We Need To Talk About Doki Doki Literature Club

Okay, so where to start? Well, first things first, if you haven't played Doki Doki Literature Club, go away and do it now. You can download it here, or get it on Steam. It's free and available for Windows, Linux and Mac, so if you've got a few hours to spare, why don't you give it a go? If you want to experience it properly, I'd recommend not knowing anything going into it.

Now then.

While that lot are off playing the game, it's time for me to make a confession. Look, not a lot creeps me out. I've played countless horror games and watched countless horror movies, and to be honest, I had genuinely come to the conclusion that it's impossible to spook me. That was until my good friend Kyle recommended I play a game his friend had recommended to him, telling me "don't look anything up online and just play it". So I did, and let me tell you: 

Doki Doki Literature Club is the most disturbing thing I have ever experienced.

Yeah, it warns you. "This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed" and "individuals suffering from anxiety or depression may not have a safe experience playing this game" it reads as you boot up the game. I've played plenty of visual novels before, and I'm even aware of visual novels like Yume Miru Kusuri that feature quite intense, shocking content (bullying, suicide, drug addiction, etc.) so I just brushed off this content warning. 

Upon starting a new game, I was presented with an overly cute, bouncy visual novel. One so cute and bouncy that at times it feels painfully generic. The protagonist you play as is a deadpan snarker, his childhood friend Sayori is overly bubbly and a complete "clutz". The plot focuses around Sayori encouraging the main character to join her literature club and the fun, happy cupcake-filled times that occur as a consequence with its trope-tastic members Natsuki (tsundere), Yuri (timid one) and Monika (big sister-type). If you've watched an anime like K-On! you basically know what to expect from the scenes of Doki Doki Literature Club.

All the time I played, that content warning sat at the back of my mind. When would I witness this disturbing content? The characters of the literature club are all so happy and cute, so I was expecting the typical visual novel-style branching paths to go somewhere similar to those of the aforementioned Yume Miru Kusuri, starting all fun and adorable but eventually leading to a big, intense, shocking ending filled with pain and tears as their deepest secrets are revealed and the player has to fix them. In the initial two or three hours of play, there are glimmers of this. Conversations and poems presented by the girls of the club bare hints of something deeper and darker, for example, Natsuki hinting at the possibility of a bad home life and maybe even paternal abuse. But it's okay, because despite how generic everything is, you start to find yourself warming up to the characters and their respective quirks. The goings on in the club are relatively charming and there's even a little poem creation mini game where you select words to make up poems to win over the girl you want to impress, and you can't help but adore the happy, upbeat music. I chose to go down Natsuki's route just because she seemed interesting and I admittedly found the little scenes that play out in the clubroom with her quite cute. The other options for routes include Sayori and Yuri (but not Monika - I assumed you could go down her route later). But the cuter everything gets, the more this game starts to sink its hooks into you.

In typical visual novel style, you are presented with various questions to answer throughout the story in order to branch the story's path. At first it's all just a bit of fun, but the more you progress, the more these simple multiple choice options start to make you feel increasingly more conflicted. You see, despite everything starting off hunky dory, one day Sayori begins to feel down about you (the protagonist) hanging out with the others so much, and she begins to feel like she isn't necessary in your life for you to have fun. So now, do you reassure her that she's still the one you want to hang around with the most, or do you keep trying to pursue that route with whichever other girl in the club you've chosen? These conflicting questions really started to get to me, and eventually deciding to choose the options that weren't in favour of Sayori genuinely started to make me feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. But it's just a visual novel, so I shouldn't be overreacting so much, right? 

But you see, that was the plan all along. That's where the underlying tension you've been storing inside ever since you saw that content warning starts to bubble. This all comes to a head when you are asked to decide who you want to spend time with while preparing for the school festival. Naturally I picked Natsuki as she was the route I was heading down. However, the option for Sayori was present and that only served to make me feel even more guilty than I felt before. Before the protagonist meets their chosen girl at the weekend, he goes to visit Sayori, who reveals that she has had severe depression her entire life. This scene is genuinely very sad and it is the first time in this painfully generic game where it feels like there is some depth to a character. After spending time with Natsuki, the day ends with a choice to confess your love or remain friends with Sayori, to which I picked to remain friends. On the day of the festival, the protagonist starts to grow worried about Sayori's absence, and after seeing a very worrying poem she wrote that reads "get out of my head" multiple times, he decides to go visit her house. That's when you are greeted with the following scene (trigger warning: suicide).

Leading up to the screen in question, I felt how I imagine most players felt. I knew in my gut that what comes next wasn't going to be good. Just adding the link to this article, that image still hits me. It still feels raw, even now, and with the scene that came previously of Sayori confessing her problems with mental health, it feels painful to know that my in-game choices could've contributed to this outcome. The guilt that rushes over you in that moment is second to none. This isn't helped by the absolutely twisted, disturbing accompanying music. Weirdly, after you encounter this scene, it zooms in on her and there seems to be an error message in the background. I just dismissed it, my Mac is seven years old now and not exactly designed for playing games. 

After recovering from the shock of this scene, I loaded the game back up and decided to restart in order to save Sayori. But that's when I was greeted with this:

For God's sake, I thought. Am I going to have to reinstall the game or something? I clicked on the scramble of symbols where "New Game" usually sits. The same introduction from before greeted me. Except it was different. Any instance of Sayori's name was replaced with scrambled characters and then when she was due to appear; she didn't, instead replaced with a glitched-up amalgamation of the other three characters and dialogue made up of glitchy symbols. The lead melody of the jolly music suddenly dropped in pitch, and when I went to see if I could load a save, they were all gone. I quit the game.

After turning to Google for answers, I was informed that I should continue playing. So I did, and I was met with a version of the same events I'd played through before but one where Sayori did not exist. Instead it was just Monika, Natsuki and Yuri who existed in the club. It seemed okay at first... until the glitches started happening. At first it was just characters and text appearing on screen in irregular ways. But then there was the "special poem" that I was gifted by the game. The creepy, twisted dialogue being added between Yuri's normal lines. The scrambled pixels on the character's faces. The music was constantly adjusting its pitch and speeding up at random as once innocent scenes became over-exaggerated versions of themselves, with characters moving closer to the screen and Monika appearing out of nowhere to frighten the ever-loving shit out of me. And it only got worse from there. From realistic facial features being added to character's faces to facial features being taken off character's faces completely; Doki Doki Literature Club became pure nightmare fuel in a matter of minutes.

I had begun to become suspicious of what was causing all this weirdness. After witnessing Yuri gradually lose her mind over the course of this sequence and eventually stab herself to death, the cause of all this insanity makes itself known: Monika. Upset at the fact that she wasn't given a romance route of her own in this game, Monika has been deliberately screwing around with the game files and the other characters of the game to make you, the player (not the character you play as), find them unattractive so you'd favour her instead. She was also the person who drove Sayori to the point of suicide before eventually deleting her (it turns out this event occurs no matter what options you choose). That's right, she deleted Sayori from the game files and then she deletes Natsuki and Yuri too. Until it's just you and her. Oh, and she's fallen in love with you. To reiterate, that's you, not the character you play as. She knows your real name because she finds it in your computer's settings and she knows if you're live streaming or recording the game too. After confessing what she's been up to all this time, she just sits there, staring into your eyes.

Doki Doki Literature Club doesn't just break the fourth wall. It throws wrecking balls through it then beats you over the head with the remains. The fact I thought something was wrong with my copy of the game at first just shows how effectively it messed with me. But that's why it does what it does so damn effectively, and that's why I lost a lot of sleep over the weekend I played it. While the torment characters face in horror movies can get to you, this game feels like it's reaching out to torment you directly. There's even a bit where Monika controls your mouse pointer so you'll pick an option in favour of her. But in the epitome of fourth wall breaking moments, to finish the game, you are required to delete Monika. That's right, you are required to rummage around in your computer's folders and delete Monika's character file. Once she's gone, the other characters return and a short sequence plays out before the game ends with Monika returning only to delete everyone completely. Thanks, Monika.

But it's not just the fourth wall breaking that makes Doki Doki Literature Club so successful in what it does, but also its subversion of expectations. Give me a game like Corpse Party or Resident Evil and I go in expecting horror from the offset. But Doki Doki Literature Club hides all of its horror behind a first arc that's purposefully generic, vapid and devoid of any original ideas. A first arc that uses the same boring, cutesy tropes we've seen time and time again in anime and visual novels alike, tropes that are comfortable, safe, and not just because they fear to stray too far from their generic path. They help to ease us into the game, before being replaced by something far more sinister. It's been done before, sure. Higurashi and School Days are fine examples of this. But add in that aforementioned fourth wall breaking and you've got a game that does what it set out to do masterfully, as evidenced by the fact it absolutely fucked with my head.

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