Zero Escape and Danganronpa

Last Updated on September 17, 2019

Here’s a situation no one wants to experience: You are in an unknown location with various strangers, and there is no possible escape. Suddenly, a mysterious figure proposes to you a series of brutal life or death games that you must complete in order to be granted the right to escape.

Escape or Die

Anyone can die at anytime, but hoping for survival and seeking a way out brings you to your fullest ability to think and focus. This paradigm of survival and imprisonment drives the personality of each individual to either solidarity or conflict.

Cube by Vincenzo Natali (1997) (source: IMdB)

This narrative trope is commonly found in many popular thriller and horror movies from the late ’90s to the late 2000’s. You may immediately have thought of the infamous torture-driven Saw franchise, Vincenzo Natali’s cult sci-fi film Cube, or other B-movies like Fermat’s Room, Exam and The Killing Room, among countless others that range from fun to forgettable. The “Escape the Room” genre was already popular in Japanese pop culture (with the 2006 infamous Crimson Room flash game by Toshimitsu Takagi) even before it became a phenomenon in the west.

Real life escape games have become a pillar of the 2010s’ entertainment industry, with many of them popping up in all cities, culminating in the extremely campy horror flick Escape Room in 2019.

The excitement of this otherwise terrifying scenario has proven its popularity. No one wants to lose their ability to move freely, so the fictional implementation of an intense sadistic game of imprisonment gets anyone pumped up for a serious roller coaster of dread and adrenaline.

All in all, this narrative is a perfect tool for character study and social commentary, putting all individuals in danger to build character development. But the genre also enclosed itself around character tropes and clichés that became unavoidable, exactly like the slasher genre did in its heyday.

Crimson Room (2006) by Toshimitsu Takagi, that’s an old gem of the flash game era (source: MobyGames)

Japanese development team Spike Chunsoft thought well enough of this phenomenon to implement its tropes and concepts into Visual Novels. A narrative that allows harsh character development, narrative intensity, enigmas, and ethical choices that the player has to make is absolutely perfect for this medium. They proposed two different VN franchises on this same subject:The Zero Escape trilogy (also known as The Nonary Games), and the Danganronpa series.

As of today, both franchises have three different games, but I wish to focus on the first installments of both series: Zero Escape: Nine Hours; Nine Persons, Nine Doors (nicknamed 999) (2009); and Danganronpa Trigger Happy Havoc (2010). I technically still have to finish the many sequels of both of these games, but they are already fine examples of this specific genre, with two radically different approaches that have major strengths and dire flaws.


Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (2010) (source: IGN)

Danganronpa is overall an odd game. You play as Makoto Naegi, an ordinary student who is chosen randomly to enter Hope’s Peak High School, an institution for the absolute elite of Japanese youth. Each character is the ultimate elite of their respective discipline, “Ultimate Baseball Player”, “Ultimate Gambler”, “Ultimate Literary Genius”, and “Ultimate Hacker”, among others. Makoto, being the randomly chosen one, is “the Ultimate Lucky Student”.

The moment the characters enter the school for the first time, they all faint. When they wake up, the school is locked down by metal plates and automatic gun turrets. Surveillance cameras have been installed everywhere.

You are introduced to Monokuma, the iconic figure of the franchise. It’s a sadistic bear who welcomes the characters into a deadly murder game. To get out of life imprisonment inside the school, a student must kill one of their peers and get away with it. The other students have to find who the culprit is during a School Trial. If they pick the wrong culprit, everyone except the true murderer is executed.

The gameplay draws heavily from Ace Attorney, with the game jumping between VN adventure parts and school trial levels.The trial parts are way more tense and action-driven than Ace Attorney though, with the implementation of the “bullet” mechanic. Each element of the investigation (testimony, murder weapon, etc.) is a bullet that you have to shoot during trial when someone declares something that contradicts the proof in your inventory.

The trial levels also have time limits and each error cuts down your HP. From trial to trial, the game will implement more mechanics to make the levels harder to finish.

The School Trials can get pretty wacky (source: Wiki Fandom)

There are also the optional “free time” parts, essentially letting the player roam around the school and hang out with other students. These parts aren’t useful for the overall plot, but they offer fun moments and background characterization for other characters. Building friendships by offering gifts can also offer you buff skills for the school trial levels (better aim, faster shots).

The characters are the main force of the game. Each individual has a distinct personality with wacky Jojo-esque characteristics and visual design.The game offers many fun moments of interaction, and you will soon feel pretty bummed when a character you’ve grown to know and appreciate gets killed by surprise.

As the game progresses, the number of students still alive is drastically narrowing, and the story gets darker, despite the constant comic relief and Monokuma’s antics. The pacing can be a little stretched by the “free time” parts, the constant back-tracking, and the investigations that can drag on. The final investigation reminded me how much I hated the investigation parts in Ace Attorney and wished to get to the trial immediately.

A lot of interesting interaction for even the most minor characters (source: Wiki Fandom)

Monokuma argues the necessity of this game, as it will push “Despair” upon the world. When the game is more humorous and lighthearted, it is very fun to play. When it gets dark, the seriousness feels aimless, with forced, edgy nihilism and naive philosophical declarations from both the villain and the main protagonist.

All the discourse about “Hope and Despair” that the game hammers you with isn’t really that deep, and sometimes feels like teenage pseudo-philosophy.

Danganronpa doesn’t address the locked-down scenario inside of the game play, basically drawing the genre heavily into the narrative, but the game play doesn’t profit from the possibilities it offers, either in feeding the plot or in the game experience. This is a shame because the game has so much to offer in its ambitions, but falls flat at many points, particularly as the player’s choices never have any true consequence in the narrative.

You’ll mostly feel like you’re watching an anime where you have to click to get the story further, without much else to involve the player directly. This is sad, considering the characters are memorable and likable, the oddness of the universe draws you in, and the mysteries of the plot are more than enough to keep you on board until the end.

I still enjoyed the game and recommend it as it is an interesting experience, especially for fans of Ace Attorney who might want more of that trial VN gaming experience.

When addressing the “escape” genre into a VN, however, and addressing narrative elements into the game play, 999 does a way better job.

Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

Zero Escape: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (2009) (source: Wiki Fandom)

999 begins with protagonist Junpei waking up inside of a ship in the middle of the ocean. He meets eight other colorful characters that arrived in a similar way, drugged and kidnapped by a masked assailant.

They have nine hours to escape until the ship sinks. The “Nonary Game” imposed by the mastermind nicknamed Zero involves mathematics, numbered bracelets, numbered doors, and bombs hidden in the victims’ guts that will explode if they don’t abide by the rules.

The goal is to find the ninth door to get out of the ship. Only a group of 3 to 5 people can enter each numbered door, following codes and mathematical problems, to find themselves into an “escape the room” mini game in each different part of the ship.

Each decision the player makes will take the narrative in a different direction, with multiple endings depending on which door you choose to go through and your moral choices.

Whenever you choose a door, you will meet different characters and learn about them, their relations, their past, and lore that guides you towards the resolution. It teaches you about mysteries that range from the identity of Zero to the reason why each character was chosen to participate in this involuntary experience. 999 allows you to jump between branches of the narrative to correct choices you made when stumbling upon a bad ending, usually involving a gruesome, sudden death for Junpei.

The force of the game is the fundamental correlation between the narrative and the multidimensional aspect of the gameplay. Unlocking each ending allows you to discover new events that will lead you towards the true ending as the lore addresses the concept of multiple choices.

Which door will you choose? (source: Wiki Fandom)

Unlike further installments that chose to develop a more robotic but still qualitative 3-D cell-shading graphic aspect for characters and the environment, 999 is using 2-D animations for each character. The character design is silly but really gives a true distinct personality to each character. Their personality and social class is hinted at by all aspects of their visual design.

The narrative is constructed perfectly so that nothing feels out of place. Every character interaction, even when played for comic relief, is truly important to the narrative and gives hints towards character resolutions and the true ending. All the characters are memorable and I really enjoyed going through this journey in their company.

I might argue that the main protagonist is sometimes a prick and the sexual innuendos that he makes are not useful to the story or even funny, but he represents a good balance between being his own written character and a tool for immersion for the player, something Danganronpa fails to do.

He shows his own personality, but the moral choices that the player makes for him will drive his character development through the story.

999 gives you the choice between “Adventure” and “Novel” modes for the narrative parts, implementing a different interface in “Novel”, as well as the presence of an omniscient narrator that gives more information on the character’s physical expressions and surroundings.

Personally, I played the whole game without the narrator. The animations and the Japanese voice acting were more than enough to appreciate the dialogue and the narrative, but the “Novel” mode is a nice option.

That’s kind of the spirit for most of the game (source: Wiki Fandom)

The gameplay is in two distinct parts: the VN narrative, and the “escape room” parts that begin whenever you enter one of the numbered doors, with pre-rendered 3-D environments that are more than reminiscent of the first few Myst games.

The “escape the room” levels are fairly easy most of the time, but some puzzles were pretty frustrating, especially when you must pick up small items that aren’t really obvious at first glance. Other times, my lack of mathematical skills forced me to look up solutions on the internet to get through some math problems.

Fortunately, the game offers you a calculator to make things easier in-game, so no need to get a notebook and pens to solve puzzles, like when playing Myst. Though the puzzles were definitely satisfactory to solve, my main interest in the game was by far the narrative experience it offers.

The “escape the room” levels were a good moment to breathe between two long narrative parts. The balance between the two is more than fair to have an enjoyable game experience.

Two different approaches, same premise

Danganronpa and 999 both start off with a similar situation, being the “normal” protagonist surrounded by oddball characters, and having to complete a sadistic game to escape from a locked-down facility. But Danganronpa fails to address the premise outside of the bare plot, and the gameplay elements feel out of place, while 999 makes for a great complementary balance between the plot and the gameplay aspects.

My main concern with Danganronpa is the protagonist, Makoto Naegi, “the Ultimate Lucky student”. In Zero Escape 999, the protagonist Junpei has a more organic character development and growth from beginning to end and his own personal reflections help the player directly, framing the questions that the player should keep in mind to understand the lore. During dialogue, there are also flashbacks to previous scenes for plot reflection.

Makoto from Danganronpa remains a blank slate character with the infuriating trope I would call “the clueless and boring anime teenager that needs every other character to explain the plot all the time”. It both drives the player away from pure immersion like a true blank slate character (like Link in Legend of Zelda), and doesn’t make for an interesting protagonist like Junpei from 999 or Phoenix Wright from the Ace Attorney franchise.

Makoto makes poor decisions outside of the player’s will. The lack of choice, plus the bland personality of the protagonist, is disappointing and restrains the narrative experience.

Another concern is the villain of Danganronpa. Despite being iconic and pretty fun in his weirdness, Monokuma just wants to push the students into despair for edgy pseudo-philosophical reasons. The mastermind behind Monokuma’s actions doesn’t have a good reason to push the narrative in all of these directions except for “we live in a society”-level nihilism.

While Zero’s ultimate plan upon the true ending’s revelations seems emotionally understandable despite the ordeal that the characters went through, it is also pretty touching.

The revelation of Zero’s identity and the reasons for the titular Nonary Game to take place make so much more sense with all the hints that we get throughout the game, and the ending offers true closure for every story element, as well as leaving the story open to further installments. While Danganronpa hints at the story to come in the sequels and spin-off anime OVAs and light-novels, it doesn’t offer a satisfying end. Despite all the plot-twists, so many elements feel out of place.

Both games are enjoyable in their own right, but 999 is great at addressing the escape trope, mixing the gameplay and the story elements perfectly, and it makes the narrative way more engaging than Danganronpa. I would recommend playing both franchises with their qualities, but to me, 999 excelled where Danganronpa let me down.

All games from Spike Chunsoft are available on Steam.

Danganronpa Trigger Happy Havoc, first released on the PSP, is available on PS Vita, PC, PS4 (in a trilogy bundle), and iOS/Android.

Zero Escape: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999), first released on the Nintendo DS, is available on PS Vita, PS4, iOS, and on PC in the “Nonary Games” bundle, with its sequel Virtue’s Last Reward. The third installment in the franchise, Zero Time Dilemna, is sold separately on steam.

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