DHSGiT: Ending

It’s easy to tell when you’ve entered the endgame in Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, because time stops advancing. The last chapter is played in a perpetual midnight, which is plainly symbolic: it’s by far the darkest chapter. Ironic, then, that it’s also the point at which so much comes to light.

For Brigiton is a town with a secret, a guilt shared by the entire adult population. In fact, it has several, and they all come tumbling out one after another towards the end. One fairly big one involving the town’s finances was already revealed in a previous chapter, and in the process explained quite a lot of the townfolks’ seemingly irrational behavior, and their willingness to accept and even defend blatant lies — to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to persuade a man of the truth when his salary depends on his not believing it. The girls’ response to this is to deliberately sabotage the town’s economy, by far the most obviously ill-advised plan in a game full of ill-advised plans. But the dirtier secrets are kept for the end, and dirty indeed they are. One in particular stands out as the dirtiest. I’m going to get spoilery here.

There are several points in the game where the topic of the girls’ eventual marriage comes up. (Looking back, I think they might correlate with the points where it’s possible to recruit boyfriends.) I recall some early NPC comments along the lines of “You’ll understand on your wedding night”. It seemed fairly sinister, in context, and became no less so when other grown-ups found it necessary to remind the girls that marriage is an honorable institution and suchlike. I couldn’t help but speculate about the wedding night secret. Some approximation of the Stepford Wives? A cult of some manner, either Satanic or Lovecraftian? The truth turned out to be not nearly so fanciful, but all the more shocking because of it. Brigiton, it turns out, is the one town in America to have imported the ancient (and probably fictitious) custom of the droit de siegnur. When people in Brigiton marry, the mayor has the legal right to have his way with the bride.

Much has been made of the sequence that starts the final chapter, a scenario involving the attempted rape of one of the girls in your gang by one of the anonymous boys (a potential boyfriend from earlier), and his death at the player’s hands. It’s a shock when it happens, even if you’re anticipating it, because the sudden change in mood from unbridled silliness to raw horror and desperation makes it seem out-of-place. But once you have the full context, it isn’t out of place at all. The boy is just emulating his role model, Mayor Stogie, who has basically raped the entire town. (Worse, in a couple of cases it’s my fault: the game contains some opportunities to bring couples together. I had wondered why they were so angry at me afterward.) You can argue that it’s not that cut-and-dried: as one NPC points out, the wedding night law is easily circumvented by just not getting married in Brigiton, and at least some of the people who have gone along with it have done so in exchange for benefits of some kind. So, not so much rape as socially-approved prostitution? But then, that’s not exactly an either/or proposition. In one case, the “benefit” consisted of letting the groom out of prison, with the implied threat that he wasn’t ever getting out any other way, so there’s definitely coercion. The mayor is a master of taking advantage of situations, especially situations where people are desperate. And he’s willing to manufacture the desperation.

For most of the game, the mayor comes off as a mere caricature of an old-fashioned American politician, all bombast and petty corruption, and dimwitted enough for a bunch of high school girls to pose a serious challenge to him. (The scene where you “debate” him via the game’s usual insult minigame makes him seem particularly silly.) Here at the end, he becomes more like a personification of unquestioned privilege. Even when he was in high school himself, we learn, he was a bully, beating people up in the secure knowledge that no one would ever challenge his right to do so. The most distressing part of this kind of injustice is the cooperation of the victims, and that’s continued into his political career. The wedding-night law was adopted as part of a political compromise that also gave the women of Brigiton the vote, years before women’s suffrage was adopted nationwide. The woman who came up with this compromise figured that she had outsmarted the mayor, because the part she wanted would render the part the mayor wanted moot: given the power, the women of the town would replace the mayor with someone who’d repeal the wedding-night law. But no, to her shock, everyone kept on voting for him, proving his more cynical view of humanity correct, that people will rally behind those who mistreat them, will try to compensate for their weakness by taking the side of the (apparently) strong. This is what’s at stake at the end: human nature, whether people possess the will to rise up against the kind of entrenched power that exists only because it’s entrenched. Well, at least the dangerous high school girls do. They remind me a little of Veronica Mars, another fictional high-school girl with a penchant for uncovering secrets and a relentless crusade against privilege.

Having seen the final chapter, I kind of see Big Fish’s point about the sexual content, which isn’t at all limited to what I’ve mentioned above. The game gets raunchier as it goes along — the ending I got involved the mayor receiving implied oral sex from a donkey. There’s nothing explicit, but that’s because it always stops just barely short of saying what it obviously means. A young child playing the game would be severely confused about what’s going on a large portion of the time, and, more importantly, would completely miss the point of the story.

My one biggest dissatisfaction with the game remains the amount of content I missed without intending to. While it’s true that, as I said before, important stuff waits for you, there are a lot of optional sub-quests bound to specific chapters, and it isn’t always obvious which of the goals you’re pursuing in parallel is the one that makes the others go away uncompleted. I’ll try to be more thorough if I play again. And this is a game that more or less demands to be played a second time, if only to see all the hints and foreshadowing in full knowledge of that they mean. Plus, I’m a little curious about what happens if you manage to successfully flirt with the detective in your final encounter with him, and that would require some serious min-maxing.

DHSGiT: Race

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble is set in America in the 1920s. This much is clear from the mentions of Prohibition, which becomes a prominent part of the plot at one point. But there are some apparent anachronisms. There’s an occasional bit of music that sounds out-of-place to me, too boogie-woogie for the period. But apparently, even though boogie didn’t hit its peak of popularity until the late 1930s, it existed as a distinct form as early as the 19th century. How likely you’d be to hear it in a well-to-do suburb is another question.

Which brings us to the matter of racial issues. “What racial issues?” you might ask, especially if you’ve played the game. To which I respond: Exactly. The people of Brigiton, blinkered and hypocritical though they are in many respects, are remarkably enlightened when it comes to race. The high school itself is integrated; there are at least two black playable characters, and they’re simply accepted as dangerous high school girls, no different from the rest. One of the teachers is black — a woman, in fact, who teaches science and math. Not only that, she has a romance subplot with a white man, and, while there’s quite a lot of worry and hesitation on both sides there, there’s no suggestion that this would in itself be scandalous.

Of course, this isn’t a realistic game. It’s comically distorted — I’d call it cartoonish, but the style makes it more reminiscent of a slapstick silent film. This game is to the real 1920s as the more usual CRPG setting is to medieval Europe. It takes the setting as a flavor, not as a binding contract.

DHSGiT: School on the Bus

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble turns out to be an excellent game to play on a laptop on the bus — much moreso than the last game I tried playing that way. There’s nothing realtime about it, and nothing requiring precision. The necessary context is minimal, in terms of both gameplay and plot — like in Chrono Trigger, the story all happens in the moment, and builds in unpredictable directions rather than bending toward an inevitable climax. And somehow, the game just makes the bus ride go faster. I settle in to play a few mini games, and all of the sudden I’m home.

It seems like the main complaint about the game in other reviews was that it got monotonous after a while. The mini-games don’t provide a lot of variety — far less than a typical modern combat-based RPG, because those are always full of special-case monsters that require you to vary your tactics (until you become powerful enough to just brute-force your way through them, anyway). This is something that would be good to address in any future game inspired by DHSGiT‘s mechanics. But even here, it’s really only an issue if you’re trying to play it in long sessions, like you would a normal CRPG. My first two sessions, back in January, were like that. Playing on the bus means shorter sessions, and that seems to be the way to play this game for maximal enjoyment — as well as being just plain healthier than obsessive marathon play.

It all makes me think that this game, or some development of it, would be a good match for cell phones. The UI seems pretty touchscreen-friendly already. I wonder if the developers have even considered this possibility? I wouldn’t be surprised if they had already given up on the idea of getting it into the iTunes App Store, considering their experiences with Big Fish, which removed the game from their catalog on the basis of “some strong sexual content towards the end of the game”. I haven’t got that far yet — I still only have access to three of the game’s four gameboards — but fans of the game insist that it’s PG-13 at most. Still, I can imagine Apple looking askance just on the basis of precedent. There’s always Android, but is it a big enough market to justify the effort of porting by itself? I don’t know.

DHSGiT: Time and Opportunity

So, I’m getting back into Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble a little bit. Like most modern CRPGs, it keeps track of your current goals and has a handy recap feature, so it didn’t take long for me to remember where I was in the ongoing story of Brigiton School for Girls and environs. The latest scandal: pogo sticks. The mayor has banned them, but his reasons are specious, and seem to be mainly an excuse to send a gang of toughs around to look for contraband pogo sticks and intimidate people. Meanwhile, the thrill of the illicit has brought pogoing to a clandestine new popularity. Most of the story is at this level of silliness, and this level of lightly-veiled sociopolitical commentary.

In fact, the one thing I dislike about the story the most is the fear of missing bits of it. To some extent, this is inevitable — the game features multiple endings, and I’ve already been through some scenes that can come to multiple conclusions, where failure to meet a particular goal doesn’t impede the plot. But you can also cut yourself off from opportunities — implicitly including opportunities for character advancement through mini-games — by concluding sections of the plot before you intend to. I’ve done a certain amount of backtracking to older saves just to check out what I’ve missed. Arguably this is the wrong way to play the game, and one is better served by playing it through straight multiple times.

The thing that’s really upsetting is when I’m cut out of a plot branch by nothing more than bad timing. This is essentially a turn-based game: time in the gameworld goes in discrete lumps of at least an hour, and sometimes more. The school buildings are only open at certain times of day, as are the buildings in town. There was one sub-plot where I encouraged two shy lovebirds to go to the town library at the same time. Rushing over there afterward to help things along, I was dismayed to discover that I had done this too late in the afternoon, and the library was now closed. This sort of restriction strikes me as a weakness in the game, liable to engender frustration.

On the other hand, the two of them were still in the library when I stopped by the next day. Really important plot events wait for you. But then, isn’t this just another kind of weakness in a timekeeping system?

DHSGiT: Minigames

I said before that we’d take a closer look at what Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble uses in place of combat, so let’s do that now. This is a game made chiefly of mini-games. You have up to four girls in your team, including one leader or “queen”. When you choose to interact with a NPC, you also select one girl to do the interacting, using an action that varies with the girl and the situation. Sometimes a girl’s action will be “accept” or “ignore” or “parley”, and sometimes it will be a game.

In keeping with the old-timey style, the only icons and symbols the game uses are things that could plausibly be found in a vintage board or card game. NPCs are represented on the board by silvery tokens of the sort you might find in an old Monopoly set, and the four character stats are represented by the four suits of a standard deck of playing cards: hearts for popularity, spades for rebelliousness, diamonds for glamor, and clubs for savvy. It takes a while to get used to this mapping, but you get exposed to it a lot as you play.

There are four main mini-games that represent different ways of dealing with NPCs: taunt, expose, fib, and gambit. They all use the “suit” symbols in some way, and each game focuses on a single stat — but not exclusively. One of the nicer things about the design is the way that any stat can help in any game, and that overspecialization in just one stat can lead to failure even in the game you’re specializing in. (Besides, it doesn’t pay to specialize too much because you have no control over which games are available to which girls in any given context.) A fifth game, flirt, is basically only useful for acquiring boyfriends, and has no particular stat focus.

Taunting is the classic Monkey Island-style insult fighting, where you take turns tossing barbs. Popularity, as I mentioned before, functions as hit points here, and is displayed on either side of the play area as a row of heart icons. Other stats seem to determine the strength of attacks, or perhaps just determine which insults a girl can access. Every insult has a comeback that turns it back at the attacker. Success in this game is largely a matter of building up a large repertoire of insults and responses, which can only be done by playing the taunting game a lot and losing. A high popularity can shield you from the effects of your experiments to some extent, but it only goes so far. Losing at this or any other game can cause the girl to sit out for a period of time, and this is the one game that I ever play with the expectation that this will happen and that I will be happy with it.

Exposing secrets is a little word puzzle. You’re given a sequence of club, diamond, and heart symbols, each of which stands in place of a word in a short sequence of sentences. You get to select symbols to turn into words, but your stats impose a limit on how often you can do this — for example, if your popularity is 3, you can flip only three hearts into words. Spades are wild; you can use your rebelliousness to turn over anything. But once you’re out of spades, you have to guess the remaining words from context, picking them from a list of possibilities. I find this game to be by far the easiest, because it’s the least random, and because failing it just makes the next attempt a whole lot easier. For a given character in a given situation, the words don’t change at all, so a lot of the time you can just keep on exposing words with different girls until you know them all. But even that isn’t necessary most of the time, because once you have some context, you can get most of the guesses right. This is also the one game that’s most directly connected to the plot: the sentences you uncover are all about character backstories and the like. For these reasons, I usually go for the “expose” option when it’s available.

Fibbing is done through an escalating bluffing game based loosely on poker. You and your opponent each have five randomly-chosen tokens, which can display any of the suits or be blank, with probabilities that I believe are determined by your stats. You get one free “flip” or draw for each point of glamor. And you and your opponent take turns making claims about what’s on your tokens, with each bid exceeding the last: if you say you have two pair, your opponent has to either claim at least a full house or call your bluff. (Understand that we’re still dealing with just suits, not values; a “pair” would mean two tokens with the same suit.) Being able to put together a good hand is obviously desirable, but not entirely necessary, as long as you can judge exactly how high you can bid without being called. But obviously there’s a luck factor regardless.

The above games are easier to grasp by observation than to describe in words. Gambit, less so. The game sensibly leaves it out until the end of the first chapter, and lets you practice it as much as you want when it does. It’s sort of a more complicated rock-paper-scissors. There are three slots, called Brazen, Smooth, and Devious. You have two numbers — one is your savvy, the other is some other randomly-selected stat — and you have to put them into two of these slots. Your opponent does likewise, often in a way that fits their character. Then all choices are revealed and evaluated, in slot order, and the person with the highest tally wins. If you put anything under Brazen, you score that many points and cancel the effects of your opponent’s Smooth. If you put anything under Smooth, and it hasn’t been canceled by your opponent’s Brazen, you get that many points and cancel the effects of your opponent’s Devious. And if you put anything under Devious (and it hasn’t been canceled by an uncanceled Smooth), you get to steal any points that your opponent got from Brazen. (The number of points you put under Devious has no effect; all that matters is whether you put anything at all there.) The UI goes to some length to make it clear what’s going on after the reveal, putting a big X on canceled stuff and animating the Devious marker sweeping the Brazen from one side to the other, but you still have to already understand how it works in order to make sensible choices. This is the one game that can end in a tie, which generally seems to count like a win at the story level, but you don’t get XP from it. If all the numbers are equal, Brazen-Devious beats Brazen-Smooth, which beats Smooth-Devious, which beats Brazen-Devious. But of course it’s seldom the case that all the numbers are equal, and high stats can still overwhelm low stats. But if you can predict what the opponent is going to pick, you can usually beat them even from a disadvantage (particularly if you can take advantage of Devious). There’s an item you can obtain that’s an enormous help: it lets you know in advance one of the slots your opponent is going to pick.

Flirting is a matter of figuring out correct responses to a randomly-chosen sequence of stimuli by trial and error. The boy might show you a diamond, for example, and expect you to reply with a heart — in this context each suit has a description like “laugh” or “bat eyelashes”, but I don’t remember the details. The correct responses are consistent within each boy, and if you guess wrong, you get to try again. But the number of times you can use a particular move is limited by your stats: a savvy of 3 means you can only use the “clubs” response 3 times, for example. Flirtations vary quite a lot in difficulty. In the more difficult ones, the moves (both his and yours) consist of two or even three picks in a row, which can make it mathematically impossible from the get-go if your girl’s stat total isn’t high enough. But even for the easy ones, having any stat too low is a liability. Boys successfully flirted with become boyfriends, which are more like accessories than characters, providing stat bonuses and a certain amount of protection from failure: when a girl would normally leave for a number of hours, the boyfriend leaves instead. But as far as I can tell, flirting is always completely optional.

My memories of the beta/demo I played years back are now dim, but I know that some of the games were different then. The “fib” mini-game was completely replaced — originally it was some sort of shell game. But also, if my impressions are at all accurate, the role of stats outside of their specialty games has been expanded somewhat. Or, if not expanded, at least clarified.

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble

I remember playing a demo of Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble a few years ago, when it wasn’t in its final form yet. It was clear that this was a game worth watching for, but only now that I’ve been gifted a copy am I starting to play it for real.

DHSGiT has been described as a game that’s difficult to describe. It adopts the style of a vintage board game, but mechanically, it’s more of an RPG. Just not the usual sort of RPG for a computer game: there’s no combat, or at least no physical combat. There are Monkey Island-style insult duels, though, as well as a few other kinds of abstracted confrontation: you sometimes have the option to tell lies or expose secrets or flirt by means of other special mini-game mechanics, aided by your character stats in various ways. I’ll go into details in a future post. For now, let me note just a couple of things.

First, these mini-games are no more or less abstract than typical dice-based RPG combat. Your stats represent attributes relevant to stories about a teenage girls in the 1920s: popularity, rebellion, glamour, savvy. The stats are applied simply as numbers, but in ways that make stats more or less relevant to certain kinds of conflict, as appropriate. For example, in a taunting-match, your popularity rating is used like hit points, which stands to reason: the more popular you are, the more abuse your reputation can stand.

Second, the stats chosen seem more narrative than simulationist, aspects of character rather than physical attributes, chosen for their importance to the story rather than for their practicality in themselves. They remind me a lot of the special-purpose narrativist stats found in alternative pen-and-paper RPGs, or the “storytelling games” that they’ve developed into. One of my favorite examples: in Paul Czege’s My Life with Master, the player character stats are Love, Weariness, and Self-Loathing. The more freeform storytelling games take this a step further by letting players make up their own attributes, but you pretty much need a human adjudicator for that sort of thing. The point is, the RPG has branched out from its wargaming origins, but the CRPG has largely been content to stick close to D&D-ville, regardless of setting or genre. DHSGiT is a glimpse of what else is possible. It really shows just how conventional Recettear is, despite its pretensions.