A good part of my childhood consisted of reading Goosebumps Choose Your Own Adventure books and seriously, I loved the things: they were tense, they had really cool situations and my little eight-year-old mind was blown whenever I felt like I was actually a part of the story. This would probably translate to a love of role-playing games in later life, except for one particular type: the JRPG. The whole androgynous character arcs and schoolyard tensions that are in ever single one never really sat well in a game where you could do everything but bump nasties with that one chick that had been eyeing you up all game long. On top of that, I don’t really like murder mysteries all that much; the tropes get to the point where if you watch too many, you start predicting what’s going to happen and who’s going to kill who, and then the allure is gone when you just happen to be right.
With that redundant recap of “stuff that Doc has no real reason to like/dislike”, we approach Trigger Happy Havoc: Dangan Ronpa. I picked it up for cheapsies when I needed a spare game for my Vita, and upon further reflection I was a bit confused as to why I had. A visual novel/JRPG set in a prestigious academy turned prison where the students are forced into a series of deadly whodunnits as their fellow classmates murder each other in an attempt to escape their predicament, read the blurb. It bore some striking parallels to Battle Royale – hypocritically, one of my favorite movies ever – so I thought I would give it a crack. I could always just put it down if I didn’t like it, right?
Except I couldn’t. Try as I might, through the twists and turns that the game threw my way, I played it nonstop for a good eight to ten hours. Turns out that Dangan Ronpa is a damn good game, but not for the reason I thought it would be. I assumed that the game would perhaps change up the formula somehow, to give it a bit more pizazz, but the JRPG tropes stayed true, right down to the protagonist unashamedly eye-banging everyone in sight. It had the visual novel appeal that I enjoy, but it had all the tropes of a murder mystery that I despise and call out games that even try to be clever about it. It was, in every sense of the word, all the things that should and often do put me off of a game of this nature.
I think that the reason the game was so enthralling is that, much like the game itself, the characters are not who they appear to be at first glance. The first hour of gameplay cemented the roles of each of the fifteen students, only to make them do unspeakable things later on. No one ever steps radically out of character, and every action that the students undertake, for good or for ill, is justified by their personality. Over time, I got emotionally attached to the students that remained. The days that tick down towards another scheduled murder frenzy became more and more tense because I didn’t want any of them to die. I stalled, hung out with them, I listened to their hopes and dreams and wishes, wanting to know these characters inside and out just in case they were next on the game’s hit list.
The second murder hit me hard. Not to spoil anything, but it was a character seeking a redemption of sorts only to be killed by someone whose redemption was all but out of reach. The impact of that final decision was a punch to the gut. It wasn’t some anonymous murderer that was punished out of anger. It was a friend. As they were put to the slaughter with an enthusiasm that would make Mortal Kombat blush, I felt terrible. Was the need for vengeance really so strong that I sacrificed another classmate to placate it? Can I honestly say that I concluded that trial out of necessity, or out of a true desire for justice? They were questions that I still can’t answer, and became harder to answer as the game continued skipping along its merry path.
Preach on, brother.
The allegory to the game and what it represents was something I found in Sakura Oogami, a bestial woman with the title of Super Duper High School Fighter. If Zangief, Sanurai Jack, Sakura from Street Fighter had some freaky threesome in Vegas, she would be the bastard offspring. With this in mind I was certain that at some point, her character would be the most merciless, putting on a facade of camaraderie until the opportune moment. Like the other students, I demonized her, made her out to have ulterior motives, when in the end, she was the most sincere of them all. Her final fate, while not the highlight of my playthrough, is one of the best deceptions of character I have had the pleasure of experiencing in a video game.
Dangan Ronpa finds joy in the act of studying stereotypes. The roles of every student – with the exception of your player character, the obligatory Fool card in the tarot of characters – are tested, subverted and analysed with uncompromising scrutiny. The writer’s closeted nature hiding something more brash and impulsive underneath, the baseball star who wants the limelight to himself and not have to share it, the leader figure forced to confront emotional attachment to the group: it is all on display, and all exceptionally well written. The plot’s penchant for twists and turns is accommodated by characters who hide just as much as their stereotypes seem to reveal, leaving an atmosphere where nothing is what it seems. In a murder mystery, this uncertainty is riveting, and left me contemplating the events long after the game was over.
The greatest joy I can have is to be completely sideswiped by something that I expected to offer me one thing and gave me something else entirely. While Dangan Ronpa had its flat moments and the ending waxed lyrical harder than Mr. Miyagi, what it offered in return was a story and an ensemble of characters that made me question first appearances. It is often the fault of the critic to go into an experience with preconceived notions of what to expect, and while the notable examples go on to become pleasant surprises, some are discarded purely based on incorrect assumptions. It is the mistake of many to not give something a chance – probably why I started this whole Breaking Backlog business in the first place.
Next time, I will be playing: