Children are inherently monstrous.
They pull each other's hair, torment kittens, damage property with reckless abandon - all without a tremor of shame. They operate on whimsy, bouncing from joy to malevolence at the drop of a toy, caught up in a whirlwind of new experiences and incessant biological changes, never quite pausing to consider the repercussions of their actions. And it's not really their fault either. Children - and to a lesser extent, teenagers - just don't have the same concrete value systems as adults.
Which is why the idea of a demonic prepubescent, or an adolescent serial killer, is uncomfortably believable, even if we're rarely willing to confront the idea that our six-year-old niece might actually mean it when they say they want us dead. We know our youth are capable of savagery. Not because they're damaged, or broken, or somehow compromised by the system, but because they're kids and kids are scary.
It's a popular narrative conceit. Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Lord of the Flies - these are all properties built around that core idea. But the Danganronpa visual novel franchise, which has finally made the leap from console to computers, pushes things even further. Instead of just removing societal constraints or creating a logical environment of kill-or-be-killed, it presents a new conundrum: what happens when you intentionally isolate our brightest youths and then cultivate the necessity for murder?
But let's take it back a step. What's Danganronpa? Why are we talking about it? Should you be excited? Why are people so thrilled by this series? There are plenty of reasons. To begin with, it's gorgeous, marrying pop art sensibilities with classic anime design. There's a sense of style that recalls the Persona series. The characters are magnificent caricatures themselves. We have the martial arts-obsessed school girl with the physique of an embattled super soldier, the Gothic Lolita, the motorcycle gangster, the straight-laced honor student, even the bespectacled, pig-tailed girl with a hidden darkness. Naturally, they're all much more than their tropes imply, something that becomes clear as things unfold.
The first game, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, is set within the confines of Hope's Peak Academy, a government-funded institution populated only by the finest young teenagers. Protagonist Makoto Naegi is the sole exception. In an unexpected twist, he wins the school's yearly raffle, thereafter earning enrollment and the title, "Ultimate Lucky Student." But then of course, we have the real twist. Hope's Peak is not a utopia. It's a killing field controlled by the grotesque Monokuma, an animatronic bear that succeeds in being unsettlingly hilarious when not otherwise being terrifying.
Though the cast initially rallies against their situation, Monokuma quickly provides incentive to succumb to their baser instincts. Blackmail, bribery, and emotional manipulation are deployed along with a chilling bargain. In order to escape the school, students will need to literally get away with murder. Fail and they'll be sentenced to a horrific execution. Succeed, and they will be able to walk free, all the while knowing that their classmates, who will be called upon to identify the killer, will be put to gruesome death.
Needless to say, the situation quickly unravels even as tensions mount and the body count rises. And it's all very interesting. Not just because it's a mashup of genres, borrowing from the courtroom antics of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and the schoolyard sequences from Persona, or because the mysteries are exquisitely contrived and the localisation work is spot-on. But because it knows what frightens us.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc showcases the inherent monstrousness of our youngwith gleeful readiness. But the game also resonates with another fear. As a species, we're wired to care about those who will succeed our collective genetic material, whether they're our own offspring or someone else's. Kids literally are the future. Consequently, a vast majority of us are invariably unsettled by the thought of our young coming to harm.
And Danganronpa is all about hurting its cast. The deaths are rarely straightforward, often taking the form of elaborate executions. They're never glossed over either. While there is little actual gore in the game, the lead-up to a character's demise is inevitably uncomfortable. You're forced to watch as stoicism gives way to abject terror, to panic, to a hundred callbacks to a tragic past. In that respect, Danganronpa is absolutely relentless. There is no absolution for your actions, no opportunity to make believe that you're being the better person. In fact, every single person in Hope's Peak is, in theory, a paragon of a particular virtue. Under different circumstances, they might have gone on to become something significant, a person to change the world.
But you killed them. Not directly, sure. But you're still responsible for the deaths. Not because you're pursuing a higher cause. But because you're a coward who wants to keep on living.
Danganronpa also touches on another deep-set societal worry: the idea that we might not know the people around us as well as we think we do. At heart, the game is a locked-room murder mystery, complete with all of the accoutrements. There's a clear motive, a set number of players, and no opportunity to blame external parties. The only suspects are those you know and possibly, those you hold dear.
And that is terrifying.
And terrifyingly close to home.
Realistically speaking, there's always the risk that someone we know, a family member or a friend, might cause us harm. Every human being carries that potential within them. It's only a question of whether they're willing to act upon it. Nonetheless, entertainment media has us geared to believe that we're always safe in the company of those we're familiar with, despite clear evidence of the contrary. Danganronpa ups the ante by presenting another variable to that thought. What do you do when you can't trust the people in charge, or those who stand as sterling examples of our community? What then? Where does that leave the middle-classed and the ordinary?
Building on careful layers of paranoia, Danganronpa is a game about archetypes being stripped down and dissected, a game about the degradation of a supposed utopia, and a game with surprisingly good writing. And a game that's certainly worth picking up from Steam.
(Seriously, do it now.)