NIS America's Phoenix Spaulding talks Danganronpa

++Interview: NIS America’s Phoenix Spaulding talks Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.

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I woke up on Thursday morning with an appointment to keep. An appointment requiring the procurement of delicious pastries from a well known establishment that made their reputation on cream puffs. After picking up the puffs and driving an hour from Los Angeles to Santa Ana, I arrived at the offices of NIS America. David Alonzo, my contact within the company, had invited me by to take an interview about a game I am extremely interested in, and you should be too: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.

As I entered the office, I was greeted by a particularly large, stuffed Prinny, and and a smile and a wave from everyone within view. A happier bunch there never was, I though to myself. David saw the package I’d brought, having recognized it from a previous conversation, and invited me in for the tour. The NIS offices aren’t large and grandiose, but they are very open, and extremely warm and friendly. Looking out over the sea of cubes, I could see all of the nick-knacks and artwork typical of this sort of setting. After relieving me of the pastries, and introducing me to Phoenix Spaulding, Editor at NIS, and the man with who I’d be speaking about the game, he showed us into an empty conference room, and we began.

James Bacon: Could you start by telling us a bit about the game, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc?

Phoenix Spaulding: It’s a PSVita game that was originally a PSP game released in Japan a couple of years ago – which then got a sequel – and we’re releasing the original here. Story-wise, the basic idea is that it’s a murder mystery game. There’s a lot of investigating, and a lot of searching around. The story is that you play Makoto Naede, and you’re a high school student just about to enter this very prestigious school called Hope’s Peak Academy. This school is very famous across the country [ed.: Japan] for being very… well, if you go to this school and graduate, you’re set for life. The government, and all of these prestigious companies all look for people graduating from this school – so it’s basically a ticket for a free ride for the rest of your life. Usually, they only want people at the top of their field: there’s the ultimate swimmer, the ultimate write, all of these ultimate students; but as Makoto, you have no talent. You’re just this very average kid. But you happen to win this lottery, and get invited to attend this school.

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The lovely, and talented Phoenix Spaulding.

JB: So he’s the ultimate lucky person…

PS: Yes! Yes! As you find out, throughout the course of the game, Makoto’s ultimate ability is that he’s very lucky, and that plays in from the beginning. Unfortunately, what happens, is that the first day you go to start school, you walk into the school, all of a sudden you start feeling dizzy, you go unconcious, and when you wake up you find out you’re stuck in this place. All the windows have been barred, all the doors have been covered over with metal sheets… there’s no escape. After you wake up, and as you explore, you find the other new students who started today, and you find out the same thing happened to all of them. So there’s fifteen students stuck in this school, they don’t know what happened. They all came expecting to start school life, and instead they find themselves trapped. Before too long you’re introduced to the game’s antagonist, Monokuma, who’s this psychotic robot bear, and he informs you that the only way for anyone to escape is to murder a fellow student and get away with it. At that point, the game becomes a kill-or-be-killed environment where either you have to choose to live this life of solitude with just these 14 other people for the rest of your lives, or if you want to get out, you gotta kill someone and get away with it… but you’re told that if you do kill someone and aren’t discovered, everyone else in the school is going to die. So you aren’t just murdering one person, you’re sacrificing the lives of all 14 other students so that you alone can go free. Now, and this is a bit of a spoiler, but not really, as Makoto, you’re not looking to commit murder. It sort of becomes your job to, as these murders happen one by one, investigate them, find out what happened. Who did what, who was where, who had the most to gain, etc., etc.

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JB: So, it sounds like it sort of plays out like the Phoenix Wright series.

PS: Yeah! It’s similar to Phoenix Wright in terms of the investigation segments, where you’re going around the school after a murder’s taken place and you’re looking for clues, and then it’ll move into the class trial segment, where you’re taking that information that you’ve found and you’re trying to use it to find out who the murderer was. I will say that Danganronpa is a little more active in some ways, though. Once you get into the class trial segment, there’s a number of mini-games that, rather than just always looking for that clue, and information, there’s also some timing elements, some visual cue elements; so there’s a little bit more variety. It’s still primarily searching and information gathering, but there’s a little bit of extra interactivity on top.

JB: Oh! OK! While I was watching the series [ed.: Danganronpa: The Animation], and I’m FAR from finishing it, but it seemed like the show was developed specifically with a video game translation in mind, or if even the game and anime were developed in tandem.

PS: Actually, after the game became popular, they made an anime series out of it. The series, actually, relies on the popularity of the game. Kind of like “Hey, you remember this really successful game everyone liked? Here’s a TV show that’s based on it!”

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JB: AH! I understand! I didn’t know the game came first! Sometimes in the series, the episodes are introduced with what appears to be a rhythm game, which I thought was odd, but now it makes complete sense.

PS: Yeah! If you’re planning on playing the game, avoid the anime at all costs. It’s a play-by-play of the game, from start to finish. It’ll spoil everything. Well, the game does have more time to go into character development, and explore the murders and each motive more than the show, because it only runs twelve or thirteen episodes, but it hits all the major revelations. I’m not saying the game is ‘better,’ just that it has more time to explore and explain. But, they pulled a lot of that sort of thing – the visual ques, and ‘video game’ aesthetic – stylistically, from the game. Like during the trial, even when you’re just learning information, it’s all timing based. Characters are talking, their text is appearing on screen, and you only have a certain amount of time to look at it, decide if it’s important, decide if you need to call someone out on something that they said; and if you miss it, you have to go back through their dialogue again, all while a timer ticks down. If you get wrong answers, you’re losing life, if you take too long to decide which piece of evidence is important you can lose life, or the trial can end. So, there’s definitely a feeling of tense pressure. In terms of tone, or feel, however, it feels a bit more something like Virtue’s Last Reward, or 999, and that’s because it’s actually developed by the same company.

JB: Neal really likes… well, I don’t know if he likes it, but I notice he’s been playing Virtue’s Last Reward a lot recently.

PS: It has that same sort of dark, intense pressure with the suspicion, and paranoia… it’s a much more dark game than something like a Phoenix Wright in terms of style and content. Also, in addition to the mainline investigations and murders, there’s a similar system to Persona 4’s system link mechanic. You actually get ‘Free Time’ – like a free period at the end of each day – that you can use to go spend more time with each character and sort of learn more about them, and become closer to them.

JB: Is that optional?

PS: It is. During the specific segments when you have to go and do this, you can either go talk to someone, or you can just go to sleep to start the new day. So, if for some reason you don’t want to interact with other people…

JB: Then why are you even playing this game?

PS: (Laughter) Yeah. But, if you prefer, you can just skip it.

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JB: So, it’s sort of like Phoenix Wright meets a visual novel? Phoenix Wright already kind of pulls you through the story by your nose… which is OK, I guess. I mean, you get a hold of all the major plot points, but this, Danganronpa, seems more interactive, and I have more choice. I can talk to who I want to talk to, or I can not talk to anyone, and completely avoid the visual novel aspects, if that doesn’t particularly appeal to me.

PS: Exactly. You can just follow the core plot; but if you do talk to people, you’ll unlock skills that you can use during the trial, you’ll unlock stat boosts and things like that. So, it is in your interest gameplay-wise AND story-wise – if you want to see more and be able to do more – to talk to these people. But, if you decide you don’t like any of these people, you can just go to sleep and get on with the story.

JB: And this is a PS Vita release. What kind of launch window are you looking at? And was it your choice to localize this, or was it handed down from on high?

PS: It’s coming early next year, 2014. The developer in Japan is Spike Chunsoft, and we’ve never worked with them before. This is sort of our first foray. They’re an independent developer, and as a publisher we have a lot of freedom to pursue projects that we like, so this is something we’ve been working on. We’ve always been really interested in the games that they make, and so we just kind of lucked into an opportunity to do this. I won’t call it a passion project, because that sometimes implies there aren’t a lot of people interested, just a few people pushing to get the job done for personal interest reasons, and this game does have a lot of appeal, but there are a lot of people here in the office who were familiar with the PSP games that really like the style and the tone of this property.

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JB: If I can interrupt you for a moment, I think ‘passion project’ is pretty appropriate where NIS America is concerned. I’ve always associated you guys with passion, and especially now that I see just how small your office is, and just how many people you have on your team. You’re always turning out niche anime and video games, and you consistently do a really solid job.

PS: Well, thank you. We’re lucky enough to have people here that… if we’re working on a project, it’s usually because there was someone here that was passionate enough about it to go for it, and try to get it for us. You know? Our whole anime side-business, which has become a core part of our entire business, took place because we had someone here who had some contacts and had some interest in exploring that, and we just tried a couple of things in the beginning, but that snowballed into something that’s been really successful for us. But it starts with someone having that passion and that interest.

JB: Well, as I said, I definitely feel like the passion you have as a group of like-minded people shows all over the games and anime you bring to the States. To get back on topic, sort of, when I interview, I usually try to ask this same question of everyone. Is there a question you haven’t been asked that you’d really like to answer, or maybe a feature you’d like to discuss you haven’t yet been given the opportunity to discuss?

PS: Hmmm… What I’ll say, and I have mentioned this in other places before, but I think a lot of people have been describing this as a straight-up visual novel, and it’s something that’s tough, because there’s a certain expectation with visual novels where it’s literally just wordswordswordswordswords with some pictures, and then maybe, like, “Do you like this girl, or this girl?” and then it moves on to the next chapter or segment. With Danganronpa, I hope people get a sense that there’s a lot more to this than just the story. The story is the main thing, and there’s a LOT of reading, especially when you are investigating a murder, or even before the murder happens… there’s a lot of walking around around the school, talking to other characters, getting to know people; but there is a lot of interaction, and you’re going to be making a lot of decisions as the player. You’re going to have to use your own intuition to know where to go, what clues you’re looking for, which clues are important; then when you progress throughout the trial, your timing is going to be challenged, your coordination is going to be challenged, just like any other game. You’re going to be using powers and special skills, moving through dialogue while trying to figure out which piece of the puzzle fits in which spot… So, it’s a lot more active, and interactive than I think the term ‘visual novel’ means to a lot of people.

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JB: Well, I think that’s fairly obvious, even with the preparation I did for this interview with watching the anime – and I didn’t know the game came first, so maybe that’s why it’s obvious – but it seemed to me, without having any idea what the game actually played like, it kind of has to be more interactive, because there’s just so much to it. I expected a sort of visual novel aspect to it, but even Phoenix Wright has that, and much more prevalent, and no one refers to that series as a visual novel.

PS: Yeah, exactly. I liken it to some of the old point-and-click adventures. It isn’t nearly as difficult as any of those, but a huge aspect of those games is going around the world talking to people, and being overloaded with all of this information, but it’s still up to you to proceed; it’s still up to you, the player, to find those key pieces and key elements that you need to progress. Then you get to a certain point where all of the elements come together, and without your comprehension and understand, the story won’t progress. You have to actively come to your own conclusion, and figure out what happened. I think some people see the words ‘visual novel,’ and it turns them away… it’s definitely story heavy, and if you’re not looking to read a bunch of text, or getting to know the cast of characters really well, then this game might not be for you, but there is definitely more to it than that. It’s a really good mix of story and gameplay. And if you don’t want to talk to people, just go to sleep.

JB & PS: (Laughter)

JB: But that’s perfect, because for the people who don’t want that portion of the game, they can skip it, outright.

PS: Exactly. It’s really accessible, and really fun, and it’s interesting to interact with the people and the world. If you’re familiar with, like I said, VLR, or 999, if you like that style of story, very mysterious but with very strong characters, you’ll like Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. It’s very Japanese, it’s really sleek, the soundtrack is really cool, for me, it feels like they took elements from Persona 4, Phoenix Wright, and VLR/999 and mashed it all together, and came up with something that feels really interesting, and really unique. We’re usually really good about knowing our audience, but this is not an established brand here. The gameplay isn’t established, and the platform isn’t super established, but it’s a really cool game, and I hope people out there give it a chance that maybe aren’t familiar with this sort of thing. I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised.

JB: Well, I’m certainly on board.

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With success, perhaps we’ll be seeing the second game in the series Stateside, as well… but I’m probably getting ahead of things.

Thank you to both David Alonzo, for setting up the interview, and Phoenix Spaulding, for taking the time out of his schedule to give the interview. Thank you to everyone at NIS America for welcoming me into your workspace, and especially those who complemented me on my awesome t-shirt.

Stay tuned for a preview of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc for the PS Vita.