The breakout popularity of Netflix’s “Squid Game” interested me greatly because death games are uncommon in Western media. In “Squid Game,” competitors are gathered together and “forced” into games where you win or die. As a personal fan of death games and the mysterious tropes that often go into them, I’m reminded of my experience getting into Japanese visual novels (story-led games where your decisions affect the outcome). They take form in any and all genres, but because of “Squid Game” and the impact it had on popular culture, I want to focus on a personal favorite: “Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.”
“Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc” is the first in a series of games within the Danganronpa franchise, where a bear named Monokuma traps 15-16 students within a setting and gives them an ultimatum. To escape, a student must kill another. There is a catch, of course. After the discovery of a body, an investigation is triggered, where students look for clues behind the murder. A class trial follows, where the main character has to take the evidence they found and piece together who among them murdered their classmate. If the killer is caught, they are punished. If the jury finds the wrong person guilty, the killer goes free and everyone else is punished.
The plot is recycled over the course of three main titles in the series, but what sets “Danganronpa” apart from other popular visual novels is how expertly it executes on the characters. In the case of the first game, 15 students are gathered within “Hope’s Peak High School,” where only students who are the absolute best in their field are scouted out to join. Called “ultimates,” they are child prodigies taken to another level of excellence:
- Aoi Asahina, the Ultimate Swimming Pro
- Toko Fukawa, the Ultimate Writing Prodigy
- Sayaka Maizono, the Ultimate Pop Sensation
- Celestia Ludenberg, the Ultimate Gambler
- Byakuya Togami, the Ultimate Affluent Progeny
- … and so on
Being the absolute best that Japan can offer, a certain attitude comes with the territory. Each character brims with an eccentric quality that befits a group of students that are truly set to rule the world. This is where “Danganronpa” truly separates itself from the pack. The line between confidence and arrogance is remarkably thin, and hard to spot. Somehow, “Danganronpa” characters find that sweet middle ground that makes each character vibrant and memorable. They have personality types that stand alone, creating a group where no character ever feels like another.
Despite the circumstances, it’s hard to believe these high schoolers would be so eager to start killing, which is where Monokuma comes in. He’s a very playful entity whose dream is to see these ultimate students in a state of absolute despair. The students are sound in their resolve at the start, a brief period before Monokuma lets loose the first of many motives — a video depicting the harm befalling their loved ones. Is that video enough to push someone over the edge? Perhaps.
With bright pink blood and a playful yet sinister host, it’s up to the player, who controls Makoto Naegi, the Ultimate Lucky Student. Once a year, a normal student is accepted by raffle to enter Hope’s Peak Academy. Naegi lacks the same eccentric qualities and has to put together the mysteries as the game goes on.
- Who is the next person that will kill one of their friends?
- Who is behind the killing game and controlling Monokuma?
- What happened to the outside world? Why isn’t help coming?
The mysteries extend to the characters themselves:
- Where is the truth in Celeste’s lies?
- Why can’t Kyoko remember her Ultimate talent?
- Is there a traitor among them?
- Why does Byakuya seem so eager to “win” this killing game?
It is a masterful bit of storytelling that is punctuated by memorable characters that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And the story progresses beyond the plot of a single game. After the first, “Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair” takes place on a tropical island. Two seasons of anime follow depicting both the past and the future of the storyline. And the most recent game to date is “Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony,” a somewhat separate game that takes place in a newly built school for ultimate students in the wilderness. Each presents an unforgettable experience both in terms of the story and the characters they introduce.
Admittedly, I will mention that it’s not nearly as dark as the idea might seem. Rather than make a really grim-feeling game, “Danganronpa” is almost joyful in its presentation. The usage of colors and really over-the-top deaths ruin any semblance of realism in the game. It took me a while to get over my expectations, but it does execute on the theme very well.
All three games are currently on Steam and will provide upward of 25 hours of game time. It ascends beyond being a game and into being an experience that you will never forget.