Doki Doki Literature Club Stumbles Between Deconstruction and Exploitation

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Doki Doki Literature Club, the latest indie game to light up the internet, attempts to combine elements of exploitation and psychological horror with surprisingly grounded depictions of teens grappling with mental illness. Despite what I suspect are the best intentions, this combination proves to be far more damning than any one factor would be on its own.

[warning: full game spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club, discussion of suicide and self-harm.]

DDLC is a shock-type game, selling itself as a “normal” dating sim set in a high school club. The player is dragged into joining the Literature Club by his (because the player character is explicitly assumed to be male and cis) childhood friend, Sayori, and meets the other club members: shy horror fan Yuri, tsundere manga reader Natsuki, and seemingly unreachable club president Monika.

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Gameplay progresses by writing a daily poem, wherein the player chooses words that appeal to one of the three girls’ interests. Having enough points of favor with a character will result in spending club time with her, unlocking a special scene and image. You spend three days getting ready for a poetry reading at the school festival. And then, regardless of the player’s actions, Sayori hangs herself, and the game starts over with her character erased.

The remainder of the game is explicitly horror, playing with sound and audio glitches and agitating the remaining characters into increasingly extreme behavior. Yuri becomes a yandere who stabs herself to death—again, regardless of the player’s actions—while Natsuki is deleted by Monika, who reveals herself to have been doing all of this for the player’s attention. The solution is to delete Monika’s character file from the game, at which point she expresses remorse and restores the other girls, with Sayori as the new self-aware president.

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The game excels at unsettling imagery, making use of broken coding, looping and damaged image files in a smartly effective way (players with psychosis aren’t addressed in the game’s content warnings but absolutely should be). Purely considered as a horror game, it shows considerable intelligence in its progression and in incorporating file manipulation into gameplay, and is undeniably successful in shocking the uninformed player. That praise is complicated, however, by the material it uses to affect that horror.

DDLC’s primary issue is that it wants to convey how awful it is to treat its characters like exploitable objects, with Monika’s final monologue calling both herself and the player awful for “using” these girls…while exploiting them and their individual struggles with mental illness relentlessly in the second playthrough.

The first “normal” run of the game hints at very serious, well-written struggles each character faces with anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness, which the writing then turns into an unavoidable suicide, associating self-harm with a violent yandere-type personality, and using child abuse for shock value. It’s the rough equivalent of stabbing a cow and then painting “meat is murder” in its blood. The attempt to say something contributes to the problem.

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There are no shortage of games depicting mental illness as frightening. Asylums are a stock setting for the horror genre (Outlast), while the very basis of the yandere as an archetype is that of a seemingly average, loving girl who “goes crazy” (School Days). Unreliable narrator stories often shock the player by revealing that the player character was mentally ill all along, as a way of creating an alienation effect (Layers of Fear). The examples of these ideas being handled poorly far outweighs attempts to incorporate those elements in a thoughtful way (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice).

In the developer’s note at the end of DDLC’s true ending, writer Dan Salvato mentions his love for games that push the status quo. And the game’s early writing truly does accomplish that. Sayori’s poem about feeling emptied by her attempts to act cheerful while feeling depressed is painfully raw; Yuri’s constant apologizing and reticence to get started on subjects she cares about resonate as an anxious, obsessive personality; and Natsuki’s evasive defensiveness and hesitant mentions of her home life are evocative of someone surviving an abusive home.

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In spite of the constraints of the dating sim mechanics, they feel like real young women fighting their own battles. In that regard, the game goes above and beyond in making its characters well-rounded rather than archetypes designed to appeal to the player.

Unfortunately, the success in that one area is hampered, even before the horror elements appear, by the constraints of the genre. DDLC’s writing might want to challenge the assumptions of the genre, but it hasn’t thought things through on a mundane level. Dating sims, particularly those marketed toward straight men, rely on a certain passivity of the dateable characters.

Their problems tend to be emotionally centered and solved through conversation, making the player the sole nexus of support and progression for their arc. By contrast, an otome game (Magical Diary, Hatoful Boyfriend) might include an element of emotional encouragement, but generally gives the love interests a subplot of goals they’re trying to achieve aside from their involvement with the player.

Likewise, there’s a certain undercurrent of “negging” in how the player character’s dialogue is written. Player dialogue might frequently demean Sayori as clumsy, useless, and unable to take care of herself, but then supposedly soften that blow by telling her that she can rely on the player. This tactic is meant to erode young women’s self-esteem and cause them to settle for the man insulting them, believing they can’t do any better.

It’s a troubling social issue and is particularly out of place among a cast of women already struggling with feelings of self-worth. Nor is it helped by the fact that the player character’s interactions with the girls are largely focused around them complimenting his skills despite his only writing poems for three days, while they’ve been working for months or years.

The game’s coding is also somewhat limited, which is understandable given the very small development team but contributes to undermining its own themes. All of the girls fall for the player within the three day time span, regardless of whether he’s spent time with them; a player might decide to spend the weekend helping Yuri, for example, and unlock the falling-in-love scene with her even if they had spent all the club sessions pursuing Sayori or Natsuki. In terms of gameplay they are literally interchangeable, waiting to be picked up at the player character’s leisure.

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All of this is in place before the game triggers its unavoidable suicide event. Regardless of whether the player dates Sayori or considers her a friend, she’ll hang herself on the morning of the festival. On the surface, this is darkly realistic: no one person can be solely responsible for another’s mental health, though survivors often blame themselves for failing to do enough.

But the execution fails even to engage with this troubling theme: the player character has no option to contact Sayori’s parents, or his own. He cannot call a help line or take her to the emergency room. Despite ostensibly being a game critical of the player’s assumption that he is the girls’ whole world, the game itself offers no other recourse to help them beyond unsuccessful romantic overtures.

With no option to seek outside help to save Sayori’s life and the uglier elements of dating sims still intact in the game’s writing, Sayori’s death is ultimately stripped of meaning beyond lurid shock value. The player stumbles upon her corpse hanging from the ceiling, deliberately shown rather than described (and ignorant of the fact that young women often choose deaths that will “leave a pretty corpse” due to societal beauty expectations).

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The choice of imagery (warning, suicidal content) and the focus on the player character’s reactions dehumanize Sayori’s lost battle with suicidal urges. She is ultimately a sack of meat meant to horrify the player, not a person. It is not about her mental illness, but the way the player is meant to feel about realizing they knew A Crazy Person. Yuri is the same if not worse—while there is the implication in her initial route that she harms herself, it is only when the game is in full-tilt horror that the player is shown her scars, again as a jump scare.

There might have been a truly unique and revolutionary narrative in having the characters’ “best endings” involve not dating the player but seeking help in a better, more supportive environment—forcing him to realize that these are people with their own struggles, and that they have concerns and goals beyond any feelings for him (indeed, the game’s very best moments of writing are in moments of friendship between the girls, moments that have nothing to do with the player).

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But this is not that game. All four girls’ lives are wrapped around their interactions with the player character, up to and including their manipulated madness and deaths. The writing’s message that the player is at fault means little if the function of how the game is put together fails to give its characters dignity. In the end, it isn’t even the player’s fault that the other characters behave in extreme ways–it’s yet another girl who’s in love with him, manipulating them. Because women’s friendships are inevitably subsumed, apparently, by their desire for men.

The clash of intent and execution leaves DDLC at a crossroads between two genres and their mindsets. On the one hand, it’s seeking to draw from games like Off, Iji, and Undertale: games that question the relationship between player agency and narrative, often taking a harsh stance toward the unique cruelty that the supposed unreality of games engenders—“it’s just a game, so it doesn’t matter.” It’s a difficult class of story to tell, one that requires thoughtfulness not just in writing but in structure, requiring either extensive preparation in hypothetical scenarios or to present the story as almost allegorical, with the characters acting as symbols more than fully fleshed realities.

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On the other hand, there is the exploitation genre. Visual novels have established their own brand of shocking ending for years now, particularly from the releases of Nitroplus and its BL side company, Nitro+chiral. For almost two decades, their games have been infamous for offering up dark, bloody endings if the player fails to make the right choices, to the point where it’s practically the main selling point.

They are stories with over-the-top, archetypal characters and far-fetched plots, where the melodrama and gore distances the player from any sense that this is real or even plausible. Even the codifier of the yandere archetype, Future Diary’s Yuno Gasai, comes from a series with dialogue so anti-naturalistic and protagonists so loathsome that one begins to wonder if the creative team has ever seen a human person, much less spoken with them. And that uncanniness, that clunkiness and heightened borderline-nonsense, is absolutely crucial to what makes exploitation enjoyable rather than excruciating. It’s a genre of pure id, at once engaging primal emotions but eschewing the need to sympathize.

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DDLC melds the worst possible influences of these two genres: it creates compelling, human-feeling characters with the intent of critiquing its genre, but then subjects them to the dehumanizing extremity of exploitation for the sake of raising a reaction in the player. It succeeds in its initial writing, and it succeeds in being unsettling, but the latter comes at the expense of the former rather than melding together into a cohesive and satisfying story. Any commentary about the player disregarding these girls’ humanity is quickly lost in the game’s own rush to twist them into horrifying figures.

Games are uniquely powerful forms of art. Their interactive nature means they can tell stories other mediums can’t, and the best of them challenge our assumptions and invite us to think and empathize in new ways; by the same token, that interactivity means there are more implications to consider than a purely passive experience like reading a book or watching a film.

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Despite its intent to critique the dating sim’s disregard for women’s agency, it unwittingly contributes to that narrative instead, first centering the mechanics around complimenting the player character without any clear progression or indication of skill and then utilizing its female characters’ mental illness to shock and horrify the player rather than shifting the focus away from his wants and toward a focus on the girls.

Its inclusion of content warnings, while positive, does not excuse it from needing to deal with its heavy themes in a responsible way rather than furthering the narrative of mental illness as a monstrosity. There is a good idea and some well-implemented horror in Doki Doki Literature Club, but in tackling subjects it failed to fully consider, its story ultimately does more harm than good.

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One comment on “Doki Doki Literature Club Stumbles Between Deconstruction and Exploitation

  1. Jewelfox says:

    The original content warnings for this game said simply that “This game is not suitable for children or the easily disturbed.”

    I don’t think it even occurred to the developers that an actual girl struggling with self-harm, abuse history, and suicidal ideation might ever play or watch it, until I went a little unhinged on them and a Let’s Player. Maybe someone else talked to them in a more constructive way; I don’t know. I’m glad that they at least changed the warnings a little.

    Either way, thank you so much for writing this. I’m glad you were able to, and also caught on to the creepy negging and telling Sayori “I know what’s best for you.” It’s more than a little crazy-making for everyone to be praising this game that set me off, and going on about how bold and daring it is when it’s literally exploiting real people and their struggles.

    (Sort of like with Hate Plus, the execution of which also “fails even to engage” with its suicide theme. Except that instead of doing it for the sake of some meta bullshit, Hate Plus did it because the author literally did not know what else to do with this character, and just replaced her with someone who looks the same but doesn’t have any emotional issues. Yay?!)

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