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Danganronpa and the surprising joys of clumsy queer representation

Grin and murder-bear it.

Image credit: Spike Chunsoft/Eurogamer

Hello! Eurogamer is once again marking Pride Month with another week of features celebrating the intersection of queer culture and gaming. Today, Eli Cugini celebrates the clumsier side of LGBTQ+ representation and the strange, raw beauty that sometimes lies within.

My favourite rhythm game, which I won't name because I pay it £10 every month and I want you to make better life decisions than I do, recently tweeted that they were featuring Muse's Plug In Baby in their Pride Month season pass. Their reasoning? "Muse has continuously made efforts in writing LGBTQIA+ positive lyrics. Their 2001 hit Plug In Baby was originally supposed to talk about transhumanism, before becoming more abstract. Play the catchy riff now via our Tour Pass: RAINBOW RHYTHMS!"

For those not versed in what 'transhumanism' means (it means technological human enhancement and does not have very much to do with transgender people), this is very stupid. Hilariously stupid. It is the funniest thing I have read all week. Come, trans humans, play my catchy riff. But there's a warmth to it: some social media rep, somewhere, is clumsily reaching for people like me. They don't really speak my language, and they don't have the most effective tools to get to me, but the result isn't harmful or flattening. It's funny. It might even be unintentionally profound.

This is my third Pride Week writing for Eurogamer. I've written on trans people's use of Twine, and on spiky queer representation in a range of explicitly queer games. Every day of my life I talk about queer people's art, and how we make ourselves visible in the world. But I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the richness of the muddled queerness – sometimes so muddled you can barely call it 'representation' – in some games I've played from straight developers, and the surprising joy I have found in it; the strange, mixed pleasures of a game whose curiosity about queerness is unfettered by clear intention, knowledge, or propriety.

A character in Danganronpa V3 questions her best friend. | Image credit: Spike Chunsoft

Specifically, I've been thinking about Danganronpa. I have spent 80 hours of my life playing the Danganronpa series, not including the 20 hours I spent on watching a full Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls playthrough on YouTube. (I did not want to actually play it. The gameplay is very bad.) If you are not familiar with the Danganronpa series, it is a Battle-Royale-meets-Ace-Attorney visual novel series that is, quite frankly, insane, in ways that veer into both the incomprehensible and the genius. High school students are forced to kill each other by a bear plushie with a penchant for Beckettian monologues. The gameplay sections combine debate club with sharpshooting. One of the franchise's biggest characters is a world-famous serial killer who occasionally has random outbursts about other students' boobs. I cannot talk about this series with normal people.

One of the reasons the series so compels its players is its continual subversion of the player's expectations, including the expectations of the nerdy straight boy archetype that the games are supposedly aimed at and that most of their protagonists fall into. Now, despite my love for the series (especially instalments 1 and 2), Dangaronpa should be nobody's first choice for good queer representation. In one game, a female student gets outed as a guy when she is murdered and someone sees her genitals (it's complicated, the student identifies as a guy, but the style of the case is still bad), and in another game there's a horribly handled effeminate character whose gender presentation is implied to stem from him being an incestuous psychopath.

Danganronpa 2's Nagito is an iconic queercoded character, even appearing in the later Ultra Despair Girls in a collar and harness. | Image credit: Spike Chunsoft

But there is also shockingly tender, understated queer intimacy in the games, as well as other playful, powerful queercoded dynamics between characters. A muscular girl with a deep voice cares for and protects a smaller girl with a sunny demeanour, eventually sacrificing herself for her. A girl watches her lesbian-coded best friend die, and realises how much she has cared for her. Boys become murderously, flirtatiously obsessed with other boys – or else such close friends that one dying leaves the other inconsolable. Meanwhile, several of the games' cases hinge on exploiting the fact that the player may overly trust pretty, sweet female characters, or may be so focused on those pretty girls' outfits that they miss the key murder clue that's right in front of their face.

We are in a strange era when it comes to queer representation and queer rights: one in which it is considered proper to pay lip service to anodyne forms of queer inclusion – love is love, against hate, here's a rainbow tea towel, etc. – but where that propriety has shaky foundations, and therefore often folds in the face of right-wing hate campaigns. In that context, I think a lot about the ways in which queerness has always been seen as fascinating and powerful by some non-queer people, even as it has also been seen as scary and threatening. The Danganronpa developers don't have the right words or won't use them, they're not very connected to potential queer players, and accordingly, they make mistakes and draw on harmful stereotypes at times. But they also have a raw interest in the power and beauty of queer dynamics, and the ways in which they enrich the stories they're telling. They keep accidentally inventing gay characters because being gay is interesting!

What could be more heterosexual than being obsessed with your biggest rival? | Image credit: Spike Chunsoft

Queerness shouldn't be in games to suit a marketing category, just as it shouldn't be left out to suit a marketing category, either – it should be in games because gay people trading barbs, sparking murderous rivalries, and staring at each other across crowded rooms is a bedrock of basic human storytelling, whether we call the characters explicitly gay or not.

This Pride Week, I'm going to replay my favourite Danganronpa case (2-4, if you know you know), and take some comfort in this: queer cultures are so vibrant and creatively fruitful that even if they were believed to not exist, people would keep trying to invent them.

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