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One of the best video game endings of 2017 blows up an entire franchise

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What if a game made you feel like a bad person for playing?

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony - character collage art Spike Chunsoft/NIS America

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony’s ending has been subject to an extremely divisive reception, and for good reason. The controversy may surprise outsiders: Players haven’t been torn over the quality of the game’s finale, but rather, over the contempt the game’s metanarrative seems to harbor against the franchise’s most fervent fans.

Put simply: How would you feel if a game’s ending told you that you were a bad person for viewing and enjoying the events that had transpired?

There’s a lot there to drill down into, but before we get started: I’m going to spoil the ending of Danganronpa V3 here, and by extension, the earlier games in the series. If you haven’t played the games and want to stay unspoiled, I suggest you go read some of our other year-end coverage. If you have no plans to dig into this murder mystery visual novel franchise — and you probably should, because it’s a series with some really cool ideas — read on.

Danganronpa is a series about groups of students who represent the best and brightest of their individual fields — the Ultimate Detective, Ultimate Pianist, Ultimate Astronaut and so on — who become trapped in a series of deadly “killing games” across the franchise. Once a student murders a classmate, the group has a short while to investigate the crime before taking part in a Class Trial, where they argue the facts and vote on the culprit. If they’re correct, the culprit is executed in a grisly manner befitting their “Ultimate” identity; the Ultimate Pitcher is killed by a firing squad of batting cage pitching machines, for example. However, if the class gets it wrong, everyone else is executed, and the culprit walks free.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony - consent Spike Chunsoft/NIS America

The first two core games in the series followed a similar formula, with the class of prisoners being whittled down by murders and executions until a small group of survivors manage to discover the true evil behind the killing game. They confront that evil, and manage to find relief — in one form or another — preventing the whole assembly from being wiped out for good.

Danganronpa V3 follows that same formula to the finale, where the true evil is once again uncovered.

It’s us, the people playing Danganronpa V3.

This particular game has been orchestrated by one of the surviving students, who reveals that each character’s memories have been reprogrammed to turn them into stock characters in a fictional world. The truth — which has long since been erased thanks to a Men in Black-style memory scrambler — is that each participant willingly joined the game after witnessing past “seasons” of Danganronpa, a series created by (real life franchise developer) Team Danganronpa. In the fiction of the game, this series has been running for decades; the “V3” in the game’s title actually stands for “53,” establishing this as the 53rd killing game that young people willingly signed up for after eagerly watching past seasons play out.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony - Maki’s Account divine art Spike Chunsoft/NIS America

After this twist is revealed in the game’s final trial, the audience — an in-fiction representation of the real-world Danganronpa fan base — becomes part of the proceedings, cheering in unison for one of the game’s two logical endings to play out. Will our heroes choose the correct culprit, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion while paving the way for the next killing game to take place? Or will they give into “despair,” forcing one of their own to take the fall, allowing the current killing game to continue?

It’s in these final moments that the weight of the decisions made at similar junctions in past Danganronpa games becomes fully apparent. In both cases, the player makes the right call, the villain gets their punishment and the audience gets the fulfillment of a “good ending,” keeping them hooked until the next killing game spins up. But in doing so, they’re actively encouraging the creation of a new killing game — or, more literally, the development of another Danganronpa title, where more fictional young people will be subject to the franchise’s trademark brutality.

There lies the most divisive element of this storytelling gambit. Some longtime fans of the series argue that this revelation robs the endings of the last two core Danganronpa games of meaning: No matter what choice you make, you’re choosing to participate in the games, which ends up being the immoral decision. There are no “good endings” in Danganronpa 1 and 2, only the endorsement and prolonging of the vicious acts of cruelty that they portray.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony - Monokuma telling bear to relax and kill Spike Chunsoft/NIS America

But in this, the in-fiction 53rd Danganronpa loop, the participants break the cycle. They band together and vow not to vote on a culprit at all. The only path to the game’s true ending requires you to stop participating in arguments, in all the clue-hunting minigames or in the story’s climactic jury vote. You only succeed by setting down the controller and not playing along.

After realizing their intentions, the audience — us — strikes back against the survivors, taking remote control of K1-B0, a fellow student and Ultimate Robot, to continue the story down its usual trajectory. The final argument of the game has nothing to do with the murder you’re trying to solve. It’s just one of the students trying to convince the audience itself that this whole franchise, and the events it depicts, is abhorrent.

And one by one, people tune out. The killing games draw to a close, but only after the remaining few are subject to the final penalty for their non-participation: They’re all seemingly executed as K1-B0 initiates a self-destruct protocol.

Only in the the game’s post-credits sequence do we learn that a handful of the survivors were spared, free to wander into the outside world, unsure of the reality that awaits them following the killing games’ cancellation.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony - arcade Spike Chunsoft/NIS America

There are many ways to interpret the finale. The most critical of them is that the game’s developer decided that the sadistic violence of Danganronpa is bad, and that the supporters of the franchise — and, crucially, the supporters of their real-life game development studio — are culpable in some way for the glorification of that violence. In reading the ending that way, it’s not hard to find something hypocritical and dismissive about the developer’s change of heart. It represents a tremendous amount of ungratefulness to the fan base, casting judgment upon them for patronizing such a ghoulish series of video games that the studio designed, marketed and sold.

But how far does the metanarrative extend? Is that change of heart just part of the fiction? Is it just a way to end the franchise’s third entry in a manner that sidesteps the formulaic, convoluted conclusions that the first two games adhered to? Is the remorsefulness espoused by the in-game Team Danganronpa not actually indicative of the feelings of its real-world counterpart? Is all of it just kayfabe?

The ending’s implications on the rest of the game’s story are similarly up to interpretation. If the game’s cast had their memories rewritten with fictional backstories, then the scenes between characters, the development, the relationships being built — did any of that really matter? They spent nearly the entire game talking about their lives, but those lives, and those stories, turned out to not be real. So what’s the point?

Then again, none of it is real! It’s all a work of fiction. So what if the characters at the end of the game aren’t actually the characters you got to know during the rest of the game? The characters revealed at the end may be “real,” but … they’re not, right? Why draw distinctions between the two? Either way, you learn fictional details about fictional people’s lives, even if those people are different from the ones who acknowledge their altered memories at the end of the game.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony - building reclaimed by nature Spike Chunsoft/NIS America

On the whole, I’m mixed on Danganronpa V3 — its first case pulls a pretty disappointing bait-and-switch on the player, and its occasionally wildly juvenile tone falls flat — but I think the ending is kind of brilliant. So I’m willing to give the game and its creators the benefit of the doubt with regard to their intentions. Whether you liked the ending or not, it’s tough to portray Team Danganronpa as anything less than appreciative of its relatively small but passionate fan base.

The fact that the ending introduces so many questions like this, though, makes it one of the more fascinating video game endings of the year. It also makes the prospect of a sequel nearly impossible — how do you follow up an ending that condemns the conceit of this franchise so completely with another entry that adheres in any way to that conceit? I don’t know how you thread that needle, but after seeing Danganronpa V3’s mind-bending conclusion, I trust that, if anyone can figure it out, it’s Team Danganronpa.