I think three things motivate the player to continue playing the Danganronpa games; firstly the desire to “win”, and see the villains defeated and the survivors escape. Secondly, the morbid curiosity of detective fiction, the desire to see who dies and how those mysteries occur. And thirdly, the – in this case – equally morbid desire to see justice done for those murders. Ordinarily the pursuit of justice in detective fiction is not, per se, a perverse act to desire; the police intercede, or the detective pursues the crook, and they are sent to court and tried and that is that. But Danganronpa makes the act of justice into its own grotesque game that culminates in a parodic execution after the class become in turn judge and jury. The extreme, horror-movie tone of the executions – death by piano-shaped iron maiden, by fairground wheel of death, by baseballs, and so on – is just as memorable as the resolution of the mysteries and I would argue a driving factor in the game’s bizarre, horrific entertainment.
This article contains detailed discussion of the plot of Danganronpa V3, as well as Prey (2017)
The third game, V3, runs with this idea of every aspect of the “killing game” – death, investigation, survival, judgement – being entertainment. It does not go into new or wildly imaginative ground with this, settling on a story where the protagonists are all brainwashed participants in gladiatorial reality television, but it nevertheless does it well by shifting the focus of its judgement and avoiding the easy messages. It is self-evident that the reveal that a decadent, peaceful society has enjoyed 53 seasons of televised death games is a shocking one and a sign the world is utterly rotten. That, in itself, is not interesting; it is The Truman Show mixed with Battle Royale. Any message it might have about reality television is, I would argue long out of date. This does not devalue the revelation’s effect within the story, its familiarity does not change the fact it is a largely fair mystery, well-foreshadowed and worked out at a pace and based on evidence that would at least have an observant viewer asking questions.
The interesting part of this comes from the way in which it uses its game nature. If the story had merely wished to be a rote condemnation of society’s desensitisation to televised violence, or the prurience of reality television, it would not have done so through the medium of characters within that setting trying to escape it. The audience do not even appear until the end, and even then there is a clear delineation between the in-setting television audiences and the player as audience member. I do not feel the revelation condemns the player for complicity in the cycle of violence, although it does condemn the cycle of violence. This is because the player, at every turn, opposes the cycle of violence; you play the investigator trying to solve murders, and interact with characters trying against the insurmountable force of audience-led manipulation to end the cycle. You may find the mystery-fiction aspects – the murders, trials and executions – enjoyable, because they are the meat of the game’s interactive aspects, but it is all in service to trying to disrupt the entertainment. The first, therefore, of the three reasons is most prominent; even without knowing your antics are mere television, the natural group preservation instinct of the characters is to reject the cycle of violence and fight it.
The Truman Show is the comparison here. The ending of that film, with its hero escaping the bubble where he is constantly observed with his usual catchphrase, is immensely emotionally powerful because it shows the obsessed audiences suddenly bereft of entertainment. The cycle of surveillance, of obsession, is over. Danganronpa V3 is similar; it is about the player being in the Truman role, via their avatar Shuichi, trying to work out the limits of the world and escape it. I think this – this act of indirect, rather than simplistic, condemnation of the system – is the much better act of storytelling. You do not know you are being watched by audiences until the characters work out what is going on; you the player are not in that loop, you are in the cycle of trying to escape the system for its own sake. Video games can make the player question their complicity in violent acts by compelling the avatar to commit them, or offering the choice to commit them; they can, as Prey (2017) did, use this metafictionally to “rate” the player’s morality.
In raising the subject of Prey, I feel I can show that using media to question the audience’s complicity in violence and moral decisions can work on a level beyond the simplistic; the game begins with a trolley problem as part of a personality test, and then is revealed at the end of the game to have been a long personality test to gauge the potential for empathy of an unknown species. There, when the player’s actions are frankly judged by psychiatrists and biologists, you have a simple “you the audience are complicit in these terrible acts you draw pleasure from” story made interesting simply by showing you were not, in fact, a safe audience baying for blood but a lab rat.
Earlier Danganronpa games had an apocalyptic metaplot that ultimately was less thematically interesting; the idea that murder on television and sadistic games could drive society to despair is the opposite form of condemnation that is not particularly interesting or well-communicated. V3 rejects it and, in many ways, narratively has its cake and eats it; it can condemn the concept of a televised death arena, but because that condemnation is not particularly novel or interesting it runs a little further with the idea by shifting the focus to the victims. You are not, at the moment of revelation, shown audience comments beyond the banal and fannish; you do not know if in the other 50-odd series there has been the same attempt to break the system (and the implication that Rantaro “won” the previous game suggests it is quite possible many did not have that). It is an insult to the characters, not an admonishment to the player. And that is an interesting take on well-worn ground.