Truth be told, this post is pretty out of the ordinary for me to write. I’m not usually the kind of writer that talks about his personal feelings and emotions in his work, but after playing the 2017 free-to-play hit Doki Doki Literature Club (Hereby referred to as DDLC) I’ve decided that I have to talk about it, and why the writing within impacts me so strongly.
At a glance, DDLC looks like a corny romance Japanese visual novel designed to satisfy the cravings of hormonal teenagers. I’d be lying if I said that the game’s promotional art and synopsis didn’t make me want to roll my eyes. However, something caught my attention — on Steam, the top player-chosen tag for the game is “Psychological Horror”.
That piqued my interest, and I decided to give the game a shot, especially after seeing how the masses sang their praises for the title last year. And let me tell you: there couldn’t be a more accurate way to describe DDLC.
What initially starts off as a cutesy and ever-so-slightly lewd dating simulator grows into a subversive, mature, and complex swan dive into some very serious themes. These include abuse, self-harm, bullying, and — most relevant to this article — depression, among many, many more. But you might be thinking, “How does this relate to psychological horror?”
To me, the thing about DDLC that makes it terrifying is how real its depictions of these topics are, which are all explored within the narratives of the four in-game characters Sayori (left), Yuri (left-middle), Monika (middle-right), and Natsuki (right). It’s absolutely paralyzing to be confronted with these topics in a way that’s so familiar and so realistic that it makes you feel like you’re looking into a mirror in an age where most media fails to really capture how it feels to deal with these problems and situations.
I haven’t dealt with all of these issues, but I have dealt with some, the strongest of them being depression, which I’ve struggled with throughout my lifetime, especially in the last year. Here’s why DDLC’s coverage of it haunts me.
In DDLC, depression is explored through the character Sayori, who is the playable character’s childhood best friend. Throughout the majority of the game, she’s friendly, cheerful, silly, and cute — all she wants is for everyone to be happy. However, as time goes on, she begins to break down, and eventually you discover through an incomprehensibly emotional conversation with her that she’s lived with severe depression for her entire life. The only reason that she acts the way she does in front of you and her friends is so that she can hide her emotions.
This alone is already more accurate than other media; many people don’t understand that depression is often about feeling worthless and like a burden. It isn’t really so much about being sad, rather, it’s about feeling like you drain others of their happiness. And as Sayori’s two-dimensional cartoon sprite told me this through the lens of a lightly-animated visual novel, I instantly resonated with her more then I’ve ever resonated with a video game character in all of my time being a gamer.
At this point, the scene was already hitting me pretty hard. But what truly made it “incomprehensibly emotional” was how Sayori conveyed the details. As you desperately try to tell her that you’ll do anything, anything, to try and help her feel better, she simply smiles weakly and tells you that you don’t understand. Trying to care about her just makes her feel worse; by allowing her sadness to become noticeable and making you worried about her, she (in her mind) has become even more worthless because not only is she sad, she made you sad, too. She caused the one thing she wanted to prevent: loss of your happiness.
Of course, the in-game protagonist doesn’t understand or deal with depression, so he can’t fathom the complexity of it all so suddenly. But me? I understood it completely. In a way, it was like DDLC was showing me a version of myself, and that broke me. When I went through this scene, my hands were shaking and I was on the verge of crying. It got to the point where I actually had to physically take a break and return ten minutes later. I know that seems melodramatic, but it was such a sudden and effective twist that I was caught completely off guard.
Of course, DDLC hadn’t already ripped my heart out enough, so it decided it needed to do some more damage. It did that by displaying another effect of depression: the conflict between that feeling of thinking you’re a worthless burden, and the inevitable fact that you will grow close to someone around you.
In the game, Sayori can’t bring herself to stay away from you because she loves you. The two of them grew up together for almost twenty years; how can people with a connection like that not feel strongly about one another, regardless of it being romantic or platonic? And that’s one of the most painful parts about depression; in a situation like this, there’s no real way to escape from the pain you feel. Spend time with the people you’re close to and care about, and it makes you feel like you’re wasting their time and energy. Stay away from them, and you suffer from isolating yourself from the people that mean the most to you.
Again, it’s truly scary how accurate and realistically DDLC portrays this. Even the way that Sayori describes her pain is something I can relate to. Phrases like “spear through my heart”, “a bat swung against my head”, and “stabbed in the chest” are haunting, but something I understand.
There’s much more to talk about with this character and how she’s written, but honestly, I’ve said all I wanted to say regarding the topic at hand. Just know this: DDLC is scary not because of frightening imagery or because it preys on our nerves, but because it directly reflects the darkest parts of our personal experiences right into our face. This is how Sayori’s story haunts me; for you, it may be Monika’s, Yuri’s, or Natsuki’s, or maybe even a combination of all of them. I don’t know, because I’m not you. But I do know that DDLC is phenomenal, and that it’s one of the most intelligently-written games that I’ve ever played.