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!