Warning: This article contains discussions of mental health, self-harm and suicide, as well as spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club.
In the summer of 2015, someone found a wooden box left in a mall. Inside the box – clamped shut by elastic bands – was a detailed confession note, apparently written by a 19-year-old student who had recently killed a woman she’d come across in a grocery store “just to see what it’s like”. The person who found the box then took it home, typed out the confession, and uploaded it to Tumblr under the title ‘Linda Watson’ – the name of the victim who had been murdered. That post was then shared 379 times.
This is all bullshit, obviously. There was no box and there was no note. There was a Linda Watson – murdered in 2000 – but this has got nothing to do with her. Instead, it’s a story dreamt up by a 23-year-old guy from New Jersey called Dan Salvato. At the time, he was getting heavily into writing Creepypasta-style horror stories. But he also wanted to create something bigger, more immersive, something that truly broke the fourth wall. And so, he began working on a new ‘visual novel’ in secret, using the skills he’d learned as a proficient computer developer, coupled with an interest in anime and psychological horror.
Two years later, Doki Doki Literature Club was born. It was Salvato’s first ever computer game, and just three months after release, it had already been downloaded over one million times.
If you’re like me – neither at school, nor particularly into computer games – you might not have heard of Doki Doki Literature Club. But over the past year, it’s gained a cult following among young people and gamers for being a “cute-looking” romantic story about a school literature club with some extremely dark narrative twists.
These twists generally involve depictions of self-harm, suicide and violence, but they also involve some weird immersive psychological stuff, like characters becoming “self-aware” and telling you they can manipulate the game’s files to change the other character’s personalities, such as “making them more and more depressed.” You're also addressed by name throughout, and can choose what happens to different characters. Essentially, it's like a horror movie – except you're personally involved in the storyline – and it takes hours and hours to get through.
As with any pop culture phenomenon like this (see: Slenderman, 13 Reasons Why, Marilyn Manson’s entire career, literally anything seen to glorify violence or self-harm), Doki Doki Literature Club has quickly caused moral panic among schools and parents. Mostly, they're concerned about the game's disturbing content as well as how easily accessible it is for children (the game's developers claim it's suitable for over 13s and it's free-to-play. On top of that, from the outside it looks like any other anime-style computer game – even the music is cute.)
Complicating things further is the fact that two young teenagers in the UK recently died by suicide, their parents pointing to the game as an influence on their children in the months beforehand. In particular, the worry centred on how the game seems to blur the line between real life and fiction. The Greater Manchester police then issued a warning about Doki Doki's risks to vulnerable people, and The Sun predictably ran with the screaming headline: “KID KILLER Inside twisted Doki Doki Literature Club game which parents say caused ‘suicide’ of their children.”
Obviously, whatever angle you’re coming from, it’s hardly a laugh-a-minute watching an overtly sexualised cartoon school girl stab herself to death – and the idea that young kids might be seeing this feels particularly uncomfortable. Studies have shown that children's brains are particularly malleable and vulnerable to trauma, and even older teenagers are sensitive to outside influences while they're still developing, so it's reasonable to think something like Doki Doki could be damaging for younger viewers.
But you could also say the same thing for any piece of media that deals in dark or distressing themes, whether it’s an illegal stream of Hereditary or last week's episode of Love Island. What’s more important, surely, is that there are adequate support networks for kids and vulnerable people who might be struggling with their mental health, so that something like a computer game isn’t going to make things worse.
In 2014, a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that up until 2007, suicides in Europe had been declining. 2009, the year after the economic crash, saw a 6.5 percent suicide rate increase – a level that was sustained until 2011. Furthermore, mental health charity Young Minds has said that delays for treatment mean children are starting to self-harm as they wait for an appointment – and they are currently having to wait for up to 18 months.
In other words, it's probably far more helpful to focus on Britain's mental health crisis, rather than one single gory anime-style computer game. It's fucked up, sure, but what's more so is the fact that one third of NHS children's mental health services currently face cuts or closure, in addition to the relentless cuts to public health budgets in general.
As for Dan Salvato, he doesn't seem perturbed by the backlash. His game won the IGN People's Choice Award in every category last year, and it currently holds a 10/10 rating on Steam based on nearly 100,000 reviews. “People become disturbed when forced to think about things they don’t want to, or shown a reality that they always try to ignore,” he said in a recent interview. “But humans aren’t rational creatures. It’s when we’re emotionally charged that we become inspired to do something for ourselves, or for others.”