Starting Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc I did not know what kind of game to expect. The PlayStation Store describes the game as “Horror”, Wikipedia as “Murder mystery, Action-adventure” and the GiantBomb wiki as “Adventure, Shooter, Music/Rhythm”. I would classify the game as a Visual Novel with Social Sim elements and a collection of mini game battles.
Danganronpa was released in the US on PlayStation Vita in early 2014. The game is an updated release of a 2010 PlayStation Portable title, released only in Japan. Mainstream publication reviews were mostly positive with a notable exception being Patrick Klepek’s review on Giantbomb. Despite the wide and positive coverage, Danganronpa wasn’t heavily discussed in gaming circles until game of the year time, in which it made several short lists for various categories. It’s likely the Vita’s smaller market share has kept the game from finding a larger audience.
This is not my review of Danganronpa. If I was to review the game it would probably end up mirroring much of what Patrick Klepek wrote. Instead this is a very specific look at how Danganronpa handles the detective and mystery aspects in gameplay. In playing the game I felt very limited in my ability to participate in solving the mysteries that were presented, and thus I began to consider how I would alter gameplay to cater to the style of interaction I wished.
Warning: Spoilers beyond this point. The bulk of the game is the story, and if you have not played Danganronpa but plan to I recommend you read no further. Knowing the outcome of a single case can remove hours of suspense and tension from gameplay. I will not reveal the ending, and only discuss some details of the first two cases. Having played the game is not required, so if you are okay with spoilers or do not plan to play the game, continue on.
The premise of the story is several students have been trapped inside of a high school. Held prisoner by Monokuma, a robotic bear that may or may not be sentient, who forces a dark game upon them. Live in the school forever or murder a fellow student without being discovered and “graduate” to freedom. To pass the “without being discovered” clause a class trial is held and popular vote will determine who the class believes is guilty, or the “blackened” as Monokuma calls them. If the vote is correct, the blackened is executed and the other students remain at the school. If the vote is wrong, the blackened is free to leave and the rest are executed. Nearly every room in the school is monitored by surveillance cameras, allowing Monokuma to know the truth while the students must conduct their own investigations.
In the actual game, it is player’s character who must solve the crimes. Should another student share knowledge with the player, at the trial the player will be asked to introduce this knowledge. This makes for awkward dialog occasionally but I believe it is for the best. It is this same mechanic however that caused the disconnect I experienced with the game – if I’m solving the case in the story, then I want to be solving the case in gameplay.
During the class trial the player does not construct an argument or persuade classmates to their view of events. Instead a “detective game on rails” is played through various mini games. The game sets the order in which evidence is presented and discussed. This leads to a situation where the player knows of evidence that has not been presented but is not able to introduce the evidence. The player must wait until the game has decided it is time to introduce the evidence.
An example of this disconnect is when a message is written in blood by the victim is discovered during the first case. The message is read as “11037” by the students, but my first impression was the message was upside down and instead read as “Leon”, the name of a fellow student. As I gathered evidence for the case, I considered if it supported Leon as the killer or if it absolved him of the crime. I must have spent 30 minutes reviewing evidence before the trial to make sure there was no doubt. I entered the class trial confident and self-satisfied, having not only deduced Leon was the killer, but that I was also a pawn in initial killer’s game. I say initial killer because the victim had planned to kill Leon and pin the crime on me, but things backfired in the worst possible way.
The game did not allow me to present my genius. Instead, the game proceeded to tell me, in very long winded dialog screens, everything I already knew. I played a set of mini games loosely related to the evidence, and once the game decided I had scored enough points, the vote commenced. Leon was the blackened, but instead of delight at solving the case I only felt frustration that I had no part in revealing his guilt.
I wanted to feel like the detective in a mystery novel. As I played on, I began to consider: if I felt Danganronpa was broken, how would I fix it?
Breaking down Danganronpa
The game is played in three distinct phases known as “Daily Life”, “Deadly Life”, and “Class Trial”.
During Daily Life the game plays as a Social Sim, allowing the player to explore the school, collect hidden coins that can be exchanged for gifts, and spend time with other classmates. If a player spends time with another student they become closer to the player and skills are unlocked that can be used during a Class Trial. Monokuma also appears in this phase to keep the student stress level high and provide new twists to the plot.
Once a dead body is found Deadly Life begins and this starts the investigation phase. During the investigation access is limited to only the relevant areas of the murder. This isn’t done in the context of the story, but rather by the game and the player’s character making statements like “I should check out Sayaka’s room next”. Time is spent looking for clues (all items in a scene can be highlighted by a button press) and talking to other students. This phase will not end until the player has found all “truth bullets”, the name given to the facts of the case, to be used in the Class Trial.
In the Class Trial a series of mini games are played. The first is “Nonstop Debate” where statements appear on screen and the player must shoot at a contradiction or lie with a truth bullet. Each round of Nonstop Debate has only one correct statement and bullet combination, though there are a few exceptions. To reduce the number of combinations, potential statements are shown in orange and a subset of truth bullets are available to use on them. I played on normal difficulty, and there tended to be 2-4 statements in a round and a selection of 1-3 truth bullets.
In some rounds a statement is “loaded” as a new truth bullet and used on the contradiction. Often it is one of the last statements that is loaded and used on one of the first statements in the round. This requires the player to play the round twice, capturing a statement the first time and using it the second time. It is a great illustration of the ludonarrative dissonance present in Danganronpa. Through the gameplay mechanics the player is made to refute an argument with a statement that has yet to be made.
In-between rounds of Nonstop Debate other games are played. The simplest of these is a player must answer a direct question from another student and is presented with either a list of three dialog choices or a list of truth bullets. Selecting correctly will move the story along. These moments are probably the closest to feeling agency in solving the case, but are infrequent compared to the other mini games.
The rest of the games include “Bullet Time Battle” and “Hangman’s Gambit”. Bullet Time Battle is a simple rhythm game where the player presses buttons in time with the music. The only notable detail in this game is at the end the player selects a truth bullet to fire at a student who initiated the battle. Like Nonstop Debates, the bullet is chosen from a set list, though on normal it was rare to have more than one choice.
Hangman’s Gambit is a timed spelling game where the player must shoot down letters to spell a word that connects to the case. This mode is interesting if only in that it leaves the player much more room to consider what the correct answer is. Hints are given in the form of a clue and some of the letters provided at the start. While it is not as limiting as the other games, it does not add anything in terms of player agency.
Playing Hangman’s Gambit, there were times where I had the right answer but wrong word in my head. The worst of these was the use of the slang term “schizo” for schizophrenia when dissociative identity disorder (also called multiple personality disorder) was meant. I guess that was my fault for having more than the game’s expected knowledge of mental illness.
(For those wondering, schizophrenia is a condition where a person has trouble disguising between reality and hallucinations. Multiple personalities is not a symptom of schizophrenia. Not only did the student in question have clear multiple personalities, but they were extremely aware of reality including the fact they suffered dissociative identity disorder.)
The class trial ends with a final game called “Closing Argument”. In this game a manga strip (like a comic strip, but read right to left) is presented with missing panels and the player chooses images from a list to complete events of the murder. This would be excellent if it did not come last, when all information has been revealed and settled. Just in case any dialog was missed, the player’s character will recap the order of events and each missing panel has a clue as to the image that belongs there.
At no point can the player make a wrong choice or fail. If the player runs out of time or health in a mini game the game is restarted. If the wrong answer is given in dialog choice the player is given a chance to choose again. This mechanic even includes a pivotal moment which can lead to the “bad ending”. If the player chooses the “bad ending” option, the ending plays out and game ends only to be returned to the choice again and player’s character saying “no that’s not right”. The other students remark he needs to focus, and the player can then choose again.
I’ve skipped details of using friendship skills in Class Trial because they have no real impact. The skills let the player increase time limits, add health, or steady the screen during mini games but in practice they are not needed. Most of the friendship skills I unlocked just gave me the ability to activate more skills at once, so at the end of the game I could use all earned skills together with room to spare.
Before proceeding on to changing these systems in Danganronpa, we should first look at how detective narratives are handled in other media.
Means, Motive, and Opportunity
In the fictional justice system, a detective solves a case using three separate yet equally important concepts: the means, how the crime was performed; the motive, why the crime was done; and the opportunity, the chance to carry out the crime. These are their roles…
Means is established through the physical evidence of the crime. The guilty party may attempt to destroy or modify this evidence, including the state of the victim, and thus the detective must consider all evidence suspect upon initial inspection. Evidence tampering can be done during, after, or before the time of the crime, and this allows a great deal of flexibility in the narrative. Therefore careful and deliberate descriptions of the crime scene and related areas are paramount to establishing a believable means.
Motive is established through conversations and statements. The source of these conversations can be anyone introduced in the story and the statements can come from people not immediately available, such as letters and wills. Motive is subjective, and a single person may have as many reasons to commit a crime as not. The story need only provide a motive however, for the motive serves the audience and not the story’s characters. The motive simply explains the reason a person would commit the crime but does not need to be a good reason.
Opportunity is established by the location of the characters at the time of the crime. A character, even the guilty character, generally offers an alibi for their location at the time of the crime. It then becomes the job of the detective to verify the alibi for contradiction with other evidence and testimony. For example, a suspect may claim to have been riding the subway at the time of the crime and show a ticket stub as evidence. The ticket stub could be a forgery, but another common method of hiding opportunity is to disguise the time or place of the crime. If it is discovered that the victim died not from a physical blow to the head in an alley but by poison ingested hours prior at a dinner, then the accepted time and place of the murder is changed. The subway alibi is no longer valid since the murder occurred before the time shown on the ticket stub.
The combination of means, motive, and opportunity should be available to the audience before the narrative reveals the final answer. It is not a requirement however that all information is explicitly included in the narrative. Solving the mystery often will require lateral thinking as it does in the first case in Danganronpa.
The knowledge that a great baseball player would be able to throw an object a great distance with high accuracy is not explicitly mentioned in game. The player would need to know some information about what a baseball player is and how the game is played to figure that part out. How much lateral thinking is required controls the difficulty of the mystery, as does the commonness of that knowledge. Knowing the temperature water melts is much more common than knowing the use of magnesium oxide in cement mixing.
The audience for detective stories can be divided into two groups: those that want to solve the mystery before it is revealed, the “active players”, and those that simply enjoy the surprise of watching the solution unfold, the “passive players”. A good detective book or movie will appeal to both types, and thus I think a good detective game should also appeal to both.
One last note on means, motive, and opportunity – not all are required to be in gameplay. The classic board game Clue is focused solely on establishing means. Motive and opportunity are established in the setting for the game. All the characters in the game have a motive, and they are all given the opportunity having been invited to stay at the mansion by the victim. (Honestly though, if you plan a sleepover and cannot invite a single person without a good reason to kill you, you should spend time considering how you treat others.)
Redesigning Danganronpa: The Detective Game
Now to apply the previous items to Danganronpa. I need to note however I do not explicitly define or give enough detail to implement every change. Playtesting should shape the final implementation in any game and the systems I describe need to be tested. There are no shortcuts to good game design.
The first change isn’t a change, but an acknowledgement to keep an existing mechanic, the no failure rule. The active players do not need the ability to fail, that is loose the game, to feel satisfied and keeping the no failure rule will let the passive players enjoy the unfolding story. I would adjust the implementation however to make the no failure rule clear and not something that is discovered only after having “failed”.
I also would not change finding all relevant items in a scene by pushing a single button, or that significant evidence and statements are represented as “truth bullets”. I would change how the game locks you into specific areas and sometimes specific order of evaluation. This is to make sure the player finds everything, but since the class trial will not begin until everything is found it is unnecessary. I also would open up the possibility of missing some evidence.
Hidden from the player, there would be “critical evidence” that must be found and “additional evidence” that if missed, would be brought up in trial be another student. The class trial would start when the player entered the lobby for the courtroom, which if attempted before all critical evidence is found would be blocked with a statement from the player’s character to the effect of “I feel like I’ve missed something”.
During the investigation stage the player would also be able to speak to other students and ask about evidence found. The other students may or may not respond of course, but this minor change would go a long way to relieving some of the frustration I felt in this part of the game. In the second case for example I wanted to ask Byakuya about the extension cord found at the scene which was taken from the library he frequented, but was prevented from doing so.
Once the player starts the Class Trial, the first action done is completing a manga strip not unlike the manga strip that is played during the Closing Argument mini game. All the frames in this version would be empty and the player would have as many boxes needed for the evidence discovered to recreate the means of the murder. An active player that found more evidence during the investigation would have more frames to complete than a passive player who only found the minimum.
Once the player is satisfied with their manga strip of events the debate beings. After Monokuma’s opening speech the player’s character begins the discussion with “Here is how I think it happened” then verbalizes the order of events as set in the manga strip. At this point other students begin questioning the timeline, offering new evidence, or citing an error in the player’s version of events.
As other students introduce evidence these become new truth bullets in the player’s inventory, and all key statements (the key statements that are in orange in the original version of the game) get added to a “court transcript”. At certain points the player is asked to refute or respond to a direct question by either selecting a truth bullet that proves the statement false, or read back a line from the transcript that contradicts what is being asserted. This allows for a much more intensive and dynamic debate, where items said at the start can be using against students later in the debate without the game having to make it obvious that a slip of the tongue was made early in the trial.
If a player chooses a response to a direct question that is incorrect, another student will respond that the answer “doesn’t feel right” and a second chance is given. Depending on the difficultly the player has chosen this can repeat one or more times, until another student will provide the right answer for the player, allowing the story to progress and to keep the no failure rule.
At points in which several new truth bullets are available, the player is brought back to the manga strip of events to fill in new frames and reorder existing ones. Once all panels have been set (all evidence is discovered from investigation and debate) and the order is correct, debate ends and the player must then choose the student to accuse. While making this choice the player has access to the court transcript and truth bullets to aide in selecting the correct student.
At this time other students may also choose a guilty student, but are not required to. I imagine this could be displayed as a portrait hanging in front of each student’s podium indicating their vote. A blank portrait is displayed for an undecided student. The official vote is not taken until all students have voted. The player then selects any student that does not match their choice and uses truth bullets or court transcripts to convince that student to vote with them. The player cannot engage with students who are voting with the player, nor can they engage with the student they are accusing.
If the player has chosen the wrong student, one or more students will be holdouts. Attempts to persuade these students are rejected with vague “it still feels wrong” statements or by citing evidence the player has overlooked. This keeps the no failures rule, yet allows room for the difficulty setting to affect the vagueness of the rejection text. Finally, a few students may question the opportunity of the accused student not as a holdouts, but to establish the accused had the chance to carry out the crime.
Once all students are in agreement with the player, the final vote is counted. Depending on how the story should go the “blackened” student can either vote for themselves or stick to their initial accusation. After Monokuma approves the result and states that it is correct, the blackened student will then recap their crime. Since it is not the player’s character giving the final version of events, there is no longer a need for the player to have things exactly right and this also allows a convincing confession of motive. Remember motive is for the audience, and nothing can be more convincing than an explanation from the killer’s own lips.
I would allow the possibility that the player did not discover all evidence yet still reach a successful vote outcome. How could you get the votes required while having an incomplete explanation of the murder? This is where the Social Sim features come into play. Since the mini games have been eliminated in my version, the skills gained from friendship have no use. In their place is a friendship level the player has established with the student. This friendship level governs how much convincing a student needs to vote with the player, how much they will overlook with the player, and can also increase the amount of help the student provides the player during the investigation phase.
The friendship level is not be the sole factor in convincing a student to vote with the player, and its affect would vary based on the student’s personality. Indeed, if you have played Danganronpa it is hard to imagine Byakuya or Kyoko ever voting for someone in which the evidence did not fully support. So this mechanic would not allow a player to correctly accuse an innocent student but would create a more meaningful and rewarding experience to pursuing friendships during the Daily Life phase.
All of these changes allow players of any skill level to successfully solve each case and keep with the no failure rule. The rewards however would be greater the more active a player is. Players that require less help from the system and make less errors can be rewarded by a higher grade and more coins for gift buying. In this way an enjoyable experience is created for both active and passive players without resorting to a system of punishment for failure.
It is highly likely that these changes are not a good for the Danganronpa series. I have not played the Ace Attorney series but while researching this article I learned the courtroom mechanics are similar. Thus there is an established fan base that has set expectations of the genre, and is something I have not considered here. Instead of applying these changes to Danganronpa I hope your takeaway from this critique is how the detective narrative may be applied in game design.
Finally, thank you for reading this collection of my thoughts and ramblings.