Hey! And welcome to sort-of episode 2 of my rarely-updated series, Critical Hit Records. In it, I talk about a game that had an effective soundtrack, and discuss why their tunes worked so well. More will be coming, sometime.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc was one of the biggest surprises for me of 2014. On paper, it sounds like a supremely strange mix of concepts - a collage of game ideas and tropes that could have a pretty hard time fitting in together. Many great tastes that may not taste great together. The world of Danganronpa is a weird, twisted thing. Mainly, this game is a Visual Novel, with a heaping serving of Phoenix Wright-style trials and investigation making up the gameplay portions. It’s a whole bunch of reading, and if you want to fully enjoy it, I recommend going in prepared for an excellent novel with bits of gameplay thrown in, instead of a game with higher than average amounts of reading involved.
For the uninitiated, the game requires a considerable amount of explanation. So before we get to the music, I have to explain why a bunch of teenagers are about to murder each other. Danganronpa is weird, man.
At it’s core a murder-mystery whodunit sort of affair, Danganronpa puts you in the shoes of Makoto Naegi: a wide-eyed young student accepted into the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy as one of this year’s Ultimate 16. Only a talented select few are accepted into it’s legendary ranks, and history proves all who graduate are destined for great things. Unfortunately, when he arrives, Makoto is knocked unconscious and upon awakening, and finds himself and his 15 classmates in a deadly competition.
Makoto and the rest of the ultimate students find themselves at the mercy of Monokuma, a super sophisticated animatronic robot bear. Monokuma tells the trapped kids that, under his new reign as headmaster, the only way to graduate his version of Hope’s Peak Academy is to murder - and get away with it.
Disbelief and incredulity naturally wash over the students as their new reality sets in. Under Monokuma’s rules, once a murder takes place the students must find out who did it. If the killer gets away with it, he gets to escape If that were to happen, the rest of the class is killed. If the killer is found out, they themselves get executed and the killing game continues. Monokuma’s goal is to rid the students of hope, and only the most cunning and devious of them will make it out alive.
It sounds like heavy stuff, and it really can be. Many of the murders and executions are exceptionally brutal. To take the edge off, all the blood in the game is colored a bright pink, and the whole thing is drenched in anime tropes and over-the-top personalities. The characters really drive the story, and each one of the students ends up being extremely well fleshed-out, even in the face of the crazy ridiculous plot.
Being a visual novel, the plot demands high quality, and it certainly delivers. Once your disbelief has been properly suspended, the devious and paranoid world Makoto is forced to live in becomes gripping, like a good book should, and will hook you until you see through the end of the plot. It twists and turns, with mystery and intrigue available in droves.
I’m trying to avoid exposition, as there’s tons to explain. It’s not an easy one to summarize - as the premise would suggest. I’m not here to review the game, though it does get my wholehearted recommendation. Instead I’m here - as blatantly given away by the title - to talk about the music.
With such a far-out plot, you can reasonably expect far-out music. Atmosphere is supremely important. I’m not going to say the music is what ties the package together - the superb writing is the real star here. However, the music matches the rest of the super awesome quality the game brings to the table.
The soundtrack is incredibly diverse. I couldn’t really nail down a specific genre the tunes belong to, but each one has a deserved place in the narrative to add emotional emphasis.
Since I can’t make blanket statements about the soundtrack, I’ll be picking apart a few key songs, and describing how they fit into the game and work as an asset to the narrative.
Naturally, we should start with the theme song. The idea of the theme song is awesome in itself, because how many games nowadays have an honest-to-God theme song?
It’s not very long, and it doesn’t need to be. The main melody is one the game comes back to in a lot of tracks, and it emphasizes the eerie urgency the game constantly throws at you. The murder mystery setting never lets you ease into comfortable safety. Once the story really kicks in, it’s a non-stop edge-of-your-seat thriller, and the theme song and it’s accompanying melody enforces that.
The lead-in starts out slow, with an almost spooky sound. It crescendos, and DANGANRONPA speech signals the shift in tone. After that it’s full force, guitars and percussion kicking in to drive home the thrill.
It’s a good tone summary of the rest of the soundtrack, both in instrumentation and presentation. But the best is yet to come.
This next one plays when the game is setting you up for suspense. It’s also eerie, but with enough positive vibes to lull you into thinking that maybe everything will be okay. The synth melody with accompanying piano harmony work super well. It’s something in the way of a fucked up lounge tune.
It’s cautious music, and music that emphasizes many of the emotions one goes through while nervous. The track doesn’t stick to one specific mood. It’s all over the place. Symbolism! It’s repeated throughout the game pretty often, and the end result is typically unpredictable. Sometimes it leads you to a devastating reveal. Sometimes it leads you to a false alarm. You never know what the game is setting up for, and that’s what I like about it.
Living to the Fullest / Buzzkill
Living to the Fullest kicks in when the game goes full sinister. the shit has hit the fan, and most likely your school life has been pretty rocked. After a blast of sound comes fast tempos and hard tones.
You may be mourning the now-recent loss of a favorite character, or reeling from a brutal plot twist. Whatever the reason, it’s usually accompanied by a feeling of general despair. A key theme of the game, and anyone who’s played it will be all too familiar with that despair.
This one is the aftermath. You’ve been hit hard, and you need to deal with it. Moving forward, things won’t be the same. What the hell is going on? How can I possibly win in a scenario like this? It’s a hopeless one, and despair is the clear theme here. It’s all about the atmosphere.
It's so spooky. This is probably the track that will make you feel the most uneasy, the most vulnerable. In this world, anything can happen.
Without a doubt, this one is my favorite - and also one of the most important. This is the investigation theme. Once a murder has been discovered, it’s your job to figure out whodunnit. Being a video game, of course it’s entirely up to you to figure out what went wrong. While you have a (depleting) number of classmates, for the most part save a few exceptions they’re relatively useless. You need to seek out Truth Bullets, pieces of evidence you use to enforce your argument once trial starts.
It feels urgent. And impressively, it makes you feel important.
While the soundtrack to Danganronpa clocks in at almost 60 different tunes, many of the same themes get repeated pretty frequently. 60 sounds like a huge number, but it runs into the dangerous territory of becoming repetitive, as many of the narrative moments rely on the same audio cues to set up their atmosphere.
Box 15 never got old, though. Investigations were always something I looked forward to, they’re the part of the game that lets you feel the most directly involved in this super-twisted reality. This is one of the most high-energy tracks in the album, and it works really well to give the player motivation.
The resolution of Danganronpa will devastate you. Once the climax of the story has been reached, it’s a roller coaster ride of twists and revelations that leaves you drained. Most of the music in the game doesn’t make for engaging listening on your own, but in context and with proper emotional story hooks, they blend in flawlessly. A good soundtrack punctuates story and visual emotional cues, and the soundtrack backing for Danganronpa makes for some awesome experiences.