By gamer_152 22 Comments
Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club, Undertale, and Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi, and mild spoilers for IMSCARED and multiple other games.
This article discusses issues of depression, self-harm, and suicide at-length. If these issues are psychological triggers for you, you'll probably want to sit this one out. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact a suicide prevention organisation near you. For those in the U.S., you can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or find them online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. If you are in the UK, you can call The Samaritans on 116123 or visit their website at www.samaritans.org. This article purposefully does not contain any images depicting self-harm or suicide.
Here is a genre of entertainment software you might not have thought about: Bait-and-switch games. Some games exude one mood or one aesthetic when you first pop them open so that they can then startle you by pivoting to different emotions and aesthetics without any warning. Members of the genre include Undertale, Eversion, Frog Fractions, Pony Island, and since late 2017, Doki Doki Literature Club. Almost all of these games begin simply or peacefully and later costume change into complex and/or chilling dress. They mostly do this for the sake of surprise and contrasting their tones, but Undertale must be seen as an evolution of this flavour of game because its shift towards the morbid and elaborate is not just about the subversion of video game conventions but also the deconstruction of them.
Undertale introduces a cynical character with an awareness of the mechanics of the play to what otherwise seems like a cuddly JRPG. That character then serves as a way for the writer to criticise common player habits, and suggest how video game audiences might relate to other people and fictional characters in a healthier fashion. Doki Doki Literature Club uses the same techniques to make the same manner of criticisms, but specifically relating to dating sims, games with player-selected endings, and men's treatment of women. The game also makes observations about visual novels' and similar media's portrayal of school life, as well as our understanding of mental illness. Feel free to skip the next four paragraphs if you're already familiar with the plot.
In DDLC, we control a shy, manga-loving high school boy who is invited to an after-school literature club by his best friend, Sayori. The protagonist's internal monologue reveals him as frequently dismissive of the people around him, including Sayori, who he describes as "air-headed" due to her irrepressible optimism, but he joins the literature club when he realises it will let him get close to "cute" female peers. The player is given the choice to pursue a relationship with one of three girls from the club: Sayori who is sunny but lacks confidence, Natsuki who is quick to speak her mind no matters who she offends, or Yuri who is self-conscious but has an interest in the horrific and poetic. The head of the club is Monika, a conflict-avoidant model student who is not one of the romance options.
The protagonist is supportive and self-effacing towards the girls, but there is ambiguity over how much this is because he empathises with them and how much this is because he wants to snag one of them as his girlfriend. He later finds out that Sayori has been living with severe depression and the player can either choose to have him tell Sayori that he loves her or that she will always be his "dearest friend". Both choices lead to the protagonist soon after walking into Sayori's bedroom to find she has hung herself. The game treats this as an ending but lets the player start a new game or forces them into one if they try to load from a previous save, telling them that Sayori's "character file" is missing or damaged. On the second playthrough, the game tells an almost identical story but with Sayori absent and Monika filling in for most of her lines. This playthrough has telltale signs of file corruption and also includes points at which a distorted font appears in the characters' text boxes, expressing more dire and extreme sentiments than you'll find in their otherwise light patter. The girls of the club become outright hostile towards each other, and we discover that Yuri cuts herself and that Natsuki is a victim of child neglect.
At the end of this run, Yuri will profess her love to you and ask if you accept her "confession". No matter which option you pick, she commits suicide in front of you. Monika arrives, tells you that the game's script has broken, deletes Yuri and Natsuki's "character files" and then strips the world of everything but a small room in which you and she can stare at each other for eternity. Like Yuri, Monika is quite literally madly in love with you and is aware that she exists as a character in a computer program. Frustrated that she was not a romance option for you, she tampered with the data in an attempt to make the other characters less likeable, goaded them into suicide, and deleted everything that might prevent you and her spending time together.
As the game uses suicide and self-harm as part of its verbiage, we need to all be on the same page about what separates a respectful and informative depiction of these acts from a disrespectful and unhelpful one. Creators, including those of visual novels, typically shy away from pulling back the curtain on mental illness and the behaviours it entails. Where art and entertainment mentions or dramatises self-harm or suicide, it's par for the course that it's done to shock the audience, give a character apart from the self-harmer something to be sad about, or advance the plot. Often writers and directors care more about illustrating the gore of self-harm or suicide, or about using it as a motivation for other characters, than they do about exploring what it's like for a person to suffer from the mental illness associated with these behaviours. Suffice it to say that media has also traditionally boasted a shallow understanding of and care for depressed individuals. To watch or read many stories, you wouldn't know that depression is anything more than just being very sad.
The message this sends those who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts is that their suffering is not worthy of empathy and attention as much as it is useful as throw-away pulp or as a reason for people to pay attention to anyone apart from them. It is possible for this message to be sent not just by individual pieces of media but also by a whole medium or by media in its totality. In addition, psychological research tells us that violent depiction of suicide causes copycat suicides. When media is not ignoring the emotional component of self-harm and mental illness, it's often romanticising it, downplaying the negativity of it or viewing it as somehow expressing a beautiful inner turmoil. A sentiment that you hear a lot from those who are mentally ill is that these depictions fail to connect with them because they falsely perceive a glamour in psychological disorders.
Doki Doki Literature Club uses Sayori's suicide for shock value and plot progression, and that's worthy of reproach, but if we want to analyse a character's suicide, then we can't only focus on the suicide scene itself. We also have to take a conscientious look at the scenes which tell us about the character's motivations for the suicide and their feelings going into it. Sayori hangs herself motivated by her depression, and the game has an exceptionally advanced view of the condition. With the general comprehension being that depression is a form of sadness, Sayori is the last character we might expect to have it: she is bubbly and positive, ready to leap out of her seat to cheer her friends on at a moment's notice. However, some sufferers of depression use such unrelenting positivity as a way to try and escape the debilitating negativity of their illness or because they feel like a burden and don't want to concern others with their negativity. Both are the case for Sayori.
In many romance stories, including those in dating sims, there is a point at which the defences of the love interest drop and they have a heart-to-heart with the protagonist. They reveal some damaging event in their past which shaped them or some deep hurt in their present. In this scene, the protagonist typically pledges to support and protect the romantic interest, setting the stage for them to have a blissful relationship together. Usually, the protagonist appears heroic and/or cures their partner of their problem or makes it so trivial that it's never brought up again. In DDLC, the heart-to-heart between Sayori and the protagonist is when she opens up about her depression to him, and at that point, the protagonist and possibly audience may expect the plot to utilise those standard romance story tropes. However, it does not and urges you to think about how the expectation for it to do so is unrealistic.
When Sayori comes out about her illness, the protagonist makes it a bit too much about him. He starts by blaming Sayori for not telling him about her condition sooner, failing to consider both the emotional damage that could do and that it could have been his behaviour which dissuaded her from coming forward before now. He also doesn't stop to think that his dehumanising, dismissive attitude in the past could have contributed to this person's suffering. The game prevents you from "saving" Sayori, no matter what dialogue option you pick with her, and this gets it out of multiple jams. Her death needs to be inescapable because the game needs to turn over its "horror" card and you not being able to prevent her suicide makes the horrific force feel insurmountable. It also means that the protagonist can't just sweep away the consequences of treating Sayori like an idiot for all those years the second he's forced to confront them, nor can he make her confession a chance for him to look like the heroic saviour. The suicide also suggests that you can't just cheer a person out of their depression as conventional wisdom suggests you can.
Once you're aware of Sayori's depression, it becomes hard to enjoy her sparkly demeanour in the same way. That is not to say that she or any real people with depression are less likeable than neurotypical people, but dating sims usually design the personalities of characters to an attractive ideal. The aimlessly perky archetype that Sayori first appeared to embody is one the audience can shallowly consume like the emotional equivalent of a pin-up model. Her personality traits are not there to make the audience think or to present a complete person; they're there to satiate the player's desire for a cute anime girl. Once you learn Sayori has depression, you can still make a connection with her, but it can't be that kind of rose-tinted, one-sided connection that dating sims usually facilitate. You have to consider her as a fully-formed person who may have some traits that don't exist to make you think she's cute or sexy. You also can't ignore her depression in favour of her happiness because you know that if she seems particularly sunny, it's at least partly because it's a coping mechanism for the depression.
It's the same for Yuri and Natsuki. Maybe you think that it's adorable when Yuri becomes self-conscious, or it's romantic when she displays her darker side, but you also have to consider that those parts of her spring from the same well as her cutting habit. Maybe you think it's precious and quirky when Natsuki starts biting the hands off of other club members but that's a learned behaviour from her abuse at the hands of her parents. And because there are parts of these characters that come from an unhealthy place, they have unhealthy interactions. Where other dating sims might see in-fighting in friend groups as cutesy tiffs, DDLC does not lose sight of the reality that those fights, especially in secondary school, can be vicious. It pursues this reality up to the point of having Yuri telling Monika to kill herself. It says something unflattering about the dating sim genre that it's when DDLC introduces rounded characters with markedly real problems that it subverts and even breaks the dating sim format. And the game makes a big deal of this, expressing that breakdown of the genre conventions through the social upheaval within the club and the fake glitching of the software. Yet, to the extent that the game has a tasteful treatment of the characters' bullying and self-harm, it feels like it comes to a hard stop right around when the club's reality comes apart.
Sayori's suicide and the steps leading up to it are disturbingly real, but when Yuri takes her life, it's done with all the wild-eyed bravado of a trashy soap opera. She yells news of her love at you, gets a crazy look on her face, and stabs herself repeatedly in the torso without breaking eye contact. This is not a realistic depiction of suicide, it's the kind of exploitative version of self-harm I described earlier, and this is not an empathetic depiction of the mental state and emotions that someone has going into the act, it's all dramatised for the sake of throwaway surprise. It comes off as both less disturbing than Sayori's suicide and less caring towards its victim. The subsequent twist involving Monika also comes as a mixed blessing. Monika encouraged these girls to kill themselves, and that's the game acknowledging severe bullying as something that goes on in high schools and not being squeamish about displaying the consequences of that bullying. However, the game also uses the suicides of Sayori and Yuri to set up Monika as an antagonist and lead us into the game's final act, and that final act is not about self-harm, suicide, or mental illness. DDLC, while it does spend time siding with self-harmers and educating the player on them, is also guilty of using them as fodder to forward a plot and motivate other characters, and dropping them afterwards.
If the horror of the game up to the death of Yuri and Natsuki was that it gave dire consequences for acting like the typical dating sim player/protagonist, then the horror of the game afterwards is that it reflects the typical player/protagonist of the dating sim back at you. In games with branching narratives, we often decide the direction of not just the player character's life but the lives of those beyond them. Whether Beauty finds out the truth about Beast or whether Shaheed lives is down to what we want from the plot rather than what those characters want. However, if we're the ones who are in the driver's seat of other people's lives, that reduces their agency and may ignore their need for independence. In dating sims, we usually see this manifest as the player being able to pick one woman they're attracted to and that attraction being automatically reciprocated. Rather than the love interest possibly saying "no" to a relationship or being able to show any interests or circumstances in her life that may conflict with the player's desires for partnership, she is destined to become their girlfriend.
It's true that dating sims usually have the supporting characters happily consenting to the kind of relationship the player or protagonist wants with them, but that doesn't get them off scot-free. There's a lack of titles in the dating sim space which give their female characters desires and preferences independent of the wants of a presumed male, heterosexual player, and this limits them in all sorts of ways. It means if you want a romance game where women and relationships feel real you're out of luck, if you want a romance game where you have to work towards a relationship that functions for both people you're out of luck, if you want a romance game built for anyone but straight men you're out of luck, and it's also not a good education in women and social interactions.
There are plenty of boys growing up on dating sims and other media which depict selfish relationships and suggest you can treat women possessively, and I suspect it's not a benign influence, at least, not without competing influences that teach them the opposite is true. The stereotype of the socially inept under-thirties guy is not a fair way to characterise the anime or gaming communities as a whole, but when you spend enough time in "nerd" spaces, you find an inordinate number of men with a dangerously immature view of women and relationships. Having some romance video games that provide escapism for young, straight men is healthy, but having broad communities and subcultures based around romance games that only provide young, straight men an infantilised view of relationships is unhealthy. This is especially true in societies which already train men to place their wants and needs above those of women.
Monika is an attempt by Team Salvato to scare you straight if you think of women through the lens of a dating sim. One of the phenomena they demonstrate through her is the way that another person making decisions about the direction of your life, as you would in a branching narrative game, reduces your agency, and in any vaguely realistic relationship would constitute controlling behaviour. Regardless of the dialogue options you pick before Sayori and Yuri's suicides, you don't get the outcome you want because Monika is pulling the strings on these girls to bring about the result she wants. It leaves you feeling helpless and unheard, just as a real person in this scenario would. The game more bluntly reinforces this muting of agency when you're asked to pick which girl you want to make your partner and are only given the option "Monika".
So little does Monika care about your free will that she expects you to reorganise your life around her. The horror of this section is not just in the supernatural or uncanny, but in that Monika follows the script of an abusive and controlling partner while doing nothing more than treating you the way any dating sim player would treat the love interests in one of these games. Early on in the Monika scene, she attempts to guess your real name by reading the name of a directory on your hard-drive. We must understand this not as some cool horror novelty but as a way the game builds a frightening and direct link between Monika and the player. By having Monika acknowledge the player directly, the game signals that it's using its criticism to address the player and not just the protagonist.
Her psychotic fixation on you serves as not just a criticism of the lens visual novels give protagonists and players or of the yandere character archetype but also of the pathological love that dating sims often romanticise. This criticism actually begins earlier in the game as the love interests practically clamber over each other to get to you, verbally harassing each other to try and come out on top. Monika, however, is the purest distillation of the idea of a person who thinks only about you and who would do anything to be with you. In the cold light of day this attitude is not shown to be the height of romance but something akin to a personality disorder.
By this point, you'll have noticed that much of the horror and criticism in these final scenes is reliant on fourth wall breaks. Fourth wall breaks are nothing new to the medium; the average 90s adventure game had the protagonist making a dry quip or two to the player, but "breaking the fourth wall" isn't a synonym for "having a character talk to the audience". In theatre, where the term originates, characters can also break the fourth wall by acknowledging the existence of the venue and physically interacting with it or the audience. This sense of a link between the fiction and the staging grounds was lost when fourth wall breaks were replicated in writing, radio, television, and film, but video games are a highly interactive medium with the potential for more interactive breaks.
Many of the best-received fourth wall breaks in games are those that have followed the suit of theatre and had not just characters talking to the audience, but the fictional characters and forces interacting with the non-fictional venue. In the case of video games, that venue may include the components of the game which are not intended to be parts of the fiction, such as the user interface, or may include parts of the software or hardware running the game, such as the display or file system. Games like Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem pioneered fourth wall breaks that took advantage of these venues, and this would eventually influence DDLC. However, there are more recent examples of the technique which land closer to what Team Salvato ended up with.
The 2016 horror thriller IMSCARED has players interacting with files it writes to their hard drive as part of play, and 2015's Undertale stars characters who reference and manipulate the game data to critique the player. In a more obscure case, 2013 dating sim Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi has an ending in which one girl becomes aware that she's a love interest in a visual novel and of the player's actions in a different playthrough. In response to what she perceives as a lack of faithfulness on the part of the player, she kills multiple other characters and then claims to edit the game's files in a way that makes it unplayable. DDLC uses a combination of all three of the above methods to get supremely disturbing fourth wall breaks which say something more to the player than "boo!".
It may seem that by embodying the toxic ideas it wishes to critique in Monika, the game is criticising her or the tropes she represents rather than the dating sim format itself, but it dispels this potential misunderstanding with its main ending. The way out of Monika's purgatory is to go into the software's directory on your PC and delete her character file. As she is wiped from your computer, she expresses pain, sorrow, and regret. Monika is humanised to the degree that there is no pleasure in deleting her. You and she were the last two human beings, alone in a room at the end of the universe, and you killed the only other person there was. The worst part is that she still loves you because that's the premise of these games, that you can take any approach given towards the female cast, and they'll remain unconditionally attached to you. Monika says that the toxic behaviour she displayed in the game is "not love" and restores the files of the other characters. The game starts over one more time, and everything seems to be bright and breezy as the characters talk convivially and the protagonist shows signs of turning over a new, more empathetic leaf. But as the new club president, Sayori is consumed by the same crazed, romantic hunger that took Monika and begins conspiring to trap you and her together. Monika, who was apparently lurking in the background all along, resurrects herself to state that there can be no happiness within the Literature Club and corrupts the game, destroying its universe and characters to protect you.
While she initially mistreats you, Monika ends up making enormous sacrifices for you, and in the end, cares about you in a healthy way. The sign of her commitment to her love is that she accepts staggering personal losses for your gain, something that the players and protagonists of visual novels are never asked to do. The abusive nature that Monika showed is not an intrinsic part of her or Sayori or any other character. Instead, it's passed on to whoever inhabits their role: it's built into the game itself. What DDLC is saying here is that the controlling, damaging, unhealthy inter-personal relations you saw are etched into dating sims by their nature, which is what lead to Monika's belief that there could be no happiness within DDLC and that she should cut off your access to the game. This is also one reason why your dialogue choices couldn't stop Yuri or Sayori killing themselves: no matter what you did, this is a dating sim, and by DDLC's measure, there is no ethical treatment of female love interests in this format. This is a game that's very critical of the player and while you might feel that it's mean to you, remember that Monika, the eventual ethical mouthpiece for the game, doesn't just remove you from the club for the sake of the women within it, but also for your sake. The game is saying that not only do dating sims prescribe toxic ways to interact with women but that the genre is bad for you because it's teaching you unhealthy habits.
There is a big caveat to everything I've written so far. The game has a hidden ending, and it's difficult to incorporate that ending into any read of DDLC because it contradicts the rest of the visual novel's messaging without responding to it. While there are stories which appear to value certain ideas and then veer into an ending which explains why those ideas are wrong, DDLC's secret ending suggests the arguments in the other ending were incorrect but while ignoring them rather than tackling them. As this is interactive fiction, we need to analyse this ending not just by discussing its contents but also the steps you take to unlock it. In DDLC, you can reach the special closing by finishing the first act of the game three times, romancing a different girl each time, and each time resetting the game before you reach Sayori's suicide. You must then delete Monika's character file, before finally, letting the rest of the game play out as normal. If you do, Sayori will tell you that she remembers all your playthroughs and recognises that you must care wholeheartedly about these girls to have spent time with each one of them. The game ends without incident.
This playthrough of the game is more or less an earnest visual novel, but the visual novel portions of the game are derivative and syrupy, likely intentionally. They exist to be cut across by the hidden horror that actually makes the game memorable. Because of this, the base idea of a "happy ending" for this game undermines its horror and sharp-tongued attacks on the dating sim blueprint. If there is a way to escape the destructive force in your horror with relatively little fuss, then it's no longer frightening, and if there can be a peaceful exit to this visual novel, then the genre is not, by its nature, corrupted, which is what the story earlier implied. This ending doesn't even adhere to the established rules of DDLC's universe.
All hope is lost by the end of the original story because we learn that the president of the Literature Club, whoever that is at the time, will be psychotically possessive of the protagonist. However, Sayori, the president in the special ending doesn't display that same protectiveness, and the script doesn't even glance in the direction of an explanation for this. In the original story the president was tearing her hair out over the idea that you might spend time with girls who weren't her, but in the "good" ending, you get the president of the club to live peacefully alongside the other girls. You do this not by breaking the curse of the presidency but paradoxically by spending even more time with the other girls than you would in a regular playthrough.
The other in-world issue is that Sayori has depression and both the protagonist and Monika twisted the knife of that illness. How does the game teach us to manage that depression to prevent Sayori's suicide this time around? You just ignore it, running away from confronting it whenever the suicide scene comes around so that you can instead spend time with other love interests, hoping the problem works itself out. And it does work itself out. This special ending shamefully avoids tackling the topics of mental illness and self-harm which were essential to the game prior. It also shows a protagonist who, rather than trying to check in on their best friend, is less attentive to their depression and spends more time trying to hang out with cute high school girls. The game then tells you they've done the right thing by it and it's disgusting. This run based on the reset button can give us no advice on how we might help real-life acquaintances with depression because real-life does not have a reset button.
This brings us back to the moral of the original DDLC ending which was that there can be no healthy interaction between the love interests and protagonists of dating sims in their current form. How does this ending challenge that idea? It doesn't. The protagonist speaks to and thinks about the women of the club the same way he always did, and apart from the deletion of Monika, this doesn't lead to any permanent negative consequences. You might say that this play style has you being more attentive to the women, spending time with all of them instead of just sinking your claws into one, but this is just spreading your consumptive, dehumanising habits from one girl to many girls, and you're still dismissive of Sayori. Not to mention that any game advising the player to start multiple discreet relationships at the same time is on shaky ground, and because the characters can all be brought back from their suicides, the game doesn't force the player to reflect on the causes or permanence of those deaths.
The "good" run of DDLC doesn't have a plot that makes sense, and because its plot makes no sense, its messaging doesn't make any sense. It creates an additional, unintentional layer of meta-horror where, not only are the main character and possibly player oblivious to the toxic elements of visual novels, but so is the game. It dumps its conceptions of how women might need more than to be the object of romantic advances to be properly realised or how the cutesy antics of dating sim romances don't begin to tell you how to support women emotionally. It does this for no perceptible reason apart from assuring the player that their opinions on visual novels and women needn't be challenged as long as they dump enough hours into the experience.
I worry about the legacy of DDLC. What's worth taking away from this game is the way in which it rightfully hauls infantilising, unhealthy tropes and character archetypes over the coals, but that side of the game could easily get forgotten, and the "good" ending may well contribute to that loss. I also worry about it being forgotten because DDLC is a hybrid of two breeds of game which tend to get fetishised for their novelty value alone: visual novels and indie horror. On YouTube and forums, DDLC is almost exclusively talked about as a "creepypasta" with some "cute" girls in it rather than a ludic essay on romance and mental illness in media and dating sims.
I can't tell anyone what to find agreeable about a game. If people earnestly came away from Doki Doki Literature Club thinking it was spooky and cute but nothing else, then it's not my place to invalidate that experience. And if people think the game's points about visual novels, romance, and mental illness are poorly argued, then we should discuss that. But what we have at the moment is a failure even to recognise that the work is trying to have a discussion with us and I think we're worse off for it. It's not a good sign that some players are looking doe-eyed in the direction of the abusive relationship with Monika or making jokes about Yuri's self-harm. They're the exact traps in viewing these games that Doki Doki Literature Club was trying to warn us about, and its warnings are well worth heeding. The most disquieting horror I've found from playing DDLC was in seeing a game beg its audience to recognise the toxicity of its genre and to view women as people, and seeing so much of that audience ignore its pleas. Thanks for reading and a special thanks to @zombiepie who encouraged me to play this game, to begin with.