Danganronpa’s Mastermind Discusses Killing Off Characters And The Next Entry
Last year, NIS America and Spike Chunsoft debuted a new niche series for the PlayStation Vita in North America that centered on murder and challenged just how far people would go to save themselves over others. The delightfully demented Danganronpa meshed visual novel storytelling with intense courtroom trials akin to Ace Attorney. The game captivated those who played it enough for NIS America to publish both entries in less than a year.
Who would have thought a game that locked students away and forced them to kill each other to escape would be so gripping? Sure Battle Royale and The Hunger Games have operated on a similar premise and found success, but in a game you're actually interacting with it. Still, the shocking material, story full of twists, and memorable characters kept players hooked. We recently chatted with the mastermind behind the series, Kazutaka Kodaka. Kodaka covered a slew of topics, from his favorite characters to his goal with the gruesome execution scenes.
His Creative Process And Killing His Darlings
Kodaka thought up Danganronpa before Spike merged with Chunsoft. Spike was a much smaller company back then, but Kodaka knew if he wanted to make a splash he needed something novel. "I knew that at the beginning that I had to create something different and it would have to be unique," he says. He gave himself a few starting points. He knew he wanted to make a 3D game, didn't want to have any action gameplay, and wanted something grotesque and cruel. "I thought, 'What's the most unorthodox way to do this?'" Kodaka says. "And that's how Danganronpa came to be."
The next step was brainstorming the characters. One of his rules is to never make characters pawns; there has to be something more to them than merely serving the plot. To him, a memorable game needs memorable characters, so he starts by throwing out basic traits, which can span from their talent to a personality trait to their style. This helps shape their essence before he decides their role in the plot. But does he ever worry about running out of talents or using similar ones? "In some ways, it's inevitable that [talents] will end up being similar to one another," Kodaka says. "The way I overcome that is that the characters themselves are very different. When I come up with these ultimate abilities, I take into account the character and their design and bounce that off each other. Even though the category of what they're ultimate in might be similar, if you look at the characters themselves, it's actually quite different. The character stands completely alone and different and separate."
For instance, Kodaka notes how the first and second games already have some similar talents; Sakura is the ultimate martial artist and Peko is the ultimate swordswoman. Both these characters ended up being very different, however. Sakura is a big softie despite her tough exterior and Peko is more cold and distant, never showing her emotions. Kodaka says he loves all of characters, but his favorites are Genocide Jill (ultimate murder) and Ibuki Mioda (ultimate musician). "I really like them because they're always super amped and super energetic and I really like writing that," he says.
Kodaka spends so much time crafting his characters, but it doesn't bother him that eventually he has to kill them off. "I don't think about it too much," he says. "Some characters will kill, some will be killed, and some will receive the execution. That's part of their character and their role in the story - what they're meant to do. I think of it as that is what will make them stand out as a character. These characters were made to be killed."
Up next: Find out why he makes the executions so gruesome and what the future holds...
Getting Dark And Crafting The Execution Scenes
Danganronpa is morbid. After all, it's a game about murder. Seeing characters slain in cold blood is one thing, but then you must also confront the fact that someone betrayed the group. The stakes are always high, with the murders gradually getting more vicious and creative. What do you expect when you have a crazy bear dangling new incentives to kill, like money and the safety of loved ones, in front of a group of strangers? "There's lots of times when I think what I'm writing is super, super dark," Kodaka says. "However, when I have that reaction to it, it doesn't make me think that I shouldn't do it, it's more, 'wow, people are really going to flip out about this.'"
The craziest sequences are the execution scenes. Each time a murder occurs, you have to get over the shock and investigate to find clues that lead to the killer. Then an intense trial happens where you must prove who the culprit is. Once you correctly select the killer, you watch a brutal execution scene - their ultimate punishment. We've seen crazy sequences, such as being murdered by high-speed baseballs to being burned to death. "The punishment scenes are a way to bring you back and be like 'Wow, they killed somebody, but at the same time, did they really deserve that?'" Kodaka says. "It's a way to bring sympathy back to the murderers."
At one point another Japanese designer told Kodaka how bizarre it felt to play a game where your goal is to see a death scene; usually when you play games, it's the opposite. This surprised Kodaka. "I thought about it and asked myself, 'Is it really that weird? Really that different?'" he says. "I guess I don't have [a strict] idea of what's typical or normal or what a game should be or how they should progress."
The Series' Future
With the spin-off Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls coming later this year and a third visual novel in the works, the series isn't dying off anytime soon. Still, details are slim on what will happen in the next main entry, and Kadoka isn't looking too far into the series' future just yet. "I don't have a specific idea of where I'm going to go from here, but I do know I'm going to do what I want to do," he says. "One thing that won't change is that idea of surprising players, keeping them really on their toes, and wondering what's going to happen next. I'm also not really interested in growing the fanbase or making it more broadly appeal to people. I just want to make a cool game that I'm really proud of."
It still surprises Kodaka how much the series has caught on in both Japan and North America. He considered it a risk and didn't think it'd be that successful. "What we set out to do was make something for us - something that we really believed in," he says. "There was no ulterior motive of 'we had to sell this many copies.' It's something that we believed in and wanted to do, and the fact that that resonated with so many people, first of all in Japan because it wasn't supposed to be a success over there necessarily, and then over in [North America] too is very gratifying as a creator."
Even though Kodaka is undecided on what he wants to do for the third game, he's already thinking outside of the box. Danganronpa has never been conventional, so don't expect that to change. "When it is an announcement, it's not going to be just a usual Danganronpa announcement, Kodaka says. "It's going to be something that's going to shock fans and make them think, 'whoa, what's going on?'."
As for the vindictive Monokuma, even his fate is up in the air. "I want to put Monokuma in, but I can't say if I will," Kodaka says. "I want him to be there." We have a feeling you can't have a Danganronpa game without a crazy bear harassing you...but for now we'll just have to wait and see.
For our spoiler edition of this interview, click here.