I’ve shot my share of truth bullets in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. I’ve bid my farewells to Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. When the third entry hits Western shores, you can be sure I’ll be adding that to my collection. Dozens upon dozens of hours I’ve poured into the wacky whodunit adventure games, and I’d easily count the franchise among the most memorable of the genre. Simply put, I love Danganronpa.
There’s only one small problem: I also hate Danganronpa.
[WARNING: SPOILERS FOR DANGANRONPA 1 & 2 FOLLOW]
Confused? I certainly am. When I look back on my time with the games, I’m torn between my enjoyment for their twisted stories and their excellent mystery-solving mechanics, and my disappointment with their stereotypical and downright discriminatory portrayal of many of the characters. I can understand some degree of trope abuse given one of the games’ central conceits: the idea of ‘Ultimate’ prodigies, people who represent the epitome of a particular trait, such as the Ultimate Gambler or the Ultimate Team Manager. Unfortunately, too often these labels lead to lazy typecasting and cringe-worthy cliches.
Take, for example, the Ultimate Fanfic Creator from Danganronpa 1. A chubby otaku with thick glasses and a know-it-all tone, he is built from the same ‘nerd’ template that mainstream media still cling to. Similarly, the Ultimate Swimmer fulfils the well-worn stereotype of the ditsy airhead: slow-witted, gullible, and more concerned about her weight than the lethal situation she’s embroiled in. From their very first lines, you know exactly what to expect from both characters, and they rarely do anything to challenge those expectations.
Danganronpa 2 is no better. Its Ultimate Gymnast is almost a carbon copy of its predecessor’s Ultimate Swimmer. The Ultimate Nurse is desperate to please everyone and frequently ends up in compromising positions intended to prey on the appeal of the ‘sexy nurse’. Then, when that trope runs dry, the game plays the quiet psychopath card, outing her meekness as an act in a twist ripped wholesale from practically every crime procedural ever made. And co-opted characterisation isn’t the only cop-out; the Ultimate Musician might as well be the Ultimate Caricature: her constant non-sequiturs and hepped-up demeanour lack meaning and substance, her persistent exuberance a flimsy façade behind which sits an empty shell, bereft of personality. It’s a one-note portrayal unfair to both musicians and anyone who dons a mask in order to deal with social anxiety.
It’s sad that the gruesome murders the series revolves around are far less offensive than many of the characters. A particularly nasty example that sticks out in my mind occurs near the beginning of Danganronpa 2, when the group of Ultimates meets up for their first breakfast. Here, you bear witness to the Ultimate Cook attempting to trick the unwitting Ultimate Princess into sucking poison out of his loins (the language he uses is far less flattering). I was so disgusted by the dialogue that I literally shouted at my Vita. When it came time to learn the Cook’s backstory and the justification for his behaviour, the game’s attempts to elicit sympathy fell flat. Frankly, I was A-okay with him being killed, even in Monakuma’s excessively sadistic fashion.
The ugly trend of over-sexualising female characters is alive and well in Danganronpa, much to my dismay. I was probably foolish to expect otherwise. Bikinis, bouncing breasts, even a close-up of cleavage big enough to, in the words of one character, ‘crush [him] to death’ - no equivalent spotlight is shone on the male cast, of course. It doesn’t end there, either; for every friendship you fulfil with your fellow Ultimates, you receive a gift of their… underwear. To be fair, this occurs for both genders. Still, it poisons what would otherwise have been a heartfelt moment with the juvenile notion of sex as the ultimate reward.
There are numerous other examples of unpleasant platitudes, including no shortage of on-the-nose jabs at gaming culture. However, I would be remiss if I did not point out the times when Danganronpa does right by its subject matter. For instance, the Ultimate Yakuza is a young man who initially comes off supercilious and acerbic, with all signs pointing to him playing the role of the mysterious lone wolf. All that changes when he has to confront the death of the only person he ever cared about, and his subsequent development into a loyal, level-headed companion is as genuine as it is endearing.
Then there’s the Ultimate Programmer. Assumed to be a shy young girl, it is revealed through the course of the story that he is, in fact, an effeminate boy. His insecurities over his diminutive physique lead him to cross-dress in order to hide his true gender. Further to the deconstruction of sexual stereotyping, the Ultimate Martial Artist is a fierce female with an intimidatingly muscular appearance, yet she swiftly establishes herself as one of the most pleasant and genteel characters in the entire series. The level of wisdom and selflessness that she exhibits is typically reserved for the quiet, timid archetypes.
The Danganronpa games are a perplexing bunch, and not just because they feature a megalomaniacal stuffed bear hell-bent on sowing misery. I love the series’ willingness to tackle taboo concepts, which is why it pains me so much when the games resort to lazy stereotypes and weak clichés for the sake of a cheap thrill. The writers are better than that; they make that clear in other sections of the very same games. I really want to love the series without reservation, but as it stands, I’ve got too few Hope shards to combat the Ultimate Despair.
I still love you, Danganronpa, but I can’t help hating you too.