I am really torn about Doki Doki Literature Club, the dating-sim-slash-psychological-horror game from Team Salvato. I picked it up after personal recommendations from friends and seeing it appear on Patrick Klepeck’s games of the year list. I devoured the game, six hours, in one sitting. After sitting on it for a couple days, one of the YouTube games writers I follow released a brutal piece criticizing DDLC’s portrayal of mental illness through it’s second act. That video reminded me of the big gripe that I do have about the game, so this post is going to go into some detail about both what I think worked and what didn’t.
For the uninitiated, here is a relatively spoiler-free synopsis: Doki Doki Literature Club is a free downloadable visual novel game developed by Dan Salvato. As with many games in its genre, the player in this game inhabits the role of a high-school boy who finds himself the object of affection for a cast of trope-heavy female characters. The player's childhood friend Sayori convinces the boy to join her newly-formed school literature club, where he meets Monika, Yuri, and Natsuki, bringing the apparent total of romanceable characters to four. Monika is the over-achieving president of the club, Yuri is the soft-spoken bookworm, and Natsuki serves the role of the tomboy with a sensitive side. As tensions rise in the club, darker sides of each character begin to show and the game takes an unexpected turn into pyschological horror with a focus on the characters' mental illnesses. Depending on which character the player chooses to spend time with the game reveals more about each character's personality and backstory, culminating in a fourth-wall breaking ending that requires multiple playthroughs to fully understand. Though a primary element of the game's word-of-mouth reputation, DDLC keeps its horror and metatextuality firmly under wraps until a few hours in.
My first playthrough was very enjoyable in the moment. The emotional moments hit me hard, in a very satisfying way, and the jumpscares for the most part managed to have substance behind the shock. I was really impressed that the visual novel style could evoke the same sense of reluctance and dread that other horror games like Stories Untold and Anatomy did for me.
I had some idea of how the meta elements of the game would play out (manipulating files in the game directory), but I didn’t know anything about the story or characters going in. The first act of DDLC was a rollercoaster of emotions that took me from groaning audibly at the shameless visual novel tropes to genuine investment in the characters (I played a Yuri-centric route) to stunned silence as the first act closed with Sayori discussing her depression.
The game’s biggest draw for me was seeing it being praised for surprisingly grounded portrayal of mental illness. The first act really did attempt to deliver on that, as Sayori was genuinely written to be sympathetic and realistic. Yuri also showed realistic signs of social anxiety and (this might be a bit of projection on my part) hyperfixation when she opens up about her special interests. I didn’t spend much time with Natsuki (I later skimmed a YouTube gameplay recording of her route), so I can’t speak to the portrayal of abuse in her storyline. What I realized in hindsight is that the game did such a good job getting me invested in the horror in its second act that I completely missed it when this aspect was thrown out the window.
This is your last chance to avoid major spoilers and sensitive topics like self-harm and suicide.
In the final moments of act one, Sayori’s sucide is played purely for shock value. The thoughtful discussion with the character in previous scenes is more or less ignored so that the game can shock and guilt the player. You get no agency to help prevent Sayori’s death, and the single choice you can make only reframes the event to play up guilt or surprise. As shock horror it’s effective, but it would be extremely dishonest to describe DDLC’s handling of the scene as healthy. I think Team Salvato did a decent job giving trigger warnings up-front at the start of the game, but showing a hanging body on-screen is still immensely tactless.
Of course, the moment the player is shown the scene they are simultaneously confronted with the reality (through the error log file) that Monika had caused the suicide, if not Sayori's entire depression plotline, by tampering with the game. From this point on, it only becomes clearer that Monika has been completely rewriting every character. I have two issues with this. Firstly, this approach paints mental illness as the product of an unstoppable otherworldly force rather than a struggle that can ever be soothed or overcome. The second act does away with any pretense of portraying its mentally ill characters in an empathetic light. Second, Monika is upfront with her intentions behind altering the game and changing these characters. She does it to make them less attractive to the protagonist. DDLC spends none of its time examining or criticizing Monika’s assumption that mental illness makes people unattractive and unlovable. The game runs headfirst with this grossly harmful stereotype, and while it never condones Monika’s actions outright it does treat this assumption as correct. How could you want to pursue Yuri after seeing her self-harming? Why would anyone continue to care about Natsuki when she lashes out over her abuse?
This is the most insidious of the game’s faults, and it’s made even worse by the shreds of realism used to portray these characters. If you have experience with the situations portrayed in DDLC or you empathize with the characters during the second act, the game offers no hope nor reassurance for you. It is the game’s firm stance that these things are nothing more than shock fodder, completely ignoring the real-world weight of the topics it throws around.
Really, I’m of two minds about DDLC, and I think this speaks more to the game’s fractured nature than my indecision. As I said, the first act is played totally straight - promising a visual novel that subverts tropes through its empathetic portrayals of mental illness. But as soon as it is revealed that Monika is manufacturing said mental illness, the game transforms into effective if stereotypical horror. Even through the scares of the second half, I could never shake the feeling of disappointment that I didn't see how that first game could have ended.
(I didn’t have a good place to fit this into the rest of the post, but I want to mention how bitterly disappointed I was with second-act Yuri. I really related to her in the first act, with her hyperfocusing on books and sharing her special interest in fantasy. Monika claims that her manipulation of Yuri was just bringing out her “obsessive” qualities, but the entire anxiety angle was dropped altogether which makes it seem like Monika manufactured the “obsessive” traits completely. Also, self-harm as a jumpscare? Really?)