CONTENT WARNINGS: Suicide, mental illness, domestic violence

(also spoilers obviously)

Having a presence on social media creates a strange online phenomenon where you’re constantly exposed to a thousand whispers about topics you may or may not care about. For hyper mainstream works like a new Star Wars movie the endless discussion can create an outline where you feel intimately familiar with the work and its controversies without anyone directly saying anything, but for a more niche work sometimes one whisper is all that’s needed for the buzz to spread. One spoiler that cannot be said, but nobody can stop bringing up.

Doki Doki Literature Club, written by Dan Salvoto and developed by Team Salvato, is tailor made to become one of those whispers. With its logo, art work and character design it appears to be another cutesy anime dating game to throw onto the pile, but as anyone who has heard of the game already knows there is a SECRET lying beneath.

The initial gimmick is simple; the first act cycles through as many visual novel clichés as possible with such mundanity that it’s hard to imagine anyone would trek through it if they weren’t aware that something was coming. You play an ordinary male teenager who ends up joining the after school literature club made up of four anime “waifu” stereotypes; the cheerful, clumsy childhood friend, the cute but aggressive “It’s N-Not Like I Like You” tsundere girl, the shy and quiet goth girl with a hidden edge and the friendly but out of your league popular girl in school. After an hour or two of goofy nonsense about literature, looking up skirts and a few choices that let you hang out with your favourite girl a little more, suddenly your childhood friend will explain in detail that she’s been suffering from depression and she’s in love with you. Here you’re given the choice of whether or not to say it back, irregardless of what you choose you walk into her room the next day to find her hanging from the ceiling. The game resets itself as you play through the introduction with that character missing and unacknowledged, and continues on as a horror game with increasing unsettling imagery and self-aware meta scares.

Credit where credit’s due; Doki Doki Literature Club boots up with a warning about its upcoming disturbing content so it’s not so cheap to try and “trick” anyone who isn’t interested in playing a horror game to jump on board, and despite showing its hand so early the execution is solid enough to leave on an impression on a large section of audience irregardless. The trigger is pulled effectively to provide a number of memorable moments in a vacuum, but the methodology of having a cutesy visual novel crash into a psychological horror experience is a very basic subversion and not one worth celebrating if it’s not in the aid of achieving something else as well. This is where Doki Doki Literature Club begins to disappoint.

It’s frustrating because the concept is bursting with potential. Dan Salvato has commented in public that Doki Doki Literature Club was largely inspired by a conflicted relationship with the potential of the visual novel form versus many of its tropes and there’s a wealth of material for a horror game that deals with choices, mental illness and relationship to build on. Videogames in general have a difficulty with presenting healthy relationships; a lot of game design mentality argues the idea that players should be working towards a goal and rewarded for their efforts which can present some uncomfortable behaviour when you’re interacting with people.

You can see this strangeness manifest in games such as Persona, where the mechanical benefits of leveling up your relationship with the characters versus the limited time you have to achieve this creates some borderline sociopathic impulses where you hang out with people until you have what you need from them and proceed to never speak to them again. The other side of this coin can be seen in the rejection of the dating in Grand Theft Auto IV by gamers, where the ability to hang out with characters from the story was deemed to be “annoying” and “pointless” because it was optional and only existed for its own sake. As far as most game design is concerned the thrill of the chase and the eventual “catch” will always outweigh the value of an ongoing supporting relationship to someone.

A lot of anime and dating games revel in offering up a potpourri of girl tropes and aesthetics on their menus to please as many people as possible. Once you’ve picked your target of choice, there’s usually some form of barrier keeping you from your fav and often the writing will contrive some kind of difficulty or anxiety in the woman’s life that your generic self insert protagonist can magically fix by existing around her. There’s a lot of underlying creepiness here that can be picked apart for horror, like how you’re encouraged to use a woman’s insecurity as a window of opportunity, or the potential mental illness of more complex characters that are often ignored and passed off as “cute” or “kooky” for the sake of your fantasies.

Doki Doki Literature Club pays lip service to this idea but doesn’t know what to do with it. The literature club itself revolves around all the characters creating their own poems which feature much of the game’s better writing, and there’s a minigame where you “write” your own by clicking on random words that you think will pander to your personal favourite club member. It’s a decent idea that highlight how surface level and superficial this kind of interaction is and how utilising archetypal characters forces you to make assumptions about them. The suicide that kick starts the game’s descent into horror is easily its most effective moment because the character’s depression is presented in a somewhat sympathetic light before she offs herself. The choice you’re given is somewhat contrived since the girl’s dialogue is carefully written so neither will make her happy so you feel like the result is your fault is either choice, but it’s effective because the guilt and ineffectiveness of your choice mirror the real life struggles of dealing with your own or someone else’s mental illness.

It’s all downhill from there though, after the stool is kicked and the game resets itself it starts devolving into indie meta nonsense with glitches, fourth wall breaks and deformed character art. Doki Doki ignores the intriguing meat of its premise to highlight the obsession and danger of characters which are all predisposed to fall in love with you no matter which one you chase after. Maybe this could still work if the game had any interest in exploring or fleshing out its characters or had anything to say about the male gaze that it assumes, instead it opts to use the mechanics, presentation and cast for a variety show of pointless scares and shocks. It’s hard to even call the game “subversive” in its second half, once the horror kicks in the writing merely swaps the cutesy anime tropes from the beginning act for the even older horror trope of unease caused by a psycho woman and her unstable sexuality.

It’s arguable whether Team Salvato deserve some goodwill for their presentation of the suicide as its more upsetting than horrifying, but they certainly don’t earn any brownie points for dealing with mental illness beyond that point. One of the girls is shown to have an interest with knives with inevitably ends with scenes of her cutting herself and stabbing herself to death once you reject her advances. Another is shown to be anxious about her interest in manga; in one throwaway scare with the text in a different creepier font she blurts out that her “dad would beat the shit out of her if he found this”. Neither of these characters are explored beyond a surface level, their emotional scars are brought up to be quick “gotchas” and nothing more. To juxtapose the mundane cutesy first act Doki Doki Literature plows through as much disturbing material as it can come up with as depression porn in a manner that comes off as too mean spirited and exploitative to say anything of significance.

The question is; if Doki Doki Literature Club isn’t interested in its own characters, mental illness or saying something through its playing with form then what exactly is its purpose? Perhaps the truth of the matter is exposed towards the end of the game, where all the characters apart from one have been “deleted” and you’re locked into an endless fourth wall breaking chat with the main antagonist. During this scene there is a hidden jump scare that only triggers if the game detects that you’re using some form of streaming software, presumably to give birth to some “Streamers React To” compilations on Youtube that easily go viral. Doki Doki Literature Club isn’t interested in creating discussion as much as it is in creating reactions.

It would explain why the game ignores its own fiction to revel in meta “what if your software was haunted” creepypasta bullshit. A lot of people compare the game to 2015’s meta indie hit Undertale, but Undertale is much more successful because it uses its identity in both form and fiction as a coherent argument for empathy. Doki Doki Literature Club throws its fiction out the window so it can feel itself through the form, pandering to the sort of crowd who assume anything self-aware is inherently genius. Revisiting the game after you’ve seen it through to the end you’ll notice more and more of its self-congratulatory foreshadowing, which only makes the fact that the game’s gimmicks have no real point to them all the more obnoxious.

In an interview with Siliconera Dan Salvato claimed that part of the motivation for making Doki Doki Literature Club was “ wanting to demonstrate what the visual novel medium is capable of doing”. Perhaps we should point out to Mr Salvato, that visual novels have been demonstrating that themselves just fine for decades now. The idea that you need a game that barks for attention and talks directly to the player to substantiate its own importance to convince the uninitiated of the value of visual novels is rooted in cynicism. So it’s apropos that Doki Doki Literature Club is a game that built its audience through whispers, because if everyone was listening they’d realise how little it has to say.

You can follow me on Twitter @Lesmocon , I’ll probably block you if you yell at me but I’ll still appreciate the brief company