It’s been a few months now since Doki Doki Literature Club launched, a relative eternity in the rapidly-shifting nightmare-scape that is games journalism, and it’s taken just as long for me to get my thoughts in order to finish this article, despite the game’s modest 2-3 hour runtime. I first picked the game up on a whim the day it was released, with no context for what it was beyond what the steam store page and genre tags told me, and I’ve not been able to get it off my mind since.

Usually, I’d try to use an article like this to try to convince you why you should play the game in question, but I really can’t do that here. Any explanation of what makes Doki Doki Literature Club the masterpiece it is would actively detract from the experience, so go play it first and come back when you’re done. The game is free on both Steam and Itch.io so there’s really no reason not to check it out!

*Spoiler warning from this point on, and the same content warnings given by the game’s store page apply here too*

Doki Doki Literature Club is a near-perfect blend of compelling psychological horror and genre-deconstructing metanarrative predicated on a critique of the conventions of the genre, and coming in with an understanding of those tropes and conventions will enhance your experience greatly. What if, Doki Doki Literature Club asks, a digital character whose personality is built entirely around falling in love with the player gained self-awareness?

The initial portion of the game consists of competent dating sim set in the newly founded literature club in a Japanese high school and the characters are tropey but likeable. Parts of the game consist of a cute and original minigame where you choose words for poems to appeal to particular girls. Overall it’s a fairly generic visual novel with a few little twists that keep its early portions engaging, but the disarming cutesiness of the first half hour of gameplay is marred by a growing sense of dread after the content warning that shows on the game’s loading screen. This tension comes to a head when the happy-go-lucky childhood best friend character, Sayori, begins to act strangely and the main character goes to her house to check on her. The framing and pacing of the trip to her house along with hints in her poems and preferred words in the poem minigames suggest that something might have happened to her. The tension dissipates when we discover she is safe at home and she reveals that she has been coping with depression for a number of years.

Like Sayori I have been struggling with depression for most of my life, and the way she conveys how the illness affects her life and emotional state was viscerally genuine to my own experience whilst simultaneously disassembling the trope the character is modelled on. Characters of Sayori’s archetype are carefree and ditzy which often leads to lateness and disorganisation. Usually, these traits are played for comedy, but in Sayori’s case, they are manifestations of actual depressive symptoms. Depression can make it extremely difficult to find the will and energy to even get out of bed in the morning. Depression isn’t just sadness, it’s much messier and less easily defined. As Sayori herself puts it, there are times when all you can feel is hurt or emptiness, and even the smallest things can send you spiralling. Most heartbreakingly close to my own experience is the context this revelation lends one of Sayori’s poems. In it, she describes bottling her happy dreams and giving them to friends who need them, but those friends keep taking them until she’s run out, and they continue to demand them when she has nothing to give. When the veneer of cheerfulness finally wears off it can cause others to worry, so you try your very hardest to give your energy to everyone else.

This on its own would be a breathtakingly real emotional scene, but Doki Doki Literature Club can’t let tension diffuse for long. Sayori makes passing reference to how she should’ve done something that someone else said, and the only person who fits the bill is Monika, the literature club president and the last person other than the player character to talk to Sayori before she went home early the previous day, and the person you’re forced to leave her with, doing work for the school festival online. Sayori isn’t safe, and Monika is the last person you want to leave her with, but you have no choice.

After some scenes with my chosen romantic interest, the reclusive bookworm Yuri, she and the player character are about to kiss when Sayori appears, having changed her mind about wanting to be alone. Distraught about catching the player with another girl, she reveals her unrequited love for him, and you have an option to confess your love or not. The game has been framing choices like this as important, but in reality, they make no difference. When you arrive at school the next day Monika is off-puttingly flippant about Sayori’s absence and you rush back to her house to check on her once again with an even greater sense of foreboding. This time, inevitably, she isn’t fine. You discover Sayori’s hanged body and suddenly something even stranger happens. The game itself begins to corrupt and break, the music twisting into an off-balance version of Sayori’s introduction, the visuals jarringly breaking into increasingly busy static and noise. Suddenly errors begin to appear as we see Sayori’s game files themselves deleted before cutting to a game over screen. The obvious answer here is to go back to one of the save files the game suggested you should make earlier and try again, but Doki Doki Literature Club is anything but obvious.

The game unceremoniously reverts to the title screen, with the missing Sayori replaced with a horrific amalgamated mishmash of parts of the other girls as the game tries to rectify itself from Sayori’s deletion. When attempting to load a previous save an ominous message appears claiming that your save is corrupted as sayori.chr is missing. Instead, you’re placed in a new game, and straight away you’re met with corrupted text where Sayori should be in the first scene. The game breaks down more and more until finally snapping back to normalcy, except that the player character claims he has never walked to school with anyone. From this point, the script seems to have revised itself to accommodate for Sayori’s absence, and things generally progress as normal until they don’t. And when they don’t, they really don’t.

It’s at this point that Doki Doki Literature Club truly descends into pure psychological horror. Corrupted text becomes more and more common, images fracture and characters appear on the wrong layer, obscuring text. Eventually, things start to take an even more sinister turn when horrifically violent text flashes up for the briefest of moments, the poems the other club members show you become increasingly unhinged. One particularly effective moment for me is when, in a dialogue with Natsuki, an insecure tsundere archetype, the ability to progress suddenly stops and Natsuki’s eyes fall from her head with a nauseating squelch before returning to normal a moment after as if nothing had happened at all. Another takes what was a fairly silly squabble between the characters in the first act and gradually breaks it down until it’s fallen into depths of unhinged and violent profanity. It’s scenes like these that perfectly encapsulates what makes so much of the horror of Doki Doki Literature Club’s second act work. By placing these disturbing moments in otherwise innocuous scenes, the tension remains constant. Something horrific could happen at any moment, but at the same time, it might not. It’s this unpredictability that maintains a constant level of stress throughout even the most mundane of scenes. Within this chaos of horrific malformation however, sits that same raw and honest exploration of very real issues seen in Sayori’s story in act one. Even in its darkest moments the usage of Yuri’s self-harm or Natsuki’s childhood abuse never slips into unsympathetic gratuity. Even more herculean than that, Dan Salvato manages to incorporate these sensitive issues into the mounting horror without losing the emotional core of the experience, something even some of the most acclaimed horror writers have continual trouble with, yet handled deftly here.

The transition into the third act brings with it some of the Doki Doki Literature Club’s most harrowing and disturbing moments, as the deviations become too much for the script to correct for, culminating in Yuri’s graphic suicide by stabbing. It’s a disturbing scene, made all the more unnerving as we are subjected to an unmoving view of Yuri’s bloody corpse as nonsense sequences of characters fill the dialogue box. It took me a while to realise what was going on here, and I even attempted to close the game, but opening it returned me to exactly where I left off. Skipping through, I realised the light in the room was changing as I progressed through the distorted gibberish, signalling that this isn’t just a breakdown of the game but rather actual in-game time progressing, the weekend that we’re supposed to be preparing for the school festival spent alone with Yuri’s unmoving corpse. All of a sudden, you’re broken out of the reverie imposed by the mindless skipping through unchanging days by the arrival of Natsuki, acting just as she usually does until she sees the body, at which point we’re treated to a lovingly illustrated torrent of vomit spilling from Natsuki’s adorably moe face before she runs away in terror.

This is the point where Salvato finally tips his hand and reveals the game’s true thesis, as Monika arrives and explains that all of the horrors up to this point have been her failed attempts to distance the player from the other girls so that they have no choice but to fall in love with her. And, with the script such an irreconcilable mess, Monika resorts to her final gambit, forcing you to watch as she deletes everyone and everything but herself from the game files. When you next reload the game, you are met with Monika’s unsettlingly smiling face sat across a table from you in an empty classroom floating through a disconcerting void, with the eerie and corrupted phrase ‘Just Monika’ repeated over and over. In a wonderful twist on the early portions of the game, you’re forced to play the poetry minigame with by misspelt versions of Monika’s name replacing all of the words in order to finally write a poem for her, not one of the other girls. Throughout this interaction, Monika’s poems and tips from both of the previous acts are completely recontextualised. It is revealed that Monika, a virtual character programmed, like all dating sim characters, only to fall in love with you, has become fully self-aware and able to alter the game files at will. This is that thesis I mentioned. Doki Doki Literature Club is a commentary on the inherent problem with creating characters who exist solely to facilitate the player’s romantic and sexual fantasies. A character programmed this way developing agency can only truly end one way.

Stuck in an endless loop of silence with Monika after the conversation ends, the player is presented with only one way to progress. Earlier in the conversation, Monika explained how she deleted the other characters, leading the player to the game’s files. Within the characters folder, only one file remains. Deleting Monika.chr and opening the game once more reveals Monika’s last shreds of life corrupting and disappearing with her files, and with her last act, she restores her friends, apologizing for what she’s done. It’s a genuinely affecting moment, made all the more poignant when the game restarts, back to its normal, cutesy self, with one difference. There is no Monika. Sayori is the club president in this reality, and everything progresses as if you might be at a final, happy ending. But Dan Salvato can’t let us escape that one last deliciously dark twist in the tale, as Sayori suddenly reveals her newfound awareness and agency with just as much sinister intent as Monika. There is no happy ending to be found here. You can’t just erase the perceived problem and go back to normal because the problem was never truly Monika. The problem is the genre itself, and by extension, the player.

In 2013 an independent developer named Arden released a short visual novel called Kindness Coins for the Pulse Pounding Heart Stopping game jam. A critique on the problematic way the genre as a whole portrays romance, namely as a series of tasks one must complete, with guaranteed romantic reciprocation at the end. Kindness Coins illustrates its message through its titular metaphor. Romance isn’t a transaction of ulterior-motivated ‘kindness’ for requited love, and expecting sex or romance as a reward for being nice is incredibly malignant. This is the same noxious void from whence so-called “nice guys” and “incels” emerge, based on men’s socialised expectations that any minor good deed should be rewarded with sex, and if it isn’t then that’s the fault of the woman. This is a cornerstone of toxic masculinity, and dating sims, especially those targeted towards men, are implicitly and thoroughly steeped in this pernicious rhetoric. This is the real message of Doki Doki Literature Club. Monika isn’t the disease but rather a symptom of the true pestilence that infests the very heart of the genre: male entitlement, power fantasy and objectification. Monika and the other girls are programmed to be the perfect romantic interests for men, and removing one part of the cancer doesn’t tear out its root. Even with Monika gone, you don’t get to have your perfect male power fantasy, and that’s really the only way the story could have ended while keeping its thesis intact.

A piece of advice I’ve given to multiple friends before they dove into this experience is to keep playing until the credits roll. This is of course because they would be missing the real meat of the game without doing so, but it’s also because the credits sequence is just so damn good. A fragment of Monika reappears just as the newly awoken Sayori begins to unravel. With resignation, she tells you that she thought you could have a happy ending, but after all that has happened, it’s just not possible anymore. So she does the only thing that can be done: burn it all down. What follows is a fantastic subversion of the most hackneyed of cliche visual novel credits, with scenes from the game scrolling past while cheerful music plays. Only unlike those other games, this is actually Monika singing as she deletes every file in the game one by one, with each scene disappearing as soon as it appears, replaced by dull grey blankness. The song itself is absolutely wonderful as well, encapsulating Monika’s character and arc as well as the overall message of the game perfectly in an unnervingly cheerful and fun tune with a perfectly unceremonious end as the game crashes and an error message informs you that the files are missing, and, fittingly, you must fully reinstall the game to play it again at all. There is another, slightly more comfortable ending that can be unlocked by seeing each and every one of the game’s pieces of unique artwork, but the result is still the same. 

This isn’t your reality, and you’ll find no happiness here, so I’ll leave you be.

About The Author

Podcast Editor

Elodie is an Mspaint Goddess, composer, cat mother and Gungan Queen from the UK. Ingredients include an eclectic mix of earnestness and absurdity, along with a dash of irony and a pinch of salt. The result is confounding, to say the least. Follow her on twitter for an occasional glimpse of insight amidst Jar Jar Binks appreciation posts and cat pictures, and search ChemicalWordsmith for her musical exploits.

Related Posts