Hope rises for detective story fans with gaming franchise

Ron Toback-Wolf

The world has no shortage of good detective stories. Sherlock Holmes, Murder on the Orient Express, and Nancy Drew have captivated audiences across all ages. But those are all old hat. As of this decade, a new franchise of spine-tingling, brain-tickling video games/visual novels has reared its head in Japan, and has since spread to America. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a detective game featuring the fierce contention of Hope and Despair. It was created by the Japanese company Spike Chunsoft and published on November 25, 2010, with two sequels following shortly after. Needless to say, the series has made a huge impact on Japanese culture, and has rubbed onto American culture as well.

Though Danganronpa is classified as a game, the focus of the experience is the mystery. Sixteen high school students with extraordinary talents wake up in a secluded location, with no memory of anything after arriving at their first day of school. At the hand of a psychotic teddy bear named Monokuma, the students are engaged in a killing game. In order to escape, they must murder one of the other students and survive the class trial. Choosing correctly results in the killer’s death, and choosing incorrectly results in everyone else’s death. Players take the role of one of these 16 students, and watch as the number plummets.

The two best aspects of Danganronpa are the characters and the mysteries. Every game features a wonderful cast of memorable, likable characters that may or may not survive. Players might begin to notice similarities between characters across games, but every character has something unique about them that separates them from the rest. There is a muscular character in each of the three games, but they all have different personalities and character traits. Sakura, in the original, is quiet and honor-driven. Nekomaru, in the sequel, is boisterous but can be firm. And Gonta, in the threequel, was raised in the wild and strives to become a gentleman.

But of course, not all of these wonderfully-written characters can come out of the game alive. The murder mysteries are masterfully crafted. From the moment a body is found to the killer’s final goodbyes before execution, players are on the edge of their seat with anticipation as they line up all the clues. No mystery is quite like the others. One student was killed underneath a table, and another was dropped into a piranha tank and eaten. One student committed suicide, but another attempted to frame it as a murder to send everyone down the wrong path. Every clue is laid down perfectly, and the culprit is almost never immediately evident. There are some trials where time is wasted with unnecessary information, but they are kept interesting from start to finish. 

This is why Danganronpa tugs on the heartstrings. Every character evokes at least a little sympathy. Every trial is a mix of logic, deduction, and emotional attachment. Chapter 2 of Trigger Happy Havoc is the best trial for this reason. Not only is the mystery captivating and the killer not evident until halfway through the trial, but both the culprit and the victim have tragic stories. Players want them to accomplish their goals, but the killing game has no mercy.

There are lots of smaller details, too. The visuals and animation, though simplistic, are sufficient and pleasing to the eye. The executions, as well, are simplistically animated but creative and fluid. In some parts of the game, every character is voice-acted, and these performances are at the heart of each lovable and hateable character. The dialogue is brilliant. Some of these characters are hilariously-written, with sympathetic moments out the wazoo. Even outside of the killings, there are fun moments for each character to have in every game.

While the price tag of $70 for all three games may shatter a buyer’s hope, Danganronpa is a series that does so many things right. Do not be surprised if you find yourself crying, screaming, or laughing all the way through each trial. The game itself is the best way to experience it, but watching a youtube playthrough is much gentler on the wallet. Either way, Danganronpa is worth the dive.