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Dangan Ronpa: Death, stress, and standing out from the crowd

This week Dangan Ronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc made a splash with gamers in the know thanks to its gripping story and arresting style. What makes this cult hit tick? We speak to its producers.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

February 20, 2014

11 Min Read

This week, a PlayStation Vita game called Dangan Ronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc [trailer] is generating a surprise amount of buzz on Twitter, and finding surprising favor with critics despite its terminal obscurity and confusingly untranslated title -- which literally means "bullet refutation," a reference to its quick-fire trial sequences.

Though Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the biggest Japanese console release of February, Dangan Ronpa may be the most significant: rather than a desperate rehash of a wounded franchise, it's a vibrant and creative game that establishes a new one.

And rather than losing sight of its genre, it enlivens it with a new, creative approach. The visual novel has been around since the 1980s; it has its similarities to the Western adventure game, not least of which is the fact that it has largely been supplanted by other types of games in the intervening years. Dangan Ronpa shakes up its foundations.

The premise is simple: A group of 15 students, each "the ultimate" in Japan in some way -- a world-class martial artist, the scion of an worldwide conglomerate, and a bestselling novelist, to name a few -- is invited to attend the exclusive Hope's Peak Academy in Tokyo. Problem: Once they arrive, the doors slam shut, the windows are bolted, and there is no way out.

Well, there is one way out: A bizarre robotic bear called Monokuma begins to incite the students to murder each other -- with the proviso that anyone who can get away with their crime will be freed. The catch? The other students will investigate and attempt to solve the crime, because if they can't, Monokuma will kill the rest of the class off. This brutal storyline is anchored by its protagonist, Makoto Naegi, a perfectly average student called to Hope's Peak simply due to luck.

With its larger-than-life cast and mix 'n' match gameplay, the game is over-the-top; its pop art visuals are deliberately provocative. But its intricate writing and shocking storytelling balance well with its unusual visual style, and bizarre as it can be, it's always engrossing.

Gamasutra recently had a chance to sit down with the game's producer at Japanese firm Spike Chunsoft, Yoshinori Terasawa, and associate producer Yusuke Katagata to learn more about the creative process behind this cult-hit-in-the-making.

I think one of the things that's most striking about Dangan Ronpa is that it's very grotesque. Can you talk about why you wanted to tell a story that's so grotesque and so over-the-top?

Yoshinori Terasawa: Do you know the movies Saw and Cube? I was especially a big fan of those movies, and their creators as well, and I've been inspired by those movies.

I've also noticed examples from Japanese culture: There can be a strong undercurrent of brutal stories -- stories about the breakdown of society. Do you think that's an important part of Japanese pop culture right now?

YT: Do you think so? Well, in games, it might be really rare, still. That's the reason why we decided to focus on something very different from the usual culture of games. In manga and anime, you might see a lot of it.

Why do you think it's interesting to explore the grotesque?

YT: That's deep. Why is it interesting? It's easily influencing people's emotions. That's the main reason.

In Japanese pop culture you often see the theme that society has rules, and someone creates a situation with its own rules. In Dangan Ronpa, Monokuma sets the rules.

YT: I have a question myself, too. In Japan, the kids are all raised under certain rules, and we know we have to follow them. In American culture, are the kids more free from rules?

I would say America has more emphasis on individualism, but at the same time, there are unwritten and unspoken rules, and if you fall outside of them, then you start to run into problems.

Yusuke Katagata: I think that's written in the Bible...?

Among other places.

I've noticed in Japanese culture, the world "ruuru" [rule] is very common, and it's not as word you'd see used the same way in American pop culture.

YK: We might sometimes cut our hair short -- you cannot have longer hair. That's one rule.

YT: You have to have it short enough that the ear is showing. And especially, in Japan, people are very strict with time.

Another thing about Dangan Ronpa is that it is not realistic -- visually speaking. But there is a sense of realism to the way its story's told. Can you talk about that?

YT: When you create a game that's too realistic, people will focus on that, and it would make the game really grotesque. So that's why we tried to make people not focus on that, by adding a really different style of artwork, and how the characters act really happy even though the situation is not so happy -- but the characters, their personalities are really unrealistic. We try to focus on that more.

We talked about the visual design, and how that offsets the story, but it's so bright, and flat, and pop art -- and the blood is fluorescent pink. Why did you go in that direction?

YT: Our first reason was to lower the rating as much as we could. That's why we went with the shocking pink blood instead of red. But it was also to lessen the grotesque feel of the game, and that's why we went with the pop art feel. And actually, going with the pink instead of red blood -- that gave it more impact than ever before.

How do you balance the sense of style and unreality to not overwhelm the story and characters? If the style were too strong, it might be hard for people to feel any emotions when they see the story.

YT: Basically I tried to balance it out by making the characters so that sometimes their personality might help connect with the audience -- especially the main character, Makoto Naegi. He's really not so unique compared to the other characters. By making the main character not stand out as much, that will connect to the players -- make them think that they're Makoto Naegi.

A lot of the characters fit into really strong stereotypes. The concept of being "The Ultimate" whatever means they stand out as stereotypes. Can you talk about why you went in that direction?

YT: What were we thinking about? It's hard to answer that! [laughs] The scenario writer, Kazutaka Kodaka, he's the one who basically thought of those stereotypes, and he created those characters. He's the one who thought it up. When I spoke to Mr. Kodaka, I requested that he make Makoto as non-special as possible, and make the other characters stand out in their own way a lot, and that's why there's this balance. That's how Mr. Kodaka was able to create these characters.

Unlike a lot of other visual novels, there are a lot of other gameplay elements such as free exploration, and the trials having multiple different gameplay elements. Did that grow from the story or did those ideas come first?

YT: It was originally a basic visual novel, but visual novel games are not that popular in Japan anymore, either. So we figured that if Dangan Ronpa were to be just a visual novel, it would not be as popular we wanted it to be, these days. So that's why, in order to show that the game is really interesting, we decided to add a lot of different features -- after the scenario was written.

How do you keep people hooked in a long narrative game like this? Particularly these days, as people have less time to play.

YT: Especially as Dangan Ronpa is a very story-driven game, we wanted to focus on adding things that would surprise the audience. We added stories that would make players think, "I didn't expect that!" And that would keep them focused on the game, and they would continue playing it.

The game has a theme of "despair," which is maybe not a theme you would expect from a game. Can you talk a little bit about how and why it approaches that theme?

YT: At first, the game, we didn't naturally think about the theme of despair. But through the scenario, we mainly wanted to focus on a Battle Royale-style scenario -- how people survive. But it became natural for us to consider having a theme that stood out, and that's why we decided on the theme of hope and despair.

When you say "Battle Royale," do you mean the book or the movie? Or just a general battle royale theme?

YT: I mean the movie Battle Royale. Our original idea was for a closed circle -- which they often use in mystery novels. We wanted to do a setting where all the students would be trapped in one area.

You talked about how Makoto is the ultimate normal kid, but on the other hand, Monokuma is the opposite -- completely impossible to relate to. Can you talk about why you did that?

YT: Talk about why? Hmm...

YK: Well, it's hope and despair, isn't it?

YT: What can I say about Monokuma?

YK: There's a need for a character like Monokuma. You can't just have the protagonist.

YT: Of course. We wanted to create an antagonist where at first the appearance would be very adorable -- more like a mascot. But at the same time this Monokuma character is very cruel, and thinks of very weird things. We wanted there to be a huge impact to the players. We thought about that, and that's how Monokuma was created.

I'm not the most qualified person to talk about it, but at least since Evangelion in the 1990s, there's been an exploration of abnormal psychology in Japanese pop culture. It's been an enduing theme. I like it. Other people like it. But why?

YT: It's probably because of Japan these days. Everybody's stressed! [laughs] Because of the fact that society puts a lot of stress on people right now, by exploring that in games and movies -- where the audience sees people going against that kind of struggle -- it gives the audience empathy. They can actually feel together, the same way as the characters that struggle against it.

Do you think that a game like this is a stress relief for people -- feeling these sharp emotions actually helps release stress for people?

YT: First of all, probably it does relieve stress. But by having the player think of themselves as Makoto Naegi -- this normal student -- and by watching him overcome all of this despair, all of these problems, they can relate to him. They can feel as though they're overcoming all of these things, and that will relieve their stress as well.

How much do you think people relate to the main character in the game?

YT: He's a very stereotypical type of character, which allows Japanese players to experience the full range of emotion. But I'm not sure about America. We'll just have to see about that. Americans might perceive this quite differently.

YK: This goes back to what we were saying before. We Japanese are [subjected to rules] when we were in junior high school. The school is trying to kill our uniqueness, so the main character, Naegi, he's not unique. So it's easier for Japanese to get yourself into the character.

YT: I'm really interested in how Western players will relate to this character, and I'm looking forward to hearing about it from now on.

When you made this game, did you expect to be releasing it in the U.S., or was it a surprise?

YT: We didn't. Not at all. And we were not confident about it. It's very, very Japanese, culturally speaking, and we were worried that Western players wouldn't be able to relate to it at first. We want to see how it goes here.

It's a tough question. It's more about having a strong story, an interesting story, and an interesting game. Yes, there's a number of people who won't try it because it's not Battlefield 4, but I don't think that it's set in a Japanese school is as much of a hindrance as you might expect.

YT: Because of the setting, that there are murders, there are crime scenes, there are detectives solving those crimes -- no matter what the country is, I feel that everybody would be able to enjoy that game. Instead of a game that focuses on a Japanese school happy life.

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