Doki Doki Literature Club – A Fun (Sometimes Terrifying) Exploration of Games as Media

Doki Doki Literature Club (henceforth referred to a DDLC so I can save my typing hands) is an interesting game.

I want to note a few things before I start this post. First, while we’ll be getting heavily analytical about the genre it resides in and what is different about it, that will include a boatload of spoilers for the game. If you never intend on playing it, or even if you do, they may not actually ruin your enjoyment (for reasons we’ll discuss!) but be aware and forewarned, as I will not tag them in the rest of the post. Second, the game’s ominous warning about the subject matter applies to this post as well – it is going to be a bit twisted and weird, and there is going to be discussion of suicide included in here – it is unavoidable.

So let’s start, shall we?

On first glance, DDLC is wholly unassuming. A free Steam game in the oft-reviled genre of Visual Novel, with anime girls – what can really be done within that space? A lot, it turns out!

Visual Novels as a genre are built on low-interactivity but loads of player agency and choice. The game only barely counts as a “game” but you get to make a series of decisions via dialogue or minigames that influence the shape of the story in major and minor ways, from cutting abruptly short if you piss off the yandere character, to being long and drawn out romances of shy, withdrawn characters. They tend to encourage save scumming, saving a myriad of game states at decision points so that you can reload and try again. The design of these games encourages a sort of awful social dynamic – one where you as the protagonist are the sole motivator of all action, and it is your sole discretion to get the best girl to fall in love with you, and those you scorn act out as though nothing but your love matters.

ddlc normal gameplay

DDLC seems to be just like the rest of the genre, giving you a standard first act full of choices and issues, ultimately culminating in a choice between the 3 girls and a horrifying act ender where one of the girls hangs herself. Here is where the game does something with its story only a game can do. Being a VN is a shorthand to the player that choices matter and your actions as the protagonist are center of the universe, driving changes that shape the landscape of the game’s story. Not here, though – DDLC sets up that idea in act 1 only to demolish it. You can never make a set of choices that doesn’t end with that suicide, and in case you aren’t a genre veteran, the game explicitly calls out via your inner monologue that you could have made different choices to change the outcome, but then denies you by advancing and removing your save files.

This begins the true horror of DDLC. As a piece of media, its scares and thrills come not from standard fare jumpscares and moments of building, denying, and then suddenly reintroducing tension. Rather, the game uses a denial of control, using that genre shorthand of low-interactivity and player choice to then deny that to the player, making you far less able to control the bad things happening on screen. Your poem choices don’t matter in any meaningful sense past act 1 (technically 2 for some characters), but do introduce some different middle activities before progressing to the defined endings of each act. The game from act 2 forward becomes more glitchy-looking and weird, with things transitioning on screen in weird ways, character eyes drifting or even exploding, random chance events like the hanging girl screen from Act 1 being on display in the classrom backdrop, and weird, glitchy dialogue being introduced, most of which the game’s History function does not preserve, almost as if it…doesn’t belong.

YuriGlitchFacePleasestopplayingwithmyheartDDLC

The game shifts from a visual novel dating sim to a metafictional horror at the drop of a hat, and even better, the game foreshadows this a bit in Act 1. The rest of the game is ultimately you on this destined path, until the one aware character takes full control and leaves you with only a single choice – deleting her from the game files (literally).

Initially, in drafts, this post had a big story breakdown where I recapped every act, but rather than doing that, there is only one character story worth recapping to explain the nature of the genius of DDLC’s narrative structure and design.

Just Monika.

just monika msg

Monika is introduced very early in the first act as the Literature Club president. She’s the stereotypical over-acheiver popular girl of Japanese fiction – high grades, tall with long legs, in multiple clubs, big prospects, and everyone knows who she is and generally likes her.

However, early on, something seems…off…about Monika. She serves as the barebones tutorial of the first act, writing her second poem with the lines “Save Me” and “Load Me” and offering her “writing tip” of saving your game frequently and loading to make different choices. If you are a VN player, save scumming isn’t a new thing and you are probably already doing it, but the way in which she brings it up is sort of…unsettling, in a way? It feels awkward and kind of uncomfortable. As the first act progresses, the other characters indicate that Monika tells them something they struggle to believe, while one of them also remarks that her name could mean squid, which she responds to with something along the lines of “that wouldn’t work in translation” – a joke that breaks the fourth wall, but also especially funny because the game was made by an American and written in English originally – there is no localization to English!

When the first act ends with Monika explaining how you could have fixed it, only for your save files to go missing, something peculiar seems to be happening.

If you’re paying attention, there are a ton of great bits of foreshadowing happening – how easily Monika takes over some parts of the dead character’s role from Act 1 once that character is removed from the game in Act 2, how Monika seems to know everything that is happening, and even in the sprite work – Monika is always facing forward and looking through the screen at YOU, rather than the other characters, who are presented in the traditional off-angle VN style with their faces angled to a side slightly.

As the game moves forward, you lose more interactivity and options – the glitches are very scripted but with a hint of randomness such that each playthrough ends up being slightly different in some form, and there are some that you can choose to influence based on who you write your poems for in the poem minigame. However, there is something else odd the game starts calling attention to – Monika does not have the same elements as the other characters. You can write poems to appeal to the main 3 girls, or in act 2, the remaining 2, but not Monika. You can choose to share your poem with Monika first, but this seemingly has no impact on your relationship with her and it ultimately doesn’t matter.

DDLC-monika red filter

Act 2 ends with a similar twist to the first act – regardless of the path you take, another character dies at their own hands, and while you have far fewer choices to make in this act, no combination of those limited options leads anywhere else. She will always kill herself, and then, in an uncomfortable sequence, the game makes you time cycle a whole weekend in game time watching her corpse spew glitched text, as the artwork slowly shows her decomposing (it is a very gentle effect, basically just a fading of skin color to alabaster white). When the weekend ends, the remaining 2 club members come back to see this, and one throws up while Monika calmly explains that there was a broken script (!) and apologizes for your “boring weekend.” (!!!) The game then glitches further, but this time with explanation – Monika deletes the remaining characters from the game and puts you back into a bare version of the classroom, with just her, staring through the screen at you.

She explains her actions – she’s tired of being trapped in a game (!) with no options for a happy ending (!!) watching the other characters get to have a happy time with you (!!!) and so she has deleted them and the game, and no longer addresses you as the Protagonist, but you as the Player (!!!!). If you’re not streaming or recording the game using the most common apps for that, she’ll read your PC name and Steam account name and ask if that is your real name (!!!!!), and then she’ll confess her love for you, the player, and ask for reciprocation (there is, obviously, only one option). The game doesn’t allow saves, because Monika is the game – she prompts with dialogue when you try to save that it’s not needed anymore. The music is bassy, instilling a heavy sense of dread. As Monika monologues to you, the player, she explains that the glitchy nature of Act 2 is simple – she deleted the character who hung herself in Act 1, and then knowing she could never stop the others from confessing their love to you as the Protagonist, she modified their files first to amplify their negative characteristics, making the tsundere character more cutting and rougher, and making the withdrawn horror fan more obsessive, making her into almost a yandere stereotype.

Monika Jumpscare

As she explains this, however, she also very casually drops the solution to the puzzle – going into the actual game files in your actual OS and deleting her character file from the game. She even has instructions based on if you have the game from Steam or elsewhere, telling you how to get into the folder. She doesn’t, of course, mention that you can do this to HER, but rather tells you that it is how she handled the others once the modified scripting she put in act 2 failed to stop them. You can have this talk with her indefinitely, as she has hundreds of dialogue lines she’ll drop and your only in-game option is to continue advancing the dialogue. She reveals a ton of game lore, explaining the characters, talking about how when you exit the game she is sucked into a void where she is incapable of acting and stuck in abject horror, she discusses depression in detail, and even begins to poke fun at the player, talking about how you would assume the game is set in Japan while pointing out why that isn’t the case and talking about your sleeping habits.

However, you have agency outside of the game to go and delete her, and when you decide to do that at last, she glitches out, lashing out at you in anger before restoring the other characters and then deleting the game during the credits, to the point that the game will refuse to launch past a special splash screen afterwards (until you delete the bookmarking file in the game’s folder or actually reinstall it).

Now, why do I love this relatively simple twist so much?

I love it (yes, love it) because it is a mechanism of storytelling that only games can pull off. I really enjoy games that manage to integrate game design and the nature of interactive entertainment into the story as a shorthand for getting across new forms of storytelling. Breaking the fourth wall isn’t unique to games, but in a game, there is a unique subtext to it that can make it something special. In a movie, a character monologuing to the camera might be lampshading something or hinting at what is to come, or simply providing a moment of levity by acknowledging something bizarre about the in-universe content, but in a game, this takes on a new meaning, because in part, YOU are the authority creating what is happening and you therefore can opt to change it through gameplay.

DDLC does this by frequently reminding you of the nature of a visual novel – hinting at or even outright stating that you can save, load, and replay to change outcomes. The game narrates this point to you repeatedly through character dialogue, poems, and even the Protagonist monologue at one point.

However, where DDLC becomes horrifying, as I discussed briefly above, is that it uses these genre shorthands to then remove that control from you. You can save and reload…but the bad things will always happen. On repeat playthroughs, it plays with this even further – say you delete Monika’s character file right before starting a new game. Nothing bad here, right? Nope – a different character becomes aware of the abject horror of being trapped in a game, you get some unique dialogue, and then she immediately hangs herself and leaves you no choice but to exit the game as you watch her lifeless body hang. (Well, you do have a choice – if you watch her limp corpse hang for 10 minutes you get some additional text…)

The game makes sure to approach this from all angles – if you already play VN games, you’ll probably already be save/loading on loop a lot in Act 1, so you can see it unfold in both ways – the special middle events and the same gruesome end. If you aren’t, the game makes sure to tell you that you can save/load, then implies you should have done that to save her, and then after that message is delivered for the newbies to the genre, it REMOVES YOUR SAVE FILES and takes away all control you could have had. It creates a very different horror than you might expect.

A lot of horror games are built on jumpscares – pushing you to tense moments and then spooking you with something horrifying that appears rapidly, either as a game over state (Five Nights at Freddy’s) or as a more intricate gameplay mechanic (Amnesia). These jumpscares are rarely much different from a standard horror movie, only made slightly worse because you have some measure of control and a greater degree of immersion as a result. Where DDLC’s horror shines is that it isn’t overly reliant on jump scares – there are a couple, but they aren’t as sharp as those in the other games I mentioned. Instead, the game instills this sense of utter dread in Act 2, where everything feels “wrong” and the game gradually layers on wrongness to it.

For example, whichever character you are trying to romance during Act 2 will often present with text in a dark, scary-looking font, usually things that fit the character but also take a darker turn. This text is sometimes, but not always retained in History. The artwork around the classroom sometimes can turn into a still image of the hanging from Act 1, and it goes completely unremarked upon, which calls MORE attention to it in a way (unless you’re Markiplier, whose YouTube playthrough had this happen and went completely unnoticed). Characters glitch in and out, and weird screen filters happen. Slowly the Protagonist dialogue fades away, becoming far less present in Act 2 before disappearing entirely in Act 3. Game music fades, distorts, and becomes generally more ominous. None of these on their own, or watched from a non-player perspective, are “scary” – what is scary is that as a player, you can feel yourself losing control over the game. Act 1 offers you just enough choice and story paths to feel like a complete visual novel…and then Act 2 has some, but fewer, until Act 3, where the gameplay experience in full consists of reading dialogue, trying to use the menus, and then tabbing out of the game to delete a file.

The message becomes clear – you cannot stop the bad things from happening, even though everything about this product and its trappings suggests otherwise. Your fear of the game is that loss of control. Horror games have something unique about them – as a player, you can in many cases feel the scripting of when something is going to go wrong. Anxious music begins holding tense notes, blaring into your mind. Your forward movement ramps those tense notes up or down the register. In some cases, a game mechanic will tell you more – meters, bars, and visual indicators telling you that fright awaits.

DDLC has random events at a good level of pacing, such that while Act 2 is not the longest act, it sticks with you most profoundly. You don’t really have indicators of when the bad things will happen, short of the major act end events, because there is some randomness. You can get special poems in each playthrough that are far more anxiety-inducing than those in the game (save for maybe THAT poem from Act 2), but each playthrough only gets 3 of them, out of a larger pool. There is a mix of things that happen randomly but with high probability so everyone will get them (the hanging scene being on display in the classroom), less frequent events that some players may never see in their own playthroughs (the poem minigame tweaks in act 2 with the chibi characters turning horrifying) and some events that are situational in a way you can control (leave open recording software during Act 3 and play it – the game’s only true jumpscare, in fact!). All of these converge in a way that is still respectful of player agency – you can influence many of the events – but also convey that constant dread.

Because I wear my WHOOP band all the time, I can track what my heart rate does at different times, and I can clearly identify where on the graph I was playing Act 2! None of that was created through jumpscares – the game reveals most of its worst stuff in a relatively tame manner – but that constant sense of dread definitely gets your heart racing (and as it turns out, Doki Doki is a Japanese onomatopoeia for a heartbeat!).

whoop ddlc day 1

whoop ddlc day 2
Two circles here – the ending of Act 2 and the time I spent with the hanging girl image up to get the text flash before I finally closed the game…

Overall, my takeaway is this: to me, gaming is at its absolute pinnacle when it uses the unique advantages gaming as a medium has to deliver new stories. The story of Monika isn’t necessarily all that special on the surface, but when she exerts control of the game and takes it away from you to suck you, the player, further in – well, that isn’t something most media can do. The game is excellent precisely because it sets expectations one reasonably would have of a game, and then defies those expectations and uses them to enhance its story and to get you feeling less and less sure of what you are doing, less in control, and more afraid of what lurks around that next textbox.

Can I say I recommend it for everyone? Eh, probably not. It is fairly dark for what it is, and the ludonarrative dissonance might not appeal to everyone in the way it does me.

However, what I can say about the game is this – it is yet another example on the heap of the ways in which games can be art, and can transcend simple timewasting to become something more intriguing, something that lasts in your memories for a long time, and something that fundamentally alters or at least enhances the ways in which you view the medium.

3 thoughts on “Doki Doki Literature Club – A Fun (Sometimes Terrifying) Exploration of Games as Media

  1. I played DDLC in March 2018 and blogged about it. As I said in that post, I’d never played a visual novel. I was only vaguely aware they even existed. I found the game via a random link on YouTube and decided to try it based on the comments I read.

    For me it had very little to do with breaking specific genre or media expectations because I don’t have those to begin with. I experienced it much more in the context of the never-breaking wave of postmodernism that has swept so many cultural assumptions before it since the early ’90s. DDLC seemed to me to have more in common with Twin Peaks than with any video game I’ve played.

    It had a powerful impact on me, as you can tell from the post, but most of that was wonder and awe rather than a deeper, more personal emotion. In fact, by far the strongest emotional strike was the suicide at the end of Act One, which I absolutely did not see coming. After that I felt the rest of the narrative became more distanced as it became more technologically focused.

    The repeated reference to save scumming in your post is interesting. I generally try to save games as little as possible because I have always had the sense that only the first version is “real”. It’s impossible to play many games without regular saves but even when the game requires it I try to use them only to avoid replaying content, not to change the flow. I did save in DDLC but as far as I can recall I didn’t attempt to alter the course of the narrative as it was playing out. I just went with it. I didn’t really have that sense that my agency was being taken away.

    I rarely feel I have much agency in video games anyway. No matter how many branches a game may have, every outcome is still pre-ordained. It’s a big part of why I prefer MMORPGs – the illusion of true agency is maintained far more convincingly and consistently in the good ones than in single-player games because there’s no way to control or predict the actions of other players.

    Despite what I said at the end of my post I have never played the game again. I did watch some YouTube playthroughs to see some diferent outcomes. I might play it again one day but I have a problem with the whole concept of alternative endings and different outcomes in video games – the more possible outcomes there are, the less emotional impact any of them can have. As soon as you know that things don’t have to be the way they turned out, the way they turned out ceases to matter.

    DDLC clearly attempts to subvert that irreality but in doing so it also strengthens it. Even as I was admiring the elegance of the conceit as Monika supposedly emerges as an AI, capable of operating my computer better than I can, I was reminded that that, too, is a fiction. Impressively brought off, yes, but artificial. The final sense I was left with, when the game closed, was one of admiration for its reach and scope as well as for its technical perfection. The emotional impact, which is what left me with the overall impression that it had been an important experience, came from the early and middle part of the game, when I still felt the characters were “real”.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s