"Doki Doki Literature Club" and the line between horror and tragedy

SPOILERS FOR DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB TO FOLLOW

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Have you ever tried to explain the premise of a great horror movie to someone and realize how stupid it sounds when you say it out loud? The idea of being frightened by something fictional we read or see on a screen is inherently a little silly. But with the proper emotional anchor, the terror connects to the audience, making it real and personal, and that silliness vanishes. It Follows wouldn’t be as haunting if we didn’t all know the feeling of an impending, unstoppable doom encroaching on us, even if it’s just the march of time. The Exorcist wouldn’t have its lasting power if it wasn’t for how well it depicts our uselessness at defending the most pure and helpless among us in truly dire circumstances. The Evil Dead wouldn’t pack the same punch if it didn’t capture our fear of isolation and the shock of the sudden loss of a loved one. These are all frightening realities of the world we live in, but they’re never specifically called out, merely incidental to the supernatural forces haunting our protagonists. How do things change when the human drama gets more focus than the supernatural or extraordinary evil?

Doki Doki Literature Club exists in this space. It made headlines upon release for its deceptive marketing, which promised a straightforward romance visual novel, hiding the horror elements waiting in ambush. This facade is also maintained for about half of the game’s runtime, where it establishes that emotional anchoring. You play as a young man convinced to join your high school’s poetry club by your childhood friend, Sayori. The club is populated by three other girls—moody Yuri, feisty Natsuki, and club leader Monika. Like any romance VN, you spend time with these girls and get to know them through conversation and by interpreting their poetry (there’s even a cute minigame where you get to create your own poems and certain words will gain you favour with a specific girl), until eventually they start telling you about their personal struggles. While the issues are a bit more bluntly real than the typically elaborate backstories girls get in romance VNs, like Natsuki’s troubles with her abusive father, the underlying emotions are in line with a typical VN experience and let you play the hero role by offering support. Nothing out of the ordinary so far.

DDLC 1.1.jpeg

DDLC 1.2.jpeg DDLC 1.3.jpeg

Things come to a head when Sayori, typically the bubbliest and most positive of the group, opens up to you about her depression. The scene connects easily because it lays out a grounded version of depression in simple, relatable terms, even to those inexperienced with mental illness. This leads to a scene shortly afterwards where Sayori confesses her love to you. Regardless of your response, she ends the scene devastated—if you reject her, she runs away sobbing; if you accept her, she feels hollow at the lack of joy your response brings her. When she doesn’t show up to school the next day, you go home to get her and, in the game’s most effective moment, find her hung in her bedroom.

It’s a moment of pure horror, not only because of what’s happening, but the superb direction takes it to the next level. For the first time, the scrolling text box is interrupted with a slam to the image of her room, allowing you a quick moment to absorb some of the details—the discarded, half-written suicide notes; the dried blood on her fingertips, indicating a struggle to get out of the noose—before trapping you in a close-up on her pale face. Combine that with this being the only scene not bathed in bright light, and the jarring break in visual style immediately throws you off. The deep, devastating first chord of the song emphasizes the pit forming in your stomach, and the broken remnants of the standard theme song struggling to break through remind you that there is no returning to normalcy from this. Your character stammers, not only failing to understand what he’s looking at, but in such a state of shock he can’t even express his bewilderment. He blames himself, thinks if he made a different decision when she confessed he could have saved her, but savvy players will realize that there was nothing that could have stopped this; the futility of your actions only amplifies the menace that depression wields. He laments that nothing in his life is as important as her, and accepts that he’ll bear the burden of guilt for the rest of his life, as the scene fades to an “End” screen and returns the player to the main menu. It’s a moment of tremendous impact, depicting in a real, personal way the enormous effects of depression and the shockwaves of guilt and grief that emanate from a suicide. It uses the language of horror films to place this real phenomenon at the same level of terror as the scariest stories humans have ever conceived. It’s, in a word, breathtaking.

DDLC 2.1.jpeg

DDLC 2.2.jpeg DDLC 2.3.jpeg

So…how am I supposed to be scared by glitchy text boxes and creepy anime girls after that? Doki Doki Literature Club restarts at this point, with Sayori absent and unremembered by the other characters. The second half serves mainly as a meta-commentary on visual novels, as the girls’ obsessiveness and dependency on you increases. Having already revealed itself as a horror game, it’s now free to fully indulge in the tropes of the genre. There are small audiovisual glitches to throw you off, mouse control is wrestled away until you make the decision the game wants, the girls will hold hard eye contact with you as unnaturally wide smiles spread across their face, before quickly snapping back to normal. You even have a few jump scares thrown at you. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, and it could be scary in theory, but it feels like a relief to realize you’re returning to the world of make believe after the harrowing, real world horror of Sayori’s death. The next girl’s death—she stabs herself repeatedly in the stomach after confessing her love to you—is so over-the-top and gory, in what seems like a shallow attempt to top the devastation of Sayori’s death, that it carries no weight. If it had been the first death it might have worked. The direction is still quite good, and the idea of taking a relatable feeling like an unrequited love but amplifying the unhealthy parts of it to a scary degree should connect. However, after the stakes are set at “real world tragedy” by Sayori, anything fantastical just feels silly.

Compare Doki Doki Literature Club’s treatment of depression with other horror properties that tackle the subject. Oftentimes, it’ll be represented indirectly by the monster in the story, such as the Babadook representing grief or the ghost in Lights Out representing major depressive disorder. This not only makes the supernatural elements scarier, as the audience understands that the ghost is simply an amplification of a real terror, but on a surface level it also lets the genre elements shine as it establishes a world where supernatural things like ghosts are the scariest things out there. If DDLC had done Sayori’s story later in the game, the more cliche horror moments would have worked because, while they're a bit over the top, they’re still grounded in relatable emotions and experiences, and then Sayori's death would have represented the transition from fantasy to reality. As it is, it simply stands as the perfect example of something that peaks too early and robs otherwise effective material of the forward momentum necessary to work.

:arrow: TAGS: [GAME=/game/doki-doki-literature-club.55935]Doki Doki Literature Club[/GAME]
 

Super.Nova

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I'm surprised this review came out so late, I thought it was released for the Switch.

I disagree that Sayori's death shouldn't have been the first as she was the most cheerful and least likely to have a tragic turn.
It's like the spark that tells you something is terribly wrong with this story and would never have the same effect by the death of any of the rest.
 
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gamesquest1

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I'm surprised this review came out so late, I thought it was released for the Switch.

I disagree that Sayori's death shouldn't have been the first as she was the most cheerful and least likely to have a tragic turn.
It's like the spark that tells you something is terribly wrong with this story and would never have the same effect by the death of any of the rest.
yeah I think the first death was the bridge from reality into crazy, to throw it in later on would dilute its sudden and unexpected impact and turn it into just another wacky crazy thing that happened, when I played it I had avoided any spoilers (although I had seen a lot of people saying it was crazy) and the first death was like wft :wtf:, it still felt like something that could happen albeit very unexpected, but shit like that happens in life
 
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RyRyIV

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The title of this post alone spoils and ruins the experience. That said, everybody played the game at this point so whatever.
So you’re not WRONG, but at the same time I feel like DDLC being a horror game is really common knowledge at this point. I know my first experience hearing about it was “that visual novel horror game.” It’s not exactly a well kept secret anymore, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone with an active interest in gaming who hasn’t at least heard about it.
 
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hamohamo

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So you’re not WRONG, but at the same time I feel like DDLC being a horror game is really common knowledge at this point. I know my first experience hearing about it was “that visual novel horror game.” It’s not exactly a well kept secret anymore, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone with an active interest in gaming who hasn’t at least heard about it.
The only person who spoiled the game for everybody since release is matpat. It was always a meme that one of the characters commits suicide but that's all that everybody knew until they played the game.
 

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OK, so here's my confusion with these kind of games/products of similar type. The look, feel, art style, menu style everything is GIRLY as if it's meant for GIRLS to play. BUT all the girls in the product are dressed and looking sexual, porny, so that means it's focused on MALE audiences.

So there's the confusion part, is this for males of for females into females?

Another thing, mostly these GIRLS are looking as UNDER-AGE, personally if I saw a grown up male of ~25+ playing thisI'd think he's either a pedohile or not really right up stairs, should get a real, alive girlfriend.
 
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RyRyIV

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...why is this a "gbatemp exclusive review"? :unsure: The game's been out for a couple years, and it's not like nobody has written a review for it before.

Ey...it's not even the first gbatemp review on the game. Unfortunately, I've got to agree with @hamohamo : you spoil the game even by mentioning its categories.
I think you’re confusing “review” with “essay.” What you’ve linked is a user review that covers the entirety of the game and gives some general thoughts. In fact, that review hardly touches on the “horror” aspect of the game.

What this is, is an essay detailing why relauby feels the first twist of the game works in the context of horror, yet the rest falls short. Nowhere is it claimed that “this is an exclusive review or Doki Doki Literature Club,” but rather “this specific essay is exclusive to GBAtemp.” It’s a fine line between “review” and “essay,” but this falls into the later for sure. The author isn’t reviewing a game as an entire product, but rather offering a very specific look at a specific aspect of the game. And in my opinion as a horror junkie, it’s a very well written, well thought out look at the games horror elements.
 

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...why is this a "gbatemp exclusive review"? :unsure: The game's been out for a couple years, and it's not like nobody has written a review for it before.
As RyRyIV stated, it's not really a review. It's not in the review section. And what you linked is not an official GBAtemp review on it anyway. It's a GBAtemp exclusive essay, as in relauby only posted it here.
 

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As RyRyIV stated, it's not really a review. It's not in the review section. And what you linked is not an official GBAtemp review on it anyway. It's a GBAtemp exclusive essay, as in relauby only posted it here.
(also @RyRyIV) yeah... I can follow that reasoning. I was a bit confused by that ' reviewer ' part, but that indeed doesn't make it a review. :)
 

nWo

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A good game. Played it a while back on PC, and recently on the Switch port again.

Your article is good, but when you mentioned It Follows and The Babadook, it took away all the seriousness on it. You could have mentioned some other horror gems, and not those recent and not-so-good filmes. (Is my humble opinion, we all have different tastes, but there being so many awesome horror hall of famers, why mention those recent and Hollywood-esque examples? Just my two cents) But all in all, it's okay, a good way to give a bit of light to this game again.

Other than that. yes, if anybody for any reason has not played this and they like visual novels and horror, this is one fine example of a great game.
 

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I always enjoy these kinda thinkpieces on games. I haven't actually tried DDLC, despite my love of visual novels, but I did appreciate the fact it tried to take cliche elements and put a spin on established tropes.

From what I know of the game, it's always been considered as this weird Undertale-esque thing, like, if you didn't play it within the month it launched, everyone and their dog ended up spoiling it. I can't help but think it's partly why I've never played it.
 

Ev1l0rd

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From what I know it's not the first time I've seen this opinion and honestly... I think that's somewhat the point.

I for one really liked sayori, and the twist out of nowhere hit really hard. The rest of the horror stuff scared me on the basic level that playing what you think is a cutesy vn at 2am (I somehow played this one unspoiled), but in retrospect is barely scary.

That said, I think using the way the game is set up (kind of a groundhog day loop), I'm happy that Sayoris twist came first. A lot of the latter two girls, Natsuki moreso (Yuri just really has a single gutpunch), suffer from having the horror cranked up fairly transparently, which makes them less impactful. Sayori works so well because her issues are given the proper screentime before the game twists itself, and because for once, the nameless MC self-insert doesn't magically solve her mental issues, which at least makes the portrayal somewhat more realistic compared to contemporary VNs. (The only one that kinda comes close to meaningfully discussing girls with serious issues is Katawa Shoujo, which is highly recommended -NSFW warning tho-).

That said, for me, everything to do with Monika just fell completely flat. It just landed poorly, although the file deletion twist was a neat one.

I think the game is the perfect price for what it tries to do in terms of being a parody, (which is free) and I genuinely would at least be interested in a more complete VN that doesn't try to be a meta-commentary on the nature of VNs.

Also the ARG was kinda fun, but idt it went anywhere?
 
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medoli900

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I don't feel like Yuri's death was "less" impactful than Sayori's. The fact that you had to wait minutes, with days slowly going by, staring at her corpse, is enough to really connect the player with the world. I don't remember Natsuki's route though, so I can't really comment on this part.
 

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I really wish you people would stop calling this game a horror game I mean really though all it is, is a sad game that goes into a touchy subject. Calling it a horror though is very misleading and made me waste my time on something that I may have enjoyed if at the time I was not looking for a horror game. That label ruined the future of me going back to play it to enjoy what it actually is. All in all that game will never be finished by me because of everyone suggested it as a horror game.
 

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