Warning: Spoilers ahead
Toward the end of last year, I kept seeing Doki Doki Literature Club pop up on best of lists. Somehow, this free game that appeared to be an anime dating sim was leaving its mark on one of the best years ever in gaming. After finally realizing that I could download Steam on my Mac, I decided to give it a try and see what everyone was raving about. I had heard nothing was as it seems in this game and that it would mess with your head, so I did not go in completely blind. But nothing could have prepared me (or my poor friend Trey who I later convinced to play and whose reaction is captured at the end) for what was to come.
Despite a warning for those suffering from depression and anxiety playing before you even start the game, the only way this game was messing with my head at the onset was making me feel a little bit like a perv playing an anime dating sim. You begin by meeting the four girls in the literature club and writing a poem tailored toward one of them to share the following day. Once you begin sharing your poems, though, it becomes apparent that there is a lot more going on. Your friend Sayori’s poem is clearly about depression, and the game takes a sharp turn. You’re now spending moments getting closer to whoever liked your poem the best, but there’s a sense of unease because you know it’s increasingly making Sayori more and more upset.
I now had a choice to make. It was time to prove to Sayori that I cared about her and was going to help her get better, but she didn’t see things that way. After giving possibly the best explanation of what depression is like that’s ever been in a video game, Sayori insists that you don’t try to save her and that there’s nothing you can do. But this is a video game after all, and there’s always a way to win in those.
Warning: Major spoilers that you should avoid if you ever plan to play the game ahead.
It turns out, however, that there is no way to win this one. When Sayori doesn’t show up for the big festival and you go to check on her, I was in no way prepared for what I was going to find. Sayori had killed herself and the game was making me feel like I was to blame. What if I had chosen a different option the last time we spoke? It was the most gutted I had felt from a video game since Aerith’s surprise death in Final Fantasy VII, and I had spent probably over a dozen hours bonding with her and a mere two with Sayori. It was ok, though, I had a save file, so I could just go back to before that conversation. As much as I wanted to hit restart, I couldn’t. My save file was now corrupted and the text on the screen was glitching out. I would have to start a new game.
Immediately, it was clear that this new game was not in any way like the first go-round. Strange glitches started happening whenever Sayori should have been mentioned. The Literature Club now consisted of just three people, and text was frequently overwritten with what seemed to be cries for help. The game was now openly antagonizing me, the player, not the character. My mouse was being forced to gravitate to answers I did not want to select, and all of the characters were now far more agitated with the initial attempts at being cute replaced by fighting, cursing, and dark secrets coming to light. Following the disturbing death of another character, what’s going on becomes clear. The club’s president, Monika, has become self aware that she is in a game, and she has tweaked the other character’s code to ensure that you pick her to be with. You find yourself stuck in an endless loop where it’s just you and Monika with no clear way out. You cannot save or load. It’s just the two of you for eternity.
Games messing with your head and breaking the fourth wall are nothing new. The most famous example is probably Psycho Mantis reading your save files in Metal Gear Solid or the old 1993 X-men game on Sega Genesis where you keep getting told to reset and can’t get out of the stage until you literally hit reset on your system. Doki Doki Literature Club takes this to an entirely new level, however. As Monika explains how she deleted the other girls so you could be together forever, it becomes clear what you must do. You have to find her game files and remove her from the game.
Following deletion, the game glitches again to a third play-through where everything finally seems to be happy. Monika is gone and all of your old friends are back. Even Sayori seems to no longer be suffering from overwhelming depression. But then the first day ends, and Sayori thanks you for getting rid of Monika. It turns out the club leader is destined to always become self-aware, and the remnants of Monika still in the source code decides the game itself must be deleted to save the vicious cycle from repeating. As the credits roll, you hear the first voice in the entire game as Monika plays a truly haunting song on the piano and all the images begin to slowly erase themselves. There is no starting a new game after this because the files are gone. All you get is a note from the devs and an error message (well that, and the inability to sleep for the next few hours as your brain tries to process all that just happened).
DDLC screwed with my brain in a mere 4 hours more than anything has in a long time. I find myself caught between wanting to recommend all of my friends play it so we can talk about it and wanting to spare them that jarring experience. Hell, I even waited over a week to publish this post until I got feedback from another human on their experience with the game. This horror game will stick with me for a long time, and by subverting my expectations at every turn, it proved why it belongs to be mentioned among the best games of 2017. Fortunately for me and you readers, Trey sent me repeated chats throughout his blind play-through of the game which were by far the highlight of my week.
Here they are for your enjoyment:
And that is why I love video games so damn much.