Since the trilogy’s completion in 2016 the Danganronpa series has joined some of the internet’s most polarizing media as a series for masochists. Despite a lot of off-putting elements, there is just something that keeps players coming to the series and remaining as fans. It’s an attitude that pops up with a lot of convoluted, long-running series. Check in with a friend who is invested in Destiny, or check the discourse surrounding Kingdom Hearts, and more than likely you will find that the people complaining about how horrible it is are fans of said series. Each fandom has different reasons for thinking the series they play is horrible, but none of them can stop playing.
For a long time, I thought this was just a fun joke that players made about various series they loved. Perhaps a self-deprecating joke about the amount of time players spent genuinely engaging with a single piece of media. Then I played Danganronpa 2. Then I spent 10 hours watching the Danganronpa 3 anime—10 hours that I regretfully will never get back.
Prior to playing the series, a friend tried to dissuade me. “Don’t do it, just stop at the first game and never acknowledge anything else,” they said. “You will be so much happier.”
I have found the sorrow of which gamers speak, and alongside it is regret.
Despite its many flaws, and I do mean many, the first Danganronpa (known as Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc) is generally an enjoyable experience. Take the bullying, gossiping, name calling and rumor spreading of high school, then amplify it all by placing it within a murder game framing. Very broadly, it’s an eccentric critique of the ways that educational institutions place pressure on students and how that pressure affects the communities they participate in.
On top of all this, the game bleeds with style from every direction. Kazutaka Kodaka’s stylistic choices subvert the visual cliches of the mystery thriller with an interplay of 3D models and clashing art styles to create a unique visual direction. Rui Komatsuzaki created an iconic set of characters that accentuate all their personalities—a martial arts girl with completely shredded muscles and lighting-like white hair and a lolita-fashion gambler with pigtail tornadoes spiraling down her back to name two of them. The slick action-thriller music composed by Masafumi Takada creates a constant tension between interpersonal intrigue and deadly stakes.
With a critical concept and screaming style, it’s easy to get entrapped by the game because of how fresh it feels. My first time playing, I couldn’t do anything else with my free time except see what was going to happen next. Notably, this was in spite of the game’s very blatant colorist, fatphobic, misogynist, and transphobic politics. These weren’t excusable, but it also wasn’t anything new for most AAA games I came across.
Because of this experience with the first game, a seed took root inside for me to want more. I didn’t necessarily want more of the first game. In fact, I really hoped they would improve a lot of the things that made me really uncomfortable. Instead, I wanted more of that feeling that the first game gave me: heightened excitement and infatuation. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair never gave me that feeling. Instead, it revealed how much worse of an experience I would be having the further I went on.
One could view this feeling as the driving factor of the masochist game label. A key element resonates with the player and they move through the series in hopes of feeling the way it did the first time. This is the driving light of hope, prior to being crushed into pulp. There were signs to stop, but you just wanted to believe you would find that feeling again. You thought that the increased number at the end of the title would get you to feel something again.
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair loses most of the school setting that was so poignant in the first game. Instead the characters are moved to an island resort as a sort of “beach episode” play on the traditional high school coming of age story. The island that the game takes place on is not just a normal island, but an island made up of a western themed desert, a cyberpunk military city, an amusement park, and some other beach areas. Rather than focusing on the school system like the first game, Danganronpa 2 expands to a variety pack of genre tropes in smaller quantities. And the tropes don’t stop at locations.
In almost every other scene change of Danganronpa 2 it’s impossible to not see an indulgent reference to a genre cliché or popular work. The gamer girl character is constantly name dropping videogame titles for the sake of indulging the player, and the amount of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure references almost would make you believe Hirohiko Araki was involved with the project. For reference, just check out the 15 minute YouTube videos compiling every reference put in the game, or check out how long this list of references is.
Sometimes this sheer amount of intertextuality is entertaining. My favorite section comes in the second chapter of the game where the solution to a murder must be discovered by playing a fictional sequel to Spike’s own horror adventure series Twilight Syndrome. However, after trudging through so much text dense with reference, a lot of these moments just become repetitive. Rather than a reference feeling surprising, many times it feels like a tired shout out to indulge hardcore gamers.
Characters before were certainly built on their tropes, for better and for worse, but the story put them together in scenarios that had them rise above the assumptions stereotypes give us. For example, the ultimate martial artist from the first game, Sakura Ogami, is assumed to be a scary and tough character but actually ends up being the most caring and supportive out of the entire group. In contrast, many of the characters in Danganronpa 2 stay static throughout the game or lose their mind in the last five minutes of their life to justify their actions. Peko Pekoyama, the ultimate swordsman, keeps a very calm demeanor throughout her time in the game which gives the impression of a very strong female character. However, by the time she is accused in a trial she reveals that she never had independence in the first place, and that everything was for the delinquent mafia boy.
Worst of all, most of the characters are treated in ways that feel specifically aimed at a patriarchal audience. Men on the island are either being incredibly vulgar towards one another or they are constantly harassing each female character about how they want to get their dick wet. In response, many of the female characters don’t say anything about how disgusting it is, and many times it’s treated as just something “awkward and cute.” Later, most of them become objects of emotional redemption or sexual conquest for those very same men.
Because of this combination of intense trope indulgence and gendered inequality, the deaths of these characters mostly feel like a violent catharsis for the male fan that vehemently dislikes certain character archetypes. A death that comes to mind is that of the ultimate nurse, who is more of the ultimate naughty nurse stereotype. Throughout the game her entire character is constructed as the sweet innocent caretaker who accidentally shows her underwear and spills liquid on herself way too many times. Then at the time of her death, she is depicted in a series of sexual shots replicating an orgasm as she mounts an enlarged hand that rockets into space.
All of this is justified narratively by the positioning of the murders and themes in the game only existing for the sake of entertaining the stuffed bear who has designed all the killings, Monokuma. This reasoning only makes the focus on tropes and heightened level of gendered violence feel like a sick series of jokes created for men with a passionate disdain for different body types, genders, and lifestyles.
Playing through all this, a feeling of dread fluctuated with each session. Each time I would be reminded of how much I enjoy the intersection of these stereotyped characters all interacting in a room, even when they were poorly written. Not to mention that there are some moments where these characters shine in absolutely iconic ways. Ibuki’s post hardcore concert, anyone? The audiovisual stylings from the first game also remained enjoyable for me. Then those feelings would wrestle with the ultimate chef talking about his speculation of what thongs other characters are wearing, or a minute of Monokuma beating up usami as a comedy bit.
There is this quote by De Certeau that “space is a practiced place,” and I think we can probably say the same about games. Games contain a series of aesthetic, narrative, and playful elements that we bring ourselves to, and reactions emerge from their synthesis. So while Danganronpa may absolutely put me in a place of despair, there are still emotions and logical places I reach when playing that I find enjoyable. As my friend Maya put it, “I just like it cuz its a game of silly high schoolers murdering each other and putting each other on trial.”
Through this experience, this emotional journey is supported by fandom. Through art, fics, and memes, fans create work that hones in on those enjoyable elements and then expand upon them in ways that improve upon the original. These remind me of the good times, and it makes me want to believe that somehow there can still be another one of those good times, if I just play a little bit longer…
I think with a lot of games that are full of problems we could look on them from afar and say, “Well, we should just ignore that game because it’s a pile of garbage.” But that would assume we consume media in a very linear fashion and that we only experience media we don’t want to be critical of. It’s probably more worthwhile to discuss how impossible it is to find the perfect media, and the emotions that emerge along the way.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.