Warning: this article is about a psychological horror video game. Not only does it contain spoilers, but the game itself touches on issues of suicide, self-harm, child abuse, manipulation, and stalking/obsession. Please keep all of this in mind before deciding to read this article or play the game!
Doki Doki Literature Club, the horror game set in a literature-based dating simulator, is probably my favorite horror media out there. It inspired me to dive deeper into horror, and to be less afraid of… being afraid. I respect it for a lot of reasons as a piece of media, and because of that, I’m going to dive deep into why that is.
After all, what is literature club without some analysis?
Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) is a wonderful example of using your medium as a part of your story, not just a vessel. Sometimes we pick a medium for the ease at which we can create stories for it, or to target a certain audience; but DDLC is a video game about video games to an extent, and uses the fact that it is a video game (not a book or a movie) to tell its story.
Part of the gameplay includes interacting with the actual game files, and without that type of interaction, the horror would not hit as hard as it does. I’d even argue that it would fall flat; I feel the actual written words are a little clichéd and trope-y. As it is, it’s almost better to brand DDLC as an experience using video games as a medium rather than an actual video game. Without getting into an argument over whether or not static visual novels are video games per se, I’ll just say that DDLC is crafted as an interactive narrative more than anything else and that is exactly what it needs to be.
It’s kind of like performance art. The real value comes from the viewer’s interaction with the piece than it does traditional measures of quality. I’ve seen plenty of performance art along the lines of “we dumped this candy in the corner to see what people do,” and “if I submit a signed urinal to a museum, will they put it on the wall?” A lot of people rate this art as “lazy” and I’d imagine that people would say the same about DDLC. But in both cases, the value doesn’t come from how many hours and how much skilled penmanship it took to sign that urinal, or how much technical craft went into DDLC’s art and writing. Rather, the artistic value comes more unadultered from the artist’s brain; you get to see the questions they wanted to ask (and force you to ask) with minimal painted-on veneers.
But what questions does DDLC ask? In my opinion, the biggest theme of DDLC is “where does reality begin and end,” and that is what gives it its horror aspect. It’s one thing to hear a ghost story about a place you’ve never been and will be, but to have a fictional character address you by your actual name and demand the ability to determine her own destiny puts Scary in your own home. If you’re like me, and find questions around the state of reality and the concept of free will to be absolutely terrifying, you’ll probably be delightfully disturbed by DDLC.
Yes, the art and writing could have been better on a purely technical level, but they didn’t need to be. The real story of DDLC isn’t the one written in dialogue screens and narration; it’s the interactions between you and your computer (or Switch or PS4). You’re probably not actually afraid of corrupted text (or the words typed within it), but rather what broken text in a closed ecosystem like a computer conveys. You might be disturbed by watching a dead girl for an entire in-game weekend, but the true disturbance comes from the prospect of being trapped in a Wrong place because reality is corrupted. The moments on a first play-through where you don’t know when you’re going to be freed from that hell is something that can’t be written so much as timed. Which, to be fair, is writing craft in itself. It’s one thing to read “you watch a young woman bleed out over 48 hours”, and another thing to just… watch. To sit with your fear. To wonder, in your actual, meatspace brain, when you can move on. To press the fast-forward button and still feel trapped. To maybe even restart your game, only to reload in the exact same hell until finally, you endure.
That’s what Doki Doki Literature Club is. It’s not a visual novel with slightly clichéd writing and hokey animation effects; it’s everything around the novel too. Even the fanbase is a part of the experience; mass hysteria and fear is the worst and best kind.
Anyways, that’s a lot of words to say that I heavily recommend playing Doki Doki Literature Club, especially if you want to write media that people truly interact with on a visceral level, and especially if you’re the kind of perfectionist who never lets anybody consume your work. We as writers can get very caught up with our craft, always trying to say things in a clever way, muttering to ourselves to Show, not Tell, and beating ourselves up over the grammatical mistakes that slip through editing. Sometimes we get so caught up with perfection that we try to hide our work away, like it’s Schrödinger’s Novel; neither good nor bad if it’s never read.
The thing is, that’s a problem; a story isn’t told until someone else has experienced it. Quite frankly, your story is never going to be the letters and spaces and careful punctuation you put on the page. Your story is going to live in the late nights the reader spends with it, in the dreams they have of characters you crafted, in the fan works that they go on to spawn from it. You don’t need perfection. You need to craft feelings that somebody else can take and morph into their reality. That job, in itself? That’s your reality.
My writing advice? Just move your hand, write the way into their hearts…