Monday, March 5, 2018

VN Talk: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony


In which I talk (write) about visual novels from a storytelling perspective...

Platform: PS Vita (also on PS4 and PC)
Release: 2017

Danganronpa is one of my favorite series, which is funny because it's incredibly crass and vulgar, which is generally not what I prefer in my entertainment. But the plot twists... Oh the plot twists! It's not an easy series to predict as the mainline games are known for their 11th hour revelations that turn everything else on its head.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony just came out in fall of last year, so I'm going to put a fair warning that there are spoilers beyond this point! It's really a series that should be enjoyed blind.
Killing Harmony is no different and I'm going to discuss all the plot twists and how/why they work.

So...

Danganronpa V3 features the usual cast of sixteen "Ultimate" students who are known as the Ultimate Pianist, Ultimate Detective, etc. in recognition of their talents. They find themselves trapped inside a school and forced to play a killing game at the behest of a black and white robotic bear called Monokuma. Whenever someone is murdered, a class trial is held to find the culprit. If the guilty party is correctly voted on, they are executed. If the guilty party escapes discovery, everyone else is executed and the culprit is allowed to "graduate" and leave the school.

This is a standard Danganronpa scenario, though the game itself is billed as a break from the previous continuity (since the Hope's Peak storyline was wrapped up with Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak High School).

And there are clues that this is a different continuity. Though the students are dealing with memory loss at the start of the game, barely remembering how they were kidnapped, when they get their memories as Ultimates they mention how it is a nationwide program to cultivate talent. This is different from the first two games where Ultimates only attended Hope's Peak Academy.

Initially this seems straightforward enough to not be considered a clue at all. It's part of the worldbuilding. But it happens in the first chapter, so it's not surprising that the player would eventually forget it or place less importance on that information by the time they get to Chapter 5 and the "big revelation" happens.

Every mainline Danganronpa game has a surprise reveal about their situation. Danganronpa 1 revealed that the world outside had become a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the school was originally a sanctuary to preserve the best and brightest teenagers to emerge once the crisis was over. The kids were killing each other to escape to a world that no longer existed.

Danganronpa 2 had the kids stuck on an island and revealed that not only was the world destroyed, but they had been among the people who destroyed it. Their "school life" on the island was a virtual reality designed to rehabilitate them to who they had been prior to meeting Junko Enoshima, the mastermind of DR1.

So it was with some surprise that Danganronpa V3 chose Chapter 5 to reveal that the students were on a spaceship, an ark, that had been sent away from Earth to escape a rain of meteors that had rendered the planet uninhabitable. (Because if that's what's in Chapter 5, what's going to be the real reveal in Chapter 6?)

Realizing that they're the last hope of humanity and that they've been killing each other, the remaining students more or less fall into despair and it looks like the killing game has ended. Kokichi has told everyone the "truth" and revealed that he is the mastermind. Kaito, the group's ringleader and inspiration, is imprisoned, and everyone else is barely going through the motions.

But at this point a Flashback Light mysteriously appears in the dining room and Maki convinces the rest of the group to use it. The Flashback Lights are how everyone recovers selected portions of their memories, and this one is a doozy, especially following the whole ark scenario.

This memory brings the previous Danganronpa games into continuity. They remember how the modern world ended thanks to Junko Enoshima. They remember how Hope's Peak Academy was rebuilt in the aftermath. Then they remember attending Hope's Peak Academy themselves and that all of them had been students there even if they had been in different classes.

Astute players will have noticed that the existence of Hope's Peak Academy and the Ultimates being nurtured throughout the country should be incompatible with each other, but it completely flies by the characters (and with good reason). It's not the first mistake DRV3's mastermind make either. And to be fair, a lot of players will be happy to roll with the new "fact" because Hope's Peak Academy! That's what Danganronpa is all about.

The revelation kicks all the despairing students back into high gear so the story (and more ominously, the killing game) can continue for one more round. It brings the series' central theme of hope and despair to the forefront as the students conclude that Kokichi, as the mastermind behind the organization that hunted them down, must be a Remnant of Despair, a worshipper of Junko Enoshima.

Things don't quite go down as planned (for one thing, Kokichi turns out to not be the mastermind), but neither do they go the mastermind's way either, which results in the reveal of a different truth, and also a different theme.

After unmasking the mastermind and putting the evidence together, we learn that this reality is not part of the prior Danganronpa games at all. It's a reality show inspired by the video games, one where people really die, and the outside world is populated with tons of Danganronpa fans who are happy to watch.

Yeah, that took a moment to sink in.

All the students agreed to participate and had their memories wiped and replaced with fictional identities for the sake of the made-up story, which the mastermind had the freedom to adjust along the way, though she admits that she made a mistake tying their storyline to the one of Hope's Peak Academy. It was a desperation move on her part after Kokichi tried to end the game by making people stop wanting to leave (and thus no one would ever kill each other again).

Now that they know the truth, she offers them a choice very similar to the one at the end of DR1. They can vote for Hope, in which case two of their class can graduate, as per the rules (the game only allows for two survivors), or they can vote for Despair in which case they all remain trapped in the school.

The outside viewing audience pushes for Hope and at this point we only have four students left (not counting Tsumugi, the mastermind). Both Maki and Keebo agree to sacrifice themselves so Shuichi and Himiko can graduate, but Shuichi chooses to side with neither Hope nor Despair. In fact he rejects the central theme of the entire series and chooses not to vote, asking everyone else to abstain along with him. If they're going to end the killing games for good, they need to do it by refusing to give the audience what they want.

And they do.

Rather than having a face-off between hope and despair, Danganronpa V3 focuses on truth versus lies. Shuichi and his friends are all made-up, and nothing like their previous selves. Tsumugi even shows him a video clip from his audition, where he talks about how much he loves the series and how if he's chosen he would like to be an Ultimate Detective who kills someone.

But despite being fictional people, Shuichi recognizes that everything they felt over the course of the game was real, and for that reason the killing games have to end.

After everything is over, he, Maki, and Himiko are the only ones left standing in the shattered remains of the school, and Shuichi is still not entirely sure what is truth and is a lie. He has trouble believing that his previous self would have volunteered for a death game, no matter how big of a fan he was of it, and the prologue supports this (though it's unclear whether or not he remembers being kidnapped at the start of the game due to all the memory overwriting).

But happily, the three of them decide to find out the truth for themselves, and just like the first game, we see our survivors leave the school and head off into the unknown.

The climax of Danganronpa V3 feels very much like a critique of the Danganronpa player. Why do you like this series that does horrible things to the people in it? Why do you like seeing them killed?

The game knows its audience. All this happens for our entertainment. There are YouTube compilation videos of the series' over-the-top execution scenes. There are role-play groups where people play as new students in a killing game. I made a prediction list at the start of DRV3, placing odds on who I thought would make it to the end based on my first impressions of them and the types of characters who survived previous Dangaronpa games. I did it because it was fun.

Yes, we're always rooting for Hope to win over Despair. We like the Hope's Peak Academy storyline. We like seeing the students pushed to their limits and how the survivors make it through incredible odds. Sometimes we think about the cost, but mostly in the sense of how it propels the rest forward (unless a favorite of ours died).

The primary difference between our game and the outside world of Danganronpa V3 is that their characters are real people who really die. It is a important and humane difference, but the implication is that they lost that, as the previous Danganronpa games similarly exist in their universe.

Throughout the final trial, Tsumugi tells Shuichi that he has no power to change anything, because he himself is a work of fiction, and what I wanted Shuichi to tell her is that fiction matters. Of course I'm inclined to think that as a fiction writer, but one doesn't have to look far to see that stories inspire people. Kids want to grow up to be like their favorite characters all the time, even though they're not real. Even adults may reflect on what the hero of a book would do when taking an approach to their own lives. Fiction matters a lot, even if it's not reality.

Though Shuichi never gets to the point of shoving it in Tsumugi's face, he does get a feel for this by the end as he and his remaining friends head off into the unknown.

"I mean that... even if something is a lie, even if it's fiction... If it has the power to change the world, then it must contain some kind of truth." - Shuichi Saihara, Danganronpa V3: Killling Harmony