(The following post will contain major spoilers for a really, really good game. It’s free on Steam, so if you haven’t yet played it, close this post and do it! It’s about a 4ish hour experience. Do heed the content warnings, however. This game is not for the faint of heart… and I mean it.)
When I heard about “Doki Doki Literature Club” (henceforth referred to as DDLC), I wasn’t expecting too much of it. Sure, a psychological horror game disguised as an anime-styled dating sim sounds like a fun little novelty, but I was expecting the scares to be cheap. You know, your usual jumpscares and incoherent plot leading to more jumpscares. I was expecting a game for youtubers to record their reactions to so we can all have a little chuckle about how 2spooky these anime girls are. What I was not expecting was a genuinely horrifying and yet somehow heartfelt story about the nature of choice.
Don’t get me wrong, there were still a lot of jumpscares and disturbing (very, very disturbing) imagery in this game. But instead of these elements just being in there for shock value, they seemed more in service of a greater thematic purpose than your normal novelty horror game. And also fascinating was the way these elements broke down and criticized the genre it tries to mimic.
So let’s talk about romantic visual novels/dating sims/otome games/ whatever the correct term is.
In a dating sim, the biggest and most important game mechanic is the element of choice. Most games of these type start out with the often incredibly bland player character getting into a situation where they meet a number of attractive characters, all usually corresponding to a certain character archetype. From there, the player can choose which character they wish to pursue romantically. They do this by making certain dialogue and story choices that lead them down the path toward the end goal of romancing their chosen character.
So basically, the only thing separating a dating sim from a weirdly involved novel where instead of turning pages you click the “next” button a lot is the fact that the player gets to choose some aspects of how the story goes.
On the surface, DDLC seems to do the same thing as other games of its ilk. You play as a delightfully bland player character who is roped into joining a Literature Club by his childhood best friend, the positive and energetic Sayori. Although the player is at first reluctant, he becomes far more into the idea once he meets the other three members of the Literature Club: the tough-yet-tiny tsundere with a love for manga and baking, Natsuki; the quiet and shy bookworm with a talent for writing, Yuri; and the confident, helpful president of the club, Monika. Motivated by his interest in these four beautiful girls, the player character becomes entangled in the business of the Literature Club.
From here, the game’s choice mechanic becomes clear. The members of the club enjoy writing and exchanging poetry, so in order to win over the heart of the player’s chosen girl, they will have to choose certain words to put into their poetry to appeal to the girl they like. If the player successfully chooses words that appeal to their chosen girl, they will be rewarded the next day by spending more time with that girl than with the rest of the girls, leading them down the path (seemingly) towards starting a romantic relationship with her.
Or at least, that’s how it seems. But there’s a few important things to note. One, the only three choices the player actually gets are to pursue Sayori, Yuri, or Natsuki. Monika is not an option. And two, no matter which girl the player chooses to pursue, the story of the first act of the game always ends exactly the same way. No matter if the player chooses to pursue her, Sayori will always tell the player that she has had depression for her entire life and never told him due to her fear of inconveniencing him. Then, no matter what the player chooses the player character to say or do, she will always confess her love for him, and then no matter whether the player accepts or rejects her confession, she will always be found the next morning having died by suicide.
After the tone of the game being so cheerful and happy up until this point, most players will understandably be disturbed by this turn of events. They will probably wonder what choice it was that they made incorrectly to cause this to happen. They may try to replay the game, making their choices differently, hoping to be able to “save” Sayori. But the reality is, no matter what choices are made, act one of the game always ends this way.
So, players, probably quite spooked, will go onto act two of the game. This time, the game restarts and is pretty much the same as the first time, but Sayori is nowhere to be found. Any mention of her or clue that she ever existed is completely erased from the game, and the player character doesn’t seem to remember her at all. Instead, it’s Monika who encourages the player to join the Literature Club. From there, things progress similarly sans Sayori, but the atmosphere starts to change. Although it might seem like the player continues to have the choice over whether to pursue Natsuki or Yuri, the game soon railroads the player onto Yuri’s path.
In addition, strange game glitches are seen, corrupting the music, the character sprites, and the background. At this point, it’s pretty obvious that something very bad is going down in this club. However, in the meantime, the player begins to learn surprisingly dark information about Yuri and Natsuki, mainly through strange dialogue edits. The player learns that Natsuki is so short because her abusive father allowed her to be malnourished as a child, and that she spends so much time at the club in order to stay away from him. The player also learns that Yuri has a collection of knives, and uses them to self-harm.
Finally, most unsettlingly, the personality traits of Yuri and Natsuki seem exaggerated. Natsuki’s blunt honesty becomes downright brutality, and Yuri’s passion for her books and writing starts to look like obsession. And between it all, Monika seems willing to step back and allow Yuri and Natsuki to bicker and suffer.
Yet, just as before, the player’s choices are an illusion. No matter what happens, the player ends up alone in a classroom with Yuri, whose obsession for books and poetry have extended to an obsession with the player character. She confesses her love for him, and no matter whether they accept or reject her confession, she stabs herself several times and dies. From there, the player is unable to advance the game away from the image of her body, and must sit through 1440 lines of glitched, illegible dialogue before Monika and Natsuki return. Natsuki, horrified by the scene, flees, but Monika stays behind. She apologizes to the player character for what has happened, and then a small window opens up and the player watches Monika delete Natsuki and Yuri’s character files.
From here, the game resets once more, but this time, the club room is disconnected from the rest of the setting, seemingly floating in space. The player is confronted by Monika, all alone, her posture casual, facing the screen. She informs the player, not the player character, but the person actually playing the game, that she has fallen in love with them. She confesses that, as club president, she was given an omniscient knowledge of the fact that she was in a game, as well as the fact that she was not a romanceable character. Motivated by jealousy toward the rest of the girls’ pre-programmed chance to date the person she loves, she began interfering with their character files. It’s strongly implied that she played up Sayori’s depression in order to drive her to suicide, and heightened Natsuki’s rudeness and Yuri’s obsessiveness in order to make them less appealing. However, due to the fact that the player continued to have the choice to pursue these other girls, Monika was forced to remove them as choices by deleting their files.
From then on, the player is unable to advance from this screen with Monika. Programmed into the game are over 11 hours worth of topics that Monika chats with the player about, and she restricts the player from being able to skip dialogue. The only way to get out of the situation is to go into the files of the game and manually delete Monika’s character file, the same way she did for all the other characters. From there, depending on the actions the player has taken, two different endings are possible.
In the normal ending, the game restarts and Sayori has taken over as president, since Monika is nowhere to be seen. However, thanks to her new position, Sayori can now see everything that has happened. She takes the player to the same room Monika did and thanks him for getting rid of Monika, saying she’s glad they can be together “forever” now. Suddenly, Sayori’s sprite is glitched out, and several text boxes implied to be the remnants of Monika advance the game toward the credits, saying that she won’t let Sayori hurt the player.
However, if the player has gotten all of the CGs for all three of the romanceable characters, Sayori does not take the player to that same room, and instead simply thanks the player for spending all the time saving and reloading the game just to make everyone happy. She apologizes for not being able to do anything more for the player since the game is coming to an end, but promises that they’ll all still be there for the player should they choose to return. She then thanks the player for playing and the game advances to the credits.
What I want to focus on about this game is the choices, and lack thereof. If we want to draw a conclusion about what exactly is scary about DDLC, it’s not the disturbing imagery, the glitches, or the jumpscares, it’s the lack of control. At every point of the game where something terrible happens, though it may seem like the player has the choice to avoid them, there really isn’t any choice at all. Sayori and Yuri’s deaths, Monika’s takeover, everything is entirely unavoidable. In a way, from the moment the player boots up the game, they are unknowingly giving up their power of choice to Monika (and at the end of the game, Sayori).
If we’re going to draw a conclusion from DDLC, we’d probably say that this game wishes to point out that the scariest and most damaging thing to lose is the power of choice.
But that’s a little too simple, right? I think we can take it a step further. Remember when I talked about how the most important mechanic in an otome game is choice? In a traditional otome game, the player’s power of choice is the most important power they get. Their choice is king – if they pick a character to romance, that character will fall in love with them.
But think about it from the opposing perspective. If the player gets all the choice, then technically speaking, the “relationship” they build in the game is 100% one-sided. The opinion of the romanceable characters in the game on the relationship ultimately means nothing if the player makes the right choices.
And yes, I know that’s a silly thing to point out. We’re talking about pixels, ones and zeroes, lines of code, not living, breathing humans. They don’t deserve the same amount of choice that the human playing the game does, since, obviously, they’re not real.
But DDLC asks the question “What if these romanceable characters did know that they had no choice in the matter?” and “What if they desired that same amount of choice?”
That character, of course, is Monika. Due to her president position giving her the knowledge that she is a character in an otome game, and a non-romanceable one at that, she is aware of just how little choice she has. There is no conceivable way for her to make her own choices. So, the only way she can gain back her ability to choose is to take away the player’s ability to choose. Essentially, the game ends up a sort of reverse otome game, where the player is the one without choice pursued by someone romantically interested in them.
DDLC critiques the world put forth by the dating sim structure, pointing out the dangers of restricting choice, showing how a lack of choice can cause only pain and tragedy.
I also think there’s some level of critique on the way most dating sims handwave the problematic implications of the lack of choice given the romanceable characters. Namely, that being the way most player characters in otome games manage to get every single character to fall in love with them. This happens in DDLC, of course, but almost too well. While yes, the three romanceable characters that are meant to fall in love with the player character do, the non-romanceable character also falls in love with him. The fact that the player character makes too many people fall in love with him is perhaps another critique of the world presented by otome games.
DDLC asks players to step into the world of an otome game, a world where choice can be quickly taken away, and romance is less a mutual agreement between two willing participants and more a choice made by one party and endured by another. And this world is horrifying.
DDLC is a fascinating and well-made game, and such an incredible experience. The way it folds the critique of its own genre into the plot, structure, and scares of the game is really so interesting, and I’m glad I got a chance to play it. I highly recommend it.
(…as long as you’re cool with watching some super horrifying things happen to cute anime girls.)