki is a secret—there’s an actress, that’s all I’ll say.3 (laughs) Ayase was sort of modeled after Uno Kanda, in a half-joking way.

—What about Nanjo?

Kaneko: He didn’t actually have a model. It was more that we wanted to try making a character like him, a “king of lameness”. (laughs) He’s got that popular slicked-back haircut, but he wears it with pride.

—How about Elly and Brown?

Kaneko: I’ve been a longtime fan of the group MAX, and for Elly I took a smattering of traits from one of the MAX members. As for Brown, the first time I drew him, he was the spitting image of Tsunku from the band Sharam Q4 . In fact, it was so uncanny that I actually redrew him to be a little more plain. He also looks a little like Suneo, right? (laughs)

—And that leaves Reiji.

Kaneko: For Reiji, the inspiration was all Gatchaman. Right at that time I was super into Tatsunoko, and he was kind of a combination of Joe Asakura (Joe the Condor) and Ai to Makoto—the character Hideki Saijo plays in the movie adaptation, that is.

Aihara: Reiji is such a badass, like when he yells “GO!” and “Persona!”

—His actions are flashy and cool too.

Aihara: He really is the spitting image of Hideki Saijo. (laughs)

—How about the other characters in Persona, were they based on anyone?

Kaneko: A lot of them were based on people we personally knew.

Okada: Like Principal Takashi Hanya.

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Hideki Saijo (1955-2018), as pictured in the 1974 film adaptation of the Ai to Makoto manga; two sequels and a live-action TV series followed soon after, with the most recent film adaptation released in 2012.

—Have there been any particularly interesting responses you’ve had from fans and players?

Aihara: One thing that surprised me was that big online fan club for Nanjo!

Okada: I was a little surprised to see how popular Nanjo was. I had originally thought Mark might be a big hit, but he kind of became a mouthpiece for the main character, unfortunately. Too bad, I thought he could have been a lot more popular than Nanjo.

Aihara: Nanjo’s popularity is very unusual. The voice acting too, with lines like “yuke” (go) and “makaseru” (leave it to me)—it’s an unusual voice.

Kaneko: Personally I thought Yukino would be a fan favorite, but I was 100% wrong on that one. (laughs)

Aihara: Yeah, Ayase and Yukino aren’t popular at all.

Kaneko: Ah, is that so? And what about Elly?

Aihara: Elly has some fans. Brown was surprisingly popular too. He tells everyone the origin of his nickname when they’re all feeling sad. He’s a real “mood maker”, the kind of character who brightens everyone’s spirit when the adventure gets hard-going.

—Elly was popular with many of our editors at Dengeki PlayStation. As for the women here, almost all of them like Nanjo, I believe.

Kaneko: Elly’s probably a character who men would want in their party.

Aihara: Yeah, yeah. Elly brings a stylishness to your party, it feels good to have her there. (laughs) I remember I was in the last dungeon just before the final battle, and normally that would be a pretty tense, dark scene, right? But with Elly we just waltzed in cheerfully. (laughs)

Okada: (laughs)

—Did any part of Persona undergo a major revision, or change, during the development? For example, anything you might have had to cut for memory reasons, etc?

Okada: We put a huge amount of effort into creating the ending movie, but we had to cut it all due to memory limitations, and use still images instead. The movie was really cool, too: it had the Night Queen reviving, snow softly falling on the town at night, footage of frozen water thawing and running again…

Aihara: Why not release it for a director’s cut? (laughs) Also, I can’t remember which person on the development team I heard this from, but they said originally the characters were attached to a specific route: Mark and Nanjo for the SEBEC route, Ayase and Yukino for the Snow Queen route, and Brown and Ellie had a separate route they appeared in..?

Okada: That was a much earlier idea. At that conceptual planning stage, we had a whole bunch of ideas. The early part of any development is always about trial and error, of course. Experimentation. But yeah, we had talked about doing an omnibus format like that.

Aihara: It would have been amazing if you’d been able to pull it off.

Okada: We’ve never done as much experimentation in a development as we did with Persona. It took over a year and a half for us to get out of the conceptual planning stage. We would re-write things again and again… “Damnit, we have to start over again!” (laughs) We had even thought of making it the Takeda one-man show.

Kaneko: Takeda was very much made in the image of Gian from Doraemon. There were going to be some “COME TO MY RECITAL!” style scenes and everything.

—I would have loved to see that! Well then, do you have any final message for readers today?

Okada: We truly experimented a lot with this title, and I’m extremely satisfied with the finished product. For those who have played it, and those who still haven’t, this is one game I can say I’m very proud of, so I hope you enjoy exploring the world. Please take your time with Persona and enjoy every last drop it has to offer.

Kaneko: For my part, I put a lot of effort into the story and setting this time, but thankfully the response has been good. Try not to think of the characters as fictional—it would make me very happy if players can empathize with them to the point where they’re choosing dialogue and thinking, “Hmmm, is it really ok to say something embarrassing like this..?” I sincerely hope people play it that way.

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Kazuma Kaneko, Kouji “Cozy” Okada and Seigo Aihara (1996)