Saturday, October 28, 2017

Some Thoughts on 'Doki Doki Literature Club!'

I generally use this blog to write longer articles analyzing certain details I like about games, but I'd like to change it up a bit and just offer my general thoughts on this remarkable visual novel. I may follow up with a more in-depth article in the future. I strongly recommend that you play it before reading this or any other material, since it is completely free:

Even if you don't mind the spoilers, we will be discussing a few disturbing topics. 

With that out of way, let's get started!

Doki Doki Literature Club! appears, on the surface, to be a pretty normal dating sim. Your only clue that something isn't right - if no one spoiled it for you - is a content warning near the start. Once you pass it, nothing could make you believe you're playing anything but a sweet little dating sim. Of course, you'll remember that content warning and the rumors you've heard and won't trust the game at first. But Doki Doki has a lot of tricks up its sleave to catch you off guard, no matter how well prepared you believe yourself to be.

Doki Doki sets up its story like any dating sim might, starting with a schoolday that our featureless protagonist begins with his childhood friend. She coaxes him into joining the literature club, causing him to be surrounded by 4 girls, 3 of which are romantic options in the game. Sayori is the aforementioned childhood friend, Natsuki is a rude and passionate girl who secretly loves cute things and Yuri is a shy and polite girl who not-so-secretly loves horror and dark subject matter. Monika is the friendly but somewhat passive leader of the literature club. You may notice that these girls generally fit into common anime and manga tropes. Natsuki, for instance, is a very clear example of a tsundere and the game even acknowledges this fact. Pointing out these tropes is not intended as a condemnation, as tropes are merely tools and how they're used, not if they're used, is decisive.

From left to right: Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri.

The skeptical player may expect the tropes to quickly give way to a horror experience of some kind, but as the story progresses the characters are fleshed out properly with unique illustrations for each character's 'route.' The game even has a unique system whereby, at the end of an in-game day, the player has to "write" a poem by selecting 20 words or subjects. Each word or subject appeals to a different girl, so your word choice will affect which of the girls will be most impressed with your work. Having well established characters and a distinctive mechanic very effectively sells Doki Doki as the cute dating sim it always seemed to be.

Doki Doki Literature Club continues its harmless streak for a long time. Even for a fast reader who isn't skipping anything, it may still take about an hour to reach the game's 'turning point.' It would, however, be unfair to claim that it takes an hour for the game to give you any clues. The girls' poems say a lot upon reflection, and Sayori's poems in particular. Depending on how much you read into her words, her eventual suicide will be more or less expected.

So, what started out as a sweet dating sim about poetry ended up taking a very dark turn where a character who had been struggling with depression commits suicide. It's a powerful twist and quite thought provoking, but skeptical players probably weren't too surprised. The game's presentation and mechanics may have lulled them into a sense of security, but as soon as the topic of depression came up, one could guess what might happen next.

Except, while Sayori's suicide marks the turning point, it's only the beginning of what lurks beyond the surface of Doki Doki Literature Club. As the player sees Sayori's hanging body, the game shows visual glitches and even programming errors before abruptly announcing 'END' and kicking you back to the title screen. Not only have all the player's files now been deleted, Sayori's picture on the title screen has been replaced with a glitchy mess and the 'new game' button is similarly unreadable. It's very obvious now that a lot more is going on in this game than just a dating sim with a dark twist at the end.

Unsettling glitches.

If the player gathers his or her courage and starts a new game, they'll start the story again... but in this version, Sayori never existed and the player character is directly invited to the literature club by Monika. The story seems quite similar, but it would be a mistake to simply skip through the text. The new playthrough is riddled with strange visual glitches and some of the character dialogue has been replaced with "interesting" lines that exaggerate the character's quirks.

Yuri's dark perspective becomes a lot more explicit.

Yuri and Natsuki, who had a passionate but friendly rivalry in the initial playthrough, interact in a much more aggressive way. This is notably the first time the game actually begins to use foul language; on a first playthrough the game's language is squeaky clean.

The tonal shift from the entire first playthrough is shocking and very effective.

And it's not just the character's tone or dialogue - many expectations that were set with the initial playthrough are turned on their head. On top of visual glitches, there are unusual zooms, distortions and filters. The text box can get interrupted mid-line and the player even receives unsettling "tutorial" messages. This contrasts strongly with the more static, traditional presentation the game maintains during the initial playthrough.

But what does all that amount to? To put it one way, meta horror or horror that breaks the fourth wall. Doki Doki Literature Club breaks your expectation of a visual novel by adding a dark twist. But then it breaks your expectation of the twist by adding a meta layer to it where the dead character is now deleted from the game and it's up to you to discover why, how and by who.

Recently, games like Undertale and Oneshot have used the world outside the confines of the game to strengthen their story and gameplay. Many games have broken the fourth wall over the years, often in the name of comedy, and the cult hit Eternal Darkness even used the fourth wall as its canvas for horror. But Doki Doki Literature Club's 'meta narrative' could only work for a visual novel, and in fact, could only ever work for a dating sim specifically. 

CONCLUSION (kind of):

Doki Doki Literature Club subverts your expectations not once, not twice, but many times. Its initial fun and charm make way for a depressing twist, followed by a terrifying mystery as you replay the game with one fewer character and completely different rules for the writing, visuals and tone. Clean writing becomes rough, with much more swearing and lots of glitched text. Static visuals with only subtle animations are replaced with unsettling zooms, filters and little animations. Some parts fast forward and some rewind, completely outside your control. The way it sets its expectations and then subverts them could only ever happen in a visual novel, and its 'meta narrative' where characters are changed or even deleted ties into this.

In a follow up article, I'll explain just why Doki Doki's 'meta horror' and 'meta narrative' is so well designed and so perfectly suited to a visual novel. I hope you'll join me for that one, but until then... I hope you have a great day! 

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