The Greatest Games: Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (2014)

Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (2014)
Developed by Spike Chunsoft

There are certain pieces of media I will praise which I feel the need to partially explain with my concept of the High School Angst Factor. The most emblematic work of this particular niche is the film Donnie Darko. Its view of life and human relationships are absolutely juvenile, but it all works perfectly if you take the film as an exaggerated embodiment of the lonely teen experience. The problem is, most people refuse to take teenagers seriously, and thus look down on these works which attempt to confront those heightened emotions. These are the works that ask, “what if high school really was as bad as your anxiety led you to believe?”

The Danganronpa series works within this same exaggerated structure. For many of us, high school was an emotional battleground. Some of us were bullied for immutable traits, others hid struggles at home, while those who led the gossip were constantly aware how easy those words could be turned against them. At the heart of the series is a predatory force who abuses their knowledge to manipulate others into harming one another.

Danganronpa 2 works so much better than the other two games in its series largely due to the cast. The first game rapidly chews through a third of its cast before you ever truly connect with them, and most remain underdeveloped. The characters in the third game are too exaggerated to connect with – this may be intentional, but that still lessens the emotional impact. The characters in Danganronpa 2 balance on the line between absurdity and believability, adding up to what just might be my favorite ensemble cast in any video game. The other games in this series hooked me with their central mystery. In Danganronpa 2, I became so attached to these characters that I truly dreaded progression.

The bellweather character of Danganronpa 2 is Gundham Tanaka. On the surface, he’s the most bizarre member of the cast. Gundham dresses in gothic fashion and constantly speaks of himself as an evil overlord. Yet he’s not the ‘Ultimate Sorcerer’ or whatever you might imagine. No, he’s the Ultimate Animal Breeder. The more he speaks, the clearer it becomes that his behavior is a defense mechanism for his underdeveloped social skills. He’s that awkward kid who understands animals better than people and knows certain abrasive behavior will turn people away. Under all the more extreme characters is a meaningful explanation to ground them – except maybe Ibuki, who really appears to be a hyperactive yet loveable goofball.

The central trinity of Hajime Hinata, Chiaki Nanami, and Nagito Komaeda is quickly made apparent. In many ways, Danganronpa 2 is a deconstruction of the simplistic theme of the original game, which pitted hope against despair. In contrast to the optimism of the first protagonist, Hajime Hinata remains largely cynical throughout. Meanwhile, a central problem in the original game is that one character guided most of the investigation. Chiaki takes on a similar narrative role, but her lack of expertise gives other characters more room to speak. In many ways, she simply acts as a calming agent among everyone else’s panic. And like the protagonist of the first game, Nagito Komaeda is the Ultimate Lucky Student. He clearly strives to be the embodiment of the shallow ‘hope’ which overwhelmed the original game’s message, which obviously annoys the more cynical Hajime.

Like most games of this type, it can be difficult to discuss without spoilers. While I will not discuss anything beyond the first trial in detail, too much of Danganronpa 2’s spirit relies on a twist during the first trial. Thus, the next two paragraphs will freely discuss that revelation (so feel free to skip below the picture if you aim to avoid spoilers).

Halfway through the first trial, it becomes apparent that Nagito Komaeda set everything up in the hope that he would be murdered. In his frenzy, he explains his twisted desire to be a stepping stone for everyone else. Danganronpa 2 posits hope as a negative delusional energy which thrives in moments of despair – to create a need for hope, Nagito intentionally drags his fellow students into despair. Even Nagito’s label as the Ultimate Lucky Student is corrupted in a similar fashion – his unnatural luck has more to do with surviving awful predicaments, which naturally requires him to constantly be put in horrid situations. After a lifetime of this perpetual torment, it makes sense his view of hope and despair are so entangled.

This twist adds a lingering internal tension which the other games lack. All of these games have a clear external agent serving as a puppetmaster, but Danganronpa 2 is smart enough to include a blatant antagonist among the central cast. Hajime acts as a perfect foil to Nagito’s nonsense – in such an awful situation, one can’t fall back on mere hope.

Much like the cast, each of the six cases are better than anything from the original game. The chemistry between these characters makes this possible. Even when cases tread familiar ground from the first game, they work so much better because you’ll inevitably be pointing a finger at a character you actually like. While it’s easy to compare this series to Ace Attorney, keeping each case focused around the same set of characters adds extra emotional potential. This culminates in the fifth case – no other video game moment has hit me so hard. It’s something which simply needs to be experienced, a disarming mystery only Danganronpa could pull off through all its twisted logic and rules.

Which, I have gone all this time talking about the narrative. But like Ace Attorney, the gameplay is the narrative. Making sense of these various characters and their potential motivations is key to solving these mysteries. One of the fun ways to compare the two series is how, in each Ace Attorney game, the cast tends to get bigger with each case. More characters means more suspects. Danganronpa works in reverse. One might think the shrinking cast would make the mysteries easier to solve, but there were few moments in the second game where I identified the murderer until right before the game prompted the final accusation. These are well-crafted mysteries with dozens of stunning “a-ha” moments – and a few other moments where proving the truth feels like a sinister but necessary act. Survival has rarely felt so numbing.

Like its characters, Danganronpa 2 hides some serious emotional depth beneath an aggressively stylized exterior. Video games are the perfect medium for mysteries, and this game with its island setting is a magnificent evolution of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Looking past the aesthetic can be hard – even as a huge fan of Phoenix Wright, I spent years overlooking this series because its thematic content appeared exploitative. I assumed from the edgy presentation that this is a series where death came cheap. This may have been true in the original. But in Danganronpa 2, each and every death carries weight. Plenty of stories have copied Battle Royale, but Danganronpa 2 is the first since the original book to really treat all of its characters like individuals with their own dreams for the future. While this may appear a hokey high school horror on its surface, at its core is a deeply upsetting tragedy.

The Greatest Games: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (2017)

Danganronpa V3: KIlling Harmony (2017)
Developed by Spike Chunsoft

Though classified under the wider visual novel umbrella, Danganronpa is far from an experience where you press a button to forward the plot. Danganronpa owes much of its existence to the Ace Attorney series, where plucky lawyer Phoenix Wright defends the innocent from a nightmarish justice system. Where Ace Attorney tends to balance playfulness and gravity, Danganronpa acts as the cynical and edgy younger sibling.

The situation in each game is immediately dire. A high school class finds themselves kidnapped by an evil bear named Monokuma. Taking inspiration from Battle Royale, the class is forced to kill one another. Where it differs is that Danganronpa avoids a simple killing spree by shifting the focus to getting away with murder. To escape, a student must kill and then avoid being caught by their classmates during a ‘class trial.’ Those who fail are executed in an excruciating and thematically relevant fashion.

What makes these games such compelling mysteries is the limited cast. By taking elements from the dating sim subgenre, you are given several opportunities to spend one-on-one time with characters between cases. Thus, these aren’t just random characters being brought in only as they become relevant. By spending the entire game with this same cast, every new death carries weight. With each new case knocking out both the victim and killer, the cast is ultimately reduced to only a handful. With such a colorful cast of characters, this can be devastating.

Danganronpa makes effective use of archetypes. None of these are ordinary teenagers. All of them have exceptional skills and have been granted the ‘ultimate’ label. The protagonist here, Kaede Akamatsu, is the Ultimate Pianist. Others include the Ultimate Entomologist and the Ultimate Cosplayer. Archetypes allow the player to immediately get a sense of this gigantic cast. More importantly, stark archetypes leave room for striking subversions during the cases.

Danganronpa V3 builds upon the gameplay of the earlier games. Where the original is all about pointing out lies and the second introduced the ability to support claims, V3 introduces the option to tell your own lies. What differentiates this from Ace Attorney is that these are not true legal cases; the killer is already known due to Monokuma’s constant surveillance, so he is only looking for the class to correctly identify that person. In V3, the player must use whatever means necessary.

Additionally, these games are just stylish. Instead of the straightforward presentation of Ace Attorney, dialogue during the class trials is a chaotic mess. People speak over one another, and the difficulty of drawing attention to a specific statement involves literally shooting through the background noise. Even with unmoving sprites, the game manages a feeling of constant motion during the trials.

To discuss what makes this entry so grand involves going into specifics. Due to the nature of its plot, discussing anything beyond the introduction can spoil the experience. Being a mystery game, I heavily suggest stopping here if you have any interest – I will be spoiling everything.

Again, these following paragraphs will spoil everything, including a few references to earlier games in the franchise; mysteries like these need to be experienced blind (In fact, don’t even look these games up – I had the first game spoiled due to a simple search).

The Danganronpa franchise is built around the idea of a limited cast where literally anyone can die. While there may be shades of plot armor in the first game with two of the survivors being rather obvious, the second made sure to subvert those expectations. V3 does this immediately.

Earlier, I had to falsely claim the protagonist was Ultimate Pianist Kaede Akamatsu. Halfway through the first case, you are presented with the familiar option of choosing the killer. As you consider the options, the truth begins to dawn; she has been the killer all along. Once she accuses herself, the game shifts perspective to Ultimate Detective Shuichi Saihara. With the first victim having an unknown Ultimate ability, V3 dared to eliminate two of the most intriguing characters right off the bat. Anything goes.

In fact, V3 goes to great lengths to pull the rug out from under the player again and again. This is not limited to the mysteries. Where the previous execution scenes were largely playful besides the very first (a remnant predating the decision to make the series darkly humorous instead of bleak – something like this would be nauseating with the wrong tone), Kaede’s death is horrific. Besides the moments where you stumble across the body, the earlier Danganronpa games rarely try to disturb the player. There are moments in V3 which are uncharacteristically exploitative.

At the same time, there’s something about V3 which feels too familiar. The middle cases seem to hit the same plot beats as the earlier entries. Even the subversive fifth case, the first in the series where Monokuma is as clueless as the rest of the cast and even the victim is unknown, revolves around characters in the same general roles as those involved in Danganronpa 2’s fifth case.

This all leads into one of gaming’s most controversial endings (at least for those who have experienced it). As usual, the finale revolves around identifying the mastermind behind Monokuma. The revelation that Kaede actually wasn’t the first killer is somehow immediately overshadowed by a bigger revelation; the mastermind actually says the title. ‘Danganronpa’ is nonsense, translated as ‘Bullet Refutation.’ It describes the series but never has reason to be spoken within the narrative. Never has a title drop been more jarring.

When the game was announced, ‘V3’ seemed a necessity to differentiate it from an anime sequel to the first two games titled ‘Danganronpa 3.’ That, too, turns out to be part of the meta-experience – the ‘V’ is actually a roman numeral; this is the 53rd Danganronpa in the nightmare universe where this game is set. Instead of being a direct follow-up to the earlier works, Danganronpa V3 imagines a world where the Danganronpa video games became a bigger hit than The Beatles and evolved into an exploitive reality show. All of the characters are sacrificial actors with implanted memories.

This serves one grand purpose which is easy to misunderstand. Playing Danganronpa offers a macabre pleasure, and this fourth-wall breaking finale allows the characters to directly confront the player through their interactions with the show’s audience. What sick monsters are we to enjoy repeatedly watching this same scenario play out over and over? Many reacted to this ending as if the game was pointing an accusatory finger; but we are not the same as this audience who devolved into demanding actual killing. The game never offers a firm explanation, but that’s because we as the players should be able to answer ourselves.

So I should close this out by answering that question; if I’m not some sick monster, why do I enjoy something as macabre as Danganronpa? It’s the same reason I play any other video game, to face off against adversity in a controlled environment. Danganronpa specifically captures the feeling of loss in a safe manner. Due to its structure, the connections to these bizarre characters feel stronger than almost every other franchise. To play a video game involves being more than a passive audience. I don’t play Danganronpa because I want to watch these characters die. I play Danganronpa because I want to help guide those remaining to safety.