An Unbearable Education: An Interview With NISA About Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

The new year should always feel like a fresh start. It presents an opportunity to leave the worst behind, and put our best food forward.

2013 ended like any other other in the world of video games. Big sequels in big franchises doing big numbers. So as the clock rolled over into 2014, it’s great knowing that a game like Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is leading the charge. It’s a bold new Vita game that marriages the likes of Sweet Fuse, Phoenix Wright, and Virtue’s Last Reward, but all with a style and flair of its own.

As I described it in my Most Anticipated Games of 2014 list, Danganronpa casts the player as a new student of an elite private school. His first day of class grinds to a halt when an evil bear named Monokuma pits him against his fellow students in a deadly game of ‘whodunnit’. Participants may escape the school by means of murder, or acts of genius.

NISA provided me the opportunity to speak with Phoenix Spaulding, the Editor of Danganronpa, about the process of localizing the game for North America and Europe.

I was surprised to learn that, as far as localization goes, there’s just one editor and translator assigned to the project. While Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc was announced in July, how far back did the process start for you?

Phoenix Spaulding (PS):Generally, we don’t announce new titles until we’re a good way into the process and the release date is starting to approach. With Danganronpa, though, we were excited to announce the title as soon as possible. So we had really only just started the actual localization process in this case (I don’t have an exact timeframe, but we’d just started playing the game and preparing to nail down system/key terms, which is generally our first big step).

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Were it not for this Vita remake, we may have never seen Danganronpa in North America or Europe. As an editor, and also a gamer, was this a title you had been hoping to work on, one you had been pulling for?

PS: I actually remember the game first popping up on my radar back in 2010, when a user posted a thread about the PSP version on our company “Game Request” forum. I was immediately blown away by the style and setting, and a few of us here did bring it up for possible localization. Even then, though, the PSP was struggling, and as a visual novel type game, we knew the localization process would be a huge undertaking. It ended up not happening at that point, so needless to say, when our producer came to us a few years later with the possibility of working on the Vita remake, I and a few others here immediately started pushing hard for it. And lucky for us, we ended up getting it!

The title is drawing a lot of comparisons to games like Phoenix Wright and the Zero Escape series, but I’d like to know what you feel makes it unique?

PS: To me, other than the totally awesome, totally despair-inducing story (seriously, it’s so good), the most unique thing about it is the presentation. A lot of games like this, with a focus on text rather than intricate gameplay, end up feeling slow-paced or just all around dull. Danganronpa, on the other hand, feels dynamic, fast, and energetic, even when the core element is just reading and sifting through information. This is thanks to the really bold art style, along with the always-moving UI elements and camera angles. And I can’t say too much about the story, but the way that it plays with your expectations and assumptions is really clever, and while that takes a while to pay off at times, it’s definitely worth it.

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With an ocean of titles up for grabs in Japan, what makes Danganronpa an NISA game? How does it for into your ‘family’?

PS: For me, what makes it an NISA game is the focus on characters and setting. If you look at it purely gameplay wise, it really isn’t like anything we’ve done before. But if you look at some of our other long-standing series –Disgaea, Hyperdimension Neptunia, things like that – what really keeps players coming back is that they fall in love with the characters and the worlds they inhabit. And anyone who’s already familiar with Danganronpa knows that this is true for this series as well. (Although some of the characters in Danganronpa are less “love” and more “love to hate”.)

Just to go a little in depth with the gameplay systems, how is evidence of the crimes gathered, and how is it presented when deciding who the murderer was?

PS: Anyone who’s played the Ace Attorney series will feel right at home here. During the investigation phase, you’ll move around different parts of the school, talking to your fellow students and looking for clues and evidence. This basically involves highlighting items in the environment and finding those things that stick out or seem important.

Once you’ve gathered everything you need and move on to the trial, that’s where this game really comes into its own. During the trial, characters will throw out their testimony in real-time, and their text will appear onscreen dynamically. It’s up to you to pay close attention to what’s being said, as well as keep in mind what facts and evidence you have that might contradict them. When a statement appears that you want to challenge, you’ll only have a small amount of time before that text disappears and the next person starts talking. So you’ll always be on your toes looking for the right time to toss up that key piece of information.

I’ve read that failure to identify the killer leads to that person’s freedom, and the group’s punishment. Is this punishment a ‘game over’ scenario?

PS: It is. At that point, the game basically tells you you screwed up, and you’ll be prompted to jump back into the game at a previous save point and figure out how to get it right.

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Is Danganronpa one big scenario, or does it require multiple playthroughs?

PS: You can see everything the main storyline has to offer in a single playthrough, although there are plenty of side conversations you might not be able to get to during your first time through. There’s also a New Game + mode, which will offer a totally new (though not nearly as long) storyline that will let you get to know all the game’s characters in kind of a different way.

As distinct as the cast is, you’re still dealing with a very large group of characters. How do you ensure they keep their personalities throughout the localization?

PS: One nice thing about the game is that the cast gets smaller and smaller as the game goes on, haha. Really though, the original writing for Danganronpa is already so strong that all we had to do on our end was stay as faithful to those personalities as possible. And the voice acting during each trial helps us really cement the feel of the characters. The original Japanese voice acting (which will be available in the Western release) is also superb, so whichever language you choose, all those strong personalities should come across really well.

Who was your favourite character to write for?

Monokuma, by far. The other characters are all great, but I’ve always had a soft spot for writing cackling villains who obviously enjoy their work. (For anyone familiar with our game Soul Nomad, I also wrote the delightfully evil Gig, my favorite NIS character ever.) Plus that little demon robot is just overflowing with awesome lines.

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I’d also say that while Toko was extremely difficult to write for, she was also a fun challenge, and I’m super happy we got an actress that (I think) does her justice. For those who don’t know, Toko has a stutter, which is something that’s very hard to put into text without coming off as obtrusive or overbearing. And I didn’t want it to make her character look silly or stereotypical or anything, so finding that balance was a big challenge.

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Virtue’s Last Reward, Sweet Fuse, and now Danganronpa share a basic premise of trapped people solving puzzles to appease an animal of some sort. Do you pressure yourself to make the game stand out, and not appear on the surface to be ‘more of the same’? Or is your audience knowledgeable enough that it is not a concern?

I definitely think our audience is informed enough, and I think the details of Danganronpa‘s premise set it apart enough that it’s not really something we’re worried about. There might be surface similarities, but once you start to see what this game is about, it’s definitely in a…ahem…class of its own.

Based on your previous work (and the majority of NISA’s catalog) Danganronpa appears to be the company’s most story driven game. The narrative is paramount to the experience. How does it feel that in a game like this, the crux of the player’s enjoyment falls on you via your writing?

PS: For me personally, I’ve been editing games for over six years now, so I’ve got enough experience that that kind of pressure doesn’t really faze me. Even on projects where the story/writing might not play as big a part in the player experience, we always stress that it’s our duty to bring the best quality to the project we possibly can, and that was at the forefront of our mind on Danganronpa. Thanks to the exposure this game has already gotten in the West, I know that people will be paying extra special attention to the choices we’ve made, but we take a lot of pride in our work and I think we’ve given this evil little game all the time and love it deserves. More than anything, I was excited to work on something that will basically live or die by the writing (especially since the original writing was already so good), and I can’t wait to see how people react to it.

I have to know, as the editor, is there a part of you that is disappointed you can’t experience the game through fresh eyes? Do you often play the games you’ve worked on?

PS: Yeah, it’s kind of a bummer actually. First there’s the fact that by the time the game comes out, I will have spent upwards of six months working on it in one form or another, and after spending that much time with a game, I can’t imagine going back to it anytime soon. On top of that, I’m hyper critical of everything I work on, so I end up questioning every line, every turn of phrase, every comma placement. It takes a looong time before I can pick up a game I’ve worked on (sometimes never), although it is nice to read something I did and think, “Huh. That actually kind of worked!”

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Do you think the mainstream popularity of a film like The Hunger Games allows games like Danganronpa to step away from the controversy of ‘children killing each other’? Has North America calmed down, or are games still open to criticism because they are painted as ‘for kids’?

PS: Dang, big question…! Referring specifically to Danganronpa, I don’t think a game like this would ever enter the mainstream cultural consciousness on that kind of level in the first place, so I think even without things like The Hunger Games becoming popular, we would probably sneak in under the radar. On the bigger issue of game content in general, I think we’ve seen a softening of games being specifically targeted over the last few years, and as the medium continues to mature and treat itself with more respect, I think the rest of our culture will, too. Which is to say, games aren’t going to gain acceptance because of movies or any other media – they have to earn it for themselves, and I think this last year in games especially has gone a long way to doing that. (That being said, there will always be someone out there looking to scapegoat games or movies or comic books or whatever else they don’t understand for problems that go well beyond the media you consume.)

Let me wrap this up by saying I’m very excited for Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, and I hope it leads to the sequel’s release. I don’t want you to endure years worth of interviews ending with pleas for its release (see: every XSeed interview following the release of the first Trails in the Sky). Thank you and take care!

PS: Thank you, too! This is one of my very favorite titles I’ve ever worked on, so I hope everyone in the world plays it and engages with it the way we have here at NISA. And hopefully you won’t have to wait that long for news one way or the other about the sequel!

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc goes on sale February 11 in North America, and February 14 in Europe.

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