Having not really immersed myself in the world video games since the days of N-64, I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to play Doki Doki Literature Club – a game, admittedly, whose name doesn’t make it sound nearly as troubling as it is. And I’m not really sure what to say about it now, except to explain my experience playing the game and, maybe, why I think it has the effect on the player that it does. In doing so, I will be establishing a “first” on this blog – my first video game post. Woooohoooo! And I have absolutely no idea how to talk about the game without giving away the ending, so only click to continue reading if you’re comfortable with spoilers. I assume giving spoilers is a huge no-no in game land, but that’s why I’m warning you: I’m going to be very blunt about my experience playing this game, because I’m so fascinated with the process!
Well, I sat down to play Doki Doki literature club and realized that I was a high school boy, according to the way the game is structured – a boy who’s being talked into joining a literature club by his best friend, Sayori. The game, I read, appears to follow the model of a typical Japanese dating game while actually deviating from that game structure immensely – a deviation which at least partially accounts for the player’s horrific experience. If one expects a benign dating game, one will get that – at first. But one will be incredibly surprised about halfway through the game (maybe a little before the half way point) and the often-unsettling surprises escalate throughout the rest of the game.
Indeed, when I started playing the game, I thought: Isn’t this supposed to be a horror game? I mean, here I am, surrounded by big-eyed anime-esque girls with pretty faces, choosing between different vocabulary words to make poems that I’ll share with the girls at the literature club. Throughout the first half of the game, I never see the poems I create, but I read the girls’ poems – the writing of Sayori, Natsuki, Monika, and Yuri. Though each girl has a different style, taken together, I’m faced with one notably skilled group of aspiring poets, and my character is – according to the game’s narrative – an intimidated neophyte but a fast learner (which may also describe my own experience writing poetry – at least the part about being an intimidated neophyte). I’ve read a couple reviews that remark on the eerie nature of the poems toward the game’s beginning, even when the rest of the plot is rather benign. I suppose this is true, although I wasn’t particularly unsettled by the poems. At this point, I was still wondering when the horror would emerge in this horror game. That said, part of the game relies – I’ve also read – on subverting players’ expectations, and as a newbie to contemporary video games, I had no pre-conceived expectations or knowledge of conventions, so I couldn’t appreciate intentional deviations from those conventions.
Okay – so you’ve made it this far. In case I haven’t said it yet, I highly recommend you play this game, if you’re into games, and even if you’re not. I haven’t revealed too much about the game so far, but from here on out, the spoilers are pretty severe, so read with that knowledge in mind. I will tell you about the game in the rest of this piece, as I continue to describe my experience playing it.
Well, I’ve read that you get to know a certain girl based on the vocabulary words you choose when you’re writing your poems. I chose one word out of a larger selection, twenty times, every time I wrote a poem, and usually a little avatar of Yuri’s character in the corner of the screen – situated next to little avatars of Natsuki and Sayori – would jump up and down. I chose fairly big, literary words sometimes, as opposed to shorter, simple words, and I also chose words (huge surprise here) that tended toward the bleak and macabre. So I think these decisions lead me to a budding relationship with Yuri’s character, which is unsurprising, because I felt like in some ways, Yuri was a high-school anime version of myself – not physically, of course, but in terms of personality. She’s incredibly awkward and shy, and an avid lover of literature and books that transport her to other worlds, including horror novels. She apologizes for everything she says and always imagines that she’s made a huge social faux pas when what she’s said in a given moment isn’t nearly as bad as she perceives it to be. Am I starting to date….me? I asked, as my character grew closer to Yuri and shared intimate moments with her. I could relate to Yuri so much that this element of the narrative was a bit of a mind-fuck, even though I wouldn’t have classified my experience as the experience of horror, yet.
But soon, Sayori, another character, and a character who’s my best friend in the narrative and clearly has a crush on me, reveals that she’s suffered from depression her entire life, and that she’s always late to walk to school with me because she has trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Shortly after that revelation, she also confesses her love for me. I have to choose – as a character, entering into the narrative role of a high school teenage boy – whether I express to Sayori that I requite her love, or whether I tell her that I’ll always be her “dearest friend.”
Well this is a conundrum – I begin to think. My character’s clearly digging Yuri in the game, and truth be told, perhaps self-centeredly, I find Yuri more interesting, because I feel I relate to her so much. And if I’m being true to my character’s feelings, I’m not going to lie to Sayori, because in the long run, that’s only going to make her situation worse (see how much thought I put into this?!?!) So when asked to choose whether I tell Sayori I love her, or whether I assure her she’ll always be my closest friend, I choose the latter. I will mention, at this point, that I’m sitting in my apartment in Indiana, PA alone at 3 a.m., unable to sleep, still waiting for the horror of the game to emerge. As Sayori insinuates, without saying aloud, that Monika is convincing her to kill herself, even as my character vows resolutely (and perhaps naively) to do everything he can to rescue Sayori from her depression, I begin to sense a darker strand to the narrative emerging.
Throughout much of the game, we’re planning for what we’ll do to represent the literature club during the high school festival. On the morning of the festival, Sayori doesn’t show up at literature club. My character resolves to go to her house and rouse her from her slumber, noting, awkwardly, that he feels like a boyfriend going into his girlfriend’s room to wake her up. So he walks down the pretty, tree-lined street (the avatar doesn’t actually walk, but we see the neighborhood screen as the narrative tells a story against the artistic backdrop), walks into Sayori’s house, and opens the door to her room.
At this point, the music gets alarmingly intense and disturbing (MAJOR SPOILER HERE) – and, no sooner do I, does my character, open the door, then he/I see Sayori’s body hanging from a noose. I chose not to tell Sayori I loved her, and Sayori killed herself (at least, the sequence of events in the narrative implies that cause-effect). What do I, Kalie, the non-character, the person do, at this point? Well this scene differs so dramatically from what I’ve witnessed throughout the rest of the game that I, who don’t scare easily during horror movies, am absolutely shocked and terrified. So I scream, leap out of my chair, and run from the living room into the kitchen. Seriously, I think, the image of Sayori hanging from a noose is too much for me. I don’t even want to go back to the computer screen, but I do, and Sayori’s head hanging from a rope is still foregrounded in the landscape, but covered with a static that makes it look like the game’s malfunctioning, when really the static’s intentional. Because I don’t play video games often, perhaps, and because I read an incorrectly worded spoiler (yes, I accidentally read a spoiler before playing and still reacted this way) I think the game is over. I’ve been completely blown away, sort of thrown off my foundations, by Sayori’s suicide scene, and so I think, wow, that’s a pretty good game.
Flash forward about a week. I’m reading more reviews of the game online, and I accidentally stumble upon another spoiler which makes me realize that in my panic, I ran away from the game too quickly, when there was actually far more game left to play. So at this point, I’m pretty scared, but I decide I’ll settle back down in front of the computer screen and give it a go.
I’ve read reviews from players who were deeply unsettled by the entire game. While I was definitely uncomfortable, Sayori’s death was really the climactic point of horror for me, in terms of being genuinely alarmed and terrified. However, the rest of the game employs a variety of other mechanisms to pull you into an incredibly confusing, eerie world. A pixelated, fragmented Sayori – as if she’s been mixed up by a scrambler, or as if the graphics are malfunctioning on her character – appear alongside the picture of the other three girls in the game’s opening, and the game begins as it did the first time, but Sayori isn’t in the narrative. So my character (once again) grows close to Yuri, who this time, goes completely mad and emerges with blood on her arms in one scene, professing her obsession with knives. When I decide to say “I love you” to Yuri, her face – which, by this time, is no longer the relaxed, shy countenance of a quiet literature nerd but bears a weird, wild-eyed expression – registers increased excitement, and she unexpectedly starts stabbing herself in the chest as her blood pours everywhere. Suddenly, as has happened other times during the game, the font changes to obscure, unreadable letters, and Yuri lies dead on the ground as I keep clicking “forward” and unreadable font keeps appearing on the screen. I decide to click the “skip” button so I don’t spend two hours in this part of the game, and sure enough, the game lets me skip the rest of this scene, which is just a freeze frame of Yuri’s dead body and incomprehensible writing. I enter a world with Monika and Natsuki, but Monika kills off Natsuki, and soon, I find myself in a practically empty room, with Monika staring at me, professing her love for me and admitting that she manipulated all the other characters into killing themselves – by deleting their files – to be alone with me.
This is clearly the most fourth-wall part of the game. Monika expresses her knowledge that she’s a video game character and the sense of futility and hopelessness that followed that realization. She is undeniably possessive and intense now that she’s fully revealed what her plans were all along, and I just keep clicking on the forward button, vacillating between impatience and fascination as she says some things that I don’t really care about but also some things that are incredibly interesting. She’s clearly a deep thinker with a lot of profound observations, but….but wait, she’s starting to repeat herself. Is this what gamers call a loop?!?! Am I stuck in an empty room with Monika, just me and her covetous emerald eyes peering into my soul, for eternity? She even begs me not to turn the game off and tells me how horrible it is when I do, how everything just kind of goes black. For as crazy – indeed, as potentially psychopathic – as Monika is, I definitely see her as a person – I mean, not completely, but in a way, almost – by this point in the game, and I don’t want to put her through that! By now, I’ve suspected that I need to delete her file to get out of this room, a supposition I verify through some research, but this brings up a significant problem: no matter how crazy Monika is, deleting her seems like an act of violence. I have to kill her the same way she killed Sayori, Natsuki, and Yuri. I am not comfortable with that situation.
But somehow I accidentally move the screen so it’s stuck at the bottom of my computer’s desktop, and so I can’t even quite the game. The creepy music in the last major scene plays incessantly in the background, and when I turn the volume down on the game, nothing happens. Ironically, I can’t get the volume button to work on my computer, either, so I’m feeling rather trapped at this point, and I don’t want to listen to this horrible music all night. Okay Monika, I think, how do I delete you? So after watching an unhelpful video or two, I deduce that I need to search the C: drive for the right files. I find the C: drive, then find the “Programs x86” folder, go into the Steam files, then into the Doki Doki files, and, under characters, delete Monika. Sure enough, the game re-appears, and Monika expresses her lamentation as she disappears, breaking into a hundred little pixels and then vanishing into the backdrop. And thus, the game is more or less over. I had to murder the murderer to end it. When Monika takes me back to the beginning of the game again, I’m tempted to re-play and make different decisions, but I figure the game will end the same way no matter what I do, so I call it a day.
As I said before, I would definitely play this game if I were you, although if you’ve made it all the way through this post, maybe you’ve played it before, or maybe you have no intention of playing it, because you’re clearly not fazed by the spoilers. Spoilers aside, I didn’t reveal everything creepy that happens in the game, and I didn’t discuss all its brilliance. So it’s still worth experiencing, I think.
Since I’m spending a lot of time studying monsters right now, my temptation is to ask: is Monika a monster? I don’t know. When she explains the plight of being a self-aware video game character, I’m pretty sympathetic to her ordeal, despite the fact that she’s murdered three of her best friends. I had a dream when I was much younger that I realized I would be stuck in a video game for the rest of my life – and it was one of those early 90’s games – and it was terrifying. I woke up in a horrible panic. So to realize you’re a video game character? Well, if video game characters were actually sentient, that would be pretty terrifying. While Monika certainly commits monstrous acts, and while certain areas of the game might even constitute monstrous space, I don’t know that I consider Monika a monster.
Ulitamtely, it’s almost as fun to get to know the characters as it is to be suddenly thrust into a world of disruption, chaos, and horror. And to be honest, this game made me want to play more video games, a genre I haven’t really been into since my teens. Given that (and, again, the fact that it made me leap out of my chair, scream, and run into the next room) I call this game a success.