Hold on a second here! Put your pitchforks down! Nobody has to get hurt. Just let me explain myself, and I promise this will all make sense.
First, what exactly do I mean? Well, I mean exactly what you think I mean. Is Danganronpa fun to play – or more specifically, is the gameplay in Danganronpa fun? Now, obviously, fun is subjective, so I’m speaking purely from my point of view. I find Danganronpa’s gameplay to be very interesting in a lot of ways and can lead to various discussions.
One of which I want to have today, if you couldn’t guess that already.
For those of you who have never heard of Danganronpa or have heard of it but can’t quite remember what exactly “it” is, Danganronpa is a murder mystery game series developed by Spike Chunsoft, released in 2014.
The games (not counting the spin-offs) follow a group of (typically) teenagers who are (usually) locked in a school or an isolated facility of some kind against their will because of an evil robotic bear that sounds like Elmo. They could choose to live in the facility forever, in perfect harmony, but because that’s just no fun, the students have one way to “graduate.” All they have to do is kill one of their fellow classmates and get away with it.
If the “spotless” students can figure out whodunit by uncovering the “blackened’s” scheme, they can live and continue the killing game as normal, but not before the blackened gets executed. However, if the blackened gets away with murder, they get to escape, and everyone besides the blackened dies instead. It’s good times all around.
But we aren’t here to discuss the story today.
I want to start by defining just what I mean when I say “gameplay.” To do that, we need to understand the various types of gameplay that are present in Danganronpa.
You have the visual novel sections, the free time sections, and the class trials. The visual novel portions are what you might expect – walls of text with portraits of characters and the occasional CG. I’m not here to talk about this.
That would lead to a bigger debate about whether or not visual novels actually count as videogames. I’m not going to get involved with that. Yet, anyway. Hint. Hint. Wink. That’s a future discussion. I just need some more time. People in the future worry not. I’ll pop a link to the right.
I also won’t be talking about the free time parts, even though I’ve never liked that godforsaken slot machine and found the whole monokuma coin thing pretty pointless and repetitive.
I’m here today because I want to talk about the class trials themselves.
Depending on whether you’re playing Danganronpa 1, 2, or 3, each game handles this fated moment in much the same way.
You and the remaining students all gather in a pseudo-courtroom, watched by your robot bear overlord as he (and his kids in some instances) laugh at you all wallow in despair at the very thought that one of your friends may be a murderer.
If you want to save your own life and the lives of your non-murderous friends, you must power through that despair and figure out, of course, whodunit! However, because this is a videogame, you need some type of gameplay to accommodate this.
This is where Danganronpa gets a little wonky, in my opinion, but the odd thing is that the wonkiness is actually charming in a way and adds a lot to the game’s overall identity. Let me explain.
As you guide your main character towards the truth, you are generally going to need to separate fact from fiction.
This is done in various ways. The one shown above – nonstop debates – are present in all Danganronpa games, having been around since the very first installment. In this, you load a proverbial gun barrel with pieces of evidence you’ve collected called “truth bullets.” The goal, i.e., how you move on to the next segment of the trial, is to find one of the character’s lies shown in yellow text, move your mental reticle to it, and fire, shattering their lie with the truth.
However, there are problems with this.
There are often times that I know exactly what the game asks of me. I know the truth deep in my heart of hearts, but I just can’t find the right statement to contradict the lie.
This becomes an even bigger problem in later trials where there can be around seven or so potential lies. This often leads to a problem Danganronpa has where I know what to do but not how to accomplish it.
This is a very frustrating problem. It’s made even worse when later on, you get up to four or five different truth bullets, multiple of them relating to a similar piece of evidence. This means you don’t only need to find a “lie” but also the correct lie. You then need to counter that correct lie with the correct piece of evidence.
This leads to a problem of having multiple ways in which you, the player, are technically right in the exchange, but because it’s not what the game wants, you are wrong and lose health.
If this happens a lot, it leads to a game over. Not that it’s a big deal, as you can restart from the same segment if you wish. But for those who like to do things without failure, it can be frustrating, to say the least. Especially when you feel it isn’t your fault in the first place.
Unfortunately, Monokuma doesn’t have any managers to complain to, and I don’t think Spike is willing to answer that strongly worded email you sent to them either.
To spice things up, you sometimes have to agree with your fellow prisoners in the form of blue words.
When a truth bullet is used on these, it means you can agree with that person’s statement, pull out evidence that concurs with their alibi, etc.
This becomes complicated again when these are mixed in with lies as well.
It can lead to a situation where you may be trying to figure out a murder weapon, and someone says something about their alibi that appears in blue, and you, good old detective you, have a piece of evidence that confirms what they just said.
You do that, but the game is like, “nuh-uh, we aren’t talking about that,” and you get hurt.
You are technically right, but not the way the game wants you to be.
I think a good fix would have been to make little diverging pathways or roundabout conversations. Like if I do bring something up, have the characters say, “oh, yeah, that’s good to know ” and continue on without punishing me. I’m trying to be thorough here, game; I’d appreciate you being on my side.
Nonstop debates have their problems, but overall I enjoy them. This isn’t what I wanted to talk about, however. There are many, many other little minigame type things in Danganronpa.
A game where you must select the right letters to spell out whatever word(s) the MC is thinking of.
A one on one debate where you need to cut your opponents words away with a blade before slapping them in the face with a hand full of truth.
Logic Dive and Psyche Taxi.
Two games in which you dodge obstacles of some kind as you answer multiple-choice questions along the way.
There’s a ton of stuff, and they all seem very weird and equally out of place. Yet, the funny thing is these minigames have ingrained themselves into what Danganronpa is.
In the anime of Danganronpa Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa: The Animation, many references are made to these minigames, such as having Makoto load his truth bullets or take part in Hangman’s Gambit during trials.
It’s a part of what makes Danganronpa Danganronpa. It’s clear Spike realized this as well. If you look at all the minigames in each Danganronpa game, you can see how they clearly get odder and more stylized as time goes on.
It’s such a part of its identity at this point. These minigames are practically synonymous with the games themselves.
What I imagine most people wonder is the why. Why exactly are these minigames here in the first place?
If they’re so out of place, why were they ever included? What purpose do they serve? Well, that’s the question I’d like to discuss.
To understand that, I want you to think about what actually happens during the class trials. It’s a bunch of students debating each other, often bickering, in an attempt to find the blackened and get the other spotless’ on their side so they can live another day.
Now I have a question for you. What about that sounds like it’d make for good gameplay?
None of it.
I want to remind you that all that is actually happening, no matter how flashy you may make it, is just a bunch of teenagers yelling and pointing the finger at each other in an attempt to solve a murder.
There’s no clear gameplay you can get out of that. It isn’t like in Mario, for instance.
In that, you know your plumber has to jump, hop, and skip to save the princess. The gameplay is jumping through levels. In The Legend of Zelda, someone has to guide Link on his adventure, fight hordes of enemies, traverse dungeons, and whack innocent cuccos upside the head.
In these games, the “goal” is closely related to the “how.”
With Danganronpa, it’s a bit different. The “goal” in it is to solve the murder, but the “how” is by debating your classmates.
The “goal” isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s more the “how” that is.
You could take Mario and have the “goal” be the same, to save the princess, but change the “how” to like, I don’t know, Mario working at a car dealership to make enough coins to bribe Bowser or something.
It would instantly make the “how” a lot different, providing the player a unique experience, even if the “goal” stays the same.
Likewise, for Danganronpa, if the “how” was sneaking around, trying to catch the murderer in the act, or before the act, the gameplay would be drastically different despite the “goal” ultimately being the exact same.
It may seem like I’m talking in circles here, which I am, but this is why Danganronpa has the strange gameplay it has – to make a fairly mundane thing, like chatting with people, interesting.
To go back to the car dealership example (please forgive me), what would be more interesting to play, pressing a button to make Mario wax on, wax off, or popping up some intense timed minigame where you violently rotate the control stick in circles?
Do you get what I’m trying to say? Danganronpa works much in the same way.
Above is one of my favorite parts of the games. It’s the “closing argument.” This happens once you’ve more or less discovered whodunit and want to corner them by revealing the events of the crime in a linear timeline. This also serves the purpose of helping your classmates get on your side, as well as making sure you, the wonderful player, understands what has happened.
Now you could have done the “how” much differently here. It could have just been MCMcGee chatting with the blackened being like, “Hey, you did it, I got the proof and stuff,” have you hit a button, and that be it. The “goal” wouldn’t change. However, that wouldn’t make much of a game.
Instead, Danganronpa opts for this drop-dead gorgeous manga style art, in which you sort through your many panels and place in the ones that are missing from the timeline correctly. The end result is the exact same either way. You, the player, understand what has happened, as do the other students, and the blackened is cornered. All that changes is the “how,” and Danganronpa does that masterfully.
These minigames have the ability to turn something so mundane into something not only beautiful to look at but interesting to play.
And that is why Danganronpa has stuck with this because it makes what is more or less just talking into a proper game when it otherwise couldn’t count as one.
It’s largely a visual novel that has managed to break away from that mold.
However, that does not mean these minigames are all sunshine and rainbows. Some of them are great, and I truly, truly love them. Some I don’t.
Hangman’s Gambit is a prime example of how in trying to make Danganronpa a more interesting game to play, Spike makes it counterintuitive and frustrating as a result.
There are times when I know the gist of what I’m supposed to spell. I have it in my head, but I can’t find the exact word the game wants me to use.
To give one example, that’s not quite what I mean but is still bad: there’s a time you need to spell “Schizo,” ok? As in someone who is schizophrenic.
First of all, I have never heard of the term “Schizo” in my life prior to Danganronpa, which, ok, is on me. I’ll accept blame for that. However, the character doesn’t even have schizophrenia!
It’s multiple personality disorder, or dissociative personality disorder, or split personality disorder. Pick your own synonym!
That’s what I was stuck on because that’s the correct answer, and I knew it! Tell me how I shorten multiple personality disorder into six letters?
Wait, I can’t because the game thinks the character has schizophrenia instead! They’re not even the same thing!
Once again, I know what to do but not how the game wishes me to do it. It isn’t clear enough.
I’ll admit this isn’t a problem with the game, so much as it is localization, but still, it’s bad.
There are other similar situations where I know what the game wants from me, but it just wants me to answer in a certain way that I can’t figure out.
For instance, there’s a point in Danganronpa V3 where you need to come up with “ropeway.” I know that it has something to do with a rope and how the killer had used said rope, so my mind instantly goes to “zipline.”
Oh, that’s not it? It should be, though. Next thing you know, I’m stumbling around until I find the right word, potentially dying every time I pick the wrong letter.
Guess what’s done with the ropeway. They use it as a zipline! I’m ahead of the game, but because I’m not answering it how the game wants, I’m punished for it.
This leads to the problem that you don’t necessarily need to be right. You just need to be on the same page the game is on.
While I don’t think games like Psyche Taxi or Logic Dive are counterintuitive, per se, they come with a different set of problems.
They each have you answering multiple-choice questions as a way of getting closer to the truth. However, there are times when doing this over complicates things instead of making them more interesting.
You may have already arrived at the truth, but you may not be able to answer this one arbitrary question that is meant to help you get to the solution you already know, and so, you fail.
Say, I know Person A grabbed a murder weapon from the bathroom. What did they get? I don’t know, use your imagination. Why are you asking questions now?
I now have to answer three questions that are meant to lead me to that fact I already discerned.
“Who did Person A meet up with last night?”
How am I supposed to know? Does it matter?
“Where did Person A go after they met with Person B.”
Probably to the bathroom!
No, they went and talked to Person C in the park first.
I’m exaggerating here, it’s never quite that bad, but there are times I wish the minigames would just get to the point.
But far worse than any petty squabble you may be having with a line of code, these games take way too long to go through and break up any tense air the trial may have.
Oh, my gosh! I think I know who did it! I can’t believe it was you! But wait, I need to answer four questions first. Oh, geez, I didn’t know that was on the test!
Then four minutes pass, and you’ve arrived at the answer you already know. They make the game more interesting, yes, but at the cost of killing the mood.
Then on the flip side, you have segments like this where you’re trying to convince the murderer, or occasionally someone else who refuses to believe you, whodunit.
Rather than just telling them, you have to play a rhythm game, in which you destroy your opponent’s attempts of denial and strip away their armor of lies before shooting them with the truth.
Like Psyche Taxi or Logic Dive, it breaks the trial up, yet it doesn’t ruin the atmosphere. It makes it even better. The stress of trying to stay in sync with the music as you make sure to destroy the opponents’ lies before they hurt you puts you on edge.
As you hear them sink lower and lower and finally accept the truth, you get the feeling you’re winning. You feel like you’re actually cornering them. You’re forcing them to accept the truth, whether they want it or not.
The difference is, these sections add to making the game better, rather than disrupting the flow of it. Even though they both interrupt what’s going on, one clearly does it more effectively.
I think Spike has a tough job when it comes to Danganronpa if I’m honest. I think they have a lot to balance—a lot more than people tend to consider.
Because of the “how” they chose, Spike needs to find a way to make things interesting for the player. They need to find an interesting “how” to reach the “goal” they want.
Much of the time, it works. But with the length of the trials (many of which go well over an hour and a half), there need to be many “hows” for the player to go through.
I don’t care how much you like seeing Hajime ride a snowboard for two minutes in Logic Dive; if you had to do it every time details of the case needed correcting, you’d get sick of it.
That’s why there need to be so many odd minigames. They all lead to the same result, but they give you a unique experience as you do them.
Some of these just happen to disrupt the flow of the game, possibly because they are trying too hard to be interesting.
Some of them may require you to slow your brain down, not to be ahead of the game. And for a story set around mysteries, that’s a very bad thing.
Not all of them work. I’ll be honest with you; I grunt every time I have to do Hangman’s Gambit.
As I was playing V3, especially during the final trial, I let out an earth-shaking sigh when I had to do Psyche Taxi. I’m invested in what’s happening; I don’t feel like picking people up in my neon pink mind taxi!
But do you know what’s fascinating? I can’t seem to bring myself to hate them. Not even Hangman’s Gambit.
It’s very odd. When I first saw Psyche Taxi, I thought it was so cool, and my very next thought was, “this is a very Danganronpa thing to do.” Do I like it as much now? Kind of. But do I think it’s fun? No, I don’t.
Oftentimes, I feel like Danganronpa is a little too weird for its own good, but because that weirdness is Danganronpa, I find it very hard to hate it. Even if the games are counterintuitive at times, even if they’re frustrating at times, even if they completely disrupt my experience, I still enjoy myself.
Why? Because it’s fun? No, I don’t think so. I enjoy it because despite how it may fail at times, the minigames are so purely and unmistakably Danganronpa, I would genuinely miss them if they were gone.
If we get a Danganronpa 4, does that mean I want another Logic Dive or Psyche Taxi despite thinking they disrupt the flow of everything? Weirdly yes. Yes, I do. Because it doesn’t necessarily have to be fun to play, it’s entertaining because I find it charming.
For as weird and out of place as they are, they have heart. I think that’s clear to anyone that sees it.
The fact that Danganronpa can blend murder and wacky minigames in a way that feels right is outstanding. Danganronpa has managed to create such an identity for itself.
That identity manages to take something that may not be fun to play and make it somehow fun to experience. How does that happen? I don’t know, that’s up to you to decide.
Maybe that’s just the magic of the wonderfully insane world that is Danganronpa.
Thank you very much for reading
What’s your favorite class trial minigame in Danganronpa? Likewise, which one would you like never to see again?
I’m also curious if there are any other games you’ve felt like this about. Knowing that something isn’t necessarily fun, but still like it. It’s an odd thing considering games are supposed to be fun, first and foremost.