Monday, October 5, 2015


There have been a lot of attempts at capturing the surprise success of the series Battle Royale from Japan, a story set in a (somewhat) dystopian future where students are selected to battle each other to the death for the "entertainment" of the masses.  It's actually a cautionary tale about overpopulation, and the lengths a government might need to go to in order to keep the population from growing too quickly.

There have been a lot of similar stories that have emerged in the last few years, not the least of which is The Hunger Games.  Now, I can't say for sure whether or not the person who wrote this series ever heard of Battle Royale (and Steven King seems convinced it's actually a The Running Man knock off), but I can say that The Hunger Games has inspired his own massive flood of knock-offs and imitations.  Everything from The Maze Runner, the Divergent series, Slashers, and- wait, hold on, I think my timeline got messed up in there somehow.

But while you can shift the world setting and mix up some of the characters and genders, in the end it always feels like you have a bunch of young people being killed off for the amusement of older people, and I still maintain that The Cabin In The Woods messed around with that idea the best.

At least when it comes to movies.

Enter Dangan Ronpa (also known as Trigger Happy Havoc), a game so amazingly good that several months later I finished the sequel and I'm still thinking about the original.

There's a very simple concept behind this game: would you kill a stranger to save your own life?

Now, before you say "yes" or "no," I have to say that the game takes a (not really) simple question, and then starts to put layers on it.  Let me get into the story, and this might make more sense.

There exists a school where only the best of the best are allowed to attend.  In order to be a student at this school, you must be the absolute best there is at something, whether it's being the (this term gets used a lot) "ultimate" teen pop idol, the "ultimate" martial artist, or even something as simple as "the ultimate fanfic writer."

The Japanese take their fan fiction seriously, I guess.

Enter you, Makoto Naegi, the "ultimate lucky student," since you won your entry from a nationwide lottery.  You arrive at a school so prestigious that just to graduate can have you set for life in the world, when suddenly everything goes dark.  You wake up in a school where the windows have steel plates bolted over them, the escapes are all locked, and you seem to be alone.  Well, you and the other fourteen students who were supposed to be your classmates.

You might be thinking "that's all well and good as far as back story goes, but what's that bear thing in that picture?"  That's Monokuma, the...well, "representation" of what locked you all in.

He seems to have total control over the school and a huge supply of various ways of killing anybody who breaks the rules he lays out.  He states that everybody is going to take part in a simple experiment.  Everybody is trapped in the school for the rest of their lives, unless one of the students is able to murder a classmate and get away with it.  Any time someone dies, a "class trial" is held where evidence is presented, theories are tossed around, and the identity of the killer is sought.

If the wrong person is voted as guilty, the murderer goes free, and the rest of the students get killed.  If the murderer gets found out, then they suffer the punishment of being executed.

Now, I know what else you're thinking.  "That's messed up.  Why would I want to play a game where I'm supposed to murder other people?"  Well, that's just it, you don't.  See, this isn't a standard action adventure game.  It's more an interactive story, with lots of influence pulled from the Phoenix Wright series (down to the fact that if you spot a flaw in someone's argument, you essentially "OBJECT" over them).  Your character doesn't want to murder anybody, and often it's up to you to investigate the murders that do happen to try to find the guilty party.

"Wait, why would anybody want to murder anybody there?  Why not work together?"

Well, Mr. Constantly Interrupts With Questions I'm Already Getting To, during each "chapter" of the game, Monokuma attempts to provide an "incentive" for someone to cross the line and kill a classmate.  I won't spoil them all here, but an early one involves Monokuma positing that everybody's loved ones are in danger if they don't try to get free.  Another involves deep personal secrets that could ruin peoples lives being revealed to the world.

The game never attempts to justify the idea that murder could be worth it, but since a heavy part of game play is getting to know your fellow classmates and attempting to bond with the ones you hope won't end up dead or killing someone else (you gain skills to use during the game if you build strong bonds with your classmates), there are times where you understand why someone attempted what they did, and you know that, at the heart of it, if Monokuma hadn't put all of you in this situation, nobody would have any reason to hurt anybody else there.

This doesn't make it all the more heartbreaking when characters you've bonded with either wind up dead or needing to be executed.  There's also a constant sense of dread when you start a new chapter, because you know a death is coming, and you're left trying to figure out who you want to build your loyalties with, dreading the moment a body will be discovered because it could be someone you've gotten to know.  Sure, they're just electronic characters, but Danganronpa does a great job of making each character's personality distinctive.  No characters get lost in the crowd, and with stylish designs you find it easy to vividly remember each character you meet and what their interests are.  The game also quizzes you during conversations with classmates, a simple but effective away to make sure you're paying attention to what your new friend is saying.

There are some great character arcs through this game, and the ending is one that absolutely blew my socks off and completely changed how I looked at the rest of the game.  The heavy themes of the game are "hope" vs. "despair," and I'll admit there were times I didn't want to keep playing, because I had an overwhelming sense of dread that characters I liked were about to die.  However, it was that "hope" that the friends I had made among my fictional classmates would all get through to the end got me to see the story through to the end.

Equal parts Phoenix Wright, Professor Layton, and Battle Royale, Danganronpa gets a little weird sometimes (mostly when it tries to play off some bizarre aspects of Japanese culture as being "completely normal"), the story quickly hooks you so fast that you find yourself lost in it.  The choices you expect characters to make never happen, classic tropes of horror stories and cinema (as well as classic tropes about Japanese games) are tossed out the window and twisted in ways that shock and manipulate your feelings.

Characters are scripted to die, but if you think carefully and make smart decisions, you can strongly bond with the ones who have the best chance of making it to the end.

Of course, we all remember what happened the last time I went into a horror game with an optimistic attitude.

Oh, and spoiler alert, expect this game to be near the top of my Top Eleven at the end of the year.  I love it that much.

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