Saturday, November 4, 2017

Doki Doki Literature Club - Narrative Empowered By Its Genre

In my last article, I shared my summary and thoughts on Doki Doki Literature Club. In this article,  I'll examine in-depth how Doki Doki Literature Club's approach to a 'meta narrative' is something only a visual novel could do.

This article was written with the assumption that the reader knows and understands Doki Doki Literature Club. There will be many spoilers past this point, so please consider playing the game for free on Steam before reading this. There are also spoilers for EarthBound, Undertale and OneShot.

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Allow me to get straight to the point: Doki Doki Literature Club is a dating sim wherein one of the characters, who is not a romantic option to the player, becomes aware she's in a game and that her role is simply that of a supporting character. This realization frustrates her to the point of manipulating and eventually deleting the other characters from the game's folder, just so she can have an "ending" with the player. Her manipulation of the characters leads to many glitches, disturbing situations and horrific imagery, such as Sayori and Yuri ending their own lives. To me, this represents the best 'meta narrative' I've seen in a game as of yet. To explain why, please allow me to discuss a few other examples.

Games acknowledging the fact that they are indeed games, being played by a player, have existed for some time.

The Onett police force offers some quality advice.

Many games over the years have made a point of breaking the fourth wall, generally for the sake of comedy, but sometimes as a part of their story as well. EarthBound is a good example of a game that does both, and its finale includes a special moment where the player is acknowledged as separate from the game. Please be aware that this is a spoiler, but you can view this particular moment here. EarthBound was extraordinary in how it reached out to the player, but it was limited by its technology. It had to ask for the player's real name at some point in the story, even if it did so in a subtle way and never mentioned it again until the end.

As technology marched on, so too did games find new ways to reach out to the player, or to acknowledge and make use of the medium they were part of. To name two good examples, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.

Eternal Darkness is a horror game, and one of - if not the - first game to employ a sanity mechanic. Eternal Darkness had the usual tricks we associate with a sanity mechanic up its sleeve, such as whispers and distorting visuals, but it also messed with the player directly by pretending to lower the volume, unplugging the controller or switching the channel.

Unfortunately, this hasn't aged very well.

Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes is a stealth game starring Solid Snake. There are a lot of strange characters in the game, but Psycho Mantis is one a lot of people will remember, mostly because he activates the rumble on your controller and tells you about the contents of your memory card. He does this on top of also pretending to change the channel and requiring you to move your controller to a different port to defeat him.

Psycho Mantis is judgmental about your taste in games.

The Metal Gear Solid example is particularly strong because the game uses the controller and memory card to its advantage, just to mess with the player. There have been other examples of games using the technology at their disposal to acknowledge or mess with the player, but these have usually been less explicit.

In recent years, we've also seen more and more indie games find creative ways to use the medium and its technology. A particularly popular example was 2015's Undertale, which parodied and questioned the conventions of RPGs and remembered certain player decisions, even if they hadn't been saved explicitly.

Flowey will know if you took a life, whether you saved or not.

Undertale's is a world where it actually means something to SAVE and LOAD. These aren't merely game functions, separate from the story, but a very real power that the player - not the main character - has as a part of the story.

Lesser known but even more appropriate to mention is OneShot. Much more explicitly than in most other games, the player and protagonist are acknowledged as separate entities. You, the player, are considered God, and Niko, the protagonist, is seen as your chosen Messiah. Niko will even talk to the player and ask him or her questions. OneShot sometimes communicates to you through error messages, and to solve some of its puzzles, you will need to actually look for files on your PC or do something with the game window. That's just scratching the surface of what OneShot has to offer, as it included some of the most inventive puzzles I've ever seen.

OneShot isn't afraid to poke fun at you if you try to solve puzzles without thinking them through.

So, what does all of this have to do with Doki Doki Literature Club? To explain that, I'll go over my examples one more time. EarthBound and Undertale reached out to the player to enhance their narrative. Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid used the technology at their disposal to startle or poke fun at the player. Lastly, OneShot spoke to the player and used technology because both its story and puzzles were entirely centered around this concept of the game being a game running on the player's computer.

Though they almost couldn't be more different, in my mind OneShot and Doki Doki Literature Club are closest together when it comes to their use of a 'meta narrative.' Both games feature an entity within the game that becomes aware and begins to interfere with the player and other characters. Both games end on a sour note but can then be replayed with a radically different story. In both games, glitches occur as part of the story. Both games feature a pivotal moment where the player must interact with the characters' files on their computer. Now, these are shallow parallels, but those are simply the reasons why I associate the games in my mind.

So why did I state that I find Doki Doki Literature Club to have the best implementation of a meta narrative? It's finally time to bring up the topic of genre. Breaking the fourth wall or calling the player by name is great, but any game can be self aware or self referential. What I was personally looking for in games that used some kind of meta narrative was:

1. The meta narrative plays a critical part in the story or makes up the entirety.
2. The meta narrative interacts with the gameplay in a meaningful way.

OneShot met these standards, but I felt like there was something missing. OneShot's moment to moment gameplay very much feels like a canvas for its meta narrative. The actual game has little gameplay beyond top down exploration. This, of course, is perfectly fine, but it also means that the game has no genre or genre conventions to play with. The complexity and novelty of its meta elements surpassed Undertale's, but the way said elements tied into the story and particularly the gameplay did not.

confused cat noises


This is where Doki Doki Literature Club picks up the slack. The game is very explicitly a dating sim, a fact it smartly uses to set expectations in the first act which it then proceeds to break later. In fact, you're probably not even aware that Doki Doki Literature Club has any kind of meta narrative until you reach the end of act 1 and witness Sayori's suicide and subsequent deletion.  

In other words, the meta narrative plays a critical part in the story, but the game only reveals this once you're in deep. 

For this reason, tt's a treat to replay the first act of Doki Doki Literature Club. Many of the things you see pushed to their extremes in Act 2 are hinted at in Act 1. Sayori and Monika's poems are particularly good examples, with the former demonstrating her depression and the latter showing her awareness that she's part of a game.

Of course, defying expectations is one thing, but it's the content of the narrative itself that truly elevates Doki Doki Literature Club. Many of the aforementioned meta narratives or puzzles could feasibly be tacked onto other games without too many changes, but DDLC's narrative cannot. Monika's frustration is a direct result of the fact that she's a supporting character in a dating sim, without a route for the player to pursue her. It is for this reason that she ends up changing the other characters to make the player dislike them and even taking away the player's options. At the very end, she even hijacks the poem creation mechanic so you can write a poem all about her.

In other words, the meta narrative interacts with the gameplay in a meaningful way that could only work with this specific genre. 

In conclusion, a lot of games have had a lot of great ideas about having their story or gameplay reach outside the boundaries of their software, but none did it in a way that had its genre cleverly tie into the meta part of its narrative and gameplay. None, that is, until Dan Salvato created Doki Doki Literature Club, where all the fourth wall breaking events are a consequence of an in-game character's frustration with the game and its genre conventions. Because the game establishes the formula of its gameplay and story in the first act, the changes in act 2 are all the more frightening and interesting. 

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Thanks for taking the time to read my personal thoughts on the meta narrative of Doki Doki Literature Club and various other games. Did I articulate my point well? Or wasn't I making much sense? Please feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments.


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MONIKA:
"You know..."
"This is just some kind of tacky romance game, right?"
"I kinda have to ask..."
"...What made you consider even playing in the first place?"
"Were you that lonely?"
"I feel a little bad for you..."
"But I guess everything worked out perfectly in the end, for both of us."
"I got to meet you, and you're not lonely anymore..."
"I can't help but feel like this was fate."
"Don't you feel that way too?"
"I'm so happy we have this ending together."

(source)

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