‘Danganronpa’ Considers the Consequences of Paternalism and the Horrors of Boredom

Danganronpa is a sometimes brutal, sometimes bizarre coming of age story, but sometimes the most graphic forms of representation are the most useful in exposing truths about growing up.

While I’m an avid console and PC gamer, I’ve never been particularly aware of what is going on in the portable market. A couple of years ago, though, the name Danganronpa began appearing on and off again in PR releases related to PS Vita releases and on some of the gaming news sites that I frequent.

Mostly what I kept hearing was that this game, Trigger Happy Havoc, which originally appeared on the PSP, and its sequel, Goodbye Despair, were very, very good. I also was made aware of its premise through those sources: a group of high school students are isolated from the world and made to participate in a murderous game. It sounded as if the game game was something along the lines of Battle Royale, Lord of the Flies, or the Hunger Games mixed with the gamesmanship and horror of Saw, except with an evil teddy bear absurdly playing the part of Jigsaw.

Beyond that, all I kept hearing over and over again were glowing reviews of the game. However, as someone who has never owned a Sony portable device, I had no way of testing that thesis. That situation has changed now with the release of both games for Steam, and I am very pleased that I have now had the opportunity to find out what all the buzz was about by playing through the first game and much of the second.

As noted, the premise of Trigger Happy Havoc is that 15 very special high school students have found themselves trapped in a prepatory academy by an evil and sadistic teddy bear named Monokuma. These students will remain at the school for the rest of their lives unless they manage to “graduate”. Under the school’s guidelines, graduation requires that a student kill another student and then get away with that murder in order to “graduate” and leave the school. If the killer does so, this means that the remaining members of the class will all be executed. If the class can work out who the killer is, then only the killer is executed, and the game goes on.

What this means in terms of gameplay is that the main activities in the game concern exploring the school, developing relationships with other students, and then, once a murder occurs, investigating that murder and participating in a school trial to determine the murderer’s identity and the fate of you and your fellow students. Trigger Happy Havoc then has some elements related to dating simulations (developing friendships work much as they might in those kinds of games), but the dominant interest of the game is investigatory with much of it (the class trial segments) playing out a great deal like the trial segments of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games. Thus, the game focuses on creating game systems that mimic the cut and thrust of legal debate, alongside making inferences and attempting to justify conclusions being drawn from evidence.

All of this works very well, as the mini games that make up the trials are generally entertaining enough and often keep the pace of the game moving at a nice clip, while also injecting drama and humor into the proceedings. What the game really excels at, though, is creating a very strong and engaging character-driven storyline intertwined with interesting and offbeat sub-plots concerning the many characters in the game.

Danganronpa does what the very best JRPGs, like the similarly high school themed Persona series, do, which is to create a cast of colorful, quirky characters that you quickly begin to care about and to additionally foster engaging drama based on these character’s interactions and the dynamics of the group. Also, like the best of the JRPG genre, Danganronpa very deftly balances moments of tragedy, horror, and seriousness with moments of lightness, humor, and then absolute absurdity.

This balance is especially important it seems, since the premise of high school students being murdered and sadistically executed could make for a horrific and morbid 20+ hour experience. Thus, you turn Jigsaw into a teddy bear to soften some of the blow. In other words, by mixing up our perspective on things and the perspectives of its characters, Danganronpa allows itself to explore some fairly nasty and awful topics and ideas, while keeping its horrors at bay through its regular injection of the absurd. The game is in no way a work of realism, and it is the better for it. Instead, it allows its interesting themes, which concern adolescents and their relationship to rules and authority, to be developed through a caricature of high school life and the game’s grotesque characterization of high school social dynamics.

The game’s mysteries, both its main mystery, how Monokuma has managed to sequester these students in a high school and what the goals of his own game are, and its individual murder mysteries are all very interesting both thematically and narratively, rarely disappointing the player through the obvious or the mundane.

I especially admire the way that the murder cases are handled and how they unravel over the course of each trial. Mystery investigations are often a very hard thing to simulate in a video game because the mystery needs to be a challenge to the player, but also accessible enough for a large number of players to successfully solve it. The weird thing about the murders here is that I went into each trial essentially having solved them, but always coming out with a sense of surprise about what I learned through the process of making my case. When walking into a trial, I always knew who did it and most of the circumstances regarding how the murderer had accomplished his or her goal. However, each of the cases ended up surprising me with clever twists being introduced through the trials’ many debates concerning the motives of the killer and the motives of the victim involved. Each case concerns uncovering a more complicated psychological portrait of the game’s characters, and it is that is what surprises us, not the simple confirmation that we were right all along. In many ways, we really aren’t.

Rather than turning the game into some kind of clinical procedural, the trials then serve to enlarge an understanding of the story’s characters, making them more tragic, more dramatic, and in many cases, more heroic than they appeared before circumstances intervened and forced a tragic turn of events in their lives. Frankly, this is really the main thematic interest of Danganronpa‘s story, which concerns how hardship, pain, and suffering inform the formation and definition of identity, an idea closely linked to the game’s high school setting and high school age characters. It is a brutal coming of age story, but sometimes the most graphic forms of representation are the most useful in exposing truths about growing up.

The game’s final mystery, what the deadly killing game dictated by Monokuma is really all about is very much concerned with this idea, too. Having played and seen the game’s true ending, Danganronpa seems to me to be a quite timely critique of generational conflict, especially of paternalism, both its causes and its consequences. The game wants to consider issues of our concerns for adolescents’ security and safety and how these very good intentions can lead to worse consequences and despair when taken too far. It also has a great deal to say about how boredom and how failing to grant independence and responsibility at important moments during maturation can undermine the best laid plans for success and optimal outcomes.

I would like to be more specific about what I think the game says ultimately about these ideas and why I think so, but to do so would require me to reveal far too many of the the secrets that lie at the heart of Hope’s Peak Academy, the name of the game’s fictional high school, and this is a game that deserves to remain unspoiled for those interested in it. I do have to say, though, that the game’s final reveal of the mastermind behind the plot results in the emergence of maybe my favorite video game villain ever. The mastermind’s nature and motive seems to me to be just about the most perfect emblem of what fosters despair in adolescence than I could ever think of. Perhaps, though, I will write some more specific analysis of the game’s take on generational conflict between Gen X and the Millenials at a later date, but with a clear spoiler warning when I do so.

In the meantime, my best suggestion to you is that if you, like me, have not had the chance to play Danganronpa because of lack of access to the platforms that it has previously appeared on, go download it now on Steam and play it. This is a story that is more than well worth experiencing that presents ideas that are well worth pondering even after you have completed its many trials.

RATING 9 / 10
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