Doki Doki Literature Club Exposes the Shallowness of Video Game Romances
In order to throughly examine this work and provide fair criticism, this article contains spoilers.
You have been warned.
Romance mechanics have become increasingly prevalent in many games over the past few years. An ever growing number of RPG developers have incorporated optional relationships into their storytelling, and the dating sim genre has seen an explosion of activity in recent years. Doki Doki Literature Club, developed by Team Salvato, presents itself as a new, and admittedly trite, addition to that catalogue. Your character is tasked with the job of choosing which school club to join, and before long your best friend Sayori convinces you to join her literature club. Soon after, you meet the game’s bachelorettes: Yuri, Monika, Natsuki, and, of course, Sayori. After an initial playthrough of the main story, the game takes a major turn. It is actually a brutal psychological horror game that plays with many of the expectations that players have going in. Ultimately, DDLC confronts players with a reality in which characters can love you back—not the “you” in the game but the real you, and it has horrific results.
Recently, much has been written about video games and their ability to properly tackle certain subjects given their inherent win-loss structure. Where DDLC succeeds is by bringing this inconsistency to the forefront. The mechanics of the game are simple: every night the player character must write a poem that will be presented to each member of the club the next day. Players must choose specific words for each poem that match the poetic aesthetics of the character they are pursuing, and in doing so will endear that character to them during the initial playthrough. If the gameplay sounds shallow, that’s because it absolutely is. I found myself groaning at my character’s motivations; “the girls in the club are writing excellent, heartfelt, and tragic poems,” I thought, “why is the game so insistent on making me be a creep?” But it does not relent. In fact, once the story takes a turn towards the horrific, the game doubles down.
After Sayori’s suicide the game becomes briefly self-aware and deletes Sayori’s character file. The player is then forced to restart the story with only Yuri, Monika, and Natsuki as members of the club, and any acknowledgment of Sayori results in odd technical glitches and horrific imagery. As I began my second playthrough, I felt eager to explore the mystery of Sayori’s death and maybe even bring her back somehow. But instead my character went home that night and started writing poems again. DDLC separates the player from the character, forcing the person behind the screen to disconnect from the knowledge available to their avatar. It’s more than dramatic irony; it’s alienation—without the connection to the player character, the player themselves cannot trust their ability to interact with the game’s world.
The effect of this alienation is a critique of the larger concept of dating simulators and romance mechanics. In a typical romantic subplot, the player would choose from a pool of potential suitors and suitresses and begin the process of romance. This involves everything you may expect from giving the correct gifts to saying the right things. It becomes a sort of formula with good and bad options that can result in a win or a loss. It’s reductive, especially when compared to the complexities of romance in real life, and it shows one of the many shortcomings inherent within the traditional video game win-loss structure. While DDLC doesn’t recreate these structures, it does deconstruct them. By the time I was in my second run of DDLC, I was well aware that all of these characters were suffering immensely. Yuri was clearly engaging in self-harm; Natsuki had begun to hint at her troubled home life; and Monika had put just a bit of her obsessiveness on display. I felt compelled to help these characters or at least provide them with some sort of escape, but your character’s dialogue remains the same. He is in it for the girls, and the possibility of friendship doesn’t seem to interest him. He treats the girls like a player of any dating sim treats the characters presented to them, as meters to be filled and progression to be made. The inherent shallowness of the mechanics further critiques the genre as the player comes to realize that the gameplay does not matter during the second playthrough. Whichever words you choose will lead to Yuri’s death, and the word choices for each poem will eventually become unintelligible glitches. Choice is ripped from the player in a genre that is supposed to be about choice, and it stands as a brilliant critique of gaming’s limitations.
The second playthrough culminates in a moment of intense fourth-wall breaking. The game shifts from psychological horror to metafiction as the club’s president Monika takes over and deletes Yuri and Natsuki from the game. She teleports herself and the playable character into a room where the two will be perpetually trapped until the player goes into the game’s properties and deletes Monika from the game. Before this, however, Monika begins to explain a bit of what is going on. In short, the president of the Literature Club is the only person who is privileged to the fact that it’s all just a video game. In effect, Monika has not fallen for the playable character, but the player themselves. She is desperate to escape this virtual reality; she claims to want to be with the player in their reality. The scenario is brilliantly written, and it strikes at the core of Team Salvato’s purpose in creating this game. What if these characters were real? How would romance in games be different if the characters could choose and feel? The answers that Salvato comes up with are downright horrific, but they should make the player ponder the reality of romance compared to the version that is supplied within games. Games can make us feel a wide swathe of emotions from joy to sadness to fear, but love and romance are those that require emotion in return. They can’t survive forever without reciprocation, and it’s just one of the ways that games can fall short as a medium. This is not meant to discredit the art form or even the dating sim genre, but rather it is an invitation for games to explore NPC agency as a means for genuine connection.