This past month, I interviewed for a job at a game company and had a gushing, energetic conversation with four staff members about how much we all loved the game Doki Doki Literature Club, a Japanese dating sim that’s taken the internet (and numerous awards) by storm.
Soon after, however, I had a long Skype conversation with my Ma. My Ma and I always have deep conversations, so to lighten the tone she asked what I was doing for fun. I got excited and told her I was watching a playthrough of DDLC, which was…
I stopped and realized how insane I was going to sound.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a game about madness, suicide, horror, and nihilism. It’s about wiping people from existence. It’s about manipulating people’s deepest, darkest desires. It’s about twisting love into horrifying parodies of itself. It’s about chipping away at reality until doubts begin to gnaw at your soul.
So why did the thought of sharing it with someone fill me with unironic, exuberant joy?
The Genius of Doki Doki Literature Club
DDLC is different from horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Dead Space, where the excitement among gamers comes from the thrill of a good, scary time surrounded by blood and monsters. We know where we stand with those games—we’re the squishy victim in a universe made of razor blades, and the fun comes from surviving.
Dating sims are not that. There are no sharp edges in them, because dating sims are meant to be dollhouses where the player is in control, and all the characters exist only to titillate and excite them. The fun comes from forgetting (for a while) that this is a game and losing ourselves in the fantasy. There have been some fucked-up dating sims (e.g,, the murderous professor in the infamous fever dream called Hatoful Boyfriend), but the vast majority of them play upon the knowledge that the player is here for some light, romantic fun. It’s hard to find a more ephemeral genre than the dating sim.
…which makes it doubly disturbing when you play through DDLC and start watching the game break down all the comfortable walls between you and the game. Then the chilling realization hits you: DDLC isn’t just three steps ahead, it’s gotten so far ahead of you that it’s been patiently waiting for you to catch on from the beginning.
But that kind of detached, cerebral appreciation for a well-crafted story isn’t what I felt. I doubt it’s what anyone felt their first time, because even as the game breaks the fourth wall again (and again [and again]), the emotional core of the game comes from truly caring about the characters, even after you acknowledge (in your mind) that they’re all fictional. I cared about Sayori and genuinely, genuinely wanted to help her, just like I wanted to show Yuri that she could be herself and help Natsuki become more comfortable with the idea that someone could be her friend.
DDLC doesn’t provoke a golf clap from those who play it, even after all the tricks are revealed. It provokes a white-knuckled fear, a creeping anxiety that breaks into wide-eyed, nihilistic emptiness deep down in your soul.
So I return to my original question, and the strange position I found myself in when Skyping with my Ma: if Doki Doki Literature Club is a truly disturbing nightmare of a game, why did I feel so much joy at the prospect of talking about it? Where did this sense of life-affirming exuberance come from?
I think there’s an argument for catharsis, that playing through a game that evokes such strong emotions is sort of like a release valve for all the stress, sadness, and anxiety we have pent up within us. For me, though, I think the answer is different—it has to do with gazing into the abyss.
I think there’s something wonderfully freeing about staring into the abyss, because the ultimate home of the abyss is within ourselves—that deep-rooted emptiness that we try to fill with things like careers, accomplishments, and pleasures. It becomes exhausting to keep fleeing from it and blocking it out, pretending that I really am all the things I present myself to be. When things threaten that image of myself, my instinct is to repair the damage before I lose everything and have to face the abyss, which has always been there. But if I’m being honest with myself, truly honest, I know that image of myself is a fabrication.
DDLC is about tearing away illusions: the characters, the gameplay, the plot are all fabrications, except for Monika (according to her). As Monika strips it all away, I’m forced to examine what was real: my feelings, my desires, my actions. Why did I act the way I did? Why did I feel the way I did? Why did I want to romance one character instead of another? And when it all comes crashing down, what kind of person am I? Everyone in DDLC loved me, even Monika, but only I know my thoughts. And as the game shifted, only I remain the same. Who am I?
Beneath all my desires and actions is the abyss.
I don’t imagine ‘the abyss’ to be an unavoidable force for entropy, lethargy, depression, and self-destruction. If anything, it’s the on part of myself that I think I need to understand better. After I’ve spent enough time gazing into the abyss, I gain a clearer perspective on life: I get a better sense of what’s important to me and what are just distractions or my own illusions (something Yuri deals with). After touching that immovable sense of nothingness at the core of my being, I feel free, even energized. It’s like I’ve let go of all the things that were weighing me down.
The feeling reminds me of two quotes. The first is from Jacob’s Ladder:
“If you’re afraid of dying, and you’re holdin’ on, you’ll see devils tearin’ your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freein’ you from the world. It all depends on how you look at it.”
I think undergoing the small ‘death’ that comes from touching upon the abyss does something like that: it frees you of the self-destructive things you’re holding onto and shows you that you don’t need them, and they don’t define you. At the same time, it illuminates the beautiful things in your life…only, you realize that every part of life suddenly seems beautiful. As Franz Kafka put it:
“The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order to later rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.”
Doki Doki Literature Club is a terrifying, disturbing game. It’s upsetting, sometimes even disgusting. But instead of doing all of that for the sake of shocking people, I feel like the game’s intent, as Yuri says, is to change the way we see the world, if even if it’s only a small change. I think it accomplished that for me. It changed the way I looked at stories, at life, and what is possible with writing.
This is my experience. Maybe other people felt the same way. As to its widespread popularity, I have this to say:
Anime and otaku culture have become synonymous with modern “internet” culture, which seems preoccupied with deconstruction, nihilism, and exploring the darkest depths of the human experience, all while maintaining an ironic, irreverent attitude. I think Doki Doki Literature Club speaks the language of the lonely young men and women who have invested more and more of their lives in an intangible world of video games, websites, and increasingly elaborate memes. These are the same people who embrace meaningless and absurdism while constantly pushing away the acknowledgement that they’re not happy with their lives and are escaping into fantasies rather than dealing with their problems.
DDLC tears down the comfortable, familiar fantasy of a Japanese dating sim and starts crossing over into reality, leaving the player nowhere to escape to or hide. You’re not playing an idealized avatar anymore, you’re you dealing with a situation that has spun out of control and left you heartbroken, frightened, or disturbed. In this sense, DDLC takes a fake experience (dating fictional anime girls) and creates a real one (reflection upon the nature of DDLC’s fantasy, and reflection upon oneself), all while giving a strong enough framework to make sense out of it all.
That unexpected encounter with reality is powerful, and I think it resonated with a lot of gamers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the name of the ending song to the game is “Your Reality.”