SPOILERS FOR DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB TO FOLLOWHave 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.
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.
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.
TAGS: [GAME=/game/doki-doki-literature-club.55935]Doki Doki Literature Club[/GAME]