How do you stop a game series from stagnating? If you’re talking about visual novels, options are limited. Since the visual style most likely won’t change and the genre is light on gameplay, you’ve got to innovate in your approach to storytelling, but Danganronpa
follows this advice in an unconventional way. While each game has a unique cast and setting, they follow the same structure and echo each other enough that the familiarity can become grating. Thematically, however, things are always different. Not content to expand on the original game’s themes or tell a new story using the same format, each sequel seems to be a rebuttal against the themes of its predecessor, without entirely invalidating that game either. It’s an interesting way to put the games in conversation with each other and muddy the thematic waters, ultimately being more thought-provoking than just telling one story that tries to cover as many perspectives as possible.
The series revolves around the students of Hope’s Peak Academy, a prestigious private school that scouts the most talented students around the world and gives them a free ride to foster their gifts, and it’s generally accepted that graduates will be set for life. The academy does this to establish them as symbols of hope, extraordinary people for the general population to look up to. Each game starts with the same basic premise: fifteen Hope’s Peak students find themselves held hostage by a gleefully psychotic robot teddy bear named Monokuma who informs his prisoners that the only way they can escape is if they kill another student, at which point an investigation and trial will be held to determine the murderer. If the incorrect student is identified, the culprit will be released and the other students will be killed. If the correct student is identified, the murderer is executed and the killing game continues as before. Following this, every game uses the same basic structure. There are six chapters, divided into two sections; “daily life” and “deadly life.” Daily life consists of exploring your environment, moving to the next story beat and getting to know your fellow students in optional free time events where you choose a classmate to hang out with. Daily life ends when a body is inevitably found, which signals the start of deadly life and an investigation. Afterwards, a class trial is held where the students gather with their findings and debate who they think the killer is.
The idea of filling icons of hope with so much despair that they’d be willing to kill one another forms the main thematic conflict for the first game; are people more naturally inclined towards despair over hope, and which is stronger? It’s fairly straightforward, just a redressing of a good vs. evil story essentially, but it becomes more nuanced in the second game. Danganronpa 2
takes the first game’s admiration of hope and twists it, showing the folly of locking yourself into a binary between hope and despair and how a fanatic devotion to any one ideal, no matter how noble, can be dangerous. Danganronpa V3
takes things a step further and turns the thrust of the entire series, uncovering and facing the truth, on its head. The sequels also take concepts from the first game and expand on them to introduce new ideas, but the main focus is always on looking at what ideas came before it from a different angle. As interesting as a lot of these ideas are though, their presentation leaves something to be desired. These themes usually come to the forefront during the class trials, and as such, they are endlessly talked to death rather than being allowed to breathe as a natural part of the story. At some point they become a bit of a word salad, with certain words key to the series - “hope” and “despair” and “truth” and “future” - repeated ad nauseam to the point of unintentional hilarity.
Given the way Danganronpa
layers its stories, this doesn’t necessarily have to detract too much. At any point, the game can be telling three stories; each chapter functions as a stand-alone murder mystery, the chapters come together to make a tense survival story while building the core themes, then near the end everything gets tied into the deeper lore of the series (and those themes are talked into the ground). So if you’re not into the hope vs. despair thing, you’ve still got a great murder mystery to enjoy for the majority of the playtime.
This approach allows the game to show how much it excels with its genre elements by letting each story work on its own without relying on player investment in the previous entries. The music is excellent, effortlessly switching moods from somber to madcap, breathing more than enough life into the game to make up for the sparse voice acting and lack of visual fluidity that come with the visual novel genre. The art design also does a lot of heavy lifting. Character sprites are wonderfully expressive and their designs are informative on their personality while still seeming like a natural outfit for this world. The game also knows how to handle its large casts, focusing on a few characters to keep the story focus tight, but not letting any of the background characters be forgettable. The mysteries themselves are varied and interesting too. While each game has at least one case that doesn’t work, for the most part they are inventive and fun, complicated enough that you’re normally only one step ahead of where the game’s going, but not so complicated as to be totally nonsensical. The full stories on what lead up to the murder also display the range of emotions the series is capable of showing. Some are absurd and farcical, some are genuinely tragic and moving. As the games progress, certain patterns emerge that can be frustrating to see repeated over and over again, and sometimes the game will get close to doing something different or embracing a fun quirk of the established rules before backing away and going with something seen before. Even then, the duller cases still have some fun surprises to turn up, so they’re never entirely without merit.
’s approach to storytelling is bold, to say the least. In an interview with Otomedia, series creator and writer Kazutaka Kodaka notes that he likes to take ideas that are taboo in the mystery genre and get them to work anyway. He might do it by building an entire game’s themes around justifying that trope, or he might just make the implications of that reveal too interesting in this particular context to get caught up on whether or not it’s overplayed. He knows how to leverage a bad idea by not getting bogged down in minutiae and making sure that the twist is a means to an end, rather than a satisfying answer in and of itself, and he’s also willing to taunt his audience for falling for his trick. Near the end of the first game, after a certain reveal Monokuma urges the students not to think too hard about the details of this news as they now have to contend with the way it fundamentally changes their perception of the entire experience up to this point. Early on in the second game, he makes an offhand comment mocking the idea that anyone would be willing to just accept such a cliché in a mystery story. Kodaka proves that no trope has been overused to the point of it being banned in storytelling; just that the requisite work must go in to peel off the stagnation.