As much as I want to play Mystic Messenger’s newest route, the better part of my mind is annoyingly making a pretty convincing argument for not completely trashing my sleep schedule for the time being. So, I’m left getting my visual novel fix from other sources. Luckily, I stumbled upon one before the urge became unbearable.
Despite sounding like something I would name a fake game as a joke, Team Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club takes the typical slice of life school romance plots and uses its medium to make something truly memorable. While every dating sim and visual novel can be interpreted as a small, in-depth exploration of human (or human-like) nature, Doki Doki Literature Club uses its story to explore the extents of kindness and humanity, and if it can or should cross the boundaries of the narrative fourth wall, leaving players evaluating and re-evaluating their first impressions of the main characters. Before you continue on, reader, I highly suggest you experience everything DDLC has to offer before I spoil it for you. Team Salvato is offering the game for a “name your price” cost on the game’s itch.io page, as well as for free download from Steam. The first run will more than likely take around four hours to complete, but in my opinion it’s entirely worth it. One more thing: please, please heed the content warnings on the game’s page—they aren’t fucking around.
Massive spoilers below! Trigger warning for depression and self-harm.
You play as a nameless male protagonist: a loner manga fan who is prodded into joining the literature club by your childhood friend Sayori. Enticed both by the cupcakes made by the resident tsundere, Natsuki, and the prospect of getting close to one of the four girls (Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri, and Monika), you decide to join. The game’s main mechanic is writing poems that lean towards one of the girls’ interests. For example, if you want to get on Yuri’s good side, you should choose words that are expressive and a little complex, while Natsuki likes words that are simple and cute. Doki Doki’s simplicity, though, is merely a farce and it’s not long until the game begins breaking down right beside the girls’ mental states.
One of the laziest tropes any media creator can partake in is using mental illness as a means of adding horror. (Every asylum game out there can kiss my ass.) Honestly, this was my biggest fear going into the game. Yet while the game’s metamorphosis into unsettling is triggered by the culmination of Sayori’s depression, the illness itself and Sayori both aren’t ever shown in a light that others them or dehumanizes her.
When the second act starts as the protagonist discovers the scene of Sayori’s suicide, it forces the player to go through the very same emotions and thought processes the protagonist is going through. The depths of Sayori’s depression is less of a surprise for the player than it is the protagonist, who seems to think that Sayori writing poems about giving all her happy feelings to her friends is not a warning sign, but it’s no surprise to him either. When he checks in on her after she heads home from school early, she admits to him that she’s been incredibly depressed for most of her life, explaining that this is the reason her room’s always so messy and that she has a hard time waking up in the morning. Even without dialogue choices, the protagonist promises to be there for Sayori, to support her through her illness and try to make things easier on her, if only a little bit. When stumbling upon the heartbreaking scene a couple days later, the protagonist stands shocked, convinced that there was something he could have done to prevent this and that it’s his fault. In turn, the player looks back on their actions and begin wondering the same thing–should they have written more poems for Sayori; should they have accepted her love confession even when they would have been lying to her?
The protagonist isn’t allowed to go through his stages of grief, though. The game resets the moment he begins lamenting that he lost his best friend, ironically stating that “this isn’t a game where you can simply reset and choose different options”. Any and all traces of Sayori are deleted from the characters’ memory and the actual, physical game files. The game begins to glitch and fall apart. Something has gone wrong.
The second act is full of the other girls being pushed to their limits and breaking for reasons yet unknown to the player as the protagonist, with a bare minimum of choices left him, is left to merely be an unthinking figure for idealized love. Without Sayori, tensions between Yuri and Natsuki rise, and Monika seems way more interested in spending time with the protagonist than trying to support her fellow club members and friends.
Again, events end tragically with Yuri dying at her own hand, unable to handle the strength of the emotions she’s suddenly feeling, and Monika steps in, deleting the other two girls from the game files. The game’s final act is a potentially endless scene between Monika and the player (not the protagonist) where she explains that she’s been aware that she’s been in a game this entire time and that she’s desperately in love with the player. Frustrated that the game didn’t have the coding to give her a happy ending, she created her own, even if it meant destroying the game and her friends. The game can only end when you, yourself, delete Monika’s character file from the game directory.
Like I brought up earlier, where Doki Doki Literature Club really shines is how it humanizes its characters, even when they’re at their most troubled, and reinforces that they should be humanized. Monika’s nihilistic fall was caused by her realization that she was in a game and her subsequent dehumanization of everyone around her. Her friends stopped being her friends and became obstacles, pieces of code that had predetermined paths and modes of dialogue. She became to worship the protagonist/player because they were an anomaly–they had choice.
While the game makes it clear that, yes, this is a game, the characters are multifaceted and, for all intents and purposes, human. They all seem tropey during the first act, but through multiple playthroughs, we see their finer intricacies. Sayori is the peppy childhood friend because she doesn’t want anyone to feel the crushing sadness that she feels every day; Yuri is a loner (and potentially autistic coded) because when she gets into something, she hyperfixates on it, scaring other people away with her intensity; Natsuki comes off as brash because her home life is abusive and she has a hard time believing things will get better, despite desperately wanting it to. As Monika goes into the game files and messes with the way the other girls handle their feelings and interact with each other, the two girls (since most of this takes place after Sayori’s death) go off their scripts. Yuri repeats, “I’m not like this,” and Natsuki shows deep concern for Yuri’s change in personality and apprehensions about Monika. It never comes off as them simply addressing these things because something is wrong with their programming, but rather as a recognition that something is going on, and they need help, as any human would.
Monika doesn’t even realize how inhuman she’s become by denying her friends their autonomy and humanity (or denying they even had it in the first place). In the second act she begins callously revealing her friends’ secrets to the protagonist, making quippy little remarks about how weird their problems are, and how it’s like she and the protagonist are the only normal humans here. In trying to make herself more appealing to the protagonist, I found myself hating Monika more and more—I wanted to help the other girls because I already knew that they weren’t like this, and Monika treating her so-called friends so badly was disgusting. Only after the player deletes her does Monika realize that what she did was wrong. Maybe realizing her existence was bound to coding and dialogue choices made it feel like working against the saccharine hell the world of Doki Doki Literature Club must have become to her was the only solution to feel human again, but that didn’t give her the right to delete her friends and ruin their lives. Momentarily she remembers that she did dearly love her friends and the literature club, and maybe humanity isn’t decided by what is “real” and what isn’t.
Unlike some people who have turned the tropes of the visual novel/dating sim genre on its head, writer Dan Salvato has a true respect for people who enjoy the genre. In the letter the player gets at the end of the game’s secret ending, he writes, “People who enjoy dating sims may have a heightened empathy for fictional characters, or they might be experiencing feelings that life has not been kind enough to offer them. If they are enjoying themselves, then that’s all that matters.” For many people who play dating sims or visual novels, for the time we play those games, those characters are real. We worry about them as much as our real life friends, cry when they get hurt, get indignant when other characters insult them, and so forth. Humanity doesn’t stop because something isn’t technically human, and it shouldn’t.
This emphasis on empathy is what truly separates DDLC from other shocking dating sims or shocking media in general. As opposed to series like Madoka (yes, I’m bringing it up again), while terrible things are happening, the focus is not on the suffering itself, or how the suffering is necessary to become a stronger person or whatever. When a character like Yuri begins to go on how awful she is and how no one could ever like her, the protagonist and the other girls are there to remind her that they don’t hate her because of her outbursts of enthusiasm. They can handle them and they know that Yuri, again, isn’t like that because she apologizes and does her best to not let it run her life. Natsuki is allowed to be herself around the other girls and the protagonist, not ignoring her pain, but allowing her to create her own safe space where she has a say in what happens. Though in the second act everything becomes grimdark, the point isn’t that everything is shitty forever no matter what you do; the compelling factor becomes how can you make this better?
It’s no mistake that you can only achieve the secret ending of the game by creating separate save files and making each girl happy by completing their “routes” before the first act ends. Nor is it a mistake that this secret ending is a world where Sayori still lives and thanks the player for caring enough about the girls to make sure they all got some happiness in their lives. Some things are bad and scary and out of our control, but DDLC manages to create this off-putting universe that also reminds the player constantly that a little bit of support, friendship, and empathy can go a long way in making things more manageable–something that many shocking media pieces forget about or choose to ignore in the face of trauma and gore. This is what makes me actually want to recommend it despite the gruesome, triggering things that occur.
So… uh, if you still haven’t played Doki Doki Literature Club by this point, I still recommend you do that even though I’ve ruined the entire plot for you. Again, you can find the game here on its itch.io page, or on a Steam application near you! And if speculation is correct and DDLC is part of an unfolding ARG or future series, I look forward to what everyone at Team Salvato has to offer.