Danganronpa V3 Ending Thoughts

I recently finished playing through what is presumably the final main entry in the Danganronpa franchise: Danganronpa v3 Killing Harmony and like everyone who bore witness to game’s dazzlingly polarizing polemic of a series finale, I have been saddled with a whole mountain of thoughts to digest.  It’s been about 2 months and I think I’m finally able to form something approaching a coherent and articulate rumination on the matter, so here it is: extremely freeform and stream-of-conscious-y.  There are explicit spoilers ahead, but I also give no context, so almost none of this will make sense if you haven’t played the game all the way through to the end.  Regardless, this WILL completely ruin Danganronpa v3 at the very least and make it almost completely unplayable.  You have been warned.

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It’s fitting that I also coincidentally got around to finishing Nier Automata around the same time as Danganronpa v3 (which is over a year late, I realize): both titles sport heavily auteur-driven, intricately-unspooled, and dizzingly challenging themes and narratives, making them juggernauts in the storytelling arena, doubly so for the medium video games.  As anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to 2017 gaming awards will know, Nier has pretty much singlehandedly swept the awards for ‘Best Story’ or any permutation thereof and for good reasons.  Reasons that will not be espoused here, as they may be found pretty much everywhere else in the gaming sphere.

Instead, I’d just like to convey my disappointment at how overlooked Danganronpa v3 appears to be in the same category.  I realize that Nier has outsold Danganronpa v3 by more than order of magnitude, but even so, v3 is horrendously underrepresented.  By no means am I saying that Nier is not deserving of its flawless victory: its motifs and philosophical musings are anchored by incredibly strong character motivations and interactions, making it much easier to become emotionally invested in the characters and the world, thus causing the thematic payoff to be every bit as visceral and poignant as it is thought-provoking: a positively brilliant and winning combination.

Like any good ol’ fashioned auteur-penned yarn, both Nier and Danganronpa v3 are a journey deep into the mind of their creators: Yoko Taro and Kazutaka Kodaka, respectively.   However, the ending of Danganronpa v3 is utterly unique in that it goes far, far beyond the player being able to, in the end, grasp authorial vision, worldly outlook, or internal machinations.   At the end of v3‘s electrifying journey of truth versus lies, the player is instead greeted with something much more akin to settling down in a comfy armchair and sharing a cozy fireside chat with Kodaka about the building blocks of the Danganronpa universe, its characters, themes, and morals, as well as his memoir-like thoughts on his professional and creative relationship with the franchise, the mark he believes it has left on the gaming world, his own life, and his career as an author.

I honestly can’t think of another instance of when a creator was able to use the platform of the narrative itself to speak so openly about the legacy of his body of work: to so candidly expose all the nagging flaws and frustrations he felt when certain creative decisions were beyond his control.  By introducing the construct of a world enamored with killing game broadcasts, Kodaka acknowledges that the very core of Danganronpa,  the mutual high-school killing game, is purely a sensationalist honeypot.  This is confirmed in this interview between him and Zero Escape creator Kotaro Uchikoshi where he expresses that he always wanted to write mysteries; the grisly facade of high school students murdering each other was just the bait to hook passersby.

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Likewise, by revealing that the current killing game is, in fact, the 53rd iteration of a long-standing franchise, Kodaka freely shares his trepidation that the future of the franchise may be a slow death-march into a pit of stagnation and creative bankruptcy.  After 18 mind-bending trials, he feels as though he’s fully exhausted the well of fresh ideas, not entirely unlike how Hideo Kojima chose to age Solid Snake into an old man in Metal Gear Solid 4 to represent his feelings towards his director-ship of the franchise.

But at the same time, much like a memoir, Kodaka uses the opportunity to fondly celebrate the towering triptych which has brought him success and creative fulfillment, regardless of his misgivings.  The central conflict of the final showdown is Saihara’s (and all the survivors, by extension) struggle to accept that his existence may be entirely fiction; that the very foundation of truth itself cannot be trusted; and that his personality, beliefs, and memories have all been either implanted or  scripted from the moment he believed to have been born.  But Saihara’s turning point – his Ultimate Realization, if you will – is that, in the end, none of that matters, because in spite of being pure, fictional constructs, he and his classmates, through their struggles and sacrifices, were still able to influence the real world and mold it into a better place.

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It’s surprisingly seldom that this precise notion of fusing fiction and reality is tackled.  Satoshi Kon was one well-known master of showcasing fiction becoming reality, but this is something far simpler, more fundamental, and something that literally everyone can relate to: the idea that the fiction we consume can change our lives and empower us to change the world around us for the better.   It’s something we all feel when we forge an emotional connection to a character we love and a narrative we were so inspired by, and ironically, that concept is something that is so rarely explored as a central thematic construct in works of fiction.  After all, authors and creators themselves often create fiction because they were inspired by fiction in the first place.

I also love the idea that the story of Saihara, Maki, and Himiko, as well as all the deceased students continues on in the hearts and minds of the “real world” as their gaze literally pierces beyond the fourth wall covered in Team Danganronpa logos – as long as their impact has reverberated beyond that wall in the slightest capacity and their fictional struggles have inspired someone, somewhere, their journey has not ended.  Even the legacy of purely fictional characters has the power to move reality.

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And that, above all else is, is what Kodaka hammers home with clarity and passion in the epilogue as he wraps up the intimate fireside chat about his own legacy as the author of Danganronpa.  The first game was his breakout hit: the property that made him the household name he is today among gamers and visual novel aficionados.  If it wasn’t for Danganronpa, no one would have any idea who he is: Danganronpa and its characters have literally transformed his life and both fulfilled and liberated him creatively.  It’s obvious that he loves the franchise, feels deeply indebted to and humbled by his playerbase, and his most earnest wish is that Danganronpa fans get as much enjoyment, satisfaction, or inspiration from the franchise as he does; that they find their lives to be as enriched by this fictional world and its eccentric cast as much as his was.  And it totally makes sense that, in spite of the cloyingly morbid miasma surrounding the final trial, the epilogue shouts this final, humanistic proclamation in a resoundingly optimistic timbre: exactly how all prior Danganronpa games have classically ended.

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This is, no hyperbole, the most profound, thematically beautiful ending to any work of fiction I have ever seen.  It’s the reason Danganronpa v3 has become my favorite video game of all of time, maybe even work of fiction of all time.    It made me think harder than I ever have before about something I’ve watched, read, or played, but most importantly, it resolutely re-affirmed the notion that the content we consume, the characters and stories we get attached to and become invested in, really does have the power to change us into better people and inspire us to make the world a better place for everyone.

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As for the elephant in the room: looking beyond the sublime thematic unraveling, did I enjoy the arguably sloppy execution of the ending?  I will admit, I find it extremely bizarre that Kodaka did not realize exactly what he was doing when he created a construct that was ostensibly an audience surrogate in the final chapter.

This video, created by someone far smarter than myself, confirms his intentions with this construct.  Basically, Kodaka wanted to engineer a scenario in which the player fell into despair alongside the characters with the ultimate goal of empathizing with Saihara when he makes his ultimate decision.  His never intended the “audience” in the game world to reflect reality or the Danganronpa fanbase in real life.  Again, this is not my just opinion or an interpretation: he has literally confirmed this in an interview as his authorial intent.

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That said, his reasoning of “Danganronpa is popular in the game world, but not the real world, therefore the two entities are clearly disparate” is extremely flimsy at best and I don’t see how anyone wouldn’t have immediately made this connection and felt as though they were themselves the monstrous purveyors of Saihara’s suffering, whereas what Kodaka wanted was exactly the opposite: for the players and Saihara to become united against a common enemy.

I fully admit this is extremely poor execution of a really cool idea on Kodaka’s part and I don’t begrudge anyone who feels offended by this shocking turn of events and loathes the ending as a result: after all, it’s incredibly controversial and polarizing for a reason.  However, the fact that Kodaka had the balls to stick to his convictions and deliver the ending that he wanted, creatively, in spite of the backlash he likely knew it would receive just makes me respect him even more as an author.  Risking your fanbase for creative fulfillment is about as big of a gambit that anyone can take: kakegurui shimasho, you mad bastard, you.