Monday, December 5, 2016

Anime Talk: Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak High School

My non-spoilery review of Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy, both Future Arc and Despair Arc will be up at Diabolical Plots later this month with the rest of my anime reviews, so if you don't want to be spoiled, check out my thoughts over there. What this post is about is all the things I couldn't discuss due to being spoilers that came up midway through the series, or even at the finale.

Mostly, I figured this was the best way to wrap-up the Danganronpa series that I've been doing on my blog, seeing as this is the conclusion to the Hope's Peak Academy storyline. (Annoyingly, Funimation and Aksys differ in their translations, so you'll often see me revert to the game translations; i.e. "academy" instead of "high school.")

How does Danganronpa 3 serve as a capstone for the games and does it work?

Obviously, spoilers for all games and the anime from here on out!

Danganronpa 3 had three things that the series needed to address. 1) It had to deal with Makoto facing the Future Foundation's ire after having saved the Remnants of Despair in Danganronpa 2. 2) It had to deal with Monaca and her grooming to become the next Junko Enoshima. 3) Though not a plot issue, it also had to deal with the retirement of veteran voice actor Nobuyo Ōyama, who was the voice of series antagonist Monokuma, whose sadistic brand of creepy cute is what defines much of Danganronpa.

I'll tackle the last point first, in that the series deals with Ōyama's retirement by drastically cutting back on Monokuma's involvement, such that Junko Enoshima actually has nothing to do with the third killing game at all. Monokuma only shows up to make the characters believe that Junko is involved.

I don't know if this decision was made to accommodate the change in VA, but I did have difficulty adjusting to the new Monokuma (now voiced by Tarako) and the series did hurt for lack of Monokuma's involvement. The new killing game honestly felt like it was left on autopilot (and truthfully it was) since Monokuma did not show up to regularly taunt and tease the unwilling players.

Going back to the first point, the series does deliver on the promise of following the story of what happened to Makoto after he reported back. He gets thrown into another killing game, but he does report in and we see the friction between him and the various heads of the Future Foundation.

I think it's a testament to the writing that even with different translation teams, it's quite clear that Kyosuke Munakata, the vice-chairman of the Future Foundation, is the unnamed writer of an e-mail chewing out Makoto in Danganronpa 2.

As far as the second point goes, I think that series writer/director Kazutaka Kodaka was kicking himself for leaving that loose plot thread and teasing Monaca as the second coming of Junko Enoshima.

For one thing, she appeared in a side game, which means that a fair portion of the fan base never played it. (I did not until the anime came out and I wanted to get her backstory.) And for another, her existence makes it harder to plan a surprise revelation as to who the mastermind is, because the players who have played Ultra Despair Girls will be expecting her.

Danganronpa 3 has no choice but to include her if it's going to close off all the storylines, but having a villain come out of nowhere (for most viewers, since she is definitely not part of the Future Foundation) is a bad idea.

The TV series chooses to handle it by introducing an android version of Future Foundation member Miaya Gekkogahara, who was killed off camera before the series start. Fairly early on, Monaca is revealed to the audience as the controller behind Gekkogahara, and because of the early reveal, we know she can't be the mastermind. It's very rare that the audience finds out information before the protagonists, and something as critical as the mastermind's identity isn't going to come out in the first half of the series.

Eventually at the mid-point is there is a strange and mildly nonsensical side episode that is full of nothing but Ultra Despair Girls fanservice, which reveals that Monaca is not the mastermind and that she's actually done with the whole Despair crap.

It's played off as funny, with Monaca being a slacker in a trailer rather than a megalomaniac's base, and her dismissal of Nagito, who was going to train her to be Ultimate Despair, is likely to elicit a laugh from those who know what he's like.

But Monaca then exits the series and we don't know find any greater significance to her meddling. She does leave a couple clues behind for Makoto to puzzle over, but they don't really feel like they had to come from Monaca. We find out that she was an unrelated interloper, which makes her abrupt departure is unsatisfying. The game had built her up to be something, and Danganronpa 3 (prior to the trailer reveal) had done the same.

So when she finally leaves, it feels like all that time spent on her for little to no payoff was a waste.

I'm honestly not sure how it could have been handled better, but I think she should have been used for a second half reveal that could have counted for more, and it would have helped if she had participated in the game in person (like the previous masterminds). Having her depart in a side episode and relaying her clues by proxy was what really ruined her appearance.

Danganronpa 3 also had two sides to it, in order to make a whole. The Future Arc followed Makoto's story and the Despair Arc covered the lead-up to Danganronpa 1 and had the messy task of showing the backstories of the eventual Future Foundation members as well as how Junko Enoshima corrupted Class 77 (the main characters of Danganronpa 2).

While the two sides were good for building out the characters of the Future Foundation, the Despair Arc had far too much on its plate and unfortunately it needed to be a giant retcon mess in order to work.

Granted, we know Junko Enoshima can lie as it suits her, but there is no reason for her to lie at the end of Danganronpa 2 about what she did to Class 77. At that point in the story, she wants them to know the truth, because the truth is so horrible, that knowing it will bring them to the point of despair. If the survivors in Class 77 don't believe her, if they have reason to doubt, then her words won't have impact.

Junko and the assorted documents she reveals to them, tell the story of individuals who were corrupted and fell into despair. Even Izuru Kamukura, was described as simply being broken by her. It builds Junko up to be this horrifying human being, with the both the charisma and the capacity to cause hundreds of students to commit suicide in her name.

Lifting the curtain to see exactly how she did all that turns out to have been a poor decision as it comes down to brainwashing, and suddenly she's not really much of a boogeyman anymore. She's still a ruthless individual, but she's much more human and less a force of nature.

Izuru is not even that involved with her, so much as trying to decide whether he's more invested in Hope (which Junko says is boring and predictable) or Despair (which is chaos). But I will say that the Despair Arc does gift the series with the best reason for Izuru to have starting the second killing game. He says he can't decide between Hope and Despair, so he wants to see for himself which is stronger, and that provides the best reason, from his perspective, to upload the AI to the virtual world in Danganronpa 2.

Moving on to the ending, there are a few points I want to touch.

The Danganronpa series is known for its high body count, and while Danganronpa 3 is no different (seriously, so many Future Foundation members die), who dies bothers me. There are a couple of faked deaths in the series, and I'm fine with that. Juzo Sakakura surviving what had looked like a kill was freaking amazing! But what I had a problem with was plot immunity.

If this had been a conventional killing game by Monokuma, everyone would have had specific buttons pressed to make them go off the deep end, and Kyoko's forbidden action in the third killing game is making it past the fourth round if Makoto is still alive. She dies and it was the moment I'd been waiting for, because Makoto relies on her so heavily and he's closer to her than any of their other fellow survivors.

But the series seems to have trouble killing anyone who was not canonically dead at the end of their respective games. It chooses to err on the side of hope. If there was any way possible for someone to live and they came from Danganronpa 1 or 2, then they survived.

Kyoko was revived in an off-camera moment, so she could show up as a surprise to Makoto, and everyone from Danganronpa 2 has been restored from their brain dead/coma predicaments.

I was also a bit disappointed that the Danganronpa 2 cast looks perfectly healthy and in peak physical condition considering that they were supposed to have been maimed and abusing themselves while in Junko's service. The only nod to that is Fuyuhiko's eyepatch, which he sports in-game even in the virtual world.

The Danganronpa 2 cast also takes out specially trained military units which is kind of fun to watch, even though it's eye-rolling at the same time. Even though they're Ultimate students, that doesn't make them an elite combat unit.

The final bit that I wish to address is the main story itself. Danganronpa 3 is not a game related in Junko Enoshima, but rather the entire thing was engineered to produce the opposite effect. Instead of enforcing a world of despair, Kazuo Tengan wants to create a world of hope, and he intends to do it by showing Ryota Mitarai so much despair under the pretense that the Junko's followers are making a comeback, that Mitarai concludes the best thing to do is to brainwash the world into becoming a world of hope.

This is why brainwashing had to be used so much in the Despair Arc because Mitarai was the unwilling key to providing Junko the power she needed.

At the time Mitarai is finally set off, there are hardly any Future Foundation members left standing (only four remain in the killing game, including himself), so it's not surprising that he gets pushed off the deep end. He gets talked down from it by the Danganronpa 2 cast, who by rights should have been his classmates if fate hadn't intervened, and that was all right, but let's circle back to the game.

The third killing game, like the others, had another purpose besides causing despair to those immediately involved. But the execution of that purpose, was flawed. And while I might set lower expectations for Tengan than I would Junko, he does make a number of mistakes.

Tengan needs Mitarai alive at the end of the killing game in order for his plan to succeed. Mitarai gets involved on accident because he wasn't supposed to be at the meeting when everyone gets trapped and gassed unconscious. At this point, Tengan should have removed Mitarai from the game, and let it continue without him.

Sure, there would have been some comments about that, but his plan would have automatically failed if Mitarai had gotten killed, because the game is run on autopilot. Whoever is closest to a Monokuma monitor at the end of a round, gets brainwashed into killing themselves (which, by the way, was one of the ingenuous twists--that there was no secret traitor).

Even if he had built in a failsafe to avoid brainwashing Mitarai, the Monokuma-encouraged witch hunt to find the traitor results in other people dying. Mitarai is pretty non-aggressive, so he doesn't top anyone's list as a suspect, but if he had just gotten unlucky, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, he easily could have died.

And then some of the forbidden actions were just senseless. Since this was Tengan and not Junko, one would think the forbidden actions would balance the playing field. And to some degree they do. Sakakura, the former Ultimate Boxer, can't punch anyone. Munakata, being unable to open doors, is incredibly crippled.

But then other people have limitations that are downright bonkers. Kizakura can't open his left hand. Great Gozu can't be pinned for a three count (incredibly unlikely considering he's the Ultimate Wrestler). Kimura can't let anyone step on her shadow.

Bandai's would be the worst, since he can't witness acts of violence, but I assume that was given out to make him a sacrificial lamb, so everyone else would take the forbidden actions seriously.

Danganronpa 3 doesn't quite come together, but as a series capstone? It could do worse. It's clear from the ending that Hope has won. Makoto is now the principal to the newly reopened Hope's Peak Academy, with the implication that everything is going to be good again.

The Danganronpa 2 cast sails off into the sunset (almost literally since they're on a boat) taking Mitarai with them.

And even Munakata, the only Danganronpa 3 cast member aside from Mitarai to survive, has found a reason to keep going.

Watching the Future Arc felt pretty good while the mysteries were still unknown, and I did like the ending despite being fluffier than I expected. The anime may have been incredibly messy at times, but there are no questions left. And I'm okay with that.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Danganronpa: Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

Danganronpa: Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is not a game I would have ordinarily picked up if not for the Danganronpa name, largely because it's a third person shooter, and most people who've played shooters with me know, I'm terrible at them. My tactics are very much along the lines of "spray and pray."

But playing was the only way to see the story, so I set the game mechanics to the easiest difficulty, held my nose, and took the plunge.

Ultra Despair Girls is an interquel, taking place between Danganronpa 1 and 2, specifically, three months after the death of Junko Enoshima. The Remnants of Despair are still on the loose, and if anything are even more fanatical now that she's gone.

Most of this is background noise for Komaru Naegi, who is the first series protagonist not to have gone to Hope's Peak Academy, instead being the younger sister to Danganronpa 1's Makoto. After being held captive in an apartment with no human contact for a year and a half, Komaru escapes to find the surrounding Towa City is full of Monokuma robots that are killing all the adults in town.

She finds herself in a middle of a child revolution, where the children are using Monokuma robots to slay all the adults and establish a child-only paradise, and they're led by five children in particular who call themselves the Warriors of Hope.

Aside from how the children managed to get a hold of such technology (tech that must have originated from Junko and the Ultimate Despairs), I found the Warriors hard to empathize with since they initially come off as a bunch of delusional brats. Even if they are supposed to be geniuses (having come from Hope's Peak Elementary, the elementary school associated with Hope's Peak Academy), I had trouble imagining them finding life better without adults.

Though parent-child conflicts happen all the time, I think most children understand that the adults are the providers, and without adults, there won't be anything for them to eat, wear, or use. There is a power difference, and sometimes an unfair one, but one they have to live with until they're old enough to become independent.

Danganronpa is well aware of that power difference, and so are these kids. The Monokumas finally put them in a position where they can have power over the adults. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that the reason the Warriors of Hope are so angry and trying to kill all the adults is because they're all abused children. Kotoko's story is particularly triggery, with sexual abuse and a side of victim blaming. When Komaru tries to tell her that not all adults are bad, Kotoko asks "Then why didn't anyone help me?" and there's no good answer for that.

The Warriors' vengeance is very much along the lines of "They hurt me so I'm going to hurt them back," which is childish, but perfectly in line with their ages.

This also puts the player in the uncomfortable position of fighting against abused children, and the game takes advantage of the fact that Komaru and her reluctant partner, Toko, are both teenagers, making them straddle the divide between being an adult and being a child. At the start of the game the Warriors almost spare Komaru because she isn't quite an adult yet, but ultimately turn her into their prey for their hunting game when she spends too much time trying to rationalize with them, which is a very grown-up thing to do.

The player never actually fights any of the children directly, instead facing them in proxy boss battles with robots, but what happens to the Warriors when they lose looks fairly horrific. Despite the stylization, it's heavily implied that all but one of them are killed (though there is an ending credits image that shows them alive post-game).

Being a Danganronpa game, the conflict between the adults and the children isn't truly about the war we see on the surface, but something more sinister. It's clear early on that the real leader of the Warriors of Hope is the girl Monica, who is very interested in despair, much like Junko Enoshima, and Monica has been manipulating the rest of the Warriors of Hope. The child-only paradise isn't her end goal, but having the other Warriors think that has been useful for her.

Her end game culminates in an attempt to turn Komaru into the second coming of Junko Enoshima. All the trials Komaru suffers throughout the game are designed to bring her to the peaks of hope and then crashing down into despair so deep she can never emerge. Naturally, Komaru was chosen because her brother Makoto had become known as the Ultimate Hope in his face-off with Junko, the Ultimate Despair.

Unlike Danganronpa 2, where I complained that the choices were too heavily weighted towards the emergency shutdown being the only good decision, the ending choices for Ultra Despair Girls are both bad. One more bad than the other, but there is no ending that results in a happy ending for the people of Towa City.

Komaru is given the controller that is operating all the Monokuma robots in the city, robots that are busy killing any adults they can find, and she is told to destroy it. But if she does, the helmets controlling all the brainwashed children (all the children aside from the Warriors of Hope) will explode.

The moment of that reveal was a pitch perfect moment of despair, or would have been if gameplay hadn't been so annoying about repeatedly hammering in the "break it/don't break it" decision. People will die if the robots are not stopped, and another set of people will die if the robots are left alone. The fact there was no easy end to the fighting is not the end game that anyone except Monica was looking for.

Komaru is pressured into pushing the button by Monica, who knows this will destroy her, and also by the leader of the surviving adults, who argues that the exploding helmets could be a bluff.

Interestingly, the adults who still survive in the city are incredibly likely to be single and without children, since the brainwashed children turned on the nearest adults first, which were likely to be their parents. This puts a divide between the adults and the children, since the adults who remain are those who are least likely to be sympathetic towards them.

While not pushing the button is clearly the "right" thing to do, so much as anything can be, the game unfortunately spends an hour (not kidding!) of yanking the player back and forth and forcing them to confirm that they do not want to press the button with other people yelling at them to do it. It got really annoying and it's not a good sign that my greatest fear on facing the last boss was that I'd die and have to sit through that all over again.

Nothing in Ultra Despair Girls directly feeds into the other games, so it's fairly skippable with the exception that the Danganronpa 3 anime makes use of it for the majority of one episode, and that's likely because there is a plot thread left hanging.

The game ends with Monica having survived her confrontation with Komaru and being carried away by Nagito, who promises to help groom her into the next Junko Enoshima, so she won't have to worry about having a proxy. The ending credits bolster the idea that she intends to follow his instructions, which clearly sets her up to be a villain the future, and the anime could not leave that unaddressed.

Ultra Despair Girls does have some worth on its own though, as it's one of the few girl "buddy" games I've seen. The player is in control of either Komaru or Toko at all times, and while there are some conversations about Toko's one-sided crush on Byakuya, most of the dialogue is refreshingly about either their objectives or trying to get along with each other. Komaru doesn't have a love interest and the strongest relationship in the game, the one that gets its moment to shine, is the friendship between her and Toko (both of her personalities, even the psychotic one).

Toko can be a bitter pill and she's so prickly and delusional that I found it hard to sympathize with her in the first Danganronpa, but she makes an excellent partner for Komaru who tends to make fun of how generic she is. And indeed, considering how colorful the rest of the cast is in all three games, Komaru is frightfully normal. As ironic as it sounds, Toko humanizes Komaru, so she's not just a generic everygirl. She gives Komaru such difficult material to work with that they're entertaining to watch, as Komaru tries to normalize that which can never be normal.

Finally, as a gamer who generally sucks at shooters, Ultra Despair Girls is fairly forgiving on the lowest difficulty. There are moments I died, but it's a sort of game where slow and steady (rather than twitch reflexes) can help a lot. Many times it's possible to hear the Monokumas before seeing them, so it's possible to creep out and lure them one at a time, and the worst places tend to have reasonably placed checkpoints. Bosses actually throw out healing items, so if a fight is going poorly due to a mistakes, it's usually possible to play defensively for a minute or two and get back to full strength before going on the offense again.

I wouldn't entirely recommend the game, but as a novelty it's interesting, and manageable for Danganronpa fans who wouldn't ordinarily play shooters. It is currently only on PS Vita, but there are PS4 and Steam ports on the way.

Now, having covered all the games in the Hope's Peak continuity, there's just one more Danganronpa post in me, and I'll use that to cover the Danganronpa 3 anime.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Loscon 43

I'm going to be at Loscon 43 and will be there for all three days. My panel times and locations are below and because they're evenly spread out I will have plenty of time to talk both before and after panels in the event anyone would like to catch me.

Reboots, Reimagining and Fandom FRI 16:00 Boston

All About Editing and Editors - SAT 11:30 Chicago

Best Advice I Never Got - SUN 14:30 Marquis 2

I did not request an autograph table, but if you run into me and have something you would like me to sign, feel free to ask. I'll have a pen on me.

Also! If you have a 3DS, I will have mine with me at the convention. I'm not currently playing anything on it, but I love Streetpassing and I have a ton of puzzle pieces. If that's your thing, you want to bump into me! :)

Monday, November 14, 2016

VN Talk: Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

Continuing my Danganronpa replays, today we move on to Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, which is also available in English on Steam and PS Vita.

I originally played this right after I finished the first game (for the second time), which made going into Danganronpa 2 hard. In retrospect it might have been better not to have played them so close together because I may have unfairly judged the new cast against the old without giving them adequate space to grow on me.

Having played through DR1 twice and finished all endings in the optional School Mode, the cast of the first game had become quite dear to me, and it was hard getting thrown into a new game with sixteen new strangers and expecting to get to know them all as well.

Once again there is a group of Hope's Peak Academy "Ultimate" students who are forced to play a killing game, where the winner gets to "graduate" and escape confinement (in this case, the abandoned tropical resort island they're stranded on) as long as they are not found out in the subsequent class trial. Discovery equals execution. If the culprit succeeds, then all other students will be executed, giving a huge incentive for the culprit hide their tracks (better yet, pin the deed on someone else) and for the innocent students to find out who the murderer is.

But why is there another game? How is Monokuma back? Why are there more students when the first game said that the members of Class 78 were supposed to be the only ones from Hope's Peak Academy who survived the worst tragedy in human history? And how did they get unwittingly transported all the way from their school in Japan to some tropical island?

It's kind of amazing how much about the early portion of DR2 doesn't make sense, but the player is willing to overlook it as just a stretch beyond expectations for an already exaggerated set of circumstances.

The opening scene with Hajime Hinata heading to school for his very first day at Hope's Peak Academy is an easy parallel to Makoto Naegi's from the first game, but instead of passing out, the player's screen glitches with a graphics bug we call "tearing" in the industry. Shortly thereafter Hajime finds himself in a classroom with his new classmates who are also having a bizarre first day, which is capped off with the reveal of their new teacher, a robotic plush rabbit called Usami, and the classroom walls falling down to reveal that they're actually on a tropical island.

Usami lets the group know that they are on a school trip and their goal is to become friends with each other to collect Hope Fragments, and after they've gotten them all, they will be free to leave the island.

Everyone is naturally suspicious. How did they end up on a school trip, and to a tropical island no less, without being aware of it? But just as some of the students are starting to think this might be okay, Monokuma, the sadistic teddy bear of the first game, usurps Usami's position, remodeling her as Monomi so she looks more like him, and then declares the rules of the killing game in order to leave.

As before, it's impossible to talk about the full story without giving away the ending, so spoilers from here on out!

Danganronpa 2 plays with and subverts the expectations of the audience from the first game, which is one of the humorous highlights of the game. For instance, Monokuma reveals that an organization called World Ender ruined the world outside (the destroyed world being a major reveal towards the end of the first game) and they're the organization that trapped the students on the island as well as removing memories of their previous years at school. Players of the first game will immediately connect World Ender to Ultimate Despair, the group that included Junko Enoshima, the mastermind behind Monokuma and the first killing game. The memory removal was a similar late reveal in the first game to the survivors who made it to the end.

But because of when in the story this gets revealed, it's so early that the students have no proof that anything Monokuma says is true, whereas in the first game the reveal was the only thing that made all the weird clues make sense. It's a nice reversal that plays with player expectations while still using the same foundation of the characters not knowing what happened before.

As the player goes through Danganronpa 2, the students begin to uncover proof of their missing memories. One of them even recovers her memories entirely and murders two of her fellow students because she now remembers who she is, and that the Future Foundation (aka World Ender) was the one who put them in this situation. The other students are horrified by the glee with which she goes to her execution, particularly because she now behaves like a completely different person.

The truth behind Danganronpa 2 hits like a truck, much like the surprise reveal at the end of the first game, though it's not quite as cleanly executed as Monokuma essentially provides everyone with a gigantic infodump of assorted clues that he swears are all real, and the clues lead to the discovery that were other survivors of Hope's Peak Academy besides Class 78 and that they were subsequently taken in by the Future Foundation

Seeing as the newly acquired fifteen were similar in age to the participants of the first game, the Future Foundation placed the newcomers under the supervision of the survivors from the Hope's Peak Academy killing game.

But it turned out the fifteen students were a part of Ultimate Despair (explaining why they survived when no one else did), and followers of Junko Enoshima. Together, they were responsible for setting off the spark that resulted in civilization's fall.

The members of Ultimate Despair had originally been Hope's Peak Academy students who had become corrupted by Junko Enoshima to the point that they were functionally considered limbs of hers, doing whatever she required. Most of Ultimate Despair committed suicide when they discovered Junko had executed herself at the end of the first game, but that was not true of the fifteen who became known as the Remnants of Despair.

They were a psychotic bunch, trying to get close to despair, and committed all kinds of atrocities to themselves, to their friends and families, and to complete strangers. It's heavily implied that the fifteen have no one left to go back to, and that several of them are disfigured in the real world (whereas their virtual bodies have been rewound to 2-3 years prior to the game so they appear normal).

Makoto Naegi, the protagonist of the first game, objected to their destruction and with assistance from his fellow first game survivors, placed the fifteen Remnants of Despair in a VR machine that removed their memories prior to their stay at Hope's Peak Academy, prior to them meeting Junko, and prior to becoming corrupted by her.

In the virtual world they would have a chance to make new, happier memories, so they could go back to being the more joyful people they had been before they ever met her, and then this new version of them would be uploaded into their bodies, replacing the ones who had become Ultimate Despair.

But there was a complication, leading directly to the conflict in the second game.

Unlike Makoto, Hajime is a more complex protagonist, and his past is all kinds of jacked up to the point I'm not sure it's useful to discuss it for what I want to get at here. In a nutshell, Hajime is both the lead protagonist and the mastermind behind the second killing game, but he's unaware of it due to his memory loss.

It's clear that the Remnants of Despair knew what was in store for them when Makoto and company took them into their custody, and past-version Hajime uploaded an AI clone of Junko Enoshima as a virus into the virtual reality system, kicking off the second killing game in a bid to resurrect the real Ultimate Despair.

This explains the return of Monokuma, the strange graphics glitches at the start of the game, and other nonsensical things that shouldn't be possible but the audience could handwave as Danganronpa-style silliness taken to the next level.

The plan behind the second killing game was to kill off the majority of the Remnants of Despair (which is why the one who got her memory back was thrilled to accelerate things) and then get the remainder to graduate, which would cause their memories from the virtual world to be uploaded into the real one. But the AI Junko would be uploaded into the bodies of everyone who had died in the virtual world, essentially resurrecting the villain of the first game.

It's the kind of horrible plan that a bunch of devoted and psychotic followers would voluntarily come up with, but the problem is, the surviving characters at this point in the game are no longer crazy. They don't want to be manipulated by their former selves, but now they're trapped between graduating and bringing a monster back into the real world with them, or remaining forever in the virtual world.

Hope arrives in the form of the timely arrival of three of the first game's survivors, which together give them the eight votes needed for a majority to activate the emergency shutdown sequence. (And it was a lovely moment seeing Makoto, Kyoko, and Byakuya charge into the virtual world to save their former schoolmates.) But in another twist, the Junko AI was prepared for that too, and if she's to be believed, getting them to jump in like that was her primary reason for the killing game.

What the survivors of the first game reluctantly reveal is that while the emergency shutdown will allow everyone to escape the Junko AI as well as preventing her resurrection, it will also erase everything else that happened in the virtual world, which means that all the memories the second cast had built up would be deleted, including all the friends and sacrifices they made along the way, and they would revert to the former Despair versions of themselves on awakening.

It's a Catch 22, and the AI Junko capitalizes on the fact the five surviving Remnants of Despair do not want to forget what happened to them on the island, or, in Hajime's case, to simply cease to exist, since Hajime's 2-3 years' ago personality was so damaged that what he is in the virtual world is simply the best reconstruction the system can come up with.

The choices are self-destruction, to graduate (which will also doom Makoto, Kyoko and Byakuya since AI Junko will not allow them to graduate and graduation is subject to instructor approval), or to remain in the virtual world (trapping Makoto, Kyoko, and Byakuya along with them).

And this is the part where I think AI Junko falls down a bit. While the five remaining Remnants of Despair are justified in asking why they should sacrifice themselves when it means losing the people they've become, their alternatives are really not all that great.

The first game's final vote against hope or despair worked because everything they had been fighting to return to no longer existed. Both staying where they were and going outside into a post-apocalyptic world were equally despairing options, but the latter involved clearly seeing the truth with their own eyes, no matter how bad it would be.

In the second game, the options are again to maintain the unpleasant status quo or to leave via two different unpleasant methods. It's easy to rule out graduation, because that brings back Junko, who wants to destroy the world, and could the surviving Remnants of Despair (who are good people again) really condemn the three members of the Future Foundation who came into the virtual world to save them?

While the plot does spend a good bit bringing the five Remnants to the brink of Despair, using the emergency shutdown seems like a foregone conclusion. Even allowing for a continued existence in the virtual world, it doesn't seem like a happy way to survive and they would still be stuck with AI Junko (trapped on a island with their worst enemy!).

The problem with presenting this choice as the final dilemma is that only one of the two options favorable for Junko is the best one. If the Remnants graduate, the Future Foundation members are trapped, and if the Remnants choose to stay, then the Foundation members are still trapped. But even though AI Junko says her real purpose was to draw in the Future Foundation members who escaped her real self, the best choice is for everyone to graduate because that's the only option that sends her back into the world and she completely fails at selling it as a viable choice.

In the first game, her reveal of the truth of the outside world and that the students had voluntarily incarcerated themselves, made it clear that staying inside could be right thing to do (with the downside of being stuck with a psychopath).

She really needed to be telling the Remnants of Despair that graduating and bringing her back was what they want just as much as her, and she doesn't. Instead she tells them how their fallen companions will be inhabited by AI copies of her and how she'll continue the worst tragedy in the history of humanity, which all of them find completely revolting. If she managed to take a step beyond that, and show them why it would still be worth it other than "you guys won't wake up in the real world as Ultimate Despairs anymore" it would have been amazing.

After some soul searching about whether or not to stay inside the virtual world, the five Remnants choose to activate the emergency shutdown and vow to remember as much as they can when they wake up (even though it should be nigh impossible).

The epilogue sequence, much like the first game, chooses not to show the details. We see Makoto, Kyoko, and Byakuya leaving the real island that the virtual one was based off of and going to report back to the Future Foundation where Makoto's going to take the heat for his unorthodox plan to redeem the Remnants of Despair. He thinks the Remnants are going to be okay. They've woken up and have decided to stay on the island and try to help revive their friends who didn't make it out of the game.

The final shot of the epilogue is a back view of Hajime. As he watches their boat leave he narrates how he's now going to live as Hajime Hinata, rather than the version of himself who had become Ultimate Despair.

The implication is that the Remnants now have both sets of memories, both the horrible ones and the new ones they made on the island, leaving them changed people.

I was satisfied with the ending, and didn't feel that there really needed to be more for this particular cast of characters. If anything, thanks to the world building and the introduction of the Future Foundation, I wanted to follow the continuing adventures of Makoto and company. Fortunately, there's the opportunity to do both in Danganronpa 3.

But first, we'll take a side trip to to the spin-off game, Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls.

Monday, November 7, 2016

VN Talk: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

This past summer Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy aired as two parallel anime series, one that was a prequel to the Danganronpa games, and one that was a sequel and the chronological conclusion to the story of the students at Hope's Peak Academy.

It was a must-watch show for me, having fallen in love with the series a year ago, so I decided now would be a good time to replay (or play for the first time, in the case of Another Episode) the original games.

The first one, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, is one of my favorite visual novels ever (and it's now available on Steam as well as PS Vita). Unusually, I played it a second time immediately after completing it. I only run into a game that drives me to do that maybe once every ten years. It's not uncommon for me to replay highlights, but the whole thing?

Outwardly it looks like a cross between the Ace Attorney series and 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. On the one hand, the player searches for clues they can later use in a courtroom situation to suss out a murderer. On the other, the player is trapped in a sadistic game where people can die in a horrific manner.

Fifteen students who are the "Ultimate" at what they do (the Ultimate Martial Artist, the Ultimate Fashionista, the Ultimate Programmer, etc.) have the most bizarre first day of school at Hope's Peak Academy when they pass out and wake up to find themselves trapped inside. The windows and doors leading out have been completely bolted over with metal plates that cannot be removed. A plush mechanical bear called Monokuma declares itself the headmaster and informs them that they are to spend the rest of their lives enjoying a peaceful communal existence inside the school... unless they want to graduate, which is done by killing one of their classmates and getting away without being discovered in the ensuing class trial.

Outwardly no one wants to kill anyone else, and accepting a peaceful life without escape is certainly an option, but Monokuma stirs the pot by providing additional motivation for people wanting to leave the school; for instance, providing video footage that heavily implies that friends and family are in danger.

The students are completely cut off from the outside world with Monokuma holding the only key to escape. They have very little choice but to follow his rules, as he makes it clear early on that breaking them will result in a swift death.

This sets up the stakes pretty early, and it's not terribly long before someone makes the first kill, but what I find most remarkable about the story is something that I rarely find discussed, and it's what made the most lasting impression in my mind. To talk about it, I'm going to have to spoil the end of the game.

So beware of spoilers from here on out!

As the player goes through the story they find clues that there is something going on besides killing each other for Monokuma's entertainment, and it has to deal with the school itself, which turns out to have closed a year before the start of the game. Monokuma never hides this, and allows the students to explore at leisure, but he's cagey about providing too much information that would explain any of the school's mysteries.

As the game progresses, the students discover a TV that shows the killing game is being broadcast on every station they can receive, and we're not sure why.

Then there are these strange photographs of a time when the new students were hanging out together like friends when they had never met each other before. There's even a collection of video interviews with each of the students saying that they understand that once they enter the school it was possible they would spend the rest of their lives inside.

None of them remembers any of this, and Monokuma teases more than once that if they knew the real secret behind the school they would never want to leave.

The secret comes out in the final class trial, when the mastermind behind Monokuma reveals the real reason behind the students' imprisonment and that their memories were tampered with. They thought they had only been at Hope's Peak for the few weeks the killing game was going on, but their first day of class was actually two years ago.

Their first year was relatively normal, which was when the happier photos were taken.

But then one year ago civilization effectively ended in a tragic disaster and most of the student body was killed, except for the sixteen students in Class 78. The real headmaster had the school transformed into a shelter for these "ultimate" students, humanity's best hope for a better tomorrow, so that they would be safe and could emerge at a future time to help rebuild the world.

All of the students consented and assisted in sealing themselves inside the sanctuary they might never leave.

But the mastermind, Junko, was one of the sixteen students and she erased everyone's memories so they forgot why they were trapped in the school, to give them incentive to leave the place they otherwise had no reason to escape. Then she turned it into a murder game consisting of fifteen students and broadcast it to the world to further drown the remaining pockets of hope in despair, because nothing would be worse than seeing the teenagers who are supposed to be the hope for a better future killing each other.

Junko's reveal is powerful, because all this time the characters have been fighting to get back to the world they left behind, only to find out that it doesn't exist anymore. They were fighting over nothing. The ones who murdered their classmates and were in turn executed themselves, did it in vain.

For someone whose real title is the Ultimate Despair, having the protagonists discover that escape is hopeless as well, is an excellent twist. The world outside is polluted and the only reason they are safe inside the barred school is due to the air purifier, which Junko has rigged to disable if she is killed.

Junko gives the surviving six students a choice, to vote to punish either Hope or Despair. If everyone votes to punish Despair, she will allow them to leave, but she will execute herself, so they will no longer have an option of staying in their sanctuary since the purifier will be broken. But anyone who votes to punish Hope, will get to live out the rest of their lives safely inside the school as originally intended and Junko will not kill herself.

Additionally, if any one person votes to punish Hope, everyone who voted to punish Despair will be executed, creating a Prisoner's Dilemma, where all six remaining survivors must vote identically for the best outcome.

Since Danganronpa is a game, it's unsurprising that after some wrangling everyone agrees to punish Despair, but knowing the characters and what they've gone through (especially just how much backstabbing they've endured up to this point), it's very easy to view in character through the protagonist that getting everyone to agree for the benefit of all is a dicey proposition and one they have been failing at the entire game.

Some players expressed dissatisfaction with the end of the game, after the survivors successfully vote against Despair and Junko executes herself. The air purifier stops working, but the six of them now have the controls to the vault-like door that opens the school's front entrance. They talk about what they may or may not find out there (since they never get their memories back) and express hope about their future, no matter how bad the outside might be.

Then they open the door, and the game cuts to credits.

Personally, I was hoping that was exactly what the game would do, because seeing the outside would have opened new questions or changed the mood. If it was happy outside, it would thematically undercut the desperation felt throughout the game. If it was as bleak as Junko told them, it would end the game on a sour note. But by cutting off there, we see the survivors at their best in the face of uncertainty. It ended perfectly.

(And if you really want to see their reaction to the outside world, you can now watch it in a flashback in Danganronpa 3.)

Danganronpa's story discussion usually focuses on the killing game, but people miss the post-apocalyptic side of it, why the killing game was broadcast, and the complete futility of the students trying to return to a life that has since ceased to exist. Even the broadcast version of the anime neglects it, in favor of the easy ending of bringing down the villain. (Though the extended home video release puts the reason for the game back into play.)

Junko doesn't start up the killing game just to get the students at each other's throats. She is a sick and twisted individual who wants to bring despair to everyone including those outside the school by attacking their symbol of hope, and the students are just chess pieces.

I didn't think Danganronpa could get more messed up than the student murders and subsequent executions, but the truth behind the school and their imprisonment, and that they were trying to escape a place they had voluntarily sequestered themselves inside, exceeded my wildest expectations.

When I finished the game, I wasn't sure how Danganronpa 2 could play out, given that the killing game feels like a unique situation and by then the sequel was already out. While I felt there are more stories to tell with these characters, it didn't seem like it could possibly follow the same format. Next week I'll cover Danganronpa 2!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Writing "Hunters of the Dead"

"Hunters of the Dead" took a long road getting to where it is now, and to be honest it didn't have a glamorous beginning. A year or two out of college I was going to play a homebrew RPG with some friends; an RPG of the tabletop variety. I needed a character.

Jan was created out of leftover gameplay ideas for a different character who was originally created for a piece of fiction. But where that other character was a wizard, Jan was less into the magic and more into the gritty aspect of fighting undead with sword and shuriken. What passed between the other character to Jan was the use of shuriken as a weapon and a lot of necromancy spells (because this was a game and I needed something to do with my turns).

In the week or two downtime between character creation and the game getting started, I wrote a short story called "Hunter of Dead." It wasn't very good, but it my first outing with Jan, so I could get a feel for his personality.

I ended up doing four revisions to that story before leaving it to rest, and it was rejected many, many times.

I think a part of me knew that it wasn't very good, but true to Heinlein's rules, I intended to keep it out on the market until it sold.

Then I won Writers of the Future. It was my first pro sale, and suddenly I had friends and mentors in the writing community that I hadn't before. I couldn't put out crap. What would people think of me?

So I let all my submissions lapse and used a spreadsheet to tag which stories I wanted to take another look at, in case they were worthy of going out again, and which I would in all likelihood trunk for eternity.

While I'd tagged "Hunter of Dead" for a second look, I looked at it again sooner than expected since I was tipped off about a horror anthology and "Hunter of Dead" was the only thing I had that was remotely suitable. I printed out a copy to revise, thinking it would be quick work.

It wasn't.

As I revised I realized how much was wrong with the story, and it wasn't that the character or the concept of his world was bad. It was that there wasn't any plot. It was just a day in his life, and I realized I needed to show the reader why this day was important.

Out went the extended flashback. Out went the original ending. I threw out about half the story, and wrote in its place at least another 75%, which meant that less than 25% of "Hunters of the Dead" came from the original story.

This version benefited from not having been touched in years. I had written other stories set in the world, so there was more backstory to the history of the borderlands, and I knew more about Jan himself since I'd been planning a prequel story at one point.

I thought the story wasn't perfect, but still the best I could do, so I sent it off to a few more places that opened in the interim between when I retired it and when I did the revision. It still got kicked back, but tended to make second rounds. At the time though, it was the best I could do, so I wasn't expecting to go back and do yet another round revisions.

Time passed, and finally I got a rewrite request from Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores to improve the pacing. By this time I had several professional sales under my belt, and Jan has been with me for fifteen years (no one ever said that it was fast becoming a professional writer). He's been my player character in two different pen and paper RPGs, my ranger in Bioware's Neverwinter Nights, my Hawke in Dragon Age II, and more recently my avatar in Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright.

I know Jan, and I still believed in his story. I took a hard look at my last revision and cut it down from 9000 to 7000 words, making it tighter, stronger. I was a better writer now. I knew I could do this.

Now Jan's story is finally out there, and it can be viewed by CR&ES subscribers here as a September 22, 2016 release.

Music listened to while editing: It's been so long I don't remember what I originally wrote it to, though I'll admit there was a period in my life where every other song I heard of the radio could make me think of Jan. LeAnn Rimes's "Life Goes On" was my go to song while RPing (I'm not sure why since I can't listen to it and see Jan anymore), but while doing the latest editing I was stuck on the English cover of "Renegade" performed by Aruvn with lyrics by Jefferz.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Revision and Outline Week Check-In

Part of the reason I made last week's post was for accountability. There was no way I could not work on the revisions and outline that I said I would, if I said I'd do it.

And so I did.

I completed revisions of two novelettes and one short story. I also did some brainstorming for a short story that really ought to be a novelette or novella due to the sheer amount of world building info that I want to use in it. The expansion was not something I expected to start work on this week, but if the stars align it's a potential December project after NaNoWriMo is over.

My main outlining project of the week was in preparation for NaNoWriMo, and that I definitely started. I didn't finish, nor did I expect to, but I have all the major characters and their motivations laid out as well as the opening segment of the novel. Now that I know what everyone's doing and what the tentpole events are going to be I can connect how the plot's going to get from point A to point B and so on.

It really helps me to have a quick outline I can check during the throes of NaNoWriMo, because I'm generally writing too fast to spend brain power on figuring out plot. I usually write somewhere between 2000-3000 words each day, which is a fair bit above the NaNoWriMo daily minimum to hit 50,000 words by the end of the month.

The reason for that is 2000-3000 matches my natural chapter length, and I've found my work comes out more coherent if I think of a day's work in terms of chapters. I have a beginning, middle, and end, and then I'm done for the day. I start fresh with each sunrise.

There's still a week left until November begins, but I should finish the outline by then!