refuting the bullet: so you wanna write an interesting story… but don’t know where to begin?

Doc Burford
80 min readSep 17, 2023
as with all my essays, screenshots are ones I took unless stated otherwise in the caption. they’re generally not thematic or illustrative unless mentioned in the text of the article — they’re meant to break up the article visually and give your eyes some time to rest

Right now, you are on the threshold of an amazing adventure… ~showtime!~

Have you ever been rock climbing? Big ol’ cliff in front of you that you’ve gotta scale, somewhere in that early morning midsummer sun, where you know the day’s gonna get hot, but it isn’t hot yet because the night time cold is still lurking in the shadows of the trees. You just kinda wanna bask in it, but all around you, other people are here, putting on safety harnesses and helmets, chalking up their hands, laughing and muttering and chatting?

And then there you are, standing in front of the cliff, all big and imposing, and the enormity of the task is hitting you, and someone’s telling you it’s your turn, and you get ready to climb with “on belay!” “belay is on!” and you’re on your way… but… where to put your hand first? What’s your route gonna look like? Can you reach this? Can you hold that?

Well, writing is like that: it can be intimidating, especially if you’re like me, and you haven’t done much climbing. Due to the nature of my disability, I don’t get to climb anymore, but I loved it, even when you’re going “can I reach that? How do I get there?” Maybe I loved it especially when I was asking those questions.

Still, writing can be intimidating, just like that. The task is the cliff, and you’ve got to climb it. But where to start?

Of the billions of writers who have existed throughout human history, you will find that the challenge facing you is not a unique one. To tackle any story is a challenge, and some stories are more difficult to write than others, just like this article has been several years in the making because I found it really hard to figure out how to write this one.

Heck, at the time I’m putting this specific set of words down, after words that come later in the essay, which I had already written (because I couldn’t figure out the intro for the life of me), I have 26 drafts in various states of completion, as of September 3, 2023, at 3:05 PM.

I am now editing this piece, and it is September 10th, 2023, at 9:31 PM. I have just gotten to this line, and I decided to insert this one. The next line is untouched from a week ago. Crazy how I’m leaping through time like that. It’s a wonder this piece makes sense at all, but that’s the idea of editing.

Writing can definitely be difficult! Heck, that’s why I’m writing all these essays in the first place; I want to make it less difficult.

The way I see it, too many essays on video games and writing all end up with the “how to draw an owl” problem, where they tell you the basics, then they leap right to the finished product, leaving beginners needlessly confused.

image located found on google image search because i’m not going to learn how to draw really well for the sake of a single article

You’ll run into a similar problem when you’re first setting out as a professional writer. Let’s take my last game, Adios as an example, because I wrote it and thus can talk about it with confidence that I do know what the designers were thinking, because I am, in fact, the designer. The premise is deceptively simple: a pig farmer decides he wants to stop helping the mob dispose of human corpses.

How… do you go about telling that story? It can be pretty hard! I have enough practice in doing so that I have some ideas where to start, and we discussed a lot of those ideas in earlier essays, like “the secret ingredient to telling a good story,” which is about scene dynamics.

(but also it’s about how I outline an entire story! believe it or not, I used to believe that outlines were useless, but as it turns out, outlines are crucial to actually getting a story written, and if you say you’re a writer but you find yourself not making much progress, I’d highly recommend learning how to outline).

With Adios, it was pretty easy for me to figure out the ebb and flow of the dramatic arcs of every scene and the game as a whole. I started at the high, bird’s eye level — the first ‘official’ game development meeting we had on Adios was us scoping out the entire game’s single day events from start to end, which gave us a list of scenes to write, locations to build, and mechanics to implement.

But Adios has a deceptive difficulty curve — it would be so easy to write a boring story about two guys talking in a bunch of different locations. I had to sit there and really drill into the heart of the characters, then understand the power dynamics between them, and how those dynamics shift over time. Pacing those conversations dramatically are what make those sequences work. As the power dynamics change, so too does your understanding of what is happening.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to a ton of beginning writers (probably because I’m out here writing essays about how to write, and they’re the audience for that!), and one of the things I’ve recognized most in them is something I saw in myself back then: a lack of confidence.

A long, long time ago, I found myself reading some brilliant author’s writing and going “oh, man, I can’t write comedy. I have no idea how to write comedy.” I was hopeless! I despaired!

quiet, you

Well, I can write comedy now, but not because I practice at comedy — I can write comedy because I actually worked super hard at a bunch of different modes of writing, from creative nonfiction (like these essays) to actual works of fiction (like this short horror story).

It turns out that before you ever sit down to write a story like Adios, you need to develop a crucial skill: figuring out how to keep people interested in what you’ve got to say. Once you figure out how to make a scene interesting, you can write anything.

But being interesting? That can be really, really hard!

On my current project, codenamed Waifu Death Squad, we did a readthrough of our past timeline outline, with the exception of the final sequence, which we’d just finished writing. Just reading through that outline took about as long as playing the entirety of Adios, which makes sense — Adios was 4,600 words for its entire script, and the past outline alone, not the whole game outline, just the past, is over 12,000. We broke 20,000 words of just dialogue in Act 1 already, as I recall.

Waifu Death Squad is going to be a beefy game.

“Alright,” you might be wondering, “so how much of that is filler?”

None of it, actually.

“None? Really?”

Yeah. We worked ruthlessly to cut any scene that wasn’t interesting, and we edited others to bring them up to the quality we were hoping for. With simple changes to lines, swapping out characters, adjusting the dynamics, and so on, a scene can go from “a bunch of characters visit a location and leave” to “one of the most horrific set pieces in the entire game that just keeps escalating and feels super punchy.”

One of my fixes was simply changing a location from a war-torn city street to a war-torn zoo. It makes the scene pop that much more.

I’m not doing this to brag — I know some people, particularly people with insecurities about their creative process, think that’s an act of arrogance, but I’m telling you about what I’m doing because… well, show the drawing of the owl, right?

I wasn’t there to watch Da Vinci finish the Mona Lisa. I can’t sit you down and walk you through his decision-making process, but I can walk you through mine. I can tell you “we had a scene with T-Rex in some city streets, and we were talkin’ about how to make it really work, and Phil wrote, of the T-Rex, “what is that doing here?” and I said “well, what if they were in a zoo and it broke free during the chaos?” and we went from there.”

An extreme example, to be sure, but the genre allows us to do that, and it makes the story even better, so it’s gonna be there.

Hopefully, if you’re working on your own story, and you are stuck, or worried, or unsure, or you’re asking yourself “hmm, how can I make this scene interesting?” things like this can shake some ideas loose in the fruitful tree of your imagination.

If I tell you what I know to do, maybe it will help you figure out something too! Our goal, as always, is to be helpful, because we want to live in a world with as many excellent stories as possible, and the only way to do that is live in a world where as many people as possible are telling the best stories they can. If we can write essays that help them get there, then we can contribute to making the world just that much more helpful.

So! While the fundamentals never really change — every scene must be interesting, and to be interesting, it must be dramatic — getting there can be a little bit of a challenge.

If you’re a beginner, there’s one really easy way to get started: start with a genre that’s got a very low skill floor (it’s easy to get started in) but a really high skill ceiling (even at the peak of your powers, you can still write amazing things in this genre).

That’s right… showtime!

On The Origin and Purpose of Genre

When genre was invented by Big Genre in the 1800s as a means of categorizing books for ease of selling them, books became, to some extent, calcified. You see, books didn’t really have genre before then, so you could dig up all sorts of weird stories. Frankenstein wasn’t “science fiction,” it was just “Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein.” I think it’s why a lot of older literature is more fantastical than a lot of newer literature.

I can see Shakespeare has written a few ghosts and wizards, but has Jonathan Franzen? Probably not. Sorry, the pitch for his books don’t appeal to me — they do not seem like they would provide me with any emotional fulfillment. I could be wrong, but no one I know seems to like them either, so I’ll be spending my time reading authors like Roberto Bolaño.

Years ago, when Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo reached its cultural zenith, I recall reading an article by someone going “well, yes, I have griped that people aren’t reading enough these days, and yes, Larsson is getting people to read, but I was on a train car and it was by far the most popular book there. Not enough people were reading literary fiction! And they ought to, because it’s much better.”

The thing is, genre is purely a cultural construct! Genre — and the idea of ‘realistic’ art being somehow better or more pure — is an idea that’s only been around since the mass production of books in the late 1800s. Somehow, academics and some critics got it in their heads that the less imaginative a work, the more grounded it was, the more important and artistic it was.

Really, it’s a dumb person’s idea of intelligence: it’s easy to read something that isn’t imaginative. It’s much more difficult to read something that explores outside the bounds of reality because it requires you to be able to think abstractly; it requires more of you to process.

So the indignant guy writing this indignant article on his fellow train passengers reading a book… well, he decided that everyone should be reading books that, according to him, were not genre, books called “literary fiction.”

Well — and this was a good ten or so years ago, so you’ll forgive me if my memory is a bit hazy — I decided to look up literary fiction, specifically the authors that this writer recommended. I looked at each author’s most famous work, and lo and behold, I found the same thing every time: a middle aged liberal academic is dissatisfied with their life. Usually, he (and it’s almost always a he) has an affair, often with someone a decade or more younger, freuqently one of his students. Usually, the stories have a lot of characters and they’re all very grounded. There’s some family tension or drama, usually between the parents or adult siblings.

That’s a genre in and of itself. If it’s got all the major elements as other, similar stories, it’s a genre, because the purpose of genre is to categorize narratives for the ease of sorting them in a book store. That’s it. It’s not for me or you, it’s for the guys who have to put books on shelves in the hopes people will buy them, and it’s for the minimum wage booksellers at Barnes & Noble to tell you where you can get more books like the one you just read.

If you read stories before the advent of genre, they blend things. There’s supernatural, there’s adventure, there’s romance, there’s everything. While the stories are all over the place, they are not uneven, at least because of the narrative elements within them. The unevenness in something like Oliver Twist is more likely to come from Charles Dickens getting paid by the word than any sort of genre limitation.

So that’s genre.

For people without imagination, genre was far more difficult than just writing what they already knew, so they ascribed an importance to their navel-gazing. It’s easy for the lazy and incurious to pretend that work carried through metaphor and allegory, which requires some minor level of intelligence to perform abstract thinking, was dumb, but writing about something set entirely in the unimaginative world was more important. It’s just lazy bastards trying to say “I matter more cause I don’t get the inventive stuff and I don’t want to try.”

When I wrote Adios, I wrote a fairly grounded story, but I still had characters discuss ghosts and such; the strength of the work is not in its groundedness, but in its drama, and you can put drama in anything.

Genre was never dumb, and it does not have to be dumb. The only people who think genre is dumb are dumb people pretending to be smart.

But, lest you think I’m just talking out my ass, here’s Sir Terry Pratchett, a man so good at writing fiction they made him a knight for it, on the subject:

O: You’re quite a writer. You’ve a gift for language, you’re a deft hand at plotting, and your books seem to have an enormous amount of attention to detail put into them. You’re so good you could write anything. Why write fantasy?

Pratchett: I had a decent lunch, and I’m feeling quite amiable. That’s why you’re still alive. I think you’d have to explain to me why you’ve asked that question.

O: It’s a rather ghettoized genre.

P: This is true. I cannot speak for the US, where I merely sort of sell okay. But in the UK I think every book — I think I’ve done twenty in the series — since the fourth book, every one has been one the top ten national bestsellers, either as hardcover or paperback, and quite often as both. Twelve or thirteen have been number one. I’ve done six juveniles, all of those have nevertheless crossed over to the adult bestseller list. On one occasion I had the adult best seller, the paperback best-seller in a different title, and a third book on the juvenile bestseller list. Now tell me again that this is a ghettoized genre.

O: It’s certainly regarded as less than serious fiction.

P: (Sighs) Without a shadow of a doubt, the first fiction ever recounted was fantasy. Guys sitting around the campfire — Was it you who wrote the review? I thought I recognized it — Guys sitting around the campfire telling each other stories about the gods who made lightning, and stuff like that. They did not tell one another literary stories. They did not complain about difficulties of male menopause while being a junior lecturer on some midwestern college campus. Fantasy is without a shadow of a doubt the ur-literature, the spring from which all other literature has flown. Up to a few hundred years ago no one would have disagreed with this, because most stories were, in some sense, fantasy. Back in the middle ages, people wouldn’t have thought twice about bringing in Death as a character who would have a role to play in the story. Echoes of this can be seen in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which hark back to a much earlier type of storytelling. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest works of literature, and by the standard we would apply now — a big muscular guys with swords and certain godlike connections — That’s fantasy. The national literature of Finland, the Kalevala. Beowulf in England. I cannot pronounce Bahaghvad-Gita but the Indian one, you know what I mean. The national literature, the one that underpins everything else, is by the standards that we apply now, a work of fantasy.

Now I don’t know what you’d consider the national literature of America, but if the words Moby Dick are inching their way towards this conversation, whatever else it was, it was also a work of fantasy. Fantasy is kind of a plasma in which other things can be carried. I don’t think this is a ghetto. This is, fantasy is, almost a sea in which other genres swim. Now it may be that there has developed in the last couple of hundred years a subset of fantasy which merely uses a different icongraphy, and that is, if you like, the serious literature, the Booker Prize contender. Fantasy can be serious literature. Fantasy has often been serious literature. You have to fairly dense to think that Gulliver’s Travels is only a story about a guy having a real fun time among big people and little people and horses and stuff like that. What the book was about was something else. Fantasy can carry quite a serious burden, and so can humor. So what you’re saying is, strip away the trolls and the dwarves and things and put everyone into modern dress, get them to agonize a bit, mention Virginia Woolf a few times, and there! Hey! I’ve got a serious novel. But you don’t actually have to do that.

(Pauses) That was a bloody good answer, though I say it myself.

Fantasy is the plasma in which other things can be carried. It’s the sea in which other genres swim.


If Pratchett is a giant on whose shoulders we, who come after him, stand, then I hope he would be alright with me adding one thing to this: if fantasy is the sea, then dramatics are the universe in which all narratives exist. A story can be fantasy, and you can do a great deal with fantasy, but…

Well, one of the worst writers I ever knew asked me why we couldn’t just write stories about non human things — why we couldn’t write stories that weren’t for humans. I asked him something like “who do you think we make stories for? What do you think the purpose of a story is?”

A story is a thing humans make so we can understand the world in which we live. Yes, yes, there are stories written from the perspective of nonhumans, like Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, which is still written by a human for humans to understand. You can never really escape what stories are: things we make for ourselves to understand the world in which we live.

So if you’re sitting there wondering “why can’t a story be dramatic and uninteresting?” the answer is right there in front of you: because drama is the word we use to describe why a story is interesting. There is no “non-dramatic, interesting story.” That story, if it’s interesting, is what we describe as being dramatic.

So you can’t remove dramatics from a story and leave it interesting; dramatics is the term that describes the mechanics that make it interesting. If it’s interesting, it’s definitionally dramatic.

We can ask “what makes a story interesting?” and the answer is “it’s drama,” and we can explain the mechanics of drama, and that appears to be largely universal — while different cultures may have different priorities (stories about boarding schools are more popular in the UK, while stories about rags to riches youths pulling themselves up by their bootstraps are more popular in America, and stories about bureaucrats doing important work is more important in China), the actual mechanics of drama appear to be entirely universal in the way they function.

This is likely because humans are empathetic, and what interests us is when other humans are struggling.

You can, almost always, tell someone a story dramatically and they will find it interesting, regardless of background or culture. Dramatics is, in other words, the story of how to make a story interesting. You cannot write a non-dramatic story that is still interesting; if it is interesting, we describe that as being dramatic.

After World War II, when the American occupation introduced a lot of Westerns to Japan, a lot of Japanese filmmakers were able to incorporate the mechanics of cowboy stories (and also the noir movies America was importing), and we saw a massive explosion of extremely impressive, Western-infused samurai films as a result.

Akira Kurosawa is known for making one of the greatest samurai films of all time in Seven Samurai, but some of his other films were adaptations of things like that master dramatist William Shakespeare — Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear were adapted as Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran, respectively — or the crime novelist Dashiel Hammett. Many people believe Kurosawa adapted Red Harvest for Yojimbo, but Kurosawa stated that it was another Hammett story, The Glass Key, that was the actual influence on his work. Still, Hammett got in there.

Of course, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai heavily influenced Hollywood, and we got The Magnificent Seven. Star Wars owes a lot to Flash Gordon, since it started out as a Flash Gordon project, but owe seven more to Kurosawa’s film The Hidden Fortress. Meanwhile, Kurosawa’s movie Yojimbo, about a lone wanderer who wanders into a town and pushes two competing factions into self-destructive war, influenced the Italians, who gave us A Fistful of Dollars, which eventually led to the revisionist Westerns from Hollywood, like Jeremiah Johnson or Unforgiven.

No matter where it started, everyone around the world participated, and the spark was what it has always been: drama. That’s because drama is universal. Drama is interesting. We can never really know who came first, but we can definitely see that Akira Kurosawa, William Shakespeare, and Hollywood were part of a longer conversation, one that’s lasted thousands of years, and all of them are at their most successful when they are at their most dramatic. Everyone participates in this human conversation, because we’re all making stories for each other.

It’s a game of telephone, except instead of message degradation, a story goes into a person and comes out the other side, combined with that person’s perception — their physical body, their experiences, their feelings, their everything — as well as bits and pieces of other stories, and it comes out completely different than when it went in.

Humans are a garden, and stories are the fruit we bear.

But you want to learn to draw the owl, right? So hey, I know I said genre doesn’t really matter, but it does provide a helpful template; in a samurai story, you know what a samurai does, right? It’s a dude with a sword, and you’re probably gonna have a sword fight, right? You know what samurai are, probably know about ronin, and have a general sense of the shogunate.

Just like you know about the various shapes that comprise an owl’s overall appearance. It would be relatively easy for someone to write a samurai story in comparison to a game like Adios, because of those genre expectations.

So yes, as much as genre is entirely fake, it can help provide structure to the beginning writer.

Now, its possible to fuck this up: look at nearly every American-written samurai story that exists, and how all of them are about honor and how the lone individual must break from the system. Now go look at every Japanese samurai story that exists, and note how none of them are really about honor. What’s up with that?

We’ll get to that in another essay where we talk about why America got it stuck in its cultural head that Japanese stories are always about honor, and how a small group of Imperial Japanese Army propagandists, one very foolish American anthropologist, and a bunch of idiotic businessmen are to blame, but that story’s for another essay that I’m already writing.

What we’re gonna talk about is how to make a story interesting, and we’re gonna do that using the easiest genres. What are the easiest genres in the world to write? Horror and mystery. Let’s talk about why.

Before we continue this essay — because believe me, there’s a lot more to come — hey, I could use some help with medical bills and groceries. If you want to support the work I do, like this article about the biggest pitfall young writers face and how to get around it, then hey, hit up my tip jar.

I figure this kind of writing helps inexperienced writers the most — which means people who might not have the finances to afford my work if I kept it behind a paywall. A paywall would help me, obviously — I could guarantee a certain minimum that would ensure my ability to continue writing these articles — but the people who need my help the most cannot afford it. So I gotta rattle the tip jar. I know it’s not

I, personally, can only do this with your support; if I wasn’t doing this, I’d have to get a second job, and as disabled as I am, that’s really not great. I have to spend between $145 and up to an entire Nintendo Switch’s worth of my income on medical care every two weeks. So it’s either do this or get a second job, and a second job would not be ideal given my current disability. So when you send me a tip, you’re not just helping a disabled writer like me, you’re helping tons of students, disabled people, and others without access. Thank you.

@forgetamnesia on venmo

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Also it’s my birthday this month and I’m celebrating it alone, so I’d appreciate some happy birthday wishes, but that’s entirely optional. If this essay ends up being fuckin terrible and you fuckin’ hate it, obviously don’t send me a tip or happy birthday wishes. But I mean, hey, hopefully you’ll find this useful.

The Easiest Genre In The World, Part 1: Horror

I’m fond of quoting Mamet’s Letter to the Writers of the Unit, because it is a perfect description of genre.

Here’s how it begins:













People won’t care about your story if your story is boring.

They definitely won’t finish it if they are bored.

A common theme in video games is that execs and game directors will say “games are too long! That’s why completion rates are so slow!” and then they will summarily ignore every game that has insanely high completion rates, they will miss the fact that the venn diagram between “high completion rates” and “a compelling story” is nearly a circle, and they’ll continue bringing in writers late to their games and go “I don’t know why people don’t finish stories.”

You know a genre that tends to have pretty good completion rates?


Why is that? Is it because horror is naturally better than other genres? Nah. Any story can be compelling, if the story is made with Mamet’s above considerations in mind. However, horror is a genre where people understand the assignment from the get go.

But before we talk about that, let’s talk about a couple important pitfalls:

As I wrote before, horror actually has a major problem, but it’s not the problem you think; lots of people think “oh, the reason a horror story is good or bad is down to whether you see the monster or not,” but this is a mistake. People who say this, you might notice, tend to write some of the worst horror stories out there, because they get the importance of dread, but don’t understand that dread builds to payoff; they confuse terror for horror, and think a horror should be all terror. That just leaves the audience feeling empty. You do, in fact, have to actually confront the horror in order for the story to be interesting. Implication is important — it has to be understandable to work, though.

That horror story I wrote in a single draft as I was passing out the other day? Not my best work of actual technical writing, but people seem to love it regardless because I left them with a potentially terrifying implication. It doesn’t just stay terror — that lurking sense of dread — we get to actual horror: the feeling you experience at seeing the horrific. There’s a payoff.

Another key issue with horror that I discussed before is that a lot of people try to reduce horror to guilt. This is mostly an American creation, largely stemming from Catholic guilt; it’s a belief that horror stories should be about punishment as opposed to the universality of what we are afraid of.

A genre that could be about anything that compels us is often crushed into the dirt by inelegant bastards who are too afraid of letting the monsters be real, too stupid to let the story be abstract enough to have the audience go “I know this fear has the same flavor as fears I experience, even if I am afraid of death and this fictional character is afraid of a ghost literally possessing them.”

Horror is a great way of flushing out the emotional systems, giving us catharsis on when we get stuck emotional logjams. Confronting the actual problem we are confronting might not actually work. But getting through a different problem emotionally can equip us to resolve the problems we’re facing in real life.

If the only fear you have is guilt, wow, you’re doing great. Personally, I just live my life so I never do anything I’d feel guilty about, and all my fears come from other places, like thinking about that serial killer I used to know, Dennis Rader, and the thing that drove him to kill, which he referred to in his trial as “Factor X.” As a result, Catholic “you all have sinned, you’re all guilty of something, you deserve to be punished” never really works for me.

One of the reason all of the Western Silent Hill games suck (Downpour is a good game, but a bad Silent Hill game) is because they’re all guilt-based stories, where none of the Silent Hill games prior to that were about guilt at all.

I recall reading an article by a Western producer of the Silent Hill games who insisted he totally got the series but the studios just never gave him what he wanted, and people were wrong to think he was the bad guy in all of this, but then some folks from the studios came out and went “yeah we kept trying to make games more in line with Silent Hill and he kept trying to basically just make us make guilt-based horror stuff with monsters that were just weird looking guys. He’s throwing us under the bus for his own fuckups.”

Guys like that are a dime a dozen in this industry; their idea of horror boils down to “what if everything’s in the character’s head and it’s just them feeling bad about something.” I’ve had people get angry with me for saying “horror can be about more than just guilt.” They push back with “what else is there? Telling me not to do this means you’re telling me to be less creative!”

No, dummy, you keep telling one story, over and over and over again, and audiences are bored with it and they don’t fucking care about it. You will note that the biggest horror games out there aren’t guilt-based. The only one most of you even have is Silent Hill 2’s “In Water” ending, and that’s not even the fucking point of that ending!

I’m going to teach you my secret technique. Are you ready? Here it is:

People often ask me “Doc, how are you so creative? Are you on drugs?” No! It’s very simple: I think of the most common elements in a thing — the elements I’ve seen before — and I go “alright, we’re crossing that off the list of possibilities.” What I find is that my possibility space expands by removing the most common way of doing things. I have to get innovative. So, if you’re one of those people who thinks I’m uniquely creative, the answer is very simple: don’t retreat to the obvious thing.

(now, there is an important thing to note here: you must also figure out whether the idea is good or bad, too. I suggested an idea to Phil today — I’m writing this line on September 10, 2023 — where a character would basically go “no, I don’t accept your resignation. Instead, I’m gonna set you up with X, Y, and Z so that…” and I said to Phil that I didn’t think the idea would work, and he agreed. I had to get the wrong idea out, though, so we could talk through it. When I wrote about Bungie games, I pointed out that Bungie often overcomplicates things that should be simple and don’t need innovating by trying to be original — while we want you to be innovative, we want you to be innovative where it counts; we are not saying innovation by itself is all you need. It’s gotta work and it can’t suck too, y’know?)

There are one million different things to do. If we ban you from one of those, it means you have nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine other things to try now. By suggesting you abandon one story, your ability to tell stories expands infinitely. We’re trying to get you out of your comfort zone!

It’s wild to me how many people just want to slap in the carpeting from The Shining, toss in a boring old story about guilt, and call it a fucking day. Dammit! You can do better than that!

I am telling you this because I want you thinking “well… I don’t want to do the boring stuff then, I want to do something more interesting.”


Because once you get past the idea that horror stories to be about guilt, which is holding us all back, and once you get past “I only want dread, no horror — wait, what do you mean everyone’s saying my story ‘isn’t satisfying or interesting’?” you can actually write good horror.

Like, hey, you know what horror games I’m writing? I’ve got one that’s about watching conservatism rot the heart of America, I’ve got another that’s about the nature of fiction itself and why humans make it, and I’ve got another that’s about how people with power abuse us and try to make us do things to make themselves feel good by trying to gaslight us into feeling guilty enough to do whatever they want.

None of those stories are about a sinner who deserves punishment and feels guilty for it because they went crazy and hallucinated monsters, but time and time again, that’s all horror devs — particularly indie devs — ever seem to want to talk about. There’s a million things to deal with emotionally! Why are ya’ll stuck on some guy who has to be punished cause he, like, let his child die or put his wife out of his misery or wasn’t on his meds?

(we could do a whole thing on how vile Bloober Team’s constant “horror is just mental illness and mentally ill people need to die” storytelling is. fuck that. fuck them. that shit is evil and ableist. let’s not focus on that for now)

But here’s why horror is good and it’s easy:

You know that you need to scare the audience. This means that you are probably gonna work towards scaring the audience. The assignment is right there in the name, and while it’s possible to get it wrong, you can still fuckin’ do it.

I promise the segue about guilt is going to come back when you least expect it.

When working on Adios, I said “when making a horror game, we know how to do all these little things to make the world feel just that much scarier.” We change the lighting to be darker, spookier. Our soundtrack is nerve-wracking. If you model a grandfather clock, you don’t make it warm and inviting, you make it cold, maybe even take the pendulum lure — that’s apparently the name for the bit the pendulum bob (the bottom bit) hangs on — look a bit skeletal, rather than gold and warm. Maybe you have the clock go bong bong bong at the least opportune time, getting the player to jump.

I then followed this with “so Adios is a melancholy game. Let’s think about how to make the lighting, the sound, and all of that just a bit sadder.” That’s one reason why Adios takes place on an overcast day in October and not a bright, happy May morning.

If we know the genre, then we know the general tone of the story we’re trying to achieve, right? This gives beginners a pretty good sense of what needs to happen. In a drama, what might you do in a scene? In horror, well, you at least have a prompt that can give you an idea: something creepy needs to happen here.

Maybe it’s just… people acting a bit weird, getting the audience feeling off balance. Maybe you want a murder! Maybe you want to kill someone off so people know there’s a monster around! Horror, at least, is a genre with a name based on an emotion, and if you understand that, then you can write towards that feeling.

So, hey, here’s a mention of the game that this entire article is actually about: Danganronpa is a horror game, and it’s not one about guilt. I mean, technically it’s all about guilt, but about legal guilt (murderers) rather than “I deserve to be punished for something in my past” bullshit.

Sixteen students wake up in a school, Hope’s Peak Academy. Each one is the world’s best at something, except the player character, Makoto Naegi, who is the “Ultimate Lucky Student” (as opposed to Ultimate Gambler or Ultimate Programmer), because he won a lottery to gain entry to the illustrious Hope’s Peak Academy.

Thing is… there should be a lot more than sixteen students, and the windows definitely should not be bolted shut.

Worse still, a charismatic and comedic talking bear named Monokuma should not be telling them that they’re going to have to kill each other, one by one, but he is. There is one upside: the surviving student will get to go free, but there’s a twist: after a body has been discovered, the death game enters a murder investigation phase, with the murderer attempting to frame someone else for the murder. The case will go to trial, the surviving students must attempt to figure out the guilty party, and if they get the wrong killer, then everyone except the killer dies.

The students, obviously, think this is a bad idea, but Monokuma places various “incentives” in their path, and sure enough, the killings begin, and Danganronpa kicks the fuck off in a thrilling way.

Now that, my friends, is fucking horror.

While it’s not as effective as focusing entirely on drama and just writing that, you can wring a little bit of blood from a stone by focusing on the mechanics of horror. You know, intuitively, that you’ve got to scare people. You know you’ve got to build to a scare — just having a monster jump out of a closet and go “boo!” isn’t going to be effective. Most people who are writing stories will inherently just start trying to figure out ways to really make the scares pop, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a lot of overlap with horror.

The divergence point is that — not realizing horror is a form of dramatics — a lot of people will make their general “conversations between characters” not that dramatic. It’s… how to put this…

It’s like when you make a country fried steak, and you’re like “okay, I know I need batter and I know I need some kind of meet.” You are absolutely correct, but the dish will taste a lot better if you understand that you also need salt, pepper, and some good white gravy. It’s not called “salt, pepper, and some good white gravy country fried steak,” but that’s what makes the dish work, y’know?

Likewise, maintaining a single tone over the course of a story without any meaningful deviation will kill your story dead. Nobody gives a shit

So a master horror storyteller will make every conversation dramatic, and a beginner might only bring in the drama when they’re bringing the scares, but that’s okay — they’re still focusing on the emotional quality that makes the story interesting. That same beginner might try to write a legal drama and get really boring about it, but horror’s got “horror” right there in the name. A lot of people can make something pretty scary; they can make it really scary if they make it dramatic, though.

Now, you might have noticed that Danganronpa has a trial sequence; yup, that’s because of the other key genre in genre is… well, it’s not legal drama. Look, legal dramas are okay, but they’re at their most interesting when they’re also mystery stories.

perry mason knows what’s up

The trials in Danganronpa? They’re mysteries that you have to solve, and the trial is when you actually put all the clues you found together.

And that fuckin’ rules, because mystery is the other easy genre.

The Easiest Genre In The World, Part 2: Mystery

If drama is “a character wants something, but something is in their way,” and horror is something like “the character wants to stay alive but a monster is threatening to kill them” (we say “something like” because there are lots of potential ways to tell horror where “being killed” is not the primary emotional driver), then mystery’s version of drama is “the character wants an answer, but there is a mystery that must be solved to get it.”

This is all “big picture” drama, you understand. Mamet’s whole “What happens if her don’t get it? Why now?” except it’s filtered through a specific mode of storytelling. In the case of mystery, the thing in the way of our character is a lack of knowledge.

Horror and mystery are the peanut butter and chocolate of storytelling; you get to break up the pacing of the “oh no, the monsters are going to get me” with “but why is it happening?” and that will make your story really shine. It’s one of the things Danganronpa does, and one of the things I absolutely love about it. There’s always something to be interested in, but never for too long.

A question people often ask me is “how do you achieve good pacing?”

Well, as with many things that are story-related, good pacing is difficult to describe and impossible to put into a perfect formula that can simply be copied from one story to the next. That’s because pacing is… well, situation-dependent. What the story is, what it’s trying to do, how you’re trying to impart emotions to the audience… all that’s going to depend entirely on what kind of story you are writing.

So before we ask “how do you achieve good pacing?” it might be better to ask “what is pacing?” because answering that will help you understand how to achieve good pacing.

What is pacing? Simple: pacing is how we describe the rate or function of events happening in the story over time.

If we have a chart, then the X axis is “good pacing” and “bad pacing,” and the Y axis is “slow pacing” and “fast pacing.” Pacing happens at all levels — there’s the overall story all the way down to the individual cuts in a scene.

Check out this seven second clip from Taken 3 with a bajillion cuts in it:

This is the most fine-grained possible level of pacing — the rate of things happening in a scene, in this case, camera cuts — and it’s very fast, but it’s very bad, because it’s so fast it’s almost incoherent.

A story where a scene is very slow — we just watch someone mopping a floor with agonizing slowness — might be extremely good, as in Satantango, where the point is to get you into the mental groove and headspace of the characters. It’s good pacing, but it’s slow and enthralling.

I’ve seen plenty of movies where film bros know that Andrei Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr or whoever makes “slow movies,” so they try to do these agonizingly long takes, but what they’re filming isn’t beautiful or human. It’s slow because “other people make slow movies and they’re great,” not realizing the slowness is there to achieve something specific. Those movies can have bad pacing as a result.

Pacing can be “the things that happen in a scene,” but it can also be the intra-scene momentum. You might have five very well-paced scenes, where interesting things happen at a good rate, but if three of those scenes are a fat load of nothing, and only the first and last scenes really mean anything to the audience, the audience will feel that the story has bad pacing, because you just wasted a lot of time for no real reason.

Another kind of pacing, and one I see people screw up a lot, is character pacing. This is like… you have a movie where two characters hate each other. Then in one scene, they’re suddenly close. Maybe the audience feels they needed more time to really buy this idea of these characters coming to like each other. So there’s no one rate of appropriateness in a story; when it comes to characters, pacing can change depending on who the characters are (a grumpy old man is probably less likely to befriend someone than an excitable, innocent young child, right?).

Therefore, if “pacing” is the rate at which things occur in a story, from a moment-to-moment level to the macro plot level, then “good pacing” is when the rate of things in the story happen quickly enough to keep the story interesting, but not so quickly that they make it so difficult to follow that the audience checks out mentally.

My co-writer Phil Bastien describes it as the rhythm of a story. It’s a bit like a song. Think about how a song has slow and fast bits, how the bridge comes in and the band is singing but no music is playing, or how we might get an extended solo. Then there’s my favorite bit of the song where they make all the sounds get fuzzy and narrow and then BOOM in comes the triumphant chorus. I dunno what that part is called. I’m no music scientist.

If pacing had a formula, we would see every song structured the exact same way, and that’s no good, right?

In games, pacing can be hard because the player controls a lot of the pacing. I can kill the pacing in Resident Evil 4 dead by just looking around a map after I’ve killed all the Plagas in it. We’ve gone from taut thriller to “ok did I ransack these houses for ammunition?” You’re going to have to give some of that pacing up to the player, and they are going to be capable of fucking it up entirely. There’s not a lot you can do there. One potential fix is the “director,” from games like Left 4 Dead, but as a player, sometimes I need a break from the intensity and want to slow down. If I want to adjust the pacing, I’ll do it myself by running towards some zombies and getting into combat myself.

There’s a pacing collaboration that happens here between the developer and the player. You have to trust the player to control their own pacing to some extent; some players will get it wrong (in the same way as the guy who reviewed Adios negatively because he chose to jump and act ridiculous in serious scenes instead of choosing to play along got it wrong), but that’s the cost of telling a story. Some people just won’t play along with you. Nothing you can do about them.

So! In creepypasta — a style of horror story that functions like an urban legend or ghost story, but as copy-pasted text on the internet (the non-horror style is called “copypasta”) — the most successful ones tend to be stories in which a character has decided to pursue something bad for them, because not knowing is so horrible a prospect to the character that they must know.

So in a creepypasta, the character searches for something that we know will be bad for them, but they have to, because they have to know. The easiest kind of search is a mystery, such as “why did I see that monster kill that guy? What does that monster do?”

Dionaea House (written by the guy who would eventually go on to adapt Arrival and co-write The Conjuring 2, Eric Heisserer) is a fantastic example of creepypasta. We’ve got a character who knows the house isn’t right, and the character needs to find out why, so they just keep digging, further and further and further, until it dooms them. It’s a very effectively scary story.

In a horror story, obviously most characters would want to escape danger. Danganronpa, as a horror story, says “well, you’re trapped in Hope’s Peak academy, so you can’t get out.” That would be enough to make a serviceable story, but Danganronpa is good, so it’s gonna go further than that. When you combine horror and mystery, now you’ve got a chemical reaction going.

We said pacing was a function, or placement, of events over time, and being able to mix those events — in their tonality, in their occurrence, in their frequency — up can lead to a compelling story in a way that just doing one might not. A mystery and a horror story, combined, create a dramatic propulsion: the audience flees from the danger, but they advance toward the resolution of the mystery.

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. The chemical process of storytelling is strengthened when we blend the right elements in appropriate amounts — you want salt, as we said of lore, but not a lethal dose of it — but now we introduce a component of time on top of it. How much time do we spend on each element? Danganronpa has horror, it has mystery, and it’s even got some fantastic comedy in there as well, but it balances them out, both when they are delivered and how much, so that the experience is easy to get lost in.

You are, in a well-paced story, focused on the experience you are having, not getting too bored or too confused and deciding to duck out. A well-paced story is an engrossing one.

You, the writer, can get a lot of mileage out of a horror-mystery, alternating emotions of terror, curiosity, dread, excitement, revelation as you need, driving the player forward, encouraging them onward, compelling them to want to know more.

So a mystery is an easy genre like horror, except where horror is easy because you’re constantly being reminded a scene’s got to be scary, you can ask yourself “how do I make this scene more scary?” or “how can I introduce a scare?” when you get stuck. With a mystery, you can simply introduce a new clue or question. Maybe a mysterious figure appears, and your character chases after them, only to find they disappeared down a dark alley, leaving a message in blood…

Well, you get the idea, right?

“Hey, Doc, why did you mention people discussing “games are too long these days” earlier?”

madoka is good

I’m glad you asked, hypothetical reader, because it’s now time to tie it all together: because games are about doing things, they require more participation from the audience than most media. This means they require more effort, so the player must want to take action if you want the player to keep going.

Of course people don’t finish a game where all the quests are “go here and kill 5 lizards,” or “go here and fight three waves (it’s always 3) of enemies.” People remember the games where the quests are stories though, because the most powerful driving force we have in games… is story. A good story can grease any wheels, get a player going any direction.

I just finished Signalis the other day. Gameplay? Not really my thing. Vibes? Impeccable. Art? That’s the biggest selling point for any video game — it’s what gets people to take notice. But it was the story, and wanting to know what was happening in the story, that drove me onward until I had finished.

“Wanting to know what’s next” is a powerful motivator. “Not wanting the character to die” is another one. Combine those two — or, rather, alternate those two and combine when necessary — and you can work magic. People will want to keep playing if you can change things up so it never gets boring and encourage them onward by giving them things to care about, more than just “number go up.”

A Little Warning About Spoilers

We’re talking about video games and what they do, so we need to be able to discuss them without any consideration whatsoever for spoilers. If we have to hold back, then we cannot examine the work and how it actually, well, works.

So when we talk about games, we do so as a fairly serious exercise — we don’t need spoiler warnings, because expecting spoiler warnings in a series of essays that blare “we are going to discuss this game in great detail” is a bit like walking into a grocery store and being surprised the shelves are stocked with food. No shit, Sherlock, of course we’re talking spoilers.

Spoilers are the realm of the consumer. We are here to talk about stories work; spoilers do not matter to us.

That said, I am putting the spoiler warning about 6,000 words into this article cause the above stuff will be useful for people who haven’t played Danganronpa and do want to play it before reading the Danganronpa bits. So yeah, we structured the article to make it easy for people who don’t want to get spoiled to get something out of it. But now we are definitely, absolutely, totally gonna talk about Danganronpa… unless I feel the need to make a large digression.

Now, for me, this is easy: I only talk about games I’ve actually played, with very few exceptions. Those exceptions tend to be games I’ve watched all the way through, just like… well, the games we’re going to be talking about.


I was never really sure if I could play Danganronpa, which, (having now gone through them), are some of the absolute best mystery games on the market today. Yes, I think they’re even better as mystery games than Disco Elysium, and that’s a game I’m biased towards (they kindly put me in the special thanks, lol, of course I’m biased! I love those folks!). But that’s more because Disco Elysium is less a detective game and more a role-playing game in a detective game’s body; it’s not about deduction, it’s not about actually solving crimes; in fact, the central mystery of the game isn’t even really the central idea of the game. The relationship between Harry and Kim is what really matters.

So when a buddy of mine said he’d stream it over Discord, well, I couldn’t help but get into it. This was the summer of 2020 — the pandemic lockdown thing was still really severe, people were all unsure how to handle things, the roads were largely pretty dead the few times I went out for groceries. Socializing? Over watching someone else play a video game? I barely watch streamers, but… hey, trying to figure out the mystery while a friend was in the driver’s seat sounded fun; I get to be an active participant in something without actually controlling the game. We get to figure it out together.

A word of caution: A game that is about solving mysteries is a game that is honestly best-read-about after you’ve played it. So, please only read this article if you have played Danganronpa or you will never play it. That said: if, by the end of this, you feel compelled to, well, uh, please. Please. Please, go play the Danganronpa series (at least 1, 2, and V3). They’re excellent games.

It’s just, y’know, they’re mystery games, and the fun is in solving the puzzle that is the mystery, which means… to discuss how mysteries work…

We have to discuss… how mysteries work.

Sorry about this, Mr. Kodaka. I promise, I will eventually get to talking about Danganronpa. Or using Danganronpa to illustrate my point. Or whatever it is I’m doing, hehe.

A Good Mystery Is A Well-Paced Mystery

Over the years, I’ve reviewed a ton of games, consulted on more, and written about even more than that. I’ve completed over 350 games in the past five years, as of this time of writing. It’s a pretty good research sample size, is what I’m saying. Wanna know what one of the biggest mistakes any game dev ever makes?

A weak introduction.

“A thousand years ago, the dark lord — “ okay, look, we get it, these developers only ever read Lord of the Rings. But tell me something: are you the kind of person to read congressional minutes as a hobby? No? Then you probably don’t care about reading all that information at the start of the story.

There are only three kinds of writers who begin stories that way: people who don’t know any better, people who are academics (not “I am a college student” academics, I mean actual ones with doctorates n’ shit) and attempting to replicate the way historical myths and legends are told… and people who are insecure. Those people feel the need to set up the world; they mistakenly believe the audience needs to know the entire context for the world-as-it-is.

But how much information do you really need?

The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. They look (and feel) human. Some are programmed to think they are human. There are many copies.

And they have a plan.

Boom. That’s all it takes to get you into Battlestar Galactica. Notice how the premise is brisk and intriguing. What is their plan? The implications of what they can do begin spiraling outward in your head. You find yourself wondering yes! What are the cylons up to? What can they do? Who could be a cylon?

A great writer can make an opening arresting and compelling, but the easy way to do it, especially for a beginner, is to start with an interesting question, which is why mysteries are often great stories to go with. The easiest thing to begin with is a death because death is simple. Who did it? A missing person is pretty easy too — where are they? Either way, the question becomes “what happened to them?”

Because humans exist in linear time, and because we exist in a causal universe, we can determine a sequence of events that led up to the demise or disappearance of a character. Discovering what happened — especially if people are involved and are keeping secrets — is a great way to get moving, but it’s far from the only way to begin a story, as the Cylon example above shows.

In Danganronpa, you’re playing as Makoto Naegi, who is not a very remarkable student, and but he wins the lottery to go to a prestigious academy… he wake ups in school… and… hold on, what’s this? All the windows are bolted shut. What is happening? Where is everyone?

So, we begin with an obvious question: “Why am I trapped in school?”

Built into this question is an obvious second question: “…and how can I escape?”

We now have two things that can propel us forward: the desire to escape and the desire to understand how this scenario came to be. This opening is interesting because this should not happen. The audience is familiar with how a school ought to be, and the school is now acting very differently, and the protagonist doesn’t know what’s going on either.

A mystery game doesn’t have to connect its story to the protagonist in this way, obviously: the movie In The Mouth of Madness stars Sam Neill as an insurance investigator working on behalf of a publishing company who just wants author Sutter Cane to finish his final novel.

But regardless of whether the protagonist is linked to the mystery, a good question to ask is “what is the murder mystery going to do to the protagonist?”

In Danganronpa, I’d argue that the most interesting story isn’t the mystery behind who died — I mean, one of the most important questions in one of the first mysteries of the game is “who was good enough to throw the dirty laundry into the garbage chute with such accuracy?” — but the story of who put the students in the school? So it’s Makoto’s story. That’s one we’re gonna focus on. The murders in Danganronpa provide structure to Makoto’s overall investigation into the school itself — they drive that story forward.

The television show Broadchurch features a child who’s died, and it keeps bringing up questions that make the mystery more interesting as time goes on like “oh, the boy was sneaking out at night,” “this guy seems suspicious because of a revelation about his past so maybe it was him,” “why does that woman have the victim’s skateboard?” and so on. But it’s not as if the kid was strung up on a totem pole of dead corpses, like the Hannibal television show, right?

Broadchurch is more focused on a small town community and its drama, as well as the needs of the detectives to solve the case for personal reasons. The two primary stories are “a boy had a weird relationship with an adult male who eventually killed him” and “the two detectives have deeply personal reasons for wanting to solve the mystery.” The mystery needs to be grounded, but it’s still shocking.

In Hannibal, theatricality is the point — the weirdness of the crime is what gets Will involved. Because Will is able to (this is a very rough description that hardcore fans may disagree with, but it gets the idea across) empathize with the killers and understand their thought process, the lurid nature and theatricality of the art is what drives him to continue investigating, and then, when he finally meets Hannibal, the nature of their relationship drives the story forward.

So! We’ve got a story, and we begin with a question; the audience will want to know the answer to this question, which is their first step forward. We then give the audience alternating sequences of questions and shocking moments (twists or horror bits), and eventually, we will find our way forward.

Danganronpa then introduces Monokuma, the game master, a talking teddy bear that may or may not be a puppet. He’s funny, he’s charismatic, he steals every scene he’s in, and he’s also the one who explains what’s going on… kinda.

Monokuma explains that the players are in a “mutual killing game,” which is basically a big ol’ battle royale, except with the twist we mentioned earlier: when someone kills another student and the body is discovered, the students will have some time to investigate the murder, and then they’ll go to ‘trial’ and try to figure out who the killer is. If the crew figures out who the killer is, the killer dies. If the killer tricks them into thinking it’s the wrong person, they all die and the killer goes free.

This gives the death game a very specific structure, and it’s in that structure that the game can control the pacing —Dangronpa introduces twists and ideas to keep things interesting, and an interesting game is one that people will actually want to play.

While shocks can come in many different forms, like Darth Vader revealing he’s Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back, one of the big shocks in Danganronpa early on is the death of Junko Enoshima, who basically goes “fuck this shit, I’m out. I’m not gonna play by your rules,” which seems great, if Monokuma was a teddy bear. Unfortunately, Monokuma is not, and he kills her to prove his point.

danganronpa fans will know why this gif is in the wrong place, but it’s funny

This establishes something very important: most people wouldn’t just kill each other because a talking bear told them to. However, many people will lose their nerve once a talking bear decides to start killing people in front of them.

Back to Danganronpa.

Everybody in Hope’s Peak Academy wakes up with no memory of what happened between when they arrived and the next morning. It’s eventually revealed that the characters have actually been here for two years, but their memories have been wiped. In that time, Monokuma — who is later revealed to be a remote-controlled automaton that “even those geniuses at NASA couldn’t copy if they tried” — has added another wrinkle: video tapes.

These tapes all contain a secret that’s meant to compel the audience to progress. In Makoto’s case, the video is one of his family, indicating that they’ll be killed if he doesn’t play the game.

We see a lot of mystery and horror stories where our characters could choose to leave at any point; indeed, if they do leave, life will probably turn out a great deal better for them. And… yet they do not. They persist because the plot must happen, and not because they would. These stories are often considered by the audience, whether they know it or not… to… not be a great time.

Don’t believe me?

Go watch Prometheus, a movie heavily criticized in part for the scene where Millburn interacts with the worm, which causes the rest of the problems in the movie to kick into gear. Instead of doing something that he would do, he does something stupid because he must do it in order to propel the plot.

Millburn is a very stupid scientist

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

As the game progresses, clues fall on top of other clues on top of other clues. I could probably take some time to replay the entire game and comment on how the mechanics work (or don’t — I actually don’t think the minigames in the trial sequence are particularly good. I get what the team is going for, but they’re just… kinda… silly little Vita minigames (seriously, it was designed for the Vita, my favorite game console)).

Like, who built Monokuma? How is someone arranging a death game in the middle of a prestigious academy? Where’s the staff? Why hasn’t anyone tried to find out what’s going on?

Danganronpa answers all of those questions really well.

A big part of it is because of the aforementioned pacing stuff — they’re balancing “A body has been discovered!” with “who can I trust? Who is the killer?” but they’re not alternating in a mere A/B/A/B/A/B pattern. Sometimes you’ve got a case with multiple bodies. Other times, you’ve got developments that advance the overall plot.

While we could go through every case in order, and while I did say there would be spoilers… honestly, it’s a lot, and but I think I’m just gonna pull two ‘case studies’ from the series, one from Danganronpa and the other from Danganronpa v2.

So, suffice it to say, so much of what makes Danganronpa work is that it’s a story that’s paced well, and it’s paced well because it delivers interesting information at an interesting rate, and it doesn’t waste time on boring things like “establishing the state of the world.”

Oh, wait, no, it totally does that bit. Just… not with a “a thousand years ago… an alliance of empires went to war against the dark lord Linustitious, regent of the arcane dimension, heretic of the emblazoned skull…”

It does it because it’s telling two different stories.

A Mystery is Two Stories

I suspect that there are as many ways to write mysteries as there are mystery writers. There may even be as many ways to write mysteries as there are mystery stories! This, of course, means that there’s not necessarily a correct way to write a mystery. You could start with the thing that sets it all off — the murder, the theft, the disappearance — and make the circumstances as arresting as you could. Or you could come up with what really happened and work backwards.

But however you get there, a mystery is ultimately causal: something happened, and because of that something, something else happened.

At some point in this chain of events, the player is going to get involved, but the player will be lacking in information. What all of this means is that a mystery story is actually two stories. There’s the past and there’s the present, right?

Take a murder mystery, since it’s the simplest kind of mystery premise to hang our ideas on. In the past, a character was doing a bunch of things. If they were the protagonist, the story would end when they died. Then the second half of the story begins; we are now playing the murder mystery investigator, trying to find out how these characters died and, if possible, assign blame to whoever is responsible.

So far, so good.

If you’re writing a mystery story, one way you might want to write the story is by actually writing out the outline of what happened originally — like I said, Waifu Death Squad’s past outline takes over 90 minutes to read as of Friday, September 1. Then there’s the present storyline on top of that, which is pretty dang long. It’s a beefy game! Super beefy

With Waifu Death Squad, I’m upping the difficulty curve for myself even more by telling you “this is who dies. Bet I can make you care about them despite knowing how they die!” It’s the scale of and circumstances surrounding their deaths that’s unique. I’m working to make both my past timeline and my present timeline equally compelling, alternating between the two as the game progresses.

I’m lucky to have on the Waifu Death Squad team my extremely long-time (11–12 years?) writing buddy Phil Bastien, and my more recent — I think we’ve been working together about two years now — Kevin Fox to help me pull it off. Between the three of us, we got this. We’re writing a complex (we’re juggling nearly 30 characters so far) and extremely interesting (because we keep testing everything to see if it’s interesting and killing it or improving it if it isn’t) story, and while we are making it very difficult for ourselves with the complexity, that’s the fun of it!

So we made a very conscious choice to make our mystery story one about a detective trying to figure out why something happened to kill a lot of dead people.

Makoto’s got a lot more on his plate: he needs to find out why someone’s going to make a lot of dead people, possibly including him, and fast! The dynamics change a bit as a result — he’s in current, mortal danger, and making a mistake in his investigation could get his family killed. At the same time, if he doesn’t play along, his family dies.

How can he turn the tables on his captors?

The context changes a lot about the tone of the mystery, but there are other ways we can play with that past/present bit. For instance, we could tell the entire story linearly, and just make it one story.

If you are wondering what a murder mystery looks like if the two halves are joined, rather than a story where the past is simply being discussed, like in Waifu Death Squad, or the two story elements being alternated between, so you find out the cause of the death the same time the detective does and the mystery ends… well, just go look at Columbo or Poker Face. The episode begins with the murderer and why they committed the murder, and it ends with the murder being revealed. The entire story is told linearly, rather than with the death of the victim; we get to see what choices were made that lead to the murder. Then we see the murder. THEN we get to the detective.

You will note, of course, that these stories tend to omit information (like just repeating the events we already knew for the time when the detective figures it out), and their focus shifts from “what the detective learns” to a more adventurous “dramatic story about one person actively hiding information from another.” The flavor is just a bit different from a typical detective story, and the tension comes, not from “what will we learn?” when the character learns something, but “what will change when the detective finds something out?”

Of course, you can be doing both the whole time; you can keep both questions in mind when you write a mystery, because a detective is a person, and a person is going to react to new information, right?

Well, if the information is important enough, so will the audience.

David Mamet said that people don’t tune in to watch information — they tune in to watch drama. He is correct. However, the delivery of information, when it’s a dramatic device, kicks all kinds of ass. We would refer to this as a revelation. It is not a revelation that Madoka from Madoka Magica is special, since the series is pretty clear about that. It is a revolution that Homura made Madoka important by jumping through time a billion times to protect her, though.

At the beginning of this section, we were armed with the knowledge that good pacing means delivering information at a rate which keeps things interesting to the audience, but as we’ve gone through this section, I’m hoping you’re starting to see how subtle changes to the bedrock of our story, the actual story structure itself, can change how we feel about the events that take place in the narrative. Moving things around like that can have a truly powerful effect, y’know? Super important stuff you’ve gotta be aware of.

Which is why it’s now time to tell you that the world outside Hope’s Peak Academy isn’t doing so hot. As it turns out, the world went kind of… apocalyptic due to the events of the True Mastermind Behind The Events, someone who wanted everyone in the world to experience the chaos and unpredictability of despair.

So that’s what’s going on outside the prison/school. It’s an apocalypse! Fun!

But, as an additional wrinkle, the killing game at Hope’s Peak Academy is actually being broadcast to the world. It’s just that, y’know, nobody is able to do anything about it, ‘cause most people outside are experiencing dis bear — er, sorry, despair.

hehehe! a pun

This revelation in the game hits our characters hard.

Noticing something here? We’re talking a lot about how things are rendered interesting and we can increase how interesting they are because of when we deliver this information. These are stories about people, and they’re stories about how they react, and we’re telling them so our audience, also people, can feel things, same as the characters are.

These events didn’t simply occur. Someone caused them: people took action, and there were results as a consequence of those actions. Like we said before: we live in a causal universe. People make choices, they act on them, and those results are the chaos that drives the rest of the story.

A mystery can’t happen unless, somehow, people are involved, because people are the ones who create mysteries in the first place. A person happens along and notices a pattern that does not fit. “Why is this?” they ask. A mystery is then born. The mystery didn’t exist until someone asked the question.

Mysteries are things we create.

Why do we create them?

Why do we play games?

Why do we do anything?

Why Do People Do Things? Because of Who They Are

Humans are not static objects that only act when acted upon, like a bunch of billiard balls on a table, but they are like billiard balls in the way that the chaotic nature of their relationships can cause unforeseen incidents. These unforeseen incidents are usually pretty interesting, cause they’re not what we expected, right?

As an example, in the television show Barry, our “I don’t want to be a hitman,” Barry, walks into a guy’s house with the intent to persuade a man, Ronny, to leave his life behind so Barry won’t have to actually kill him.

This doesn’t go well, and the man busts out some impressive martial arts moves, giving the trained US military soldier a run for his money.

Why is this guy so good? It makes no sense. He’s just some weird guy having sex with a cop’s wife, and the cop’s mad about it and wants him dead or he’ll ruin Barry’s life. Why is Ronny so good??

And then Barry follows him into a room:

barry, “ronny/lily”


Oh, this guy’s good at fighting.

This guy isn’t what we expected. He is now far, far more interesting than he was prior to this moment. Now the stakes have been raised. Without a word, Barry (the show) has shown us that Barry (the guy) is in over his head. Now we are at rapt attention.

But our boy Barry here… remember how I said he didn’t want to be a hitman? Yeah. That’s a whole thing — he’s actually trying to escape the hitman life. It’s the premise of the show. Him attempting to get Ronny (hence part of the episode’s title) to leave town so he doesn’t have to kill him is him trying his fucking best not to be the monster everyone wants him to be.

So we come into this scene wanting Barry to succeed at not killing Ronny, and Ronny’s resistance — and the ability to back up his desire to resist — is what makes the episode so fucking funny. When his daughter gets involved, we get to see why “ronny/lily” is one of the best episodes of television history.

demonic screeching

Scenes that interest us come in many forms, and one of those forms is a character revealing to the audience who they truly are. Maybe it’s a line they say that you weren’t expecting them to say. Maybe it’s an action they take — there’s one I’ve got in our notes for Waifu Death Squad where a character is offhandedly mentioned (in a flashback) as liking peanuts.

Later, after a particularly intense sequence of the game, one of our characters — one who only found out about the peanut thing as a result of being told the events of the flashback — wordlessly picks up some peanuts for her at the vending machine, then offers them to her without saying anything. They’re strangers. They’ve met… I think once before? And here’s one girl handing another girl some peanuts and feigning ignorance so her kindness isn’t obvious.

That’s the kind of thing I find interesting. And no, that’s not a huge Waifu Death Squad spoiler, it’s a note for something I hope we are able to write into the game, if we can get the assets to pull it off. It’s a little thing most people won’t even notice in the game unless they’ve read this. There’s no dialogue for it or anything. The character just buys some peanuts and hands them over, not saying a word. It’s there because it’s who she is, not because I want to point it out to you.

In Adios, I had a favorite bit in the dialogue for the scene called The Way, in which two fathers discuss sons. That’s the obvious subtext of the scene — they discuss ghosts, what we leave behind when we leave this world behind, and the sons we’ve had. We see them talk about their sons — Farmer’s son Bill, Hitman’s protégé Sol… and then we talk about Slick.

Slick isn’t in this game. He was the original protagonist of this universe, for a game we call “Project P.” In Project P, Slick’s trying to be a good person, but it seems like the only thing he’s good at is performing violence, and it’s all anyone wants from him.

In this game, he used to occupy Sol’s position, but was closer to Farmer than Sol’s ever been, which is why Farmer (in a scene about what we leave behind in the path of life) wants to leave the El Camino (the way) to Slick. For the record, Hitman and Sol do honor this request. Spoilers for if we ever get to make that game.

Slick is, in some way, the son of both these men, and I love him and his story very much, and his dog Bogus will be the best boy in video games, but the line that really gets me, the one I think might be my favorite in the game, is a very quick “Roy would’ve been about his age.”

Nothing else is said. I told the actor for Hitman, D.C. Douglas, how I needed that line read: “Roy was his son. He died as a kid. That’s why Hitman isn’t married anymore.” To Rick Zieff, the voice of Farmer, I said “Farmer knows this, and we know these men don’t like talking about their feelings, so he’s going to move that conversation along, out of consideration for his friend, because that’s what his friend needs and would prefer.”

So that’s the only line you get, and it seems like Farmer brushes it off, but if you really listen to it, you hear the resigned sadness in D.C.’s voice, the awkward pause and energetic momentum from Farmer as he takes control over the scene.

Remember what I said about pacing? Another way we do that is by shifting who’s in control of the scene; I focused heavily on the tug of war between the two men throughout the game, and I think that’s a big part of why people enjoy the conversations so much (look at how Hitman seizes back control when they’re at the Chestnut tree, when Farmer starts to lose control). That’s another way to make a character interesting — playing with the rippling stream of the story by shifting who’s in control, who’s driving things, at any given moment.

At this point, I realize the essay could be called “how to write an interesting story, sometimes focusing on Danganronpa,” and I’m sorry it’s not more Danganronpa heavy, but that’s because Danganronpa uses the same basic fundamental components all over the place. I really only need to pick a couple cases to explore how and why it’s doing the thing it does.

The takeaway I want you to have by this point is that a mystery is only as good as its characters. It’s the subtle things they do, the way the detective responds to the murder as much as the victim or the guilty party. It’s the thing that drives the character to continue, even when we know it would be the wrong thing to do.

In the horror story I wrote and linked earlier about the boy who befriended a world ending math entity, he grows up to become a professor who wants to solve the equation that will call the entity back to him. He’s acting out of love, but that love will doom us all. That’s the horror of it, right? That he’s a person, and his desires are what might result in the destruction of the world itself. The horror comes from how much you empathize with the narrator. If you care about him, then you worry far more that he will destroy the world than not. That is the entire fulcrum on which the whole story functions.

If you empathize with him, it’s a much scarier story.

A mystery is a conflict that arises between the protagonist and their lack of knowledge on a subject. The stakes don’t always have to be high — they’re not in Frog Detective (three wonderful games which you owe it to yourself to buy and play)—but there are stakes (“what happens if her don’t get it?” asks Mamet).

All of this —

and I do mean all of this

— is about character. The thing that’s going to make your audience give a shit is always, always, always tied to character above all else. Your plot reveal won’t mean shit unless the characters would give a shit, and the only way the audience is gonna believe the characters would give a shit is if the characters would, in fact, believably give a shit about the plot you’ve given them.

Well, that’s a bit of a tongue twister.

What’s this got to do with Danganronpa?

Well, let’s do two case studies, one from the first game, another from the second.

Case 1: The Most Important Death

It will probably come as no surprise to many of you that I’m a big fan of strong women, but that’s not the reason I like Sakura Ogami. If anything, it’s actually why I thought I’d hate her — a lot of people have this weird kinda… anti-women, bordering-on-transphobic “if a woman is acting outside of the gender roles of soft and femme, that’s actually a dude.”

We see this horse shit played off as comedy in a lot of fiction, and it sucks. Like, in Dead Rising 3, the bosses are based on the seven deady sins, and “wrath” is a female bodybuilder with a stereotypical deep steroid user voice who gets angry at being misgendered. Plenty of women I know or follow have been misgendered for wanting to do non-femme things and that just isn’t cool, so yeah, when I saw Sakura Ogami’s who’s got a lot of masculine coding — deep voice, angular features, and so on — I had a pretty big sense of unease.

Sakura actually fuckin’ rules, and it’s too bad she died, but her death is arguably the single most important death in the series, and she’s a genuine fuckin’ hero for it.

When I’m writing stories, I’m often thinking about how the character is orthogonal — that is, rather than paralleling another character, they serve a distinct, discrete, and separate narrative function — to the story. Why is this character in a scene? They need to have a narrative function; you can’t just leave them doing nothing, and why would you repeat the same thing another character’s already doing?

(an example of when you actually might want to do that: you want to show how two people agree on something in ways unique to them — you might have a grumpy old mentor character who says ‘do this,’ and you might have a his student go ‘yeah absolutely do that’ as a way to show off how they are different from each other while still repeating the same idea, but even then we’re showing off orthogonality)

Sakura is a really interesting addition to the class because she is strong, not just on a visual level, though it’s always nice to make characters instantly identifiable. She’s like, actually strong. As in: if you went up against her, you’d probably lose.

In a mutual killing game, you probably wouldn’t want to kill Sakura, but she very well might want to kill you. They demonstrate this in a flashback where she’s helping put the bolts on the windows (WHAT? She helped close the school? more on that in a bit) and she’s screwing them in by hand.

screenshot from the danganronpa wiki of the anime, danganronpa 3

That changes up the dynamics of the narrative in a fun way, and a writer like Kodaka can use that to maximum effect, but he tempers that by having Sakura actually be friendly and protective; when Aoi, who’s a good person but dumb as a brick, gets scared, she ends up sleeping in Sakura’s room.

At this point, I should tell you that the mutual killing game did not start, as expected, immediately after our boy Makoto showed up at school. He’s been here for more of a year, and, like all the other students, had his mind wiped.


Oh, buddy. Outside, things are really bad.

Danganronpa, thematically, is about the contrast between hope and despair, and the person behind the killing game very much wants the world to despair, and manages to pull it off, starting with… dun dun dun… other members of Hope’s Peak Academy.

To save themselves, the various students locked up the school and shut themselves inside, and now they’re on reality television for the rest of the world to watch. And Monokuma? The fella with the blackmail videos running all this stuff? Well, he — by which I mean his operator — figured out how to get Sakura to work for him.

Yes, you were probably thinking “oh no, she shut them in the school, she must be in on it.” She was not in on it because she helped them shut themselves in. She was in on it because Monokuma said “hey, this dude you love is in the hospital and he’s gonna die unless you work for me.”

Sakura had no choice, so she does.

But man, it pisses her the fuck off, and she decides not to play his game anymore. She’s about to reveal it when… boom, Monokuma spoils the surprise, because of course that’s the bullshit he would pull. Absolutely ruins the moment and, more importantly, turns the students on Sakura. If she’d been able to come clean without him blowing it all, maybe they would have been more forgiving; instead, Monokuma catalyzes this bullshit. Honestly, this was Sakura’s big mistake — if she hadn’t challenged Monokuma and told him she wasn’t going to do this, maybe he wouldn’t have known to preempt her confession.

Unfortunately, this makes her a murder target, which is great for us,. She betrayed them; if someone killed her, there’s a clear motive to do so! But killing her is crazy hard! Who could pull something like that off?

Honestly, Sakura’s the perfect murder mystery target for all of these reasons, but my boy Kodaka wasn’t done yet — Sakura dies in a locked fucking room.

How’s that for a fuckin brain twister?

Every mystery in Danganronpa is different, which is wicked hard to do when you’ve got sixteen different students and anyone but the player character could be involved. You’ve got people who are paranoid, angry, desperate, all trying to find someone to blame, either because they want to survive or because they’re the one who did it.

And if that wasn’t enough, the mystery is further complicated by the fact that Makoto saw Sakura confess to Monokuma and didn’t tell anyone about it, which means people can now cast doubt on him!

As with all things Danganronpa, it’s complications on top of complications, each one making you want to ask more questions, but the complications also raise the difficulty of the task — how can you prove your innocence?

Sakura then does something that fits perfectly with her character as a genuinely good person: she decides to bring everyone together and convince them to turn on Monokuma; she believes it’s possible for the students to find a way free of the killing game.

She could have been a fighter — maybe she could have survived Monokuma’s murder attempts, unlike the very-dead Junko Enoshima. But no. Instead, Sakura chooses to bring everyone together; when she’s wounded by two other very, very dumb students, who then flee in terror, she realizes what she has to do, and she arranges her own murder.

Sakura died by her own hand after drinking poison — there was no one for Monokuma to punish, but more importantly, she left a note for the rest of the students to find. Monokuma tried to steal it, and in doing so, violated the fairness of the game, which upset the rest of the students, catalyzing their desire to rebel against him. She also sabotaged a door that would ultimately allow the students to find out about the death of the missing sixteenth student, who just so happened to be… well, Junko Enoshima. Kinda.

As it turns out, the person who killed Junko was Junko, who killed her twin sister, who thought she was helping Junko out. Junko killed her sister, Mukuro Ikusaba, the Ultimate Soldier, which meant that, by the rules of the killing game, Junko would have to die. As the game master, Junko’s death ended the game, and the surviving students were able to escape.

All of that happened because of Sakura Ogami’s choice to be her own murderer.

Now, over the years, I’ve written a lot of games writing, and I’ve read a lot of it too. The worst writing tends to be either wrong or just a description of what happens, so let’s talk a little bit about why this happened before we move on.

On a purely mechanical level, Sakura’s role (strong and a mole) and her choices (to die, to create a locked room mystery) are distinct from other characters in the game. Her death is perfect for her — none of the students could actually defeat her, so it’s a respectful death for the story to give her. Generally, I don’t think you should do a character dirty, not if the audience likes them, because it leaves a sour taste in their mouth.

The complications of her death, like way you experience a locked-room mystery after the revelation that she was a mole and everyone has a reason to want to kill her, make it stick out from the others; since you haven’t seen a death like this before, it keeps you interested.

But you’re a human being with human feelings, and I think if you give a shit about the character, then her death saddens you as much as it makes you admire her; Sakura’s death is a sacrifice, her motivation comes from a place of character strength. It’s easy to tell a story about how the strong woman does a strong person thing — it’s more interesting to say “this is who she is, this is her character as a person, this is why she will do the things she does.”

Nothing happens just because. Things happen because we live in a causal universe — humans drive those causes, especially in murder mysteries. Here, we have a story where everyone involved made choices based on who they were; every twist made sense, every character action was true to what we know of the characters. What helped us — and Makoto — figure out the case was understanding who Sakura was.

What made the case interesting wasn’t the twists, even though they were important to hooking us on the mystery, it’s that the twists were caused by people — yes, even Junko Enoshima through Monokuma, hiding Sakura’s nice and empowering letter to her friends — taking action that was true to themselves.

Now let’s talk about why someone might want to kill somebody else.

Case 2: My Favorite Death

One of my favorite characters in Danganronpa 2 is Nekomaru, the Ultimate Team Manager, who is also the Ultimate Masseuse. He’s strong — like Sakura — he cares deeply about his friends, and he wants everyone to do well. I love Nekomaru.

Akane, who’s this game’s version of Aoi, kinda, is one of his best friends, and, much like Junko-who-is-actually-Junko’s-Sister, challenges Monokuma to a duel.

And uh,


Monokuma tries to kill her with a bazooka.

So, Nekomaru, being the hero that he is, jumps in front of of the bazooka, ready to die. And he does, in fact, die. But that’s no fun, not for Monokuma, given that his whole goal is to get the students to murder the absolute shit out of each other. So, what does Monokuma do? He rushes Nekomaru off to the hospital for a little six million dollar mecha treatment. Sure enough, Mechamaru returns, now with the ability to dispense cola! He’s now the ultimate robot! (not to be confused with the other ultimate robot from later in the series, but his murder arc is called “do ultimate robots dream of clockwork?”)

i grabbed this from youtube since i didn’t have a screencap handy

I know I said these were horror games, and I know I said these were mystery games, but can I let you in on a little secret? So’s Chainsaw Man, and it’s also funny as hell, just like Danganronpa. People generally like shit that has emotional range, and Danganronpa is no different; the comedy is a big part of what makes the horror work as well as it does. Let’s be clear: this is not a horror comedy, like a comedy built around horror. It’s a horror game where some of the moments are comic, and nothing’s quite as comical as Mechamaru.

So, at this point, I should probably explain Danganronpa 2. Our kids got out at the end of Danganronpa, and they’re determined to save everyone, though the only character who returns is Byakuya (and Monokuma), here for his second murder game? Except… Byakuya is no longer the hot, brooding rich boy of the last game. Now he’s, um. Uh. Portly.

screencap from google image search

And also he’s not actually Byakuya. And he dies a heroic death. But that’s not important right now.

There’s a reason for this, and it’s actually a trope I generally don’t like — these characters are actually in a simulation, being put through a killing game in VR, basically. I like the twist because of how it repositions the characters as we know them — it’s way more satisfying than that weird Netflix show that tried to do that, and I think the reason is because it’s still extremely character driven. Byakuya’s death is because of who he is as a person — he dies saving someone else from death, basically.

But the actual character I’m here to talk about is the guy who actually kills Mechamaru:

Gundham Tanaka.

My boy Gundham — and yes, it is pronounced just like Gundam — plays the part of the supervillain, having bandaged one arm, calling it his “cursed arm,” and having four pet hamsters that he titles his “four dark devas of destruction.”

The thing about Gundham is that despite his over the top supervillain characterization, he is rich with love, not just for his hamsters, but for his classmates as well. Gundam’s villain turn comes, in part, from his emotional sensitivity to animals; he refuses to get close to cows and pigs and chickens and the like because he knows they’re fated to be eaten and can’t bear to lose them.

Let’s be clear: Gundham is not an ecoterrorist supervillain, dedicated to saving the world through profound acts of violence, placing no value on human life whatsoever. No — but that is the character he pretends to be, while he spends time saving endangered species and sending information to his trusted helpers on his website, which, of course, he claims is actually a website about the dark arts.

I really like this kind of character; someone who puts on a persona, intentionally or no, to counteract their true self, laying bare who they truly are by pushing it a bit too hard. Without giving it away, we’ve got several characters like that in Waifu Death Squad, though not quite as over the top as Gundham is.

A very, very long time ago, I shared one brief little picture of Waifu Death Squad on Twitter. I described her as “feral Asuka.” She’s come a long, long way since then — for instance, the game we called “Waifu Death Squad” then was a bit too expensive for us to make, so we decided to make a game set about six years prior in this same universe. That game is now “Waifu Death Squad,” and the game we initially teased is “Waifu Death Squad 2.”

I love me my Tsundere characters — she’s pivoted away from being “feral Asuka” and is more “I’m totally fine, actually” when she clearly isn’t, and it’s the dramatic tension — the way other characters will misunderstand and eventually understand her that I find to be a really exciting and compelling arc. In the current Waifu Death Squad, she makes a few key appearances, and you can see that the grief is much, much more raw now. It will manifest very differently six years later, if we are able to get that game funded.

Is it any wonder I love Gundham Tanaka? He loves so much, so deeply, so passionately, and he hides it all by playing the part of the supervillain.

So, of course, when he decides to kill Mechamaru it… makes perfect sense.

Y’know how I said a mystery is two stores? Well, in this case, we’re gonna tell you the first story first.

The class finds themselves in a Strawberry-themed building called the Funhouse.

Danganronpa 2 has a series of, I guess you could call them, mutators. Kinda like ‘big head mode,’ except it’s more like “all of you will starve until a murder is committed.” It’s an upgrade on the incentives from the first game, at least from Monokuma’s point of view (because yes, he’s back, even though he was really just a puppet for Junko in the last game and ostensibly died when she did).

Well, this particular murder mutator is the aforementioned starvation strategy: everyone is going to die if they don’t escape the Funhouse.

This shit is complicated as fuck and I’m not sure if I can do a good job summarizing it all, but I’ll do my best. You see, there’s a second building, which is Grape themed, and it’s considered part of the Funhouse too. In the Strawberry House, you’ll find a room called the “Final Dead Room,” which only three characters — Monokuma, a character who sucks and I hate and is the worst person ever, Nagito Komaeda, and Gundham Tanaka have entered.

It’s here that they learn the secret of the Funhouse — the Grape and Strawberry Houses are stacked on top of each other, and the elevator that takes players between buildings is actually way, way, way too high.

Now, let’s say you want to kill somebody, and you end up fighting with a robot like Mechamaru. As a weak, fleshy human, you probably don’t stand a chance, right? Not unless you can shut him down. But how do you make the case difficult?

In Gundham’s case, he tied Mechamaru up with wire far higher than was expected, because he knew just how high the elevator shaft actually was, and that the fall would actually kill his classmate. He set an alarm clock to wake Mechamaru up, and when the poor robot woke, he realized he was tied up, struggled, and fell to his death.

There’s other details, like the red herring of the hammer and so on, but ultimately, Gundham and Mechamaru squared off and Gundham won. Both figures were heroic, I think — they cared deeply about their classmates and wanted them to win… but Gundham… as I understand it, he had a hard time trusting people. Animals he could trust, but people, not so much.

So Gundham tested his classmates’ resolve by playing the game as it was supposed to be played — he disguised the murder and waited to see if anyone would figure it out.

Unlike the other murderers, when accused, he got it. “Heh. You figured it out.” There was no pleading, no fear in his eyes, nothing. He wasn’t doing this for his hamsters — we know this because he found enough seeds to be able to feed them — but for his classmates. He had to prove to them their own resolve.

Gundham notes that when the crew was trapped in the Funhouse, they began to resign themselves to their fate, giving into despair. “However… nothing is born from resignation. That is simply a reason to give up.” Gundham could not tolerate this — he could not sit idly by while his friends gave in to despair. “Giving up on life,” he said, “was an insult to life itself.” He couches his idea in a metaphor about cannibalism — tries to make everything still sound ‘evil,’ but then he repeats himself.

“Giving up on life and choosing death… is nothing but a blasphemy toward life.”

Gundham Tanaka will not allow his friends to fall to despair — which makes him one of the heroes of this story, even though he killed his friend to achieve it.

In a way, it mirrors Sakura’s story, but where Sakura left a note thinking it would steel their resolve, Gundham played the game, lost fairly, and knew that meant he could trust his classmates to finish the game.

He tries to play the villain, but you can see through him. I think just about everyone could. When accepting his punishment, he stares it down with a determination that nobody else does; as with all the punishments, it’s ironic, but it’s not darkly funny in a way a lot of the others were, I think. Gundham is simply killed in a stampede, but there’s a couple interesting details here.

Not only does he care for his Four Dark Devas of Destruction, putting them out of harm’s way while he accepts his fate, but after he dies, where does he go? Gundham insisted he would be taken to hell — but that isn’t what we see. Instead, Gundham is taken off to heaven. I think that’s very telling about what kind of character he was — the people who interpret it as “well he might have gotten away with it and then he’d have murdered all his friends,” I think, get it wrong.

You see, some people have argued that Gundham wasn’t testing his friends’ resolve at all, but was acting more in keeping with his public persona, but I think it’s telling that the only time Gundham loses his cool in all of this is when he’s accused of underhandedly defeating Mechamaru.

After he’s revealed as the killer, Gundham says something like “I bet you want me to accept my fate, but I will not until I correct one thing. You guys said I killed him without fighting him, but that is not true.” A lot of people who’ve summarized this case do so because they believe that Gundham is somehow arrogant — that he doesn’t wish to be misunderstood, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Gundham wants the class to know that Mechamaru did not, in fact, die without realizing it.

“If he wanted to cling to life, there are many ways he could have done so.”

Mechamaru could have run, he could have fought. He could have done so many things. But instead, he chose to square off against Gundham Tanaka, and Gundham makes sure everyone knows that Mechamaru didn’t just fight, he fought with everything he had.

(also “Nekomaru Nidai! Your blood will drench the foundations of my empire!” is an incredible line)

Gundham could have gone out like a villain — he could have let them see him as truly evil, but no. He wants them to know that Nekomaru was willing to die for his crew; he was, being a robot (unless I’m misremembering this and Kodaka had an explanation for how he would starve), the only person who wouldn’t starve. He could have, I assume, waited everyone out. But he didn’t. He laid down his life — as the Ultimate Team Manager — for the rest of his crew. If either one of them died, then someone would live.

Gundham knew that, and there was no way in hell he was taking that truth to the grave. They had to know. They had to. Both killer and victim sacrificed themselves so their friends could live.

image from youtube

When we look at his actions, they’re benevolent, even if it’s in a twisted way — Gundham has hope, and he will fight towards that hope. When he tells them not to insult life, he’s reminding them not to despair, yes, but he’s also living by example, proving his point by refusing to give up. He is showing them what they are capable of. So yes, it might have killed them, but his defiance of Monokuma, just like Sakura’s, was rooted in his belief that people must have hope. His death is sacrificial — it catalyzes the team, empowering them to ultimately defeat Monokuma.

There’s a reason, I suspect, that Gundham Tanaka got to go to heaven, and it’s the same reason he’s on both the heroes and villains wikis, haha.

It’s because he’s both, in a way.

Gundham Tanaka is my favorite because he’s complex in a fun way — he’s trying to be one thing, masking for what he really is, but rather than just “jerk who’s actually nice” (I remember reading a really bad piece about Mass Effect 2 years ago that claimed this “she’s mean because she likes you” thing was what made Jack “deep”), he’s got a lot more going on. He’s theatrical, he’s great on screen, and even when he’s explaining his worldview, he’s still treating it on his terms.

There’s a moment when he lets the mask slip. Akane, who owes Nekomaru a lot from the whole bazooka incident, asks “are you just saying this to justify what you did?” and Gundham tries to play it off like a villain, claiming Nekomaru believed as he did. But then, for a moment… just one moment, he asks a question: “don’t you think it’s a better alternative to slowly starving to death here?”

Of course he cared. He loved them all.

Chiaki even asks, point blank, if Gundham did all this to make sure they wouldn’t starve. He responds, of course, saying:

Of course not. Just who do you think I am!? I am Gundham Tanaka, history’s greatest monster! My cursed existence is feared by all mankind! There’s no way I’d sacrifice myself for the sake of you fools! Not in a million, not in a billion, not in 10,000 billion years! In the name of Pandaemonium, it is impossible!

(this must have been very insulting to Monokuma)

I think some people playing the game stopped here, thinking “yeah, well, if he’d won, they all would have died,” but look at everyone’s reaction — they want him to live. Sonia begs for mercy, and Gundham asks her to stop — he’s willing to face his death, and he does.

And, as we know, he goes to heaven.

Not hell.


Solving The Case

Damn. I’m a little teary-eyed just thinking about it.

For the longest time, this piece was difficult for me to write, for a lot of reasons, some of which I’ll mention here, others I’d rather not talk about. Gundham’s case is my favorite in the entire series, because to me, it is, like Sakura’s, a heroic death, and not just because it’s also one of the most brain-twisty cases in the game, but because they’re both character-driven cases.

A lot of people think of stories based purely on mechanics, and it’s true — stories are machines, and the pieces need to be built correctly in order for them to work. But stories are for people to read and write; Adios was, for me, an act of cleansing, of putting to bed a lot of pain that I’d been carrying. For my audience, who told me it helped them deal with grief and loss and difficult relationships, Adios was something else, but it only worked because it dealt with people being people.

Danganronpa, I think, can annoy some people thanks to the overenthusiasm of its fans, because tumblr fandom is hell and all that, but it’s one of those rare things with an insane fan base that’s actually worth it, and that’s because Kazutaka Kodaka knows how to write character.

When I’m writing a game like Waifu Death Squad, I’m thinking about scene as, like Phil said, “music.” My gut often tells me “hmm, this scene is unbalanced, something is missing,” and then we bring another character into the dynamic that makes everything change.

When things happen, it’s because people take action to make those things happen. What we, as human beings, find interesting is the things that other people do, the things that we relate to, recoil from, care about, love, hate, whatever else you want to call it.

An interesting story is one that is character-first in its writing. A person does something because they want to, need to, are forced to, whatever.

We’ve written before about how stories work — why people make and consume art, how scene dynamics can bring a scene to life, how quest design can really make a story pop by being mini-stories instead of just a series of “do one thing three times.” With every one of these pieces, I’m hoping to encourage you towards the best kind of storytelling there is, because the best stuff? It all has one thing in common: it knows who it’s for. It’s for you.

And you, as a human being, are sitting there, on the other end of the internet from me, on your computer or tablet or phone, and you’re reading this, an essay from me, a human being, who kinda knew when I first tried drafting this over a year ago that I was writing about mysteries, but I realized I had to go way bigger than that. Lotta false stops and starts to get there, but I think we got there.

Mystery and horror stories are great because they’re propulsive — they get you asking questions. They make you interested. We’ve talked about pacing too — how to stop a scene from dragging, keeping the energy up, keeping the audience engaged.

I think Danganronpa, especially the first two games, does a fantastic job of being interesting because its best murders are character pieces, studies into the reasons why a person would do something. The stories are sad, maddening, hilarious, delightful, but they’re always interesting, because they’re about people. If you open yourselves up to the feelings contained within, they can reach you, help you get something out of it.

Danganronpa’s a great series — I also recommend Akudama Drive, which Kodaka wrote, because it’s another great example of fantastic character writing. Look at how everyone is distinct, how everyone wants different things, or, when they want the same things, look at how those wants are manifested.

I know this piece is long, and on one hand, I’m sorry, but on the other hand, I hope it’s worthwhile. You wanted to draw an owl; hopefully you’ve got all the information you need to get there.

Good storytelling seems difficult, and that’s because great storytelling can be, but like most of these pieces, we’re just focused on the basics. We’re not trying to turn you into Thomas Pynchon — I guarantee you he didn’t start out that good either. Actual dramatics is pretty simple: a character wants something and must struggle over something that’s in the way. This is the next step of storytelling — once you realize every scene must feature characters who desire something to be interesting, you start refining those features more and more.

Occasionally, as we’ve written on Waifu Death Squad, Phil, Kevin, and I have found ourselves in scenes that don’t quite work. Every time, we’ve brought that scene to life by focusing on the character.

For instance, there’s a moment where our player character is desperate to impress a living legend, and expresses it maybe a little too energetically, her excitement a lingering echo in the room. We could focus on her desire to crawl into her own skin then and there — that momentary embarrassment, but it wasn’t quite working. So what about the living legend? What would he do then? We put him in the driver’s seat, and let him behave in ways that might be surprising. Rather than the autopilot of “I’ve seen scenes play out like this before,” we asked ourselves the most important question you can ask: what do all the characters in a scene want and what will they do to get it?

You want a good horror story? Focus on how it impacts your characters. You want a good mystery? Think about not only how the mystery impacts the character, but who would have taken the action to get there — give them depth, make them human, let their humanity be the thing that drives the scene, even if the character isn’t actually human (like, say, you wrote a space alien).

Because all this writing we do?

We do it for human beings.

I should probably get going before another body gets discovered, huh.

Hey, I could use some help with medical bills and groceries. If you want to support the work I do, like this article about the biggest pitfall young writers face and how to get around it, then hey, hit up my tip jar.

I figure this kind of writing helps inexperienced writers the most — which means people who might not have the finances to afford my work if I kept it behind a paywall. A paywall would help me, obviously — I could guarantee a certain minimum that would ensure my ability to continue writing these articles — but the people who need my help the most cannot afford it. So I gotta rattle the tip jar. I know it’s not

I, personally, can only do this with your support; if I wasn’t doing this, I’d have to get a second job, and as disabled as I am, that’s really not great. I have to spend between $145 and up to an entire Nintendo Switch’s worth of my income on medical care every two weeks. So it’s either do this or get a second job, and a second job would not be ideal given my current disability. So when you send me a tip, you’re not just helping a disabled writer like me, you’re helping tons of students, disabled people, and others without access. Thank you.

@forgetamnesia on venmo

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Also it’s my birthday this month and I’m celebrating it alone, so I’d appreciate some happy birthday wishes, but that’s entirely optional. If this essay ends up being fuckin terrible and you fuckin’ hate it, obviously don’t send me a tip or happy birthday wishes. But I mean, hey, hopefully you’ll find this useful.



Doc Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.