Goddamn it, @zombiepie.
Those were the words I kept muttering to myself throughout the first hour or two of Doki Doki Literature Club, a visual novel developed and published by Team Salvato. There are anime girls. There's a hapless guy (you) who joins a club just to ogle said anime girls and maybe get a little thigh-fiving action with those girls by manipulating one of them into thinking he likes her by creating poetry slanted towards the words and imagery she likes. The girls are inexplicably all drawn to him despite clearly being a douche with no identifiable characteristics besides liking whatever the hell the object of his affection likes.
This should not be a game I played to near completion. I hate all that garbage. It's Japan trope 101 bullshit, and it's the worst.
"Keep going," ZombiePie insisted. "It's worth it. Trust me."
So I did. And guess what? He was absolutely right.
For those of you who don't know me, my name is Cameron Lowe. As your brilliant mind has probably figured out from the title of this blog, I'm a writer of shlock bullshit - mystic cannibal gangs, lesbian shapeshifters, and in a fit of madness, even a romance novel about ugly people who happen to be very fond of each other. Lemme tell you what, if you want to sell jack and shit, try being a guy in your thirties writing romance novel under your real name. It's a delight!
To date, I've written and self-published six books. Fuck, that's crazy to write down, but it's the truth. More importantly than that, I've got an English degree and I've read more than any sane person should ever claim in a lot of genres. Never ask me what you should read. You'll be listening to me long enough for your family and loved ones to send out a search party. I'm that kind of asshole.
The point is, I know stories. They're not just my business, they're my great love affair. I'm in danger of going completely blind and yet I'll piss away whatever vision I have left just so I can get in one last good book. I know the structure of writing (and the importance of mastering that structure so I can get to the business of ignoring it when I please). And most important to this blog on Doki Doki Club, I know tropes.
I thought I knew what I was in for when it came to Doki Doki Club in its first half hour. Through ZombiePie's chatter, I also thought I knew its twists - one of those I was right about (because he basically gave it away), but the other... well, let's dive in and find out, because it somehow manages to both be impressive and somehow squander its potential. More on that in a second..
SPOILERS AHEAD, BUT FIRST...
I can't talk about Doki Doki Club without spoilers. It's a visual novel and the story is pretty much the only point of the game. If you're looking for a quick and dirty recommendation, yes, go "play" it. It's free, and it's well worth your time even if you're not a fan of anime. Maybe especially if you're not a fan of anime. However, there are some dark themes. That's not a joke. Take the game's warnings seriously, and if that shit bothers you, go play something else. It really isn't fucking around.
REALLY, DUDE AND/OR DUDETTE, SPOILERS AHEAD
FOR REAL, THOUGH. SPOILERS.
OKAY. DON'T WHINE AT ME FOR SPOILING THINGS. WHINY BABY. ALWAYS WHINING. INFANTS ARE SUCH BABIES. THANKS MST3K FOR THAT LAST JOKE. YOU FOLKS ROCKED. ROBOT ROLL CALL! NO. NO, WE DON'T HAVE TIME. GOTTA GET TO THE POINT. SO... UHHH... HERE WE GO. SPOILERS, OKAY?
ZombiePie sold me on trying Doki Doki Club by saying this. I'm paraphrasing here.
"Sparky, you utterly devastatingly cool dude, you should put a halt to writing ten billion words of always fascinating things and play Doki Doki Club."
I set down my five-hundred pound bench press dumbbell thingie, wiped the single bead of sweat off my forehead, and laughed my ass off at him, because I sure as hell wasn't going to play a Japanese-ass visual novel that looked about as cookie-cutter as it gets. Nerdy guy lands a harem. Yay.
"Sparks - sorry, I meant sir - just try it. It really goes places you wouldn't expect."
Well, that just made me roll my eyes. Not literally. I didn't use them for craps dice or something. I started to get back in the groove of my workout. You know how it goes. I had to crunch out those flammy jam leg lifts. Gotta keep them glutes tight, know what I mean?
"Look," he wrote, seeming exasperated but probably just in awe of me, "it gets even darker than your books. It's good stuff."
That got my attention.
My books don't have twists for the sake of twists. I hate that. If a writer has a twist that fits in naturally with the progression of the story, that's great. I don't mind. But twists have often become the focus, with the rest of the story fleshed out around them like the world's most backwards human body.
That said, my books are often times dark. No one's really safe when it comes to my writing. That's not to say I drop bodies just for the sake of shock value. Like I say, it's all in service of the story I want to tell, and sometimes that means bad shit happens to good - or at least sympathetic - characters.
So why did it intrigue me in this particular case? Because darkness isn't really a thing I expect from anime-styled games. It's an unfair judgment, to be sure. I'm at least aware of how dark some anime and manga can get, even if I don't partake in them.
Even better, Doki Doki is free. Not F2P, none of that. It's free, with DLC meant to support the developer if you like the game. In this day and age, that's a rad fuckin' business model.
It didn't hurt anything to try it. So I did.
And I was immensely, instantly bored as piss.
Doki Doki LIterature Club starts off as what I imagine is a typical visual novel. Bland, boring preambles about Sayori, the plucky childhood friend, are the focus until the main character - named by you as whatever you like, so I naturally picked GoddamnItZP - agrees to join a club to appease her. Two guesses as to what one he picks, and no, it's not the Fight Club. The literature club is full of cliched anime girls - there's the quiet, studious type, the cantankerous-but-really-sweet-and-creepily-young-looking girl, the aforementioned plucky Sayori, who makes little bones about her just-under-the-surface crush on the main character, and the club leader Monika, who doesn't have much of a personality aside from being the one to keep things on track.
Holy fuck, boys and girls, do I hate this early section of the game. As your character gets to know these girls, you show less and less of a personality and start to make choices that hopefully net you the anime cliche of your dreams. This is largely done through poetry readings each afternoon of the game. For these, you're not actually coming up with poetry, but selecting twenty keywords from a list of choices. Each girl has certain words she likes or associates with, so choosing those gains you favor with that particular girl.
This is pretty much creeper territory, as you don't actually establish any actual personality yourself. You're just creating a persona for whoever it is you want to be with. Then again, I guess that's pretty much my whole young adult life described in a nutshell, so... hey, maybe it's more true-to-life than I give it credit for.
Anyways, this is a largely by-the-numbers hour or so. I do like the occasional writing tips the characters throw out there as they talk about what they like in terms of literature. It's all mostly relevant advice, and useful if you haven't taken a basic high school or college level creative writing course.
Things start to take a turn for the weird when Sayori starts acting a little strange around the main character. She's a bit despondent, her laughs and cheer are forced, and she winds up missing a day of school.
Okay. Here's where stuff gets dark, so turn away if talk about depression or suicide gets to you.
After the main character is forced to make a choice between telling Sayori she's his best friend or he loves her, he goes to spend an afternoon with one of the other love interests as they work on preperations for an upcoming MacGuffin-esque school event. By this point, even knowing what was coming basically thanks to ZombiePie's warnings, it's fairly obvious things with Sayori are about to take a turn for the worst. She comes by, sees the player character with another girl, and goes into full manic cheerful mode.
The main character realizes something's wrong, but nothing quite clicks until he goes to visit Sayori at her house and finds her hanging from the ceiling fan.
Okay. That's enough to make Doki Doki interesting. Sayori's depiction of depression is actually well written, given the constraints of the game style. One particular gut-punch comes when she tells the main character, "You think I'm happy because that's the only part of me I allow you to see," or something to that effect. It's a brave, honest moment of writing. The people we love perceive us as the front we present to them, and that's doubly true of those fighting depression or other mental illness.
When I say it's a "terrific" moment, I don't mean that to imply her death is terrific. It isn't. The imagery of her hanging is disturbing and the build-up is immensely sad. But it is a terrific moment of storytelling and I applaud it as such. If I hadn't been warned about it, it would have definitely been a lot more effective, but honestly, if I hadn't known about it even in a roundabout way, I wouldn't have played this game, so I'm glad Zeep warned me. Well played, Doki Doki. You have my attention as a player, a reader, and writer.
And then Doki Doki goes fucking batshit nuts.
REALLY, STOP READING HERE AND JUST GO PLAY IT. UNLESS YOU HAVE, IN WHICH CASE, STICK AROUND. LET'S CUDDLE. FIGURATIVELY. I DON'T WANT YOU HOGGING MY BLANKETS. OKAY, SPOILER WARNING DONE. LET'S GET BACK TO WORK.
That's where ZombiePie's warnings couldn't have told me where the game goes next. The whole thing goes back out to the main title screen, where some pretty sick imagery has replaced the cheery picture of the main girls from the literary club. The game restarts, and Sayori is just... gone. She's not mentioned by anyone and her presence isn't felt. Instead, you're invited to the club by the leader, Monika, and events play out with the object of your affection becoming obsessed with you.
All the while, the game starts to play with the onscreen imagery and text in some great ways. Doki Doki isn't exactly a graphical powerhouse, so the effects are largely simple - red shaders, a demonic-styled font, etc. There are hints that some darker force is at work behind the scenes, displeased with the woman you've chosen. As she slowly slips further and further into madness, the player starts to see the game "break" with images foreshadowing what's to come.
My thought at this point is, "Oh, we're getting a representation of what Sayori's hell would be like, if they're going for that kind of a story. Interesting." It's certainly what the game seems to imply is coming.
What does happen is bizarre and gruesome, but it's not hell. At least not the kind you and I are associating with it right now.
The love interest again kills herself, this time stabbing her stomach repeatedly until you're left looking at a bloody, mangled corpse staring at you adoringly. It's messed up, and the game's writer keeps going - instead of you calling the authorities, you're just sitting there, with the body as time passes. A lot of time. So much time I thought the game was broken or something, but instead, Monika, the literary club's leader, comes back and tells you a whole weekend's passed. She sees the body, and instead of horror, she just seems fascinated by the whole thing.
This section, this whole middle third, is utterly fantastic. It's a great example of a low-budget game using its strengths to create something incredibly powerful and disturbing without having to resort to flashy tricks. The use of the fonts to contradict the cheery bubblegum bullshit with darker portents of what happened and what's to come is awesome. The visual cues create a great sense of atmosphere, and the steadily degrading music gives the whole thing a feel of sliding into some Dante-esque level of hell.
Doki Doki is worth playing for this section alone. It subverted my expectations entirely, and I wholly applaud the developer for taking such a weird, wild route to its ending.
And what an ending it is, even if it doesn't stick the landing quite the way I'd like.
It's revealed after the second suicide that Monika has been behind the whole nightmarish thing, and that she's completely aware this is a game. I should probably put "aware" in quotes because this is all just obviously scripted stuff, but the game does some neat tricks with its concept, including Monika calling the player by his "actual" name - meaning your Steam ID. There are also some files dumped to your desktop to give the whole thing a spookier feel, as though Monika has actually invaded your computer and is slowly taking the thing over. Then she essentially implodes the world, deleting the other characters from a file in your Steam folder - yes, really - leaving her and the gamer - and not the character you've created - as the sole occupants of her dream universe, wherein she admits she's been wildly in love with you.
The game "ends" here in a loop. Monika shares her philosophies on love, and what she thinks the player should do to be happy, and the things she regrets most about having a real game world to play in. It's a fascinating idea, one that unfortunately was marred by ZombiePie shouting at me to go a little bit further, just a little bit further. As it turned out, he was referencing seeing something I'd already witnessed - MOnika using my "real" name, but by that point, it was two in the morning and I couldn't take any more Doki Doki.
I came back to it the next day, sure I'd missed something. The concept is neat, as Monika is still sitting there spouting off philosophy and dreamy odes to the player, but I didn't quite "get" what I was supposed to do next until I looked up a guide. You have to actually delete Monika's file from your computer in order to get the "ending," which actually keeps going.
It's a mind-trip, but it's such an elusive, bizarre way of doing things, it actually ended up irritating me rather than amazing me. It's neat that players had to figure this stuff out, but I'm not sure I like the idea of Monika being an intelligent Ai as much as I would've liked the idea of the story playing itself out as the horror story it implied it was in that middle third.
It's unfortunate. Because that ending is special, and it does work, especially if you're smart enough to pick up what to do next. But I don't like ARG-styled games, particularly when it comes to something where I just kinda want to see the next part of the story. I don't want or need an impediment to that to enjoy myself. It's a neat concept, but imagine reading a book and the writer uses invisible ink during the last thirty pages when you have no idea what the fuck invisible ink even is or that it exists. That's me and Doki Doki. I can appreciate it, but in the end, I'm not sure I like the decisions it made.
All that aside, this and What Remains of Edith Finch make a strong case for storytelling within games making more sense than on the page. This is not an experience I could have had with a regular book. We're slowly approaching the point when storytelling in games isn't just good by the medium's standards, but good by any medium's standards. We still have a ways to go, but Doki Doki gives me hope for more and more inventive storytelling within the confines of a game's structure - or beyond it. Whatever Team Salvato works on next, I'll be paying attention.