The Radical Empathy of Danganronpa
I caved. I didn't know what I was getting myself into, but I'd been hearing for years about this niche Japanese game and how great it was. It looked weird. A cartoon bear featured heavily in a lot of the images I'd seen from the title. What was it about? What kind of a game was it? I had no idea. Based solely on the recommendations of friends and colleagues, I picked up Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and took my first steps into a strange new world.
Danganronpa might just be one of the oddest games I've played. It's equal parts mystery novel, adventure game, and courtroom drama with all of those disparate elements coming together in a way that makes sense. It contains horror and violence, but can turn on a dime to be comedic and slapstick. The game uses every trick it can manage within the tight confines of its gameplay to bring the player through the full gauntlet of human emotion. Completing an episode of Danganronpa can be an absolutely draining experience - not because of difficult gameplay, but because the game demands empathy from the player. It needs the player to see and feel through the eyes of the characters; a daunting task that many games never accomplish.
If you don't already have some idea of what the game is about and the previous paragraph sounded interesting to you, stop reading and go play it on PS Vita or the remaster of the first two games that released on PC and PlayStation 4. It's best to go in blind with as few expectations as possible to allow the game to allow you into the lives of the various characters. If you've played it already or aren't planning to play, but still have some curiosity, read on!
So what is Danganronpa? Ostensibly, the scenario revolves around Makoto Naegi, a typical Japanese high school student who has been accepted into Hope's Peak Academy, the most rigorous and prestigious school in the country. The people accepted into the school have to display "ultimate" skills in a given field. Makoto, unable to manifest any remarkable talents, receives his acceptance when he wins a raffle, proving himself to be the "ultimate lucky student."
On the first day of school, Makoto feels nervous, knowing that the other students will have excelled in various fields while he seemingly possesses no expertise of his own. Gathering up his courage, he steps through the doors of Hope's Peak... only for everything to go dark as he loses awareness of his surroundings. He awakens some time later within a twisted version of the school. The doors and windows have all been sealed from the inside by huge sheets of heavy metal. The only way in or out of the school seems to be a gigantic vault door that has been locked. Strangest of all, the entire school seems empty with the exception of a handful of students.
These classmates introduce themselves to one another, discovering that they have all had an experience similar to Makoto's loss of consciousness. Each of these new characters begins going through different emotional beats in to reaction the sudden change in their perception. Before the strange situation can be fully processed, a voice calls out to them through the school's intercoms. A high-pitched, lilting voice that simultaneously encompasses playfulness and death.
The unnerving voice tells the group of students to assemble in the gym. Lacking any alternative, the newest class at Hope's Peak Academy follows their instructions. In the gym they meet with the main antagonist of Danganronpa: A robotic, black and white stuffed bear that goes by the name Monokuma. This strange creature lays out the predicament with which the students must now contend. The building has been sealed, completely and utterly. Monokuma is the only one capable of unlocking the colossal vault door covering the one entrance and exit. They can either live within the school with all of their needs met for the rest of their lives or they can be the last one standing in a "killing game." To win, a student would need to murder one of their classmates and then successfully pin the murder on another student following an investigation and trial conducted by the remaining members of the class.
With that announcement, Danganronpa begins in earnest. The core gameplay consists of living life alongside the fourteen other students, investigating murders, and conducting class trials to determine who was responsible. The normal day-to-day life in the school consists of seeking out the characters you find the most interesting and engaging them in conversation to learn more about their wants and desires. This actually has a gameplay benefit beyond informing the subsequent stories that unfold. Gaining a character's trust unlocks abilities and skills that can be used during trials to give the player an edge in the mini-games and logic puzzles. Each conversation ends with the option to give a character a gift, which they may or may not like, further affecting Makoto's standing with that individual.
These interactions seem pretty mundane, but they are a really subtle and effective way of investing the player into the story and characters, which makes the twists and turns of the murder cases become all the more interesting and fraught with genuine emotional energy. You never know if the person you invested time into could be the next victim... or the next murderer.
Each murder is followed by a shift in the nature of the game. The students become investigators, looking for clues in various parts of the school. This serves as a bit of a farewell to each of the slain characters as Makoto observes the murder scenes and follows up on leads. It's a sad, somber, and sometimes perplexing affair as both the characters on screen and the player struggle with loss after loss while also attempting to piece together clues to prove who committed the crime.
All of this concludes with a class trial which plays out as a series of logic puzzles where the player literally needs to poke holes in incomplete or inaccurate accounts of events, argue against other classmates in rhythmic rhetorical battles, and piece together new clues on the fly from unexpected evidence presented by the other students. The stakes are high, too, as the penalty for failing to uncover the true killer is the death of the entire class while the murderer goes free.
With these three modes of play you wind up with Danganronpa, a strange amalgamation of Sherlock Holmes mystery, slice of life visual novel, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. A game with just that as an elevator pitch might be good. Danganronpa doesn't settle for just being good and it does that by engendering empathy.
Empathy is difficult. Empathy requires making a connection with another person to the point that you can understand what they are going through. It's not to be confused with sympathy, which involves caring for and feeling bad for someone, but ultimately being unable to understand their feelings and situation on a fundamental level. Empathy involves taking the time and expending the energy necessary to know someone enough to understand them and, to a certain degree, forgive them. It doesn't mean excusing actions that have hurt yourself or others, but it does entail connecting on some level with the person behind that hurt and understanding their humanity.
I'm going to take a bit of what might seem to be a detour here, but bear with me. When I was growing up, one of my best friends in the whole world hurt me with a lie. Then it became several lies. Ultimately, it spiraled into an uncomfortably loud conversation in the halls of our school where we parted ways angrily. He refused to see things from my perspective and I refused to consider things from his. It seems a little thing now in retrospect, but at the time the hurt went deep and it caked my heart in an icy sheen of bitterness, a protective layer of despair. In time, that veneer faded and I was left with the understanding that my failure to empathize and forgive cost me one of the most important friendships I had ever had because I found the task to be more than my pride and perceived injury could bare.
The point I'm trying to make with this bumbling example is that empathy is really, truly difficult - and it also might be the most important skill to possess in a life surrounded by other people.
Danganronpa understands empathy on a fundamental level and structures itself around doing everything it can to help players empathize with its characters. Talking and gift-giving are small, seemingly meaningless gestures, but they serve a similar purpose to naming XCOM soldiers. Suddenly the player isn't just investing in the mechanics of the game, but also investing meaning into the characters themselves. Giving the right gift means that the player has taken the time to learn about the character and gone through the effort of using that information to make an informed gifting decision. It's a conscious effort to consider things from that character's perspective.
For all of the murder that happens in Danganronpa, it never asks you to hate any member of the cast. For all of the deceptions and sometimes cruel violence, the player is asked to engage with everyone, victims and murderers both, as a fellow flawed human being. We learn about each character, we spend time with them, and eventually we discover their failures. Even when the murderers are finally unmasked, Danganronpa takes the difficult and morally complex path of allowing them to remain human. They aren't othered or given an out, they are achingly, disturbingly human, stuck in the same awful situation as everyone else. You feel for them as they meet their elaborately ironic executions at the hands (paws?) of Monokuma.
Ultimately, Danganronpa stands as an ideological battlefield. On one side holds the belief that life is an absurd, meaningless wasteland with suffering and death as the constant background noise to all things. The other side contends that life has worth proportional to our love for others aside from ourselves, even for the people who have wrong wronged us. And I suppose when you get down to it, empathy depends on allowing one's self to love other people.
Hope's Peak Academy mirrors life, often in uncomfortable ways. We are all born into a world full of strangers and asked to exist for as long as possible. We never know if the people we befriend and love might one day be on the giving or receiving end of awfulness from one of their fellow humans - an eventuality that we all encounter in our lives at some point. The best we can do, the hope that Danganronpa presents to its players, is to meet that hurt with a courageous empathy that does not give into bitter despair. It is the hope that we can put in the effort, the very real work, to understand the antagonists of our own stories and in that understanding find a way forward that isn't mired in the mistakes of the past.