From Battle Royale to Fortnite

So apparently teenagers really want to kill each other.

Content Warning: Sex and Sexuality, esp. among teenagers; Discussions of murder/violence; At least one prurient image; High School and teenager-dom; Cultural Relativism vs. Cultural Pluralism;

I mean, I can’t blame them: middle school and high school are pretty miserable experiences for everyone involved, especially including those who are going out of their way to make other middle- and high-schoolers miserable.  I think I mostly dodged that bullet—between my natural obliviousness, self-confidence, and protective bubble of mostly-decent friends through those years, I remember my teenage years as being pretty OK.  But it’s hard to judge.  On the one hand, we look back at our teenage years through the myopic romanticism of nostalgia: “these are the best years of our lives,” we are often told as teenagers, and I know plenty of full-grown adults who peaked in high school and seem to be caught in that world—former football stars or cheerleaders or student council members whose accomplishments since seem to pale in comparison to being popular and successful in school.  On the other hand, there’s plenty of cultural acknowledgement that teenager-dom is a hellscape of hormonal imbalance, immaturity, and unreasonable expectations, and that the best you can hope to do is survive.

A lot of ink has been spilled in service of both these perspectives, certainly more than I can reasonably discuss in this little essay, but I do want to zero in on one particular sub-sub-genre of this collective cultural wound.

See, once upon a time, when I was at home one summer after a year in Boston studying for my Master’s degree in philosophy, my pre-teen cousins came for a visit.  As the cool quasi-uncle with his cabinet full of video game consoles and hot new home-built computer, I ended up hosting most of the free time.  And Nick, the younger (and more in-tune with the requirements of his social sphere, what with his designer sneakers and fascination with brand names) was positively thrilled that he could play Minecraft on my computer.

That was cool with me – these were the early days of Minecraft, back when Notch still owned the company and the game hadn’t even earned a full 1.0 release, but there were still millions of people getting wise to the game.  I’d spent many happy hours wandering the landscape building fortresses that complemented the landscape in some kind of pithy artistic homage to Frank Lloyd Wright by way of Howard Roark—but that wasn’t the game Nick wanted to play.  Oh no.  He was immediately logging in to the shockingly (to me, anyway) vast world of user-made Minecraft content, and joining game after game of “Hunger Games”.

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Because who wouldn’t want to role-play as an involuntarily dystopian high-school gladiator? (image credit Giftelzwerg)

I didn’t know that was even a thing.  And if you happened to miss that moment in Minecraft-dom, that’s fine; the world of Minecraft servers is a free-for-all of user-made content across a wide spectrum of sub-cultures and interests. I would have missed it altogether if it wasn’t for Nick. And it was over in a hot minute when PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds basically ripped off the game mode, only to have it ripped off again by Fortnite, who streamlined the interface, made the game free to play, and added all the cosmetic micro-transactions and MMO elements that made it the juggernaut success it is today.

I’m still not exactly sure what-all happened here.  It probably starts with the 1999 novel Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami, then the 2000 movie directed by Kinji Fukusaku.  In 2003 the book was translated into English.  In 2011, the movie made it to the states.  In between those two releases, Suzanne Collins published her wildly popular Hunger Games YA novels, and while Collins denies being inspired by the book, the parallels between the two works are very striking.  I honestly have no idea where or when the Hunger Games Minecraft mode started; at this point there are literally hundreds of Hunger Games servers, and anytime you try to research the fuzzy beginnings of Internet-based cultural phenomena, you’re in for more digging than I have the stomach for.  The best estimates suggest that the servers were active by 2012 or so. What I can say is that by 2013, Nick was obsessed; it was a mainstream community for preteens. Over the next several years, the mode was refined into the “Battle Royale” mode, and by 2017, PUBG had aped the mechanics and was poaching players in early access.  And then Fortnite, which, like Minecraft, also existed before it pivoted toward the Battle Royale/Hunger Games model, quickly started poaching PUBG’s player base in late 2017.

I should remark, though, that all of these games are alive and well.  There is apparently such a HUGE demand for games where everybody gets dropped into an arena to kill one another, that one enormous blockbuster release won’t do it.  And these three games are among the most successful multiplayer video games EVER.  Minecraft, PUBG, and Fortnite all shattered sales records, one after the other—they are probably the definitive multiplayer gaming trend of the mid-to-late 2010s.  And they show no sign of slowing down.  This isn’t just a generational thing, it seems: teenagers are passing this stuff down to preteens.  School cultures have been thoroughly, powerfully, influenced by these games.  Bullying on Fortnite has been repeatedly written about by writers inside and outside of the gaming community.  My pre-pre-teen nephew is every bit as obsessed with Fortnite as my cousins (now high-school graduates) were obsessed with Minecraft. My students today are as familiar with Fortnite as my generation was familiar with World of Warcraft. This is a major part of students’ lives these days.

And I definitely don’t know what to make of it.  The Japanese Battle Royale (the book and the movie) taps deeply into this teenage urge toward violence (calling it a “fantasy” seems apt, if disturbingly so), while Collins’ novels use the similar setup more to describe and condemn the surrounding power structures.  But I can’t help drawing the line from Battle Royale through The Hunger Games to Minecraft and Fortnite because it seems that the popularity of all these wildly popular things have much less to do than Collins’ social critique than that primal, violent urge.  And while the books and movies critique and explore that urge, the games unleash it in all its horrifying and fantastic force, making a space where it can be explored personally and socially, for better or worse. What I find so strange is this dynamic: what Takami and Fukusaku observed from a distance developed, in a way that seems strangely inevitable, into the very phenomenon they predicted – like the rise of actual Fight Clubs after the movie Fight Club became popular.

Danganronpa vs. Battle Royale

In the midst of all this, Spike Chunsoft has been publishing their Danganronpa series.  We at VGA have been falling down the Visual Novel hole for a little while, thanks in large part to Spike Chunsoft’s other flagship franchise—the Zero Escape trilogy, which began in 2009 with 999 and concluded in 2016 with Zero Time DilemmaDanganronpa has followed apace: the first game was released in 2010 (around the same time Minecraft started, but likely before the Hunger Games servers); the nominal third game came out in 2017.  Like Zero Escape, Danganronpa is about a bunch of people trapped by a murderous evil mastermind and forced to kill each other in horrible games, but where Zero Escape uses the Western language and tone of serial-killers and murderous puzzles (á la the Saw movies), Danganronpa is also a thoroughly-Japanese high school simulator, combining the rich tradition of high-school-set manga and Visual Novels with the Battle Royale setup, though the “solve the mystery” gameplay is most reminiscent of the Phoenix Wright games from a decade earlier.

The basic premise is that fifteen (or is it sixteen?) high school students, each chosen to an elite school for being the “Ultimate”…something (such as Ultimate Biker Gang Leader, Ultimate Programmer, Ultimate Fan-Fiction Writer, Ultimate Affluent Progeny, etc.), are trapped by the mysterious and malevolent Monokuma, who offers to let any student “graduate” and escape if they can successfully murder a fellow classmate without getting caught.  However, the students must hold a “class trial” to see if they can detect the murderer: if they identify the murderer, he/she will be executed for failing to escape detection; if they do not, the murderer “graduates” but the rest of the students are executed for failing to figure it out.

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Guess which ones AREN’T murderers!

The core gameplay loop of Danganronpa has three phases.  First, the story is developed over the course of several in-game “days”.  Some “days” are devoted entirely to story: you make few, if any choices outside of dialogue, but watch the characters bounce off of one another, set up potential conflicts, drop potential clues, and try to solve the overarching mystery of what has happened to them.  On other “days” you have free time, and can visit with the other characters (those still alive, anyway), give them gifts and watch interactions as they grow to trust you more.

Then somebody dies.  A murder of some kind is committed and you enter the “investigation” phase, where you wander around the school collecting clues and trying to figure out what happened.  Each clue you find is collected in your inventory as a “truth bullet,” though it is often unclear how they all fit together.

In the third phase – the “class trial”, all the remaining students meet in a showpiece courtroom, all standing in a circle for conveniently leveling accusations at one another.  For the better part of an hour (or more, with some trials), you’ll expose contradictions in the other students’ arguments by firing your “truth bullets” into on-screen text, you’ll play little hangman games to answer questions, and you’ll browbeat intractable liars with timing mini-games in the vein of a Guitar Hero or DDR.  Finally, you’ll put all the pieces together into your “closing remarks” to narrate the complete story of the murder, start to finish.  The whole trial is a fast-paced, wonderfully-tense experience, as you piece together what happened, and I ended up staying awake well past my bedtime virtually every time I hit one.  It’s a serious improvement on the Phoenix Wright formula, even if the “OBJECTION” moments are a bit less satisfying and the character animations not quite as dynamic.

Survivors will then enjoy a rousing game of Duck, Duck, Goose.

What’s even more surprising is that despite all these weird and divergent sources, genres, and tones, it all comes together weirdly well.  Zero Escape had these weird tonal jumps between the serious and morally-hopeless moments when characters would die, or be forced to risk their lives, or discover some horrific detail of the backstory—and the totally out-of-place light-hearted banter of the room-exploration sections, much of which was weirdly sexual between the protagonist and the female characters.  Danganronpa also leaps between character melodrama, teenage sexual innuendos, bad puns, and real mortal danger or despair—but it somehow all melts together into this amusement-park chaos that dovetails well with the high school setting and characters’ raging hormones.  I found myself more forgiving of it, anyway, even if it didn’t always work.  Like Battle Royale, the game is very raw about pulling away the thin veneer of social niceties that keep teenagers from tearing each others’ throats out with their teeth; if anything, the fluctuating tone just highlights how confusing and wild being a teenager actually is.  Danganronpa is happy to dwell in its camp; but camp, like high school, is just life with the volume all the way up.

And for all the camp, Danganronpa is actually very willing and able to use your expectations and the conventions of the genre to drive home its serious moments even more.

But to talk about that, we have to wade deep into spoiler-territory—in a game where the spoilers are literally the solutions to the main puzzles of the game.  Do yourself a favor and play the game before you read on.

Consider yourself warned.

Danganronpa vs. Genre Conventions

Did you go play it?  Hope so, because I’m about to give away some very important plot points to emphasize how Danganronpa uses subverted tropes to drive home its themes.

But first we have to talk about the tropes and genre conventions that Danganronpa is going out of its way to subvert.

So let’s start with Maya Fey.

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Everyone’s favorite Spirit Guide-slash-paralegal-slash-nepotism hire.

Maya Fey is the assistant to Phoenix Wright in most of the Phoenix Wright games.  She is quirky, passionate, friendly, and a good support to and sounding-board for the player character.  Throughout Maya and Phoenix’s interactions there is an undercurrent of romance—she’s a character the player is invited to latch onto and build a connection with.  In our discussion on visual novels generally, we discussed how visual novels (like Phoenix Wright and Danganronpa) often have female characters who play this role for the player and protagonist.  Maya is hardly the only example—in virtually all the Zero Escape games, the player has a female counterpart in a comparable role—(June/Akane in 999, though her role is also subversive, and Phi in Virtue’s Last Reward).  In Ghost Trick, too, the ghostly Sissel teams up with the mysterious Lynne to solve the mystery of his murder.  The trope is a popular one, and for good reason; the player can invest in the relationship, shipping the characters and fearing for their safety, heightening the tension in dramatic moments.

Additionally, by pairing the protagonist with another character, the game has a convenient explanation for the protagonist offering in-text description and dialogue to the player.  In many old adventure games (like Secret of Monkey Island or even the early Zork games), descriptions of objects are presented as though the character is talking to themselves, or from the perspective of some non-diagetic omniscient narrator.  Later adventure games (like the Blackwell games, or other Wadjeteye titles like Primordia) use the same solution; by incorporating a companion character into the game, the descriptions are now presented as banter between the two characters.

Danganronpa uses much the same tactic here.  The player-character/protagonist, Makoto, is immediately introduced to the Ultimate Pop Idol, Sayaka—a sprightly, energetic, good-hearted girl-next-door (uncannily; it turns out she was a classmate of yours in grade school before becoming a singer)—who almost immediately offers to become your assistant.  In the opening days of the game, Sayaka confesses her insecurities and her trust in you.  Like Maya in Phoenix Wright, or June in 999, the player is invited to trust the character, invest emotionally in the relationship between Makoto and Sayaka, and a romance is even hinted at.  Sayaka directly asks Makoto/the player at one point to protect her.  She says she feels more comfortable with you around, tapping right into those protective/romantic instincts.

Eventually, Sayaka comes to your room late one night—someone was banging on her door, she says, threatening to kill her.  Would you be willing to switch rooms with her for the night, to protect her from the killer?  Makoto agrees—he has promised to protect Sayaka, after all.  They exchange keys, then fall asleep in different rooms.

Sayaka is dead when you wake up.

Sayaka Maizono: A Case Study

R.I.P.

Spike Chunsoft does a masterful job of building expectations here before breaking them.  By placing as much emphasis on the Sayaka/Makoto relationship, and by playing to the tropes of Visual Novels and Adventure Games past, they use the player’s expectations for these tropes to drive home the real horror of the game and make the scenario that much more real and heartbreaking.  When you first see Sayaka’s dead body, it’s every bit as visceral as the scenes of murder in the Zero Escape games, or in the Battle Royale movie: but you’ve also had time to build hopes for the relationship.  You are personally hurt by Sayaka’s death, personally frustrated by the sudden end to any romantic hopes you might have had with her.  The horror of the situation is compounded by the fact that you had envisioned a future with Sayaka, had hoped to see a romantic arc, starting from these first few days and extending through the rest of the game, like Junpei and June in 999—but that can’t happen now.

Now, you could certainly make the case that this just exchanges one trope for another—Sayaka moves from being your companion character to a “woman in a refrigerator” trope; her death serves solely to motivate the protagonist/player to action.  In fact, this trope is probably even more pernicious than the “girl-next-door”/love interest trope they were riffing on before.

But Spike Chunsoft isn’t done yet.

Once you conduct your investigation (in your own dorm room, making you the primary suspect), and make your way to the class trial, it becomes gradually more and more obvious:

Sayaka wasn’t murdered in cold blood; she was trying to murder someone else and was killed in self-defense.

What’s more, by staging the murder in your room, she was hoping to frame you for the murder and get away scot-free.

She only befriended you so she could use you.

This all comes across during that rapid-fire first trial scene.  And it has got to be one of the most memorable sequences I’ve had playing a video game in a long time.  You’re given enough information to be able to figure out who the murderer is a long way coming, but the murderer isn’t the real mystery here.  The real mystery is Sayaka, uncovering the layers of her motivation and realizing how deep a betrayal her actions actually were.  Just as you (as Makoto) are personally invested in the relationship between Makoto/you and Sayaka, so are you personally betrayed when you find out that you’ve been personally manipulated by Sayaka to be her fall guy.  All the sweet things she’d said to you, the promise you’d made to her—that was all her, leading you around by the nose to fulfill her agenda.

Duplicitous betrayals! Just like in real high school!

Danganronpa is a game about hope and despair.  It’s almost comically explicit by the end of the game.  But the game is way more effective communicating these themes through the individual character interactions than it is when the characters start delivering long philosophical diatribes toward the end of the game.  You the player place your hope and trust in Sayaka.  She betrays you, destroying that hope and trust, almost immediately.  The game primes you to distrust the other characters, and by making Sayaka both the first victim and the first person to attempt murder, the game also alerts you to the fact that nothing can be taken for granted in this game.  People are not what they seem.  And now that the game has ripped away one series of tropes, it invites you to question the other tropes they’ve presented.  It invites you to question all your assumptions about the game.  Where I thought it might be possible (as it is in Zero Escape) to get all the characters out alive, now I was faced with the alternative possibility: what if the game really was going to whittle down the cast until only one or two characters survived?  After Sayaka’s death, the enigmatic Kyoko becomes the logical assistant and moral center to the player—she’s the one who guides you through the first class trial, inviting you to find contradictions in your classmates’ testimony and see the relevance of your evidence.  But Kyoko, too, has secrets, and she will withhold her trust from you because she, too, sees that she can’t trust anyone.  You will build your relationship with Kyoko throughout the whole game, until there comes a point where you face the exact same decision: when all the evidence suggests that she betrayed you, too, will you still trust her, like you did Sayaka?

Good and Bad Deconstruction

I had a conversation with my students the other day, and they mentioned how much they like movies, literature, or other media that “deconstructs” existing genre tropes.  I was…less enthusiastic.  Deconstruction is a powerful tool, but it needs to be used to a purpose.  Just pointing out the artificiality of a work or medium doesn’t accomplish much of anything, and there are plenty of movies or video games that settle for deconstruction without doing anything with it.

By contrast, good deconstruction has a purpose in mind.  To my lights, there are really three “good” reasons to deconstruct a genre or work.  The first is comedy, or to de-fang the deconstructed work—that’s what parody is all about.  So Deadpool effectively deconstructs the superhero genre for the sake of laughs.  It draws attention to the silliness and superficiality of superhero conventions in order to elicit a laugh. 

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Even the promotional materials are metatextual parody.

The second reason is to make a metatextual point about the thing being deconstructed.  Deadpool doesn’t have a whole lot to say about superheroes besides “aren’t these things silly/dumb?”, but Watchmen deconstructs the superhero genre in order to seriously interrogate what we want from superhero literature altogether.  Alan Moore invites us to see how terrible super-powered humans might be—how they might be tools of fascism or oppression.  “Who watches the Watchmen?” he asks—and we should recognize that superheroes are not admirable because they cater to our fantasy for power and control of our world, but because they are moral exemplars to live up to.  Superheroes, for Moore, are best left on the pages of comic books than released into real life.

The third use of deconstruction, though, is to double down on the messages of the original medium.  To continue our example of the superhero genre, I might point to Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, where Phil Lord and Chris Miller use the deconstructed world of Spider-Man and the Multiverse of different Spider-People to emphasize that true heroism always requires sacrifice and suffering, and that Spider-Man could be anyone, if circumstances align just so.  Just as the original superhero comics were intended to inspire virtue and communicate hard truths about good and evil, Spider-Verse confronts the genre conventions to reinforce the genre’s themes.

Danganronpa falls into this third category.  By challenging the tropes of Visual Novels and high-school dramas, it ends up reinforcing the message of uncertainty and visceral distrust that so strongly characterizes teenage life.  By subverting the player’s expectations, Danganronpa surprises and renews the player’s connection to the game, enlivening the experience by driving the player to a place of real distrust, uncertainty, and dread.  Danganronpa captures the sense of teen paranoia—of looking around and wondering who will stab you in the back next, while you’re just trying to figure things out about yourself and your surroundings.

I think the game hits its peak right around the fourth trial, after the pool of characters have been reduced substantially, but when the characters that remain are people you know deeply.  The fourth trial, like the first, is a maze of motivations too complicated to explain here, but the outcome is a story of betrayal, despair, loyalty, and suffering—so elegantly constructed that the solution to the mystery proves to be a bitter irony to the remaining characters.

Sakura deserved so much better.

At its best, this is what Danganronpa achieves: each murder and subsequent trial becomes a self-contained vignette with its own themes and deep emotional relationships, as well as a contribution to the themes and relationships of the whole.  Like most truly great murder mysteries, the story of the murder becomes a tragic, horrible story in its own right, pieced together by the investigators backwards through the investigation.  It’s a magic trick the Phoenix Wright games pulled off in their best moments; Danganronpa pulls it off more often than not, though there are missteps.

But there are also more than missteps.

School Mode

It might be unfair to criticize Danganronpa for its “School Mode”.  My understanding is that the game did not originally release with School Mode when it came out on PSP, but the mode was added in later re-releases, including the Vita and PS4 versions, as well as my trusty PC version (on Steam).  It features at least one character from a future game, and a lot of the character interactions are non-canon.

It’s also just dumb.  The plot and character development is thrown out, in favor of a worker-placement minigame where you have all the character search for random junk throughout the school, so you can build Monokuma doppelgangers.  The main reason I played it was to see the character scenes scattered throughout the main game.  Since there are only a handful of free days in the main game (and since many of the characters die unpredictably), it’s pretty difficult to see character relationships develop to their conclusion.  School Mode gives you plenty of time (with no murders) to build those relationships and see each character grow to trust Makoto and themselves.

Overall, I found those character beats a little bit disappointing.  There’s a similar mechanic in the Persona games, where the characters each come to important realizations about themselves that change how they relate to you and to themselves.  Those tend to be strong arcs with powerful moments (some of the Persona 4 arcs bring me to tears, every time) and mechanical changes in-game, but within the structure of Danganronpa, the characters can’t afford to change too much, since the game relies heavily on its script.  (A good script, but you still feel like the mechanic should enable you to talk people out of killing each other.)

But even worse, School Mode has a completely-unrelated mechanic where you take the characters on “dates” to various rooms in the school, where you have other throwaway character beats that mean even less than the beats exported from the main game.  And, if you successfully complete the missions set for you by Monokuma and max out a character’s relationship to you….

…they give you their underwear.

….

[deep sigh of disgust and despair]

An Attempt at Well-Reasoned Rational Discussion Since Banging My Head on My Keyboard Repeatedly Is Particularly Hard to Communicate in an Essay

Let’s start by getting this out of the way.

I am a prude. 

I know this about myself.  I’m pretty sure anyone who meets me or listens to me for any length of time can figure this out about me.  My wife definitely knows it about me.  Given my ‘druthers, I tend to avoid depictions of sex in the media.  I am not titillated by characters kissing on sitcoms.  I find 99.9% of pornography tasteless and gross, and there are even some well-respected works of art I consider pornographic.

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Pictured: Excessive Sexual Tension

But seriously.

I honestly think that my prudishness has at least as much to do with the artistic environment we live in as my own subjective tastes.  Good sex scenes are rare.  Well-developed romantic relationships are equally rare.  Good descriptive and evocative writing about sex is probably rarest of all.  And sex in video games?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything remotely close to believable.  Not in Mass Effect, though I admittedly haven’t played the sequels, or Dragon Age (and I’ve yet to see any evidence they would change my mind).  Not in The Witcher.  Not in Heavy Rain.  Definitely not in anything Bethesda has released.  Not in any of Rockstar’s games.  I can probably list on one hand the cases of decent portrayals of sex in video games.

  1. God of War I & II – because it’s a joke.
  2. Saint’s Row III & IV – also a joke, but not because it’s a joke.
  3. Dream Daddy, A Dad Dating Simulator — and I’m not gay.
  4. The Legend of Zelda, Majora’s Mask — freaking Anju and Kafei get me every time, though that’s more romance than sex…

My point here is that I’m about to say that Danganronpa’s School Mode fails SO hard at depicting romance and sex that it is aggressively objectionable and even downright offensive to women (and men, too, I guess), and I realize that is going to be a very uphill battle on the Internet, because the basic rule about sex is that everybody responds to sexual content differently.

So the first thing I want to stress is that I’m not criticizing sexual content because it’s sexual, but because it is bad at it.  I’m not a prude because I hate sex; I’m a prude because I hate sex portrayed badly.  I like to think I have a pretty good sense of when a sex scene is presented because it suits the characters and the story well and serves an important narrative function for the work of art (say, in Outlander), as opposed to when it is just thrown in for titillation, shock value, or gratuitous sex appeal (like 99% of Game of Thrones).  Heck, I once put down a book because I found the sex scenes stupidly gratuitous, only to turn to the interviews with the author in the back where he literally said he included them gratuitously.

I felt pretty vindicated after that one.

But in case you think I’m alone on this one, let me quote Extra Credits’ now ten-years’ old observation on the subject:

I’m willing to call it now—actually playing a sex scene will almost always feel gratuitous.  The simulacra of that act just naturally destroys immersion.

Maybe just watch the whole video; the observations are still very relevant.

So let’s leave the ad hominems out of this conversation and proceed like my personal preferences have virtually no bearing on this subject.

Instead, here’s my thesis:

  1. Danganronpa’s panty-reward is neither titillating nor realistic.
  2. The choice to include it detracts from the effective writing for the characters throughout the main story.
  3. It is an irresponsible, morally-pernicious inclusion, and they should be held culpable for the choice.

Point 3—the fact that the choice was immoral—is obviously the most inflammatory and difficult to prove, so let’s save that one for a bit.  Instead, let’s focus on the first two for now.

Point 1: Danganronpa vs. Sex

So there are some fairly romantic moments in Danganronpa proper.  And there are some strongly sexualized moments.  But I am not nearly as upset about them.  So let’s talk about why it’s different.

First, there are the in-game character beats.  By spending your free time with various characters and giving them gifts, they’ll open up to you, offering you greater intimacy and, eventually, the characters will invite you to their dormitory (with a couple exceptions).  This holds true for both male and female characters, and not all of the final scenes have a romantic dimension.  Yasuhiro, for example, the wild-haired psychic, turns out to be a con man, trying to rope you into a fortune-telling pyramid scheme that’s taken him for all he’s worth.  It’s funny and weirdly despicable for a character that otherwise serves as comic relief (another example of Spike Chunsoft developing characters in unexpected ways).  Also notable is the fact that Kyoko, the character Makoto spends the most time with through the game—and a fairly natural love-interest—ultimately remains distant and restrained, throughout their interactions.  The Makoto-Kyoko relationship is not about sex, it is about trust, which is one of the key themes of the game.  The only character who gets anywhere close to a romantic relationship with Makoto is Aoi, who “practices dating” with Makoto in their final character moment.  Aoi is by far the most sexualized character (her animation features comically-large breasts, and several of the characters comment on them), even to the point that in the alternate ending (where the characters remain trapped in the school after Kyoko is killed), it is revealed that she has had children with both Makoto and Yasuhiro.  But Aoi is also shy about the date; she wants to practice because that’s the way she approaches most of her problems (Aoi, the Ultimate Swimmer, spends a lot of the game training and practicing her swimming).  It’s implied that she would be happy to go on a real date with Makoto once they escape—but that’s as close to a romance as the player is likely to get.

But Aoi’s sexualization is also prevalent throughout the game.  Not just in her character design, but in a particularly tense period, Toko and her alter-ego accuse her of seducing her nominal boyfriend, to the point of explicitly calling her breasts “melons” and suggesting she is sexually indiscriminate (though Toko’s terms are much harsher).  This rings a little bit false in the game, as though the writers are trying to draw attention to Aoi’s physical characteristics for the purposes of titillation, but it honestly has much more to do with Toko’s character than Aoi’s, and the writers have the fig leaf of Toko’s hostility to cover any objectification.  Less defensible is the one-panel cutscene of Aoi, nearly naked, crying into her pillow, before she discovers an important clue to the overarching plot.  The game otherwise rarely breaks from Makoto’s perspective; this seems just an excuse to shoehorn some cheap titillation into the game, but it still fits within Aoi’s character and emphasizes her vulnerability and fear as much as her sexuality.

Aoi Asahina Character Designs: She’s also really well-written, for what it’s worth.

The last, and most obvious instance of sexualization involves what must be one of the most tired, played-out tropes in the history of any media portraying high-schoolers.  At one point, due to mostly-reasonable plot contrivance, the girls all take a bath together in the school’s bath house.  Hifumi, the nerdy fan-fiction writer, charges the boys to spy on the girls taking the bath.  He frames it as their sacred duty as men, and is certainly self-conscious of the trope, all the way back to Animal House.  At one point, the player is even given the option to express their discomfort with the situation, but Hifumi will insist, regardless of Makoto’s objections, and Makoto will (unfortunately) agree that he is obligated to spy on the bathing girls.  And, once again, there’s a full screenshot of all the girls in towels or the water, all hyper-sexualized.  This (partially) enjoys the fig leaf of Hifumi and Makoto’s character choices, as well as the self-consciousness of the trope.  But it’s difficult to interpret this scene as anything other than the game enforcing predatory hetero-normative masculine sexuality.  Hifumi’s eagerness is, if anything, presented as absurd or overly-self-referential; but the game still makes you see the shot, anyway.  Depiction of objectification of women and actual objectification of women are pretty darn close when you present it like this.

But as much as scenes like this make me uncomfortable, I honestly think Danganronpa handled them better than, say, Persona 4’s bathhouse scene, or the disastrous way Persona 5 forces Ann into objectifying herself for Yosuke.  Danganronpa presents its moments of titillation within the boundaries of realism presented by the game (mostly).  Still, not great.

The panty thing…just…doesn’t though.  I mean, I had maxed out five characters’ relationships in school mode.  Am I really to believe that each of the characters stepped forward, assembly-line style, stripped off their underwear in front of the other waiting characters, handed them to me, and then tagged in the next person?  NOPE.  Doesn’t make sense.  It’s obviously just treated as a trophy.  Another something to collect.  It objectifies the women in this game every bit as much as the dirty postcards in The Witcher—without even the potential explanation of titillation, since it’s not like the panties are anything more than…just…panties…  Am I missing something here?

Point 2. Danganronpa vs. Itself

But here’s the kicker, in my mind.

I cared about these characters.  I cared about Kyoko’s trust in my integrity.  I cared about Aoi’s loyalty to her friends.  I cared about Sakura’s problems understanding herself as a woman.  I cared about Chihiro’s battle to be strong.  By playing this game, Danganronpa taught me, over and over again, to see these characters as people.  And not just cheap, superficially-constructed people, but people with layers, character flaws, multiple interests.  Just as Sayaka was more than your trope-y girl-next-door assistant; she was motivated by fear and longing and friendship to betray her childhood friend and protector and murder a class-mate, I saw these characters as more than just one-note stereotypes.

And then the game just flat out tells you they are objects.  Congratulations.  You got their numbers up the highest.  Here’s your prize – the underpants.

Seriously?  Kyoko spends the whole game hiding her hands in gloves due to the fact that they’ve been badly scarred.  The moment when she takes off her gloves to prove that she did not commit murder is this climactic moment for the trial, for her character, for your relationship.  But all you gotta do is pick the right answer out of three a dozen times and she’ll just give you her knickers.  Ugh.  You couldn’t make her more game-y if you tried.

Pictured: Climactic Moment of Character Development Between Two Well-Written Characters;
Not Pictured: Underpants

Maybe that’s all the School Mode was ever supposed to be; a truly gamified-version of the characters for you to push around and manipulate, but the whole reason I wanted to spend more time with these characters is because they were believable, multi-faceted people.  It’s like I was paying a compliment to the chef by asking for another course, and he brought me a bag of McDonald’s take-out.  The best I can think is that it was just another tacked-on feature to the re-master, but this is definitely a case where the addition ended up subtracting from the whole experience.  I loved Sakura’s portrayal in this game, but I suspect that I’ll never be able to look at her the same way again.

I saw her panties, after all.

Point 3.  Danganronpa vs. Dignity

Let’s do this one Aquinas-style.

Objection 1: You take this too seriously.  It’s just a video game.  You’re making it out like this is high art or something.

Reply: Danganronpa, like virtually all works in any medium, is as good as it aspires to be.  And it demonstrates, over and over again, that it is capable of deeply investigating and exploring, artistically, deep themes of psychology and the human condition in a way that absolutely transcends its value as a work of entertainment.  These themes of hope and despair are especially tenuous—I wrote a whole essay about how Star Wars has been paying lip-service to hope for years without successfully getting at what makes hope so precious.  Danganronpa succeeds only partially, but where it succeeds, it does fantastic work.  The inclusion of this adolescent fantasy-fulfillment degrades that accomplishment.

Objection 2: This is just a video game trope.  Lots of games include collection quests with a sexual component.  Danganronpa is constrained by its medium to do something similar.

Reply: Nonsense.  The whole point of the foregoing was to explain how Danganronpa effectively subverts the tropes in its genre to achieve its artistic and thematic goals.  If this really came down to a collection quest, I’m sure they could have come up with something that resonated with the themes in the game.  When the characters are executed at the end of each trial, you get a memento—a haunting reminder of the people you’ve lost so far.  Not all of them work, but they don’t detract nearly as much from what the game is trying to say, and they do manage to reinforce that central theme of loss and despair.  What do the panties say, besides reinforcing that you’re one suave player (in several senses of the word)?  At best they contribute to an indulgent power fantasy completely at odds with the rest of the game.

Objection 3: Sex sells.  The primary responsibility of Spike Chunsoftis to make money.  By incorporating the panties mini-game, they appeal to a demographic hungry for sex, move more copies, and make more money.  Therefore, they are not to be criticized.

Reply: I systematically reject the idea that corporations and businesses are somehow exempt from the moral obligations that bind people as responsible moral agents.  No corporation exists that isn’t made up of people, and those people are responsible to be decent to one another—from the investors through the CEOs down to the most unappreciated employee.  But never mind that.

Danganronpa managed to sell sex and titillation through a variety of means less objectionable than the panties-rewards.  I discussed at length the questionable decisions surrounding Aoi, or the bathhouse scene.  They all fit within the context of the game, even if they are more than a bit juvenile, and they are far more titillating than the freaking underpants.  I’d honestly be less upset if they did the Witcher’s naked-postcard thing.  It would still be juvenile and stupid, but at least it would represent a relatively-logical act by the characters within the logic of the game.

Magazine Art Promoting Danganronpa; Note that the promise of sex is emphasized, but not tasteless

Objection 4: The underwear totally fits the themes of the game!  Each character is symbolically sharing their most intimate secrets with you, just like you said about Kyoko and trust!  You can only get the underpants after you respond to each character according to the secrets they’ve shared with you!

Reply: I’m entertaining this one because there might be some case to be made for it, but at the end of the day I can’t believe it’s the case.  The one-off question that precedes getting the underwear is, at best, redundant to what’s gone on before, and, at worst, superficial.  Some even arbitrarily choose between several things the character has confided to you over the course of the game.  What’s more, I can’t imagine trying to divorce the intimacy dimension of the underpants (it’s trust!) from the sexual dimension.  If it was just about intimacy, it wouldn’t just be underpants from every character; it would be something that uniquely speaks to your relationship with that character, not just this arbitrary, obviously-sexualized token.

Objection 5: What if this is intentional?  What if Spike Chunsoft is actually making a really incisive meta-commentary on the nature of video game artificiality, and is condemning your immersion in the game as the gullibility and deception?  What if Spike Chunsoft is making a deeper point here?

Reply: There is a point here.  I doubt it’s what they had in mind, but let’s assume intentionality all the same.  School Mode may detract from the vision of the original game, but what it does objectify the characters in a way that is utterly unique to video games.  It takes well-developed characters with all their quirks and characteristics, all the time you’ve spent with them, all the interactions you’ve had with them, and literally turns it into an object.  Through this act, all of your relationship, all of their character becomes represented by an object.  And, in doing so, the game is, in fact, reminding you that these characters are nothing more than objects.  It is not just figurative objectification.  It is literal objectification.  It is tantamount to reading a book about compelling characters and then running into a sentence where the author reminds you that they are characters and that you are stupid for thinking they were anything more.  But in this case, you actually have interacted with the characters.  You helped Makoto build these relationships through your decisions and dialogue choices.  And now you are forcefully reminded that they are just ones and zeroes, scripted, constructed, illusions.  They shouldn’t even have the dignity of objects, seeing as they only existed when they were running through your RAM.

I don’t think this is at all what Spike Chunsoft intended.  I suspect it was more just carelessness.  Maybe some other video game, made by nihilistic monsters, could spend as much time as this developing the characters, only to remind you that they are programmed responses, presumably to imply that all human beings are just fancy biological machines responding to their instinctual programming.  I would respect the artifice of such a game, but condemn such a conclusion just as strongly.  Because it is wrong.  Because it is immoral.  And this is what School Mode is telling us, no matter how inadvertently.  School Mode tells us that the people you care about are just objects, that their choices do not matter, and that your interactions are just a fiction leading you to your perverse reward.  It is wrong because it is telling you that people don’t have dignity or value, except as objects on par with mushrooms or ants.  And that devaluation of human life leads to murder, theft, and basically every act we as a society, for thousands of years, have considered wrong.  At the very least, it devalues its own art, devalues my immersion in that art, and rejects the value of every work of fiction every created—a lesser atrocity than devaluing life, but an atrocity nonetheless.

Objection 6: It’s Japan!  They have panties in vending machines!  What right do you have to judge them for their different cultural assumptions?  You are being intolerant.

Reply: This is the one I really wanted to address here, because it’s true that these problems are frequently found throughout Japanese media.  I’ve made plenty of references to other, similar problems in Japanese video games throughout this essay, and that was intentional.  I am, at the end of the day, criticizing this element of Japanese culture across the board, not just in this particular video game, or even video games in general.  I answer, unapologetically, that this is wrong.  And I understand that this may come off as intolerant.

Objectification of people is wrong.  Selective objectification of women is also wrong, because women are people and should be treated as such.  If we are to assume that culture (like the Japanese culture) has dignity and worth, that dignity and worth only exists as an extension of the dignity and worth we extend to the people in that culture.  We assume that people are generally precious, and that their ideas and opinions should be respected as a consequence; therefore, we respect their culture, even if it differs from ours.  We try not to impose our morality on other people because we recognize that we may not understand all the nuances of what they are doing and saying.  We assume the best of them, in short.  But that does not equate to a blank check.  I would not condone human sacrifice in another culture, nor would I condone the systematic persecution of a race, or class, or any other kind of sub-culture of people within a culture.  I am outraged by our detainment of illegal immigrants in this country, just as I am outraged by the Chinese detention of the Uighurs, just as I am outraged by any culture that treats women as though they should have no say over what happens to their own bodies.  Whatever the cultural significance of panty-vending-machines, when Danganronpa treats its characters like vending machines for sexual intimacy, I feel no compunction about condemning it.

What’s more, my understanding is that Japan is trying to change.  The panty-vending-machine is a thing of the past.  New laws cracking down on child pornography and representations of teen sexuality are being passed to curb the dangerous business of objectifying schoolgirls and fantasizing about minors.  And if the culture is attempting to police itself, we are doing it no favors by standing up for its anachronistic habits.  We should definitely not start tolerating this objectification in our own culture, on poor, ill-informed grounds.

Instead, I find myself right back at the question I asked initially: WHY?  Who is this for?  Who enjoys digital panties from digital characters?  Who did they make this for, and is this an accurate representation of what they want from this game?  And why would this somehow be better than more nuanced characterization, better writing, more robust dialogue options?  Who wanted their characters to become objects?  Isn’t the true titillation of waifus rooted in the illusion that they are realistic, well-developed characters with nuance and depth? If you reduce them to a object through obvious character-breaking mechanics, doesn’t that also destroy the attraction?

I can’t help but think of poor Hifumi, trapped in his Otaku cycle of self-reference and cultural detritus, demanding that we peek in on the bathing girls out of some sort of meta-obligation.  Hifumi was supposed to be absurd in that scene, but School Mode treats us as if that’s exactly what we should want, how we should be.  Not because we want that, or even because they want us to want that, but because it’s so much easier than dealing with the complicated business of relationships and real, meaningful pay-off. Hifumi wants what he thinks he should want; Danganronpa is at least aware enough to know that there are layers to this issue, and that it’s more complicated than Hifumi makes it seem. School Mode doesn’t even understand the most basic level on which its titillation is supposed to function.

Pictured: REALLY unhealthy attitudes about women and sexuality

Danganronpa vs. High School

But I think this just brings us right back around to some of the things Danganronpa gets so right about the teenager experience. This cycle of social expectation and sexual identity is a major component of the high schooler’s need to figure out who they are, and how much they mean to resist the pressures imposed on their identity by their friends, by their families, by their responsibilities, by authority figures, by popular trends and celebrities. And the sudden awareness of all these pressures – the day-in-and-day-out battle to assert oneself against them – builds into the sort of violence expressed by Battle Royale and Danganronpa. Characters like Hifumi, with his absorption into anime culture, or Chihiro, questioning his own sexuality as he is challenged to be stronger, or Sakura, wrestling with her womanhood and her family heritage of typically-masculine-associated physical prowess – these characters all serve to highlight the difficulty of figuring out who you are and how to function in a society keen to shave off all the rough edges to a person and drop them into an easily-understood category. It’s a struggle as old as Augustine’s Confessions, the German bildungsroman, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s musings about college. And Danganronpa frequently succeeds at the same insights of its predecessors, while juggling a strange multitude of genre conventions and tones.

I think, at the end of the day, that Japan’s fascination with high school is powerful and, like all truly powerful urges, dangerous.  I think works like Battle Royale and Danganronpa are both insightful in the way that they dissect the intersections between violence and sexuality, friendship and betrayal, trust and paranoia, hope and despair—all of which are so much a part of teenage life.  The brutality on display in these works resonates deeply with me, and with many others, if my cousins, my students, and the other millions of Fortnite players are any indication.  And I think we very much need to understand this about ourselves, whether it’s by observing contemplatively from a distance or by using the medium of video games to vent our anguish and rage.

What’s more, I think Japan is uniquely positioned to tell these stories.  I may be a prude, but my culture is even more prudish about high school.  We somehow keep telling ourselves these two conflicting stories of high school’s goodness and high school’s badness, with only the rare work transcending the two.  The Japanese, with their forbidden fascination growing more and more curtailed, see both simultaneously, synthesizing the horror and the excitement and fun and the monstrousness and the joy of high school all at the same time, all in a way that captures the frenetic energy of it all at the same time.  I wonder sometimes if these artists, like those backward-looking adults I know, aren’t also stuck reminiscing about high school as the highlight of their lives—but without any of the illusions of greatness or self-importance.  Instead, high school is a place of betrayal (like in Battle Royale), of horrific monsters (like in Persona), or of desperation (like in Danganronpa). It’s no wonder, then, that American high-schoolers are so frequently taken with Japanese culture and assumptions.  Where we prudishly intervene in our children’s lives, trying to weed out the sex and violence and reassure our children that the world is a good, hope-filled, happy place, the Japanese vision of high school more realistically represents the horrors of the world they will graduate into: a world of war and savage competition and cruelty, all existing hand-in-glove with the joy, beauty, and goodness.  Somehow we madly want to separate the two poles of our lives; here in Danganronpa, they are properly unified.  The wild tonal shifts fit the world Spike Chunsoft depicts, just as our world is susceptible to such improbable shifts.

The great joy (and terror) of high school is that everything is so new, so immediate, and so unknown.  Every betrayal is the first betrayal; every love is the first love; every failure is the first failure.  Teenagers’ hearts are not yet callused and worn by repeated disappointments, triumphs, and struggles—as adults’ hearts are.  And that is where Danganronpa succeeds so wonderfully.  By stripping away the tropes, removing what is familiar, challenging what we think we know, it manages to tap into that same newness and force us to think through the situation as something perfectly novel and unknown.  It makes us young again in that way, and with its attention to character, it makes a world every bit as believable as our own.  It’s a careful high-wire act, only possible because everything is so taut.  Missteps are inevitable, and yet none of them are so damaging to the story as to utterly remove us from that feeling of urgency familiar to every teenager.

But what’s more, I think the errors of Danganronpa further serve to illustrate that fundamental divide that every high-schooler feels as they attempt to sort out who they are as opposed to who they are supposed to be. Danganronpa, at its best, controls and subverts its tropes so well that it serves to viscerally re-emphasize what made those tropes powerful in the first place. But at its worst, its subservience to those same tropes dispels all the insights and realism it accomplished. Danganronpa, too, is caught between what it is and what it imagines it is supposed to be.

Who will you decide to be?

I earnestly hope the next games in the series will avoid such cheap clichés.  I earnestly hope that revisiting the game won’t be spoiled by School Mode’s poor choices.  But you only ever get one chance for a first experience, after all – that’s what makes high school so stressful and dangerous in the first place.  I won’t easily forget those late nights sorting through the evidence and piecing together the torrid stories of betrayal and murder in this game, but I won’t forget the damp squib of a conclusion that led me to write this essay, either.  I go into the sequels hoping for the best, but knowing that the same developers who made the decision to reduce my favorite characters to underwear-dispensers are likely behind the scenes as well.

Danganronpa achieved its successes by subverting tropes and clichés in very deliberate, calculated ways.  It didn’t skimp on making the characters and the world real and nuanced, potent and evocative.  Where it fell, it fell by succumbing to the same tropes it had so powerfully re-contextualized earlier in the game.  If there’s a lesson here, that is it.  Don’t serve the tropes and genre conventions, the expectations of your audience, your peers, and your field.  Don’t succumb to the pressures of some perceived other, out there somewhere, dictating what – and who – you should be.

Make them serve you instead.

2 thoughts on “Serving and Subverting Tropes in Danganronpa

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