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.