The Danganronpa series is hard to describe to newcomers, with its Ace Attorney-like trials, Battle Royale-esque drama, morbid plot twists, heavy themes of the straddle between hope and despair, and an adorable teddy bear driving all the manipulative, murder-inspiring action. It’s a visual novel series unlike anything else I’ve ever played, with multifaceted characters keen on betrayal, murdering their peers, and—though rarely—even sticking together. There’s really nothing else out there like Danganronpa, honestly, which makes its third main-line entry so greatly anticipated. The series’ third game was recently released in Japan this past January, and soon, it's finally arriving in the West. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony will be released on the Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita on September 26, 2017 in North America, and September 29, 2017 in Europe.
This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Danganronpa's writer and creator Kazutaka Kodaka. We talked of everything from what will remain of the series' past in the latest entry, to V3’s fresh thematic thread, and the immense challenges in writing over a dozen memorable, unique characters.
"Even though there’s a lot of characters, I begin by making all the characters to my liking; I think of each character as like the main character," Kodaka, the creative drive behind the entire Danganronpa series, said. "When I'm making a game, I make it so that each character could be the main character, [and] if I was writing it and I didn’t like it, I’d fix it to my liking as soon as possible."
When people often remember Danganronpa, they point to the game's themes: hope and despair. But for Kodaka, it wasn't always that way. In fact, when he first began developing the Danganronpa series, the games’ themes weren’t a blatant effort at all—it was after release when the themes spilled out naturally. Players in the community were the first to point out the first game’s focus on 'hope' and the sequel’s on 'despair.' "Unlike [Danganronpa] 1 and 2’s [themes of hope and despair], V3 is actually based on ‘lies,’ and the trials actually have a lying aspect to them,” Kodaka said. “I feel that the lying aspect is the big difference between 1 and 2."
Kodaka forsees players' experiences with V3 being more complicated and emotional than the series' prior entries, solely because of the breadth of ways 'lies' can manifest into the player's psyche. "I’m hoping that when players play the game, that their view of ‘lies’ and their view of ‘truths’ will be debated within themselves," said Kodaka. "I hope that [players] can find their own truth, and that they can find their own meaning of what ‘lies’ are." Additionally, he worries that if players actively seek out spoilers, this ideal experience might be tarnished.
In describing V3’s feverish style, like with the Danganronpa’s signature use of unrealistic, neon pink blood, Kodaka noted that the team kept drifting back to an organically invented phrase: the aesthetic of “psycho-pop.” Even currently, Kodaka struggles to define exactly what “psycho-pop” is, but gazing at the series’ colorful-yet-violent style, it hardly needs a concrete definition anyways—as there's nothing else like it. In a way, Danganronpa is the only "psycho-pop." “[Whatever's] cool, that stuck,” Kodaka explained succinctly.
But beyond its layered themes and its eye-catching style, the Danganronpa series has always been one defined by its diverse, ever-cosplayable characters, and its unique, prison-like locations: from the claustrophobic hallways of Hope’s Peak Academy in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, to the sprawling islands of Jabberwock in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. I asked Kodaka what’s going to set V3’s locale apart and differentiate it from its predecessors, and he noted that for V3, he looked to a surprising place for inspiration: Danganronpa's past.
“With V3, we wanted to make it a special place,” he said. “We were actually thinking of a desert, [and] other places, but that strayed from the high school aspect and high schoolers kinda got lost within that. So we felt like going back to a school setting would be very good. Not the same school, but a new school to completely make it feel like a new setting, like a new Danganronpa.”