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.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition