Warning! Spoilers for the game.
What is this game about?
In short, Doki Doki Literature club! is an alternate reality game that is pretending to be an anime dating simulation game. Although a lot of people online call it a horror game I do not agree with that branding. I think it could have been a good horror game, but the development team chose to cop-out of that possibility.
In this game, you are playing a male Japanese schoolboy who we quickly learn to be a relatively anti-social person, but a childhood friend, in the hopes of helping the protagonist find new friends, persuades us to join a literature club she herself is a part of.
The club only has 4 female members and the male protagonist agrees to join the club based on the agenda that maybe someday he could be more than just friends with one of the girls.
The gameplay persists of the player reading dialogue and narrative texts, and at the end of every in-game day, the player has to write a poem by choosing words from a list. The goal of this is to write a poem that one of the girls would really like. This would lead to the girls spending more time with the protagonist and hopefully starting a romantic relationship with him.
You do this for a couple of in-game days. You write a poem, you come to the club, you have a chat with the girls. Some of the times the girls say something a bit more “dark”, either through dialogue texts or their own poems. One girl even obviously breaks the 4th wall, they fight over you, one of them starts really liking you… Do you get the idea? It is a regular dating simulation game.
Then it gets dark.
Eventually, the game becomes darker. Your childhood friend opens up and reveals that she has been suffering from depression her whole life. Which is why she always had such a hard time waking up, cleaning the room, because she did not see the point of it all.
You hug it out, you encourage her that everything is going to be okay and that you are going to help her from this day forth to make every day a bit better.
Yet, eventually, she confronts you again by indirectly saying that she loves you. You have an option. You can tell her that “you love her” back or “you are my dearest friend”.
No matter what you choose to do the following happens…
The wolf reveals itself.
Before this scene, I started to realize that this game is an augmented reality game (ARG). ARG is a game that revolves around the player doing things in the real world to influence the in-game events. A good example of this is using image editing software on a file in-game to decode it and find hidden clues or deleting a file in the game`s directory.
In short, an ARG is a game that “knows” and acknowledge the fact that it is a game, breaking the 4th wall, and allows you to do things in the real life that are going to influence what happens in the game.
Some people really like that kind of stuff. I don’t because it is asking too much of my limited time — deleting game files, using software to edit images, re-playing the game over and over again to reach a particular ending.
However, I must say that if you like this type of game, then more power to you. I also played the whole thing through myself because it is a relatively short game and the augmented reality stuff is not that demanding. As an ARG it is really good.
But the moment it became an augmented reality game is when any emotional investment in the story and horror disappeared for me.
What is the issue?
My main issue with this game and the reason why I am writing this article is based on how the augmented reality part of the game allowed the developers to cop-out of properly acknowledging all the mental illness, self-harm etc. that happens in the game.
When I started to take note of the problems that all the girls have — depression, self-harm by cutting, obsessive compulsions etc. I hoped that the game would be about me as the protagonist trying to uncover the source of these problems while trying to figure out how can I balance my limited in-game time to help all of the girls and not lose any of them to mental illness.
You know, by actually making every day a bit better for everyone in the game.
Yet, the game never became that. Rather than going really deep into what are the causes for these mental problems and trying to tackle them the game just slaps you in the face, by saying that it`s an augmented reality game so there is no need to delve into these disturbing topics deeper. Right? Let’s go and edit game files!
Again. I understand that the audience of this game is going to be people who love anime games and dating simulations. Thus I can’t really be mad about that it evades to delve deeper. The audience probably would not want to go really deep into these topics as well. They have the right not to.
Yet, one of the many reasons why it is so hard for people with a mental illness to open up about their problems is because in our culture mentally ill people are not acknowledged. For example, when you watch a movie rarely any characters in the movie are struggling with depression. If there is a person like that then he or she is always portraited as a villain.
If day-in and day-out you have to live in a society that does not acknowledge that “yes, people like you exist and that is okay”. If everyone around you thinks that people with depression are lazy and pretending to be ill, then the chances that people with depression will never come out and seek help increases.
I applaud this game for trying to tackle these issues, but in the end, the augmented reality part is a cop-out. Why is that?
The augmented reality part destroys the horror by giving us hope.
Do you want to know why our in-game childhood friend has depression and why one of the other female characters self-harms herself and is obsessed with you? Well… because they are not real characters. They are only in-game characters that are being controlled by one of the other in-game characters, Monica.
Monica is editing every character`s game files to determine what the other girls are going to act like.
In short, Monica is the reason why our in-game friend hung herself and is responsible for all the other bad things that happen in the game.
Monica`s goal is to make the other girls appear less stable and interesting to you so that rather than picking one of them to spend time with you would pick Monica and spend time ONLY with Monica.
This is where the horror was supposed to come from. The mental illness, the self-harming, the obsessive manipulation, but it falls flat. Why?
Because way before my in-game best friend hung herself I knew that Monica was breaking the 4th wall, that it is an augmented reality game, the Steam and game website pages also eludes to that...
The moment you know what the game is about, who is the “bad” guy, why everything is happening the way it is etc. Then the horror disappears. There are no questions to be answered, because you know what you have to do. It is only a matter of execution.
If we would be actually playing a horror game then we would be too “scared” to go forward, every choice would be tense, but it is not like that in this game. The main problem being the fact that this game is an augmented reality game. The “augmented reality” part gives us hope. Because we know that most AG games have happy endings as long as you can follow the clues.
When I was playing Doki Doki I was not “scared” or did I feel tension. It was the opposite, I was not able to wait when I was going to be able to get to the next scene and the next scene. Never disturbed, never scared… Maybe that says something about me…
How do you win then?
All this aside. How do you “win” the game? In this game, you basically have to get 9 specific scenes, by replaying some parts over and over again, and then delete Monica`s game file at a certain point. Then you replay the game one more time and then you will get the “good ending”, and a special note from the developer.
As a side note: I did not try it out, but some of my friends said that after that you can play the game as a normal dating sim without the AG elements.
In short, you do not help your childhood friend and the other girls by helping them make every day a bit happier based on the choices and actions you make in-game, you help her by deleting a file in the game`s folder.
Man! I wish that would be how depression works.
This 4th wall breaking always cheapened all the in-game choices I made. It made them feel meaningless to me.
What Doki Doki ended up being was another augmented reality game with the goal of deconstructing the anime genre. I can still see why so many people like it, I can still understand why it has gotten the cult following it has. If you like it, great!
I do not think that Doki Doki is a bad game myself. On the contrary, I think it is a good game. Or more precisely, it is a good AR experience to go through. I even shared it with my friends, by recommending the game to them.
Yet, I think that this game missed an opportunity to properly explore the issues of mental illness. It`s a good augmented reality game. In fact, my favorite augmented reality game, but not a good horror game.
I applaud the developers for trying... Let`s leave it at that.
I know. Kinda harsh. But believe me, I still enjoyed the game — the characters, the music, the writing. I hope my friends will too. Plus, I am looking forward to seeing what Team Salvato will make next. :)