Darwin’s Game is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by FLIPFLOPS (also known for Suzu Rogu, Sekaiju no Meikyuu II: Rikka no Shoujo, and Nekogami Yaoyoruzu). Darwin’s Game received an anime series adaption produced by Nexus (an animation studio established in 2012, also known for Rakudai Kishi no Cavalry and Kage no Jitsuryokusha ni Naritakute!). The anime aired from January 3 to March 20, 2020, and is available to be viewed on Netflix.
The premise follows a high school student who accepts an online invitation from his friend to play a game on an app called Darwin’s Game. However, when he accepts the invite he becomes involved in a survival game. Each player in this game receives a power, called a Sigil, which is an individual ability that falls into the categories of either: telekinetic, metamorphic, mind control, scientific engineering, or sense expansion. Players must kill each other to survive through a range of mandatory scheduled games, team conquests, and brutual murder.
Dragged and trapped in the game, the protagonist seeks to not only clear the game but also to find and kill the Game Master.
As Darwin’s Game is, at its core, a part of the survival game genre I’m most concerned with how this anime chooses to set itself apart from other survival games. Yes, there may be a strong fan base and you really can’t go wrong with any ideas you want to throw into a survival game as long as there’s a decent amount of bloods, guts and murder – but is there something that makes Darwin’s Game stand out from all the others?
Darwin’s Game from the first episode cements its solid animation, nice character design and good premise, so the question for me then becomes: how do we explore the human psyche and push humans to their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits in this game?
This is important to ask because death games have already explored so many versions of betraying friends, hiding secrets, and violence.
Darwin’s Game makes the choice to remain within a ‘normal’ world. The characters are not moved to another other-worldly space. But this idea isn’t really explored at all. We experience the realisation that people who aren’t a part of the game are oblivious to the terrors happening under their noses but there’s not much explored about the possible implications of having to leave behind your life for a death game while your family is just around the block.
Although I understand this idea isn’t discussed to due its irrelevancy to the plot, the lack of imagination to set aside Darwin’s Game from other survival games suggests that the creator(s) of this anime aren’t interested in making it anyone’s favourite but instead a good anime to watch and then just, kind of forget about.
There’s another idea that’s arguably more unique to the genre that’s established in the anime as well – that the characters can make clans that function more like gangs within the games’ settings. But this acts more as a plot armour in the actual anime plot to make sure the main character has powerful allies and a support system instead of exploring the gang-like aspect of running the clan and the danger and responsibility that comes with this structure.
Something perhaps less ‘fun’ as well that didn’t last past the beginning of the series is the lack of pure insanity of characters. The baseball-playing Panda Bear head character is terrifying because we don’t know why an unknown and menacing knife-wielding man is relentlessly trying to kill us. But once this is removed, the panda still remains a terrifying character in our memories because we never really learned who it is, confirmation of their psyche etc.
However, the other characters the protagonist is opposed with have more logical explanations to their actions, or we are directly told what they’re doing. What they’re doing is tame within the survival game, no-one is going after anyone killing for the ‘fun’ of killing, or doing something strange with unknown motives, or there’s no character we know being a little bit suspicious. Where’s the suspense? I hear you arguing that the villain whose character design is based upon a snake and who chops up people is scary, but is he really? His design is based upon a snake… How much more obvious can that fact that he’s a mean dude who doesn’t care about people can it be… As a character, he fails the basic storytelling tactic drilled into everyone’s head: show, don’t tell.
Even Jason from Tokyo Ghoul is scarier despite being weaker than the main character because his psychological torture is shown to be incredibly effective. Mahito from Jujutsu Kaisen is scarier because of how unsettling he is with his pure childishness and pursuit of messing with his victims as much as he can. His corpse like appearance mixed with a creepy over-bearing smile and the great voice acting of the terrible laugh just helps cement him as a scary villain.
This guy in Darwin’s Game though is too straight forward with too-simple storytelling to really be considered scary within the game.
Orochimaru from Naruto is also based upon a snake, but Orochimaru has really creepy dialogue lines and body language directed towards Sasuke and he hides in the shadows, following the characters. He’s unsettling, that’s what makes him so scary. Sure, the villain in Darwin’s Game also makes lots of weird faces and acts really concerning towards characters, but I believe his character’s presentation as ‘dumb because the good guys have a plan already’ lessens his villainous impact. It’s too obvious the good guys are going to win without facing a fail because a fail means death in this game and the creators aren’t willing to kill off anyone important. We don’t get to see the heroes hit their lowest point so aside from death, they don’t really have anything to loose. (Some may argue that the protagonist’s close friend being killed off is his turning point and lowest, but looking back on photos to write this post I kept confusing the friend with one of the main supporting casts whose a totally different person that’s how unmemorable the friend is.)
The reason death games are scary are not just due to the physical terror characters are facing, but also (arguable just, or more, as importantly) the psychological terror it has on characters. Darwin’s Game hasn’t allowed itself the opportunity to built our unease, and therefore emotional investment, as we build up to the ultimate goal of killing the Game Master.
Instead, I feel this anime lacks an interesting main character or even side characters. The main character upon entering the game is terrified and mentally ill-suited to this game. However, he becomes one of the strongest not just because of his ability that he learns to use, but also how he hardens himself to what’s happening to begin to just focus upon what he needs to do to succeed for his clan and goal. He doesn’t have much of a personality and not much time is spent stirring and considering his morals, so his development comes across as vague and honestly, a little bit confusing at times.
There’s also my least favourite part of this series – the awkward romances and nudity of underage characters. The main character, despite not having much going for him, immediately has two girls (one of who is a full-fledged adult!) obsessed with him. But why? We don’t really know why aside from some vague statements that serve as a reason that is designed to not make us question their relationships and feelings further and just accept their reasons as face value.
And while there is some minor exploration of characters’ psyches like the Thorn Queen to explain why she has no remorse to brutally killing others as she works towards her goal of avenging her parents, she’s so emotional every other time that it can be unsettling to reconcile the vast difference of her attitudes when there’s only a few minutes of her directly telling the audience why she acts like this. While Gege with Jujutsu Kaisen shows how to build readers’ interest and investment with characters by creating characters whose one goal is the one thing they can’t have, these Darwin’s Game characters don’t have any contradictions to deal with. They experience no moral conflict to make them interesting and instead just have a goal they are working towards that they can focus on so that the creator(s) can use them to progress the plot with their strengths.
I do believe that a less character driven anime such as this suits an anime due to the nice design and fights. So although it’s okay that there’s not much outside to grasp to with this story aside of a pretty basic plot, it’s fine because it’s still a good watch. However, I also want to discuss the manga’s ending as it threw me for a surprise.
Despite the sprinkles of hinting even from the beginning of Darwin’s Game about perhaps an all-knowing/powerful being’s involvement being included in the game, the manga reveals that the Game Master is one out of many in the multiverse training up champions to avoid humanity’s extinction. It’s personally, a bit too far out there for me. While a similar revelation in a media such as Alice in Borderland is satisfying, this is because the title itself reveals the idea that strange things are happening in another strange world.
This is because being removed from another world is a better display of cosmic power than other people not apart of the game being able to see/being removed from the game. The title Darwin’s Game itself in this case therefore acts as a bit of a double meaning as well: 1. of training the champions to find the best to defeat a separate evil and 2. the game culling people via survival games. While it in theory works, the misleading aspect of our belief that the game is referencing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution because it’s a survival game isn’t very gratifying with the ending’s revelation.
It’s not a must watch, nor a masterpiece, but it is still well made with pretty good characters, design, acting, animation, ideas and fight choreography. It’s a good watch and easily bingeable or able to be watched whenever and picked up whenever. If I was asked to rate the anime I would give 7/10 stars and would recommend to people wanting an easy watch.