Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Few game series are as visually distinct as Danganronpa. The games are perhaps best-known (especially among those who have yet to play the games) for Komatsuzaki Rui's distinctive character designs--you can pretty much always identify Danganronpa's characters as hailing from the series even if you aren't familiar with the individual character, provided you are generally aware of the series. These character designs, coupled with the diorama-esque set pieces that carry through the four games, promise a quirky uniqueness that the series as a whole delivers on in spades. While even the earlier games are engaging to play through, the most recent entry, 2017's Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, adds to this formula a carefully-written cast and a level of thematic strength that leaves it as among the best visual novels in recent memory.
Danganronpa at a Glance
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, and Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony share a relatively straightforward premise: 16 individuals are trapped in an isolated environment and told that the only way to escape is to get away with murder--if one of the individuals kills another and is not identified as the culprit, all the others die and the one goes free. The three games are fairly consistent in structure, cycling through "daily life" and "deadly life" sections. The "daily life" sections of the game advance the overall plot--providing most of the character development and hinting at the answers to the larger overarching mystery that is the death game itself--and then the "deadly life" sections feature the investigations of the inevitable murders, followed by trials in which the surviving characters attempt to identify the killer. Once discovered, the culprit is executed by the game's administrator, and the cycle continues.
The investigation and legal drama segments draw heavily on the older Ace Attorney visual novel series, and Danganronpa's gameplay is often described as "Ace Attorney but faster." The logic puzzles are generally simpler than the older series', but they make up for it by applying time limits and light skill-oriented mini-games--instead of just presenting a piece of contradictory evidence, for example, you may have to first brush away irrelevant side comments in order to clear a path for your piece of evidence to make contact with the offending testimony. The series's title, Danganronpa, roughly translates to "bullet objection," and all of the games' logic puzzles are stylized in ways that are meant to evoke shooting games. Everything in Danganronpa, from the art to the world to the gameplay, is heavily stylized, which serves the dual purposes of making the game not nearly as dark and disturbing as it might otherwise be (there's a macabre humor to a cardboard cutout of a person surrounded in pink paint that a more realistic portrayal of a corpse would certainly lack) and also at times making it difficult for the player to determine what is actually happening within the game and what is nothing more than symbolic representation.
This brings me to another important point--the games love misleading the player, and they train the player to expect to be misled. For example, there are several scenes throughout the three games in which the administrator of the death game breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. We learn late in the first game that the character is not, in fact, breaking the fourth wall at all, but rather speaking to an in-universe audience, meaning the fourth-wall-breaking was itself foreshadowing. However, this information comes from the game's antagonist--who, it has been well established, is not credible--so even this "reveal" is suspect. The original Danganronpa, in fact, never establishes whether the answers it provides to the overarching mystery are true or false, as they all come from the antagonist, and the antagonist claims that every other character's memories are wrong. This tests the player's suspension of disbelief, but it does so intentionally. The antagonist's explanation provides a plausible justification for the events of the game, but they also fly in the face of conventional logic. To a player conditioned to the standard rules of detective fiction (or psychological horror), we expect the "answers" provided at the end of the game to be true, and so we accept them in spite of their absurdity. That said, in this case, the answers come from the least reliable character in the game and are incredibly outlandish--they essentially take the game's genre from "mystery" to "dystopia"--so a good deal of doubt remains in the players' minds. And, of course, the credits start rolling seconds before the protagonist is able to verify the truth of the antagonist's claims, leaving the sequel to elaborate.
To provide another example of Danganronpa's tendency to mislead, I would like to draw attention to the names of two characters: the protagonist of the first game and the de facto prosecutor figure in the second game. The first game's protagonist is named Makoto Naegi, and the character from the second game is named Nagito Komaeda. Rearrange the letters in the second, and you get, "Makoto Naegi Da" (with the "Da" being the short form of the copula in Japanese, meaning, roughly, "I am" or "This is"). I picked up on this immediately when I first played the game. I then noticed that the characters have the same core idiosyncrasies--exceptionally good luck, and an obsession with hope--and that they are voiced by the same person. I was positive there was a connection.
The two characters are entirely unrelated. Their similarities are never addressed. Not once.
All of this flies in the face of conventional mystery writing. Mysteries remain unsolved, seeming clues are completely irrelevant, sci-fi elements pop up with little warning in the later games--if you're familiar with Knox's Laws, Danganronpa violates every one at one time or another--and in the first two games, it usually works. At the very least, it makes them unique, unpredictable, and a lot of fun. The third game, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, is not a visual novel--opting instead of a puzzle adventure structure reminiscent of Portal--and takes the series into full dystopia territory (without losing the games' trademark art style). Despite its odd title, it's a thematically rich offering, albeit somewhat less unconventional than its predecessors. The animated series Danganronpa 3 closes out the story arc established in the first game, leaving Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony to reboot the series, free to be as weird and experimental as the other games without the baggage of existing characters and an established world.
Living in Lazy Parallel World
(A slight warning--there will be significant spoilers for Danganronpa V3 from this point forward)
So with that context, I picked up a copy of Danganronpa V3 while in Japan about a year ago expecting more of the same: an experimental mystery that breaks some rules well and others not so well, that's fun to read but not a particularly lasting experience.
I got way more than I bargained for.
V3 is a much slower game than its predecessors, and in a good way. The older games set up their premises and introduce their characters very quickly--I distinctly remember playing the original game and being overwhelmed by needing to keep track of fifteen characters right off the bat, most of whom were only given a sentence or two of introduction before the plot kicked into gear. This meant that (especially in the original, but also in Danganronpa 2 to a degree) most of characters were as flat as their cardboard-cut-out character models. They were more caricatures or concepts than characters, and while a few got more personality as the game progressed--mostly the ones in the prosecutor, defense attorney, and detective roles--the majority never moved beyond the exaggerated cliches they were meant to embody. This is likely by design, as characters die very quickly in Danganronpa, and their general lack of personalities makes it so the character deaths don't weigh on the player much. There are a few surprising deaths in the first two games, but for the most part the deaths serve only to advance the plot, and dead characters are rarely mentioned again. This also likely made the game easier to write, managing a large cast by only fleshing out the core five-ish.
V3, on the other hand, allows for a lot of time before and between its murder mysteries, to the point that the fourth-wall-breaking segments poke fun at how much longer the game's intro is that that of the prior games. The game uses this additional length to ensure all sixteen of its characters are fully-formed personalities. Even the first to die is referenced again and again throughout the game, as he is one of the more charismatic characters before his death and he is directly connected to the larger mystery. V3 ends with the smallest surviving cast in the series, and unlike in the other games, every character death hurts. Unlike in the earlier games, every murder is committed out of a mistaken belief on the killer's part that the death is necessary for the greater good (and in two cases with the consent of the victim). These are not one-note characters with simple motivations, but fully-formed individuals with complex values and desires, and as each murder mystery unravels we learn not only who did it and how but also why the person came to believe such a thing was necessary. Most of the killers in the earlier games are just bad people driven by selfish motives, and the antagonist who links the first four games is a bland evil-for-the-sake-of-evil villain (although she's relatively well executed and pretty terrifying at times), but all of V3's killers and victims are sympathetic, and even the overarching antagonist believes that what she is doing is good for society.
The result of this is that the player becomes much more invested in what's happening. The murders are not just puzzles to be solved but also social and narrative problems, which makes the investigations and trials far more interesting than in the earlier games (not that the first two were bad by any means). The additional time given also means the overall plot is far more engaging and cohesive than in the earlier installments, with multiple layers of mystery, scheming, and foreshadowing that make the overarching mystery just as interesting and satisfying as the smaller mysteries, something which the earlier games did not accomplish. Particularly noteworthy is the role of the prosecutor-figure and anti-hero Ouma Kokichi, who spends much of the game concocting an elaborate plot in an attempt bring the death game to a halt and then to force the administrator of the game to violate his own rules, thereby delegitimizing the game. He does this by gradually framing himself as the mastermind behind the game at large, and unraveling his scheming and behavior provides much of the motion for the story until the protagonist solves Ouma's case (inadvertently foiling Ouma's plan to undermine the death game) and the game enters its final act.
The game also, of course, breaks the rules of detective fiction in surprising ways, the most dramatic of which happens relatively early in the game. The game is in first-person, narrated by the "defense attorney" figure... mostly. The game's intro and most of its first case are actually narrated by a different character, whom the player assumes is the protagonist, and she's assisted by a character who seems to fill the "detective" role. Towards the climax of the first trial, though, the player is forced to identify the true culprit behind the first case. The clues are lined up for the player leading up to this, and it becomes painfully clear who the killer is.
The player is required to point out the "protagonist," whose thoughts the player has been following.
As soon as the player does this, the perspective shifts to the "detective" character, who becomes the narrator for much of the rest of the game. He explains how the original narrator committed the crime, which is all the more painful because the player saw it happen and was reading her thoughts the entire time. The entire opening case of the game is written so cleverly that the player does not realize what the narrator was doing until it is pointed out later. The game takes Knox's Seventh Law--"The detective must not himself commit the crime"--and shatters it in stride, in one of the most impressively executed twists I've seen in detective fiction.
While all of this is fun, and the moral twisting of the murder motives grants the game a richness its predecessors lack, the real meat of the game comes in its final chapter. Starting from about halfway through the game, the characters start to find references to the events of the older Danganronpa games--which is surprising to the player, as V3 is ostensibly a reboot, unrelated to the older material. This comes up in the final trial, in which the major characters use the clues they've found so far to paint a post-apocalyptic explanation of the larger mystery--the characters were sent away from Earth on a space ship to colonize another planet, but the antagonist manipulated their memories and set up this death game, causing a representation of humanity's hope to tear itself apart from the inside.
...Except, it turns out that that's all a lie. The original Danganronpa tested suspension of disbelief with a similarly silly explanation, but V3 pushes back against that, as the heroes insist that that is impossible and start mounting evidence as to why. In what becomes the final key twist in the game, we learn that all of the foreshadowing, all of the hints, and all of the world-building were lies, planted by the antagonist to make the apocalyptic story seem real. In truth, the world outside is perfectly fine. It's utopian, even--we're told that the world outside has solved all of society's problems, and everyone is completely happy. It's the opposite of the dystopian world the player had come to expect.
Here's where things get interesting. It turns out the the "V" in "V3" is actually a roman numeral V. This is the fifty-third "Danganronpa game." We are told that far in the future, after the world solved all of its problems, people grew bored due to the lack of stress and stakes, so one company turned to a little-known game series called Danganronpa for inspiration. The company decided to make use of memory-manipulation technology to create a real death game with the same premise of Danganronpa. They adjust the memories of willing volunteers so that they believe themselves to be part of that world, and then they air the ensuing death game to the world at large. It is enormously popular, and has continued until the time in which V3 is set.
This comes as a pretty severe blow to V3's cast. They are told that they were all normal people before this, but that all of their memories--even their personalities and hobbies and talents--are fabricated. What they think of as their "selves" are in fact fictional characters, written over their minds in order to encourage them to kill each other. This was, in fact, foreshadowed right at the beginning of the game, and on several occasions throughout it, but it's such a radical shift of thinking that it would be difficult to anticipate.
This completely invalidates any potential "good reason" the killers had for their deeds. All of their deeply held convictions, their duties to people outside of the death game, were entirely false. It means everything that happened in the game up until that point was meaningless. Every death was pointless. The characters who had so much more depth than in earlier games were fictionalizations, not real people at all.
But, Wait, Isn't That Obvious?
With this key twist, Danganronpa V3 creates the symbol that is at the heart of its thematic argument. Saying point-blank that the characters are fictional and that nothing that happened was real or meaningful seems heartless, or even cruel, but from an outside perspective, it has been obviously true from the beginning. This game is a work of fiction. In any completely fictional work, the characters are not real. What they think, feel, and experience is not real. Their suffering and joy are meaningless.
During V3 there is a display that is always present that shows the title of the song that's currently playing. One of the most common ones is "Beautiful Lie." Fiction, the game contends, is one big beautiful lie. It's easy to grow attached to characters and to want to see them succeed and feel disappointed when they don't, but isn't that silly? None of it's real, after all. Why is it that we can empathize with people who truly don't exist?
That is, essentially, the argument V3's antagonist makes. As the characters' thoughts and beliefs are fiction, imprinted on their minds in advance, they have no value. The original people who became the main characters entered into the death game fully understanding what that would entail and with no qualms about the process. They were the "real" people, and the people they have become are false and therefore irrelevant. The death game itself is an attempt to build an isolated, fictional world--once it ends, it becomes meaningless, having no impact on the otherwise-utopian world outside.
The response of the protagonists forms the crux of V3's thematic contention: fiction can influence real people and is therefore meaningful even if it has no grounding in reality. They argue that even if they are not "real," their lives and suffering matter because of the impact they have on other people, and that as a result fiction is valuable. Moreover, the writing of fiction should be approached carefully and intentionally, with an awareness of how people will react emotionally to what you are writing, as that, at least, is very real.
It's a pretty poignant argument, and a surprising one coming from a series historically so grim and pulpy as Danganronpa. It also adds another layer to the morally-involved murders earlier in the game: the murderers felt as if they needed to kill their victims, even though it hurt themselves and those around them, The revelation that the victims were fictional does not make the murders less horrific but rather more, as the justification for the crimes was entirely unreal. This seems, to me, to echo writing that exposes its characters to cruelty without reason. It says that just as harming a real person is wrong, writing a fictional character such that they suffer excessively can be wrong, as it can cause very real emotional pain to the reader, and the circumstances that "necessitate" such suffering are ultimately fictional--a lie.
Nuance is obviously needed here--fiction would be horribly boring (not to mention unrealistic) if nothing bad ever happened to anyone--but the implication reminds me of something similar Kawahara Reki, the author of Sword Art Online, once wrote. I don't have the exact paragraph on-hand, sadly--it was in the afterword of Sword Art Online Volume 7, I believe--but it amounted to cautioning against writing suffering unnecessarily. His argument was, essentially, that negativity is generally a bad thing and should be approached carefully, and that an author should think hard about whether it is absolutely necessary before writing death and hardship.
When Danganronpa V3 ends, the few surviving characters are completely victorious, to a degree not seen in any of the earlier games. They identified the true culprit, reached the truth behind their imprisonment, collapsed the entire "stage" on which the death game took place, and--most importantly--caused the beginning of a shift of public opinion, persuading the people watching (through a platform that functions suspiciously like the streaming service Twitch, right down to a gimmick that calls to mind the amusing fad "Twitch Plays Pokemon") that the death game that is "Danganronpa" is bad and should not be supported. Despite being "fictional," the surviving characters are able to influence the people outside of their fictional world in a positive way.
The most impressive thing to me, I think, is how Danganronpa V3 tears itself down--literally, narratively, and thematically--and still remains entirely satisfying and perfectly cohesive. The "none of it was real" twist does not invalidate the careful writing, plotting, and characterization specifically because the whole point of the game's deconstruction is that the events of the game matter in spite of being built on lies. Everything from Ouma's well-intentioned scheming to the bitterly ironic murders remains significant and valuable even though it all falls apart in the end, and (helpfully) the plot is consistent on both its "fictional" and "real" levels, which keeps the latter from feeling like a deus ex machina solution to an unsolvable mystery. I would have trouble naming another game that does this as well.
Amusingly enough, the structure of the end of the game is also largely consistent with standard detective fiction. The illusions and falsehoods fall apart, the truth comes to light, and the culprit is outed, so the stunning ending to a bizarre game is surprisingly easy to accept. It also helps that the "false" mystery is solved before it is revealed to be untrue, which avoids the potential dissatisfaction of the red herrings and fake evidence coming to naught.
Experimentation in a Danganronpa game is not at all surprising, but it is still an impressively brave move to make the fourth game in your series a deconstruction of the original three. I know people for whom V3 was a step too far, though the complaints you might expect--that it wasn't believable, or that the ending felt like it came out of nowhere--are surprisingly uncommon. Even among those who feel that V3 pushes too far, there seems to be an appreciation--or at least an awareness--of how well-crafted the game is.
Two years ago I never would have expected a Danganronpa game to be in contention with Nasu Kinoko's Fate/Stay Night for the title of being my favorite visual novel, but Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony strikes all the right notes. A memorable-if-weird score and a fabulous art style pair with writing that's as slick and fun as it thematically rich and intellectually fascinating. A "know-the-rules-so-you-can-break-'em" mentality is risky and certainly doesn't always work, but the bizarre, experimental, absurdist-but-not V3 takes that philosophy and runs with it. It's pretty phenomenal.
In the past ten years or so, Sega has (in the U.S., at least) become more-or-less synonymous with the Sonic the Hedgehog series. The recent resurgence in popularity of Yakuza aside, many of Sega's excellent older IPs have sadly been left to languish in obscurity. This is unfortunate, as many of Sega's older (and now more obscure) games are surprisingly original and strong offerings even in comparison to games released fifteen to twenty years later. The Dreamcast era in particular, lasting roughly from 1999 until 2003, saw several extraordinary works that were every bit as ahead of their time as the system on which they were released. The Dreamcast may have been an ill-fated system commercially--it was the last of Sega's consoles, and it sold relatively poorly--but it featured an extraordinary lineup of games and arguably represents Sega's pinnacle as a software developer. From the cult classic Shenmue (which, amazingly, is now getting a rerelease and a sequel), to the niche-but-well-received RPG Skies of Arcadia, to the bizarrely exhilarating musical-theatre-inspired Space Channel 5, the Dreamcast was home to several of the best games of its generation, representing a level of consistent quality and a willingness to take risks that Sega has not been able to replicate since. One game, in particular, is a borderline-necessary experience for anyone interested in games: Jet Set Radio.
Let's Look at the Funk
Jet Set Radio released for the Dreamcast in 2000, and the game was meant as a celebration and affectionate parody of the youth culture of the time. Its sense of style carries through every aspect of the game, from its music, to its art style, to its skating-and-graffiti gameplay. It is a game that has a strongly-defined concept and adheres to that concept throughout. There is no question as to what Jet Set Radio is about, and there are no excesses in its storytelling and mechanics. The game follows a group of skaters known as the GGs as they spread their graffiti throughout the already-colorful streets of Tokyo, first combating rival skate-gangs while running from overly-violent police, and then painting over propaganda from the corporate-government hybrid that is the amorphous Rokkaku group. For all its countercultural overtones, the game is tongue-in-cheek throughout, with melodramatic antagonists and characters that are more concepts and designs than true people. Jet Set Radio does not espouse the anti-establishment rebelliousness its heroes represent so much as paint that rebelliousness as an important facet of the vibrancy of Tokyo and New York at the turn of the millennium.
Celebration is truly the right word here. Jet Set Radio is an exceptionally bright and colorful game, and it captures the attitude of Tokyo better than any game except possibly Square Enix's The World Ends With You and Atlus's Persona 5. It's also not insignificant that even Jet Set Radio's antagonists can be recruited as playable characters and become members of the GGs--the rival gangs and the CEO of the Rokkaku eventually give in and join JSR's heroes in skating around and celebrating the energy of their city and the value of free expression. The game has very little text, limited to brief scenes between stages outlining broad plot developments, but even in a short game that consists mostly of gameplay, Jet Set Radio conveys strong themes and paints an overwhelmingly optimistic picture of its time.
Impressively, even in its brief duration, Jet Set Radio's plot is able to operate on two distinct (but entirely complete) levels. The literal is as I outlined above: the story of the GGs fighting against those who would suppress their voices. The story as a whole, though, is delivered largely through the voice of a radio host named Professor K. The playable levels operate on time limits, which fit two or three complete songs, after which the level ends and
Professor K explains what happened to the GGs during that time. In this way, the story can be taken as a true radio program, with the DJ telling story during breaks between songs. The game's title tells us as much: this is Jet Set Radio. None of what's happening, with its exaggeration and broad-strokes melodrama is real--it's all a story told on a funky-but-niche radio station.
In this way, too, Jet Set Radio is a celebration of the world that created it. While the GGs antics are not realistic, Professor K and his broadcast is something that very well could have existed at the end of the '90s. To add to this, about half of Jet Set Radio's music was actually not written for the game, but rather licensed from various indie artists and bands. In other words, some of the music that played during the stages was music that could, in fact, have been played on alternative radio stations at the time. The "frame" for JSR's story serves as a thread of realism linking the semi-fantasy of the game's main plot to the word that it was designed to celebrate. The game's simplicity is deceptive and creates a surprisingly complex short story that is both concealed enough to encourage deeper thought and clear enough to leave a strong impression on any player.
Extra Sugar, Extra Salt! Extra Oil, MSG!
Jet Set Radio is vibrant and larger-than-life in every aspect of its design, and nowhere is that more true than in its art style. The game is important from a historical standpoint if for no other reason than for being the origin of cel-shading, a graphical style that gives computer-generated 3D models the impression of being hand-drawn. JSR's cel-shaded art style gives it its distinctive pop, and the art style has since been copied and used in many games and animated shows and movies since. Were it not for Jet Set Radio, we wouldn't have the distinctive look that characterizes 2003's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and we wouldn't have the gorgeous art that fills the more recent The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Cel-shading has proven to be exceptionally flexible as well--although most cel-shaded games opt for JSR's bright and colorful approach, there are also games like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne that apply cel-shading to a muted color palatte to create an almost surrealist aesthetic. Cel-shading also tends to rely more on color than on shape for its aesthetic, which means many games from the early era of 3D that adopted Jet Set Radio's graphical style hold up much better than their cousins that reached for realism--just compare The Wind Waker to its predecessor, Majora's Mask, which was released a scant two-and-a-half years before. While Majora's Mask also has memorable characters and strong art direction, The Wind Waker almost looks right at home next to games released in 2018, while Majora's Mask looks... dated, to put it lightly.
Jet Set Radio's stylized, exaggerated, and cel-shaded Tokyo may not look much like the city its modeled after, but the feel of it is exactly right. A direct recreation of Tokyo's streets will fall out of date, but Jet Set Radio's encapsulation of the attitude and the energy of the city is recognizable even walking through the streets of the Tokyo almost twenty years later. Even smaller details, like the characters dancing if left standing in place for long enough, keep the feel of the city's energy and life going throughout the game as a whole.
So Now Let Us Listen to the Music and Identify the Beats
No discussion of Jet Set Radio would be complete without addressing its music. Most of the more memorable music was written by a composer named Naganuma Hideki, whose "calling card," if you will, is inserting samples of spoken word into funk-inspired music. The lyrics for the music in Jet Set Radio are largely meaningless, and intentionally so: remember that this is in part a loving parody of the pop culture of the time in which the game was developed. Naganuma's point, I believe, is that the lyrics for popular music at the time--and, arguably, in general--are not nearly as important as everything else that's conveyed by the music itself. You don't need to understand what's meant by someone saying you should "Float like a bulldozer trying to catch a butterfly" so long as the pace and the context of the music express the right feeling--in this case, of adventuring stylishly through the nighttime streets of a fascinating city. Similarly, "Like It Like This Like That" conveys an appreciation of positivity and makes pessimism seem silly, not through overtly meaningful lyrics, but by pairing seeming nonsense with intentional music and a specific context.
The way Naganuma's music functions is entirely keeping with JSR's method of storytelling and world-building--it conveys a feeling, a tone, an emotion, and while everything builds towards that tone, it does it in abstract, avant-garde ways. Therein lies the brilliance of Naganuma's work on JSR (and its semi-sequel, Jet Set Radio Future): the music uses meaninglessness to create meaning, creating something that is modeled off of something traditional while also parodying itself, and then surpassing that parody to become something avant-garde and unique. Like JSR as a whole, it operates on multiple levels, all while being unabashedly fun.
That said, some of the "nonsense" lyrics are a bit too pointed to be unintentional. The main theme of JSR, for example, is a song called "Let Mom Sleep." Mixed throughout the song's three minutes of funk are the phrases "Let's look at the funk" and "Would you stop playing with that radio of yours? I'm trying to get to sleep." These sections are followed by the (always complete) phrase "This is most disturbing." The latter phrase is a pun: the radio is disturbing to the person who is trying to sleep, but the person trying to stifle the playing of music is disturbing on a more existential level. As with everything in Jet Set Radio, this is not an accident: this is a game that is, at least on the surface, about standing up for free expression, so of course someone trying to stop the music would be disturbing. "Let's look at the funk" is also an interesting phrase. It's not, "Let's listen to the funk" or something similar--it specifically uses the word look, implying an examination rather than a passive acceptance. Even in its opening theme, Jet Set Radio is self-aware: the game is a look into the world that it represents, not a straight representation of that world itself. The game is somewhat more cerebral than it first appears, yet a player who chooses to simply enjoy the "funk" instead of "looking" at it more closely will not be left unsatisfied.
Oldies, but the Goodies
It's somewhat of a shame that Sega hasn't chosen to revisit its unique Dreamcast-era games (though the new Shenmue title is promising), but beyond that, what games like Jet Set Radio demonstrate is the value of experimentation. Truly new titles coming from established companies is somewhat of a rarity these days, and although Nintendo has begun to once more demonstrate a bit of willingness to experiment--creating games like Splatoon and Arms--it's rare to see developers of Sega's size committing to unusual and experimental games like Jet Set Radio. There's nothing inherently wrong with producing more games in established series, and existing franchises can absolutely produce masterful games, but there's something to be said for truly new works that are free to respond to and reflect the time in which they are created, unbound by the decades-long history many of the major gaming franchises hold. 15th and 20th and 25th anniversaries of major series feel like they happen more and more often, and while that reflects well on the importance and staying power of those series, it also demonstrates that we need new franchises to form that can themselves grow and represent the next twenty years.
Much of the truly new game design currently resides in the indie domain, and that's fine--there are plenty of great indie games out there--but larger companies should not be afraid to experiment. They are, if anything, better positioned than indie developers to produce new and interesting work, as indie developers are often compelled by technological or financial constraints to draw heavily on older styles of game design. If a Sega or a Square Enix or a Capcom were to devote its resources and talent to creating something truly new rather than something inspired by or tethered to its earlier work, we might again be treated to games like Jet Set Radio.
Earlier this summer I watched an anime called Magical Girl Raising Project (魔法少女育成計画), mostly because I'm fond of the studio, Lerche, that produced it. Magical Girl Raising Project is an adaptation of a novel series by Endou Asari, an author I had previously never heard of and who as far as I can find has not published anything else. (The author is, in fact, so obscure as to not even have a Wikipedia page in either English or Japanese). The "magical girl" anime sub-genre after which Endou's work is named tends to be aimed at elementary- or junior-high-aged girls and focuses on characters of the same demographic gaining magical powers and fighting your standard supervillain-type figures. It's not a genre I'm especially familiar with beyond the various tropes and cliches that are often parodied (in anime such as Mahou Shoujo Ore or Carnival Phantasm) or deconstructed (in anime such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica or Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya), but it's a popular enough genre that it would be hard to spend a significant amount of time around Japanese popular culture without running into it on occasion. The sheer popularity of older magical girl anime such as Sailor Moon is hard to miss, and Urobuchi Gen's brilliant deconstruction of the genre in Madoka (which also happens to be a modern retelling of Faust) has given magical girl anime a good deal of exposure beyond its typical market.
I went into Magical Girl Raising Project expecting a deconstructive work in the vein of Madoka--partially due to a set of superficial similarities to the detective fiction/death game/dystopian horror hybrid that is Danganronpa--but I was surprised to find that for all its darkness and gore, Endou's work is, at its core, a traditional magical girl anime. The anime's opening monologue--which is also repeated in the final episode--features the protagonist reflecting on how she loves magical girl stories, but how as she got older her friends grew out of them and she had fewer and fewer people to talk with about the genre of entertainment she enjoyed. This monologue is quickly forgotten as the show goes on, but it contains the entire conceit of the show: this is a magical girl anime for an older audience, and the show delivers on that promise perfectly.
...Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of some really intriguing potential.
I Don't Want to Call This a Danganronpa Rip-Off, But...
The premise of Magical Girl Raising Project is that there is a popular magical-girl-themed phone game, and some of its players are selected to become real-life magical girls in order to help people. The protagonist is, of course, selected, and she then spends her time helping cats out of trees and walking elderly people across the street, all while earning a sort of vague virtual currency in the process. A little while later, we learn that sixteen people have been selected to become magical girls, but the administrator of the system informs the magical girls that his superiors have decided there are too many magical girls in the area, and that their number needs to be halved. Whichever one has the least virtual currency at the end of each week will lose the ability to be a magical girl, until only eight are remaining. At the end of the first week, one of the characters loses, and it is revealed (unsurprisingly) that losing the granted powers results in death. In typical death game fashion, this rapidly spirals into characters murdering each other, either directly or by manipulating the rules of the game.
Anyone who has played the Danganronpa games is likely to notice a few eerie similarities. The number of participants in the death game--sixteen--is the same. The fact that one of the sixteen participants controls the administrator and in fact created the game is the same. Even the designs of the administrators of the two death games are almost identical, with their bodies split down the middle by a line that divides them into a black half and a white half, with one red eye and one black eye. The administrator, who is referred to as Fav, has much more in common with Danganronpa's Monokuma than with Madoka's antagonist, Kyubey. The similarities between Magical Girl Raising Project and Danganronpa are so pronounced that they almost have to be intentional, but after finishing the anime I honestly don't know what that parallel is meant to convey. An intentionally-used allusion to another work can be quite effective, but Magical Girl Raising Project's is not.
My issue with the Danganronpa parallels extends throughout the whole show. There are several aspects of Magical Girl Raising Project that seem like they could have some deeper significance, but none of them are explored in any meaningful way. Take, for example, the diverse backgrounds of the anime's characters. One particularly interesting component of the death game is that anyone can become a magical girl regardless of age or gender, and when they transform into their magical girl outfits (in typical magical girl transformation montage fashion), their physical appearances change as well, such that they look like a 14-ish-year-old girl regardless of who they may actually be. The anime uses this flexibility quite a bit in order to introduce a cast with a surprising degree of variety for an anime of this genre--you have an alcoholic older woman going through a divorce, a young wife about to have a child, and so on. Frustratingly, this variety is not utilized much at all. We get hints here and there at how each character's background influences his or her behavior, but it's often only a brief vignette before a character is killed off.
The most irritating example of this is Magicaloid 44. She's initially portrayed as a manipulative antagonist figure, but about halfway through the show we're given tantalizing hint of the reasons behind her behavior--we learn that she's a homeless teenage girl, and that she ran away from a toxic home environment--but then she's promptly, ignominiously killed off right as she starts to grow into a meaningful and interesting character. The only character who gets a significant level of attention is the protagonist, Snow White, but she's also the only character who perfectly fits the magical girl stereotype, which means she's easily the least intriguing member of the cast. Magical Girl Raising Project has plenty of interesting characters, but their backgrounds end up being largely irrelevant. Few of the characters receive any sort of resolution to their story arcs, which is normal for death game stories but is unsettling here because because what we do see of their characters is interesting enough to leave the viewer wanting more. Had Magical Girl Raising Project left its non-central characters flat--like the early Danganronpa games do--then the wasted potential wouldn't be nearly as bothersome. On the other hand, Danganronpa V3 does an excellent job of ensuring most of its characters have meaningful character arcs and providing necessary resolution for the more-developed characters who die early, though it is a long game and Magical Girl Raising Project would struggle to accomplish the same thing in its twelve episodes even if it tried. Magical Girl Raising Project has the beginnings of strong character stories, but not the endings, which leaves an unsatisfying taste in the viewer's mouth with each death.
The anime has the same problem with its thematic ideas. The shapeshifting magical girls concept seems to be a stand-in for avatars and usernames in online games and chat fora, especially considering the characters use their phones to catalyze the transformation and they actually do have an online chat forum they use to communicate. I kept expecting this parallel to be referenced--or at least used in some pointed or thematically-interesting way--but it never was. As with the diverse backgrounds of the show's characters, symbolic ideas such as this are largely underutilized. There's no social commentary, and little in the way of genre deconstruction. There's a lot of potential for that, and there are plenty of interesting ideas, but it all adds up to a whole lot of nothing.
But Does it Matter?
As a intellectually or artistically interesting deconstruction of the magical girl genre, Magical Girl Raising Project fails on all counts. The catch, though, is that the anime was never trying to be that. As the anime tells us at the beginning and reminds us at the end, Magical Girl Raising Project is nothing more than a magical girl story that can appeal to an older audience. On that count, at least, it's completely successful--while the plot may not be especially cohesive, it is quick and engaging, and it also hits the typical magical girl notes, complete with a relatively happy ending where the antagonist is defeated and the heroine continues to help people long afterwards. It is strictly meant to entertain, and it has a clear concept of the demographic it is appealing to and what it wants to accomplish. Magical Girl Raising Project sets a low goal for itself, but it certainly does hit that goal, which results in the odd impression that the anime is simultaneously completely successful and highly disappointing. It could have been a lot more, but it didn't want to be, and so it wasn't.
In some respects the anime's limited aspirations help to set it apart from Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Urobuchi's deconstruction of the magical girl genre is a tough act to follow, but Magical Girl Raising Project isn't really competing. Perhaps it's unfair to criticize Magical Girl Raising Project for weaknesses that fall outside of the anime's goal--and it was fun to watch--but the hints of potential make it tough to accept the anime's insistence that it's just meant to entertain.
Inherent in pretty much any storytelling medium is the possibility that the audience will miss something--a cleverly-hidden detail, a hint of foreshadowing, a layered symbol, et cetera. Such details can at times be more impressive or interesting for their unobtrusiveness. There's a tongue-in-cheek term I like that's associated with this idea: fridge brilliance, or, the types of details you'll pick up on well after the fact, perhaps suddenly surfacing in your mind as you stare idly into your refrigerator late at night. There's nothing more fun than realizing weeks later that that one seemingly innocuous line was actually a clever moment of foreshadowing for that one dramatic twist. While hidden details can be present in the written word, they're easier to hide in more involved media, such as theatre and film. If you go to see a well-directed play or movie, it's pretty likely that the actors' blocking--where they stand and when they move and so on--has significance that goes beyond the surface level. The antagonist might, for example, consistently move across the stage in the opposite direction as the rest of the cast, or put him or herself physically and metaphorically above the hero. Similar levels of detail can pop up in everything from set design to lighting, in various degrees of subtlety.
The question, then, is whether the audience picks up on any of this. Any work with that sort of detail is richer for it, but if no one who watches or reads the work notices, does it matter? Does that become a failure on the part of the director or writer? Or is it a failure on the part of the audience to engage critically with the material?
And then we have video games, which add yet another layer of complexity to the question. Most games (setting aside oddities like kinetic visual novels) offer some degree of player choice, and respond to the actions the player takes. This means that most players will not experience everything a game has to offer. A book is meant to be read cover-to-cover, and a film is meant to be watched beginning-to-end, but games are usually designed under the assumption that the player will not see everything within the game. A particularly engaged player may make an effort to find every hidden detail or secret path within a game, but most will play a game until the credits roll and then be done, ignoring any optional paths or secrets they may have missed along the way. This is a fundamental difference from older storytelling media and it raises several fascinating questions when we start to look at games critically like we might approach a novel or film. Is it the player's responsibility to seek out all meaningful content within a game? If a player can complete a game without seeing some crucial piece of content, does that reflect poorly on the game? Is the player's resulting impression of the game less valid than that of a player who did experience that crucial piece of content? The questions go on and on, and there's no easy answer to any of them, but in order to tackle this idea I'd like to draw attention to one director who has grappled with this issue head-on in several of his works.
Katsura Hashino's Approach to Subtlety
I went over who Katsura Hashino is (and part of why I like his work) last week, so I'll keep this brief: Hashino is a video game director who works for Atlus. He's best known for his work on Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and the more recent Persona games. Hashino is a particularly good avenue for tackling these questions for a few reasons. First, his games are--or, at least, are clearly trying to be--serious artistic works. It wouldn't be a Hashino game without a strong grounding in philosophy, multiple allusions to classic literature, and layers upon layers of symbolism and thematic meaning, so if our goal is to examine the artistic consequences of missable content in games, Hashino's games are a solid place to start. Second--and more importantly--Hashino's games are full of missable content. In the past ten years or so, there's been a trend--particularly in Western games--towards open-ended games where things can be completed in any order and nothing can be permanently missed. Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5 take the opposite philosophy to an extreme, with a calendar-based storytelling structure that is set up such that the player will miss significant portions of what the games offer. It is literally impossible to see everything in those games in the course of a single playthrough.
Hashino's older games handle this with ease. For all its minimalism and "soullessness," Nocturne is a surprisingly approachable game. While most players are not going to see all of its endings or catch on to all of its symbolism, the overall experience is cohesive and complete even without all of the details. The minimalism, in a sense, asks the player to fill in the gaps and unanswered questions, which means even if a detail or a stretch of the game is missed, the work still feels complete and the experience is not much weaker. The best comparison might be to an impressionist painting--while there may not be an abundance of fine details, the general shape and color evokes the impression of the complete work, so even if it isn't examined closely the viewer is left with a clear understanding of the overall image. Many games take this sort of approach (though rarely so effectively as Nocturne), presenting a cohesive enough overall experience that the player can fill in the gaps he or she might miss. Any detail the player experiences builds towards the same unified impression of the work, and in the course of a playthrough the player experiences enough of the game to have a reasonable understanding of the game as a whole despite not having actually played the game in its entirety.
Persona 3 takes the opposite approach, as it is a game full of detail and life. In a typical playthrough, the player will miss a great deal of what the game has to offer, but this works well for two key reasons. First, Persona 3 is crystal-clear with regards to its thematic goals. The game is strongly an anti-suicide work, and it touches on concepts such as depression, drug addiction, and self-harm in ways that ensure the symbolism cannot be missed. All of the issues the game tackles are approached through layered symbols and extended metaphors--to the extent that many of these core issues are never referred to by name--but they're exceptionally hard to miss. Some would say that the game is a bit too heavy-handed with its symbolism, but it's certainly no Catherine in that regard (I'll get to that later), and many of the game's symbolic moments tread the line between literal and symbolic in ways the open up fascinating layers of potential meaning. It works quite well in practice. The second reason allowing players to miss things works in Persona 3, though, is that missing things is itself a major component of the game's theme of valuing life. The game opens with the protagonist signing a contract stating that he agrees to take responsibility for his usage of time, and the player is told multiple times throughout the course of the game that your time is limited and that you have to appreciate the time you have. By limiting the time the player has to experience everything the game has to offer, Persona 3 fosters in the player an awareness that life is short and time is valuable in an experiential way that is more profound than anything achievable through words alone. Hashino's games are consistently willing to make sacrifices for the strength of the overall concept, and this is one of them--the player won't see everything in the game, but that very fact strengthens the overall experience in a way that outweighs anything the player would miss. It's really brilliant.
Lost to the Fog
And then we have Persona 4. Like its predecessor, Persona 4 is full of missable content, and the existence of that missable content is directly relevant to the game's overarching themes. Persona 4 is primarily about the concept of truth, and about not being content with appealing stories that may satisfy our personal biases. The game contends that we need to actively work towards identifying what is true and what isn't in order to make sense of our worlds and lead satisfying and productive lives. Within that context, being able to miss significant portions of the game is perfectly natural. The game even has several false endings prompted by poor player choices, and one of them even plays the full credits sequence, complete with an ending montage and a satisfying-sounding credits theme. I know at least one person who stumbled into one of these false endings, thought it was real, and never played the final quarter or so of the game. In a meta sense, this is really cool. This is a game that contends that the truth is difficult to find and that people can be easily deceived and satisfied with appealing lies, and the game's false endings essentially demonstrate the truth of this assertion. The rationale on the part of the developers is likely something to the effect of, "If you've been paying attention to what we've been saying all along, to what this game is about instead of just what's happening, you'll know to push through to the true ending." It's a bold move, and part of me really likes it.
What about the players who don't see the end of the game? What about the players who are left with a lackluster ending and unanswered questions? By Persona 4's logic, the fault lies with those who did not push through to the game's end... sort of. The problem with this is that while not searching for truth amplifies misinformation, it does not create misinformation. In Persona 4, the misinformation and rumors that cause problems for the cast stem largely from the game's antagonists. If the game's false endings are a metaphor for the themes of the game, wouldn't that make the game itself the enemy of the players? The concept of allowing the players to miss a significant portion of the game is neat, but at the point people actually do miss important content, some of the blame lies with the developers. As I said, Hashino's games are willing to make sacrifices for concept, and while those sacrifices are always appealing on an intellectual level, I have to wonder: Is a creative decision that comes across as brilliant to those who catch it worthwhile if it hinders the experience for the vast majority who don't? It's a tough question, and it leads those of us creating works like this to think about who we're writing for.
Persona 4 is filled with cool artistic choices that won't mean anything to the average player, though. Last week's post was all about vague literary parallels few people who play the game are going to pick up on, and the way the game treats its themes and concepts is so subtle and nuanced most of it is easy to miss. Most of the characters are pigeonholed into particular roles or tropes by society, and their character development and personal growth revolves around them reconciling the way they view themselves with the way the people around them expect them to behave. Unfortunately, this often leads the game's players to write the characters off as the very same stereotypes the characters are attempting to stave off, which is equal parts ironic and disappointing. As much as I'd like to say "You're missing the point!" and criticize those who misread the game, some of the responsibility falls upon Hashino and his team for not being clear enough. Again, we have the same question: Is an artistically interesting choice truly strong if most of the audience doesn't understand it?
Let's Not Do That Today
To be clear, Persona 4 was a hugely successful game, and it was received well. That said--if you'll pardon some speculation on my part--I think Hashino is aware that a sizable chunk of the player base didn't understand the purpose behind certain aspects of the game. As evidence of this, his next work Catherine, swung drastically the other way.
Catherine is a bizarre block puzzle game with two connected story threads: a man having an affair with a strange woman, and a rash of men suffering nightmares night after night before eventually dying in their sleep. It's not an especially long game--it was originally meant as sort of a tech demo for Persona 5's engine--but it's an interesting experience with a modest fan base. That said, there is one moment towards the end of the narrative that makes me think quite a bit less of the game as a whole. The game is presented as a frame story, and after the conclusion of the story within the frame, the player is brought out of the frame by the narrator. The narrator then explains, explicitly and in detail, what the game's core themes and symbols mean. It feels almost like a tutorial, and it comes across as quite arrogant, as if the developers assumed that the players would not understand what the game meant and felt the need to explain it outright, just in case.
With the context of Persona 4, though, this starts to be understandable. If Hashino saw that many of the people who played Persona 4 did not understand what it was trying to convey, he may have wanted to ensure the same did not happen with Catherine, and the odd end-game fourth-wall-breaking exposition starts to make sense. It's an extreme antithesis of Persona 4. Where Persona 4 allowed players to miss things--and, in fact, was structured such that a player not thinking critically was likely to miss core components of the game--Catherine spells out its major themes and symbols such that no player can possibly miss them.
Personally, I prefer Persona 4's approach, but both, I think, are flawed. Ideally you have the best of both worlds (as in Persona 3), where the audience is allowed to interpret the work but given enough guidance so as not to miss crucial points.
Persona 5 takes a more nuanced approach than Catherine does, with the help of the character Morgana. Morgana accompanies the protagonist throughout most of the game, and he has a tendency--particularly early in the game--to point out symbolic or thematically-significant details to the protagonist, in a way that leans on the fourth wall just a bit. It can be a bit grating at times (Yes, Morgana, I understand that this teacher's lecture about Jungian psychology is symbolically significant in a game that's literally named after a concept from Jungian psychology), but it's a lot better than the way Catherine handles it, and it could serve as a slight nudge to get other players thinking. Having an in-universe character draw attention to the sorts of things that would normally be more hidden could help to train Hashino's audience to identify the sorts of things he likes to hide in his games, and it turns picking apart Hashino's symbolism into a sort of miniature game in its own right (on top of providing reassurance that yes, it's all intentional). It's not as organic as it could be, but it's probably a better approach than throwing players into the metaphorical deep end and allowing them to sink or swim. The raft that is Morgana may be a bit of a nuisance to experience swimmers, but to new people it might be valuable.
Without Love, It Cannot Be Seen
There's a mystery-themed visual novel called Umineko no Naku Koro Ni (which, sadly I have not played) that's known partially for the line, "Without love, it cannot be seen." The phrase is in reference to detective fiction, and it means, essentially, that in order for a mystery to be solvable, there has to be a bond of mutual respect between the reader and the writer. The writer promises a solvable mystery in which the world adheres to its own rules and the general rules of detective fiction are not violated without strong buildup and/or good reason, and in exchange the reader accepts the world as the writer presents it, suspends his or her disbelief, and works to solve the mystery. Without that bond, the truth of the mystery cannot be found.
I think this concept applies to hidden meaning in art as well. An audience member or reader has a responsibility to meet the work wherever it is and to make a good faith effort to understand what the work is saying. Someone who goes into a game or play or book expecting something in particular, and who is unwilling to accept anything but that expectation, is almost certainly going to miss whatever the work's creator might be hiding, and that responsibility does not lie with the creator. If a good-faith audience member is unable to discern what a work is supposed to mean, though, I think that speaks to a weakness of the work. Even if--as in Persona 4's case--there is a great deal of value below the surface, if a work's intended audience misses core elements of the work, then the work itself is at least somewhat flawed.
It's a complicated issue, though, and there are plenty of other possible takes. I love reading things that make me think, things where I can find hidden meaning long after my initial read, but something that doesn't appeal on the surface level and that doesn't make its lower layers visible is going to have a hard time finding an audience. It's a challenge to balance, to be sure.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition