It took long enough, but, by 2014, my tolerance for video game stories reached an all-time low.
Of course, our industry employs some talented writers, but grafting a compelling narrative onto a play-focused experience poses some uniquely difficult problems. With the way story segments and cutscenes tend to bookend actual interaction, the important details usually slide right out of my skull before the next dose of plot comes along. This could be an issue unique to my brain, but, over the past few years, my ability to instantly switch gears between playing and quietly paying attention has completely bottomed out. That's why I prefer games that stick to one mode or the other—and why the Souls series speaks to me so much. Instead of being force-fed a narrative, you can sample at will, getting as much or as little out of it as you want. (And it helps that Souls' story offers up a gauntlet of fuzzy details and unreliable narrators.)
So, when I turn to games for storytelling, I want them to be striving for this singular goal above all else. It's a preference I picked up early in life with my love of classic PC adventures, and continues to this day with contemporary games like Gone Home, Telltale's output, and the Ace Attorney series. That's not to say I'm an immediate fan of anything that focuses on narrative, though; said narrative also has to be good—see my bafflingly controversial review of XBlaze: Code Embryo if you need proof. So when I heard the two Danganronpa games were headed to the USA, I had my doubts: Even though I once held the honorable title of "anime fan," over the past decade-or-so, the aesthetic began to represent a creepy flavor of pandering I wasn't on board with. Anime could be a little racy in the past, but it didn't always stick so closely to the "barely legal" end of the pervazoid spectrum.
And that's the reason why recommending Danganronpa to the uninitiated takes a bit of a preamble. If you're browsing the no doubt sprawling Vita section of your local Best Buy and see it sitting there on the shelf, there's no reason not to think it's one of the many ecchi games of the "girl-rubbing" genre, localized and released in what could only be the result of some unfortunate dare. Danganronpa wears its anime-ness on its sleeve, though, and for good reason; by dropping players into a cozy world of seemingly one-dimensional caricatures (the characters' representation via cardboard standees doesn't seem to be a coincidence), it can then pull out the rug from under these walking cliches to reveal just how artificial their put-on personalities really are. And with Danganronpa, it doesn't take more than an hour for things to start unraveling.
The series itself acts as a bit of a pop culture collage that draws from three main sources: Battle Royale (for the Hunger Games-style plot), Ace Attorney (for the locked-room mysteries and trial scenes), and Persona (for the social links), though Danganronpa takes all of these elements and mixes them into a powerful blend. (And let's not forget that some of the best Japanese games of all time are rooted in flagrant idea theft.) Really, this mish-mash of concepts is made to keep the game's pace lively and its activities varied: Though the Danganronpa experience mostly involves absorbing text, the series does an excellent job of pinballing you between exploration, investigation, hanging out, and battling in the trial scenes, which transform the standard back-and-forth courtroom arguments into a gunfight metaphor where you fire "Truth Bullets" at offending testimony, and play a series of mini-games meant to simulate the act of deductive reasoning.
Coming to Danganronpa as an Ace Attorney fan, I wasn't completely surprised that everything clicked, but the mysteries within these two games actually outdo what Capcom's lawyer sim has to offer. Ace Attorney typically tasks the player with answering one question: "How?" With most cases, the culprit is always obvious, and most trials eventually boil down to destroying the last shreds of the guilty party's alibi. In Danganronpa, I stumbled into every trial with absolutely no idea whodunnit, which made these segments much more rewarding, since they assign the responsibility of figuring out every aspect of the crime. It also helps that these trials exclusively feature the core cast of characters, making the impact of their crimes all the more chilling. And, once someone is convicted, they don't just disappear from the game—they're executed altogether. It's an incredibly heartbreaking experience to watch a character you've grown to love over the past dozen hours confess, Perry Mason-style, before resigning themselves to one of antagonist Monokuma's Goldbergian deathtraps. (There's a reason the trials involving Ace Attorney's central characters end up being the best.)
Above all, though, I appreciate Danganronpa for giving me the chance to have an intimate experience with a game again—which isn't as filthy as it sounds. Typically, when I'm playing something, I'm multitasking like hell, with my iPhone at the ready, and my laptop open to one of my regular haunts, just in case things get boring. Since Danganronpa demands my full attention—what with all of the reading—my experience with the series felt strangely pure, and wrapping a giant pair of headphones around my ears transported me to a void in which only me and the game existed.
That's an increasingly rare occurrence for me, but after clocking in eight hours at a miserable startup job, where I worked through the winter in a mostly heat-free garage—I actually left it for my current gig at USgamer—I wanted nothing more than to seal myself in the twisted world of Danganronpa for the hour-long train ride home. If games are supposed to be about escapism, then Danganronpa definitely does its job.