You ought to have heard of Danganronpa by now -- despite it being a series of text-heavy Japanese adventure games only available in the West on the PlayStation Vita. That's because the series has generated a lot of acclaim and interest; Gamasutra is far from the only site to recognize it at the end of 2014.
What's it all about? It's macabre but hilarious; perverse and amoral; strange but relatable. The first game is about a group of high school students, all exceptional, pitted to kill each other in a locked high school -- by a teddy bear mastermind. The second game does the same thing, but this time on a tropical island -- and makes fun of itself for recycling its premise.
At this year's GDC, the series' writer/director Kazutaka Kodaka gave a talk on his method of creating his brand of memorable stories and characters. He starts with a series of characteristics, and then chooses a sampling that will result in an interesting character -- taking note to mix-and-match intelligently for the biggest emotional impact. The results speak for themselves.
In the following Q&A, conducted during GDC, we get into his method, the characters, and what he wanted to accomplish creatively -- and into the mind of Monokuma, the series' anti-mascot.
NOTE: As it concerns the writing and development of the franchise, this interview contains MAJOR, UNMARKED SPOILERS for the first two Danganronpa games.
It seems that the idea behind Danganronpa is to create something surprising to people. Can you talk about where the idea first came from, and how you approached it?
Kazutaka Kodaka: I guess you could say one of the representative things of Japanese mystery fiction is that it's got a lot of twists, turns, and surprises. I'm actually a pretty big fan of mystery fiction. I figured, well, what if you were going to do a mystery-style game -- a mystery as a game, instead of a novel? That would be Danganronpa.
In my mind, American "mystery" is more like suspenseful drama, whereas I feel like in Japan, that genre means surprising your reader.
In the first game, you killed off the heroine very quickly -- in the first case. And it sort of tells the player, "this is not going to go to your expectations." Can you talk about that decision, and why it was important?
KK: For that... At that time, Danganronpa was new. It was the first in the series, and I felt there had to be something that would really grab players so they'd want to play and keep playing. So what I thought would be one of the best ways was to have the Sayaka Maizono character meet her untimely death.
And not just that, but she also tried to frame the hero for a crime -- that's the more twisted part.
KK: Going off what you just said, yeah, you're right. That's a really good point. Part of it was to provide a vehicle for [protagonist Makoto] Naegi's growth. What that kind of means is that Sayaka herself obviously had her own feelings, and maybe she did it to send him a message, or leave him a message. Maybe she did it because she wanted to live, obviously. Maybe she did it for whatever reason.
The point of the matter is that what that ended up doing is hastening Naegi's growth as a character, through this idea. The same thing with [her killer], Leon Kuwata. Naegi ends up having to shoulder the deaths of these two, and go on with his life, as it were. That ended up being a really good vehicle for me to have that character move forward and act.
"A part of that is just that I want to have a good shock and scare in there. By the same token, if you only do that, what you end up with is a wasted chance."
Would you say that when you create a situation in the game, it's not enough to have it be entertaining, but it also has to move the plot forward, or the characters forward?
KK: Yeah. A part of that is just that I want to have a good shock and scare in there. By the same token, if you only do that, what you end up with is a wasted chance.
So I try as much as possible to make sure that the surprise elements and surprise scenes are also connected to the characters, and allow the plot to move forward. I definitely put thought into it to make sure those surprises have an outcome and have a connection to the plot itself, and the characters.
Kodaka's slide on Sayaka Maizono from GDC. Here he shares her character traits and the events that shape the direction the story around her takes -- note the contrast.
To give you an actual example of how I do this, let's go back to Sayaka's case. Like you said, it's surprising because she's the culprit. In a way, Naegi, the main character, is betrayed by her. She presents herself one way, and she ends up doing this horrible thing.
And so, if she was the one who was simply murdered, the player would probably go with Naegi, and feel sympathy for her. And the only thing you would feel would be sympathy for her. There would be no real growth; there's no way to move forward from that. It's just, "Oh, a sad thing."
However, by making her actually the culprit, suddenly there's this conflict within Naegi. Of course, he feels bad for her, because he cared for her. But at the same time, she did something wrong. So the player's forced to approach it the same way Naegi is, with this feeling of, "Well, on the one hand there's this, and on the other hand there's this." He has to deal with conflicting emotions in both of these things to move forward. And the player does, too. And that's the way I try to write all of that.
I want to ask you about suspension of disbelief. There are so many elements of the stories of the two games that are so far out there, yet as a player, you can go with them. How do you keep the players inside the story?
KK: I think that my approach is probably similar to a typical science fiction approach -- no matter how strange or outlandish the setting might get, the constant that you have to have is characters that display real and genuine emotion that someone can relate to.
By doing so, the player will accept pretty much anything that's thrown at them in terms of the setting. Because the characters themselves are real, and genuine, and have real emotion, that allows the player to enter into the game, and feel comfortable with it.
But then, some of the characters are hard to relate to. How do you write a character like Nagito Komaeda and make him work?
KK: You're right. He is a really crazy character, and that's by design. The way I approach the characters is to start with the category: For example, the genki girl, as it were, or the stoic straight-man kinda thing. But at the same time, those are just a vehicle to me to get a character. Because that's my approach -- to have this category in mind -- the approach for Komaeda was actually "uncategorizable." My inspiration for that was actually Batman and Joker.
What I really wanted to do with that character, myself, was to have the player-base divided: "What the hell does this guy think he's doing?" and then, on the other hand, "Well, I can kinda relate to this guy. I can kinda get behind what he's doing." And that was my hope and desire, to have people approach the character.
The slide from Kodaka's presentation where he discusses the "category" framework, with some Danganronpa-specific examples. These are to be mixed and matched to create characters, with the result shared above (Sayaka Maizono).
And then, when he dies, you don't know whether to believe it or not. And I think that was really important.
KK: In regards to that directly, when I was giving direction to the voice actor, the voice actor was like, "I have no clue what this character is thinking! So it's really hard for me to do this scene." Giving direction for this character was very, very challenging.
Isn't the voice actor for that character Megumi Ogata? [Ed. note: Ogata is best known for playing protagonist Shinji Ikari in Neon Genesis Evangelion.]
KK: Yes. So you know, the character -- I don't know if it's necessarily an anagram in English, but if you move the characters [in "Nagito Komaeda"] around, it's "Naegi Makoto da." [Ed. note: meaning "It's Makoto Naegi," who is the protagonist of the original game.]
The main reason was to get players questioning, "Wait a minute! Is this the same guy wearing different clothes?" kinda thing. In order to that, Megumi Ogata was the go-to person for that. That's why we chose her.
So, it was planned. About three months before the game came out in Japan, we announced the voice actors and stuff like that. People were speculating on the web. They were like, "Oh, this is an anagram. It's the same guy!" And in the development room we were all laughing because, "Of course. That's what we wanted to do to you guys!"