Warning: This article contains discussions of mental health, self-harm and suicide, as well as spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club.
Combining a cutesy veneer with a meta-textual horror elements, Team Salvato's visual novel, Doki Doki Literature Club, has developed a reputation as a subversive visual novel that takes the tropes of the genre and turns them on their head to provide a sharp takedown of its medium.
Be it in Steam reviews for the game, YouTube videos, or chatter on major gaming sites, Doki Doki Literature Club garnered a strong reputation for subverting its audience's expectations. But while its dark twists might have been effective, the reaction to it frustrated me for the way it often dismissed the genre's history and the lineage of the meta elements it employs.
Underlying many of Doki Doki Literature Club’s subversive elements are familiar tropes of anime and visual novels. In fact, in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Hiroki Azuma makes the case that one of the defining characteristics of modern day otaku culture is its propensity towards post-modernity.
In this post-modern state anime, and other visual media, exist as objects with a baseline awareness of the traditions, both artistic and societal, that form the structure of modern art.
One of the most obvious instances of postmodernism in Doki Doki Literature Club is its breaking of the fourth wall—a technique that is present in many similar games, some of which Dan Salvato, the lead developer, cites as his inspirations.
A quick rundown for those unfamiliar with Doki Doki Literature Club's plot and the way it breaks the fourth wall: The game is initially presented a straightforward romance visual novel whereby you are inducted into the titular club, and then are free to pursue the affections of one of several girls, Sayori, Yuri, Natsuki, and Monica, each representing different romantic archetypes. There you participate in poem writing exercises that will help impress your chosen interest, but eventually this cutesy veneer begins to break down as dialogue and messages hint at a darker tone, and the characters' poems take a similar bend.
By the end of the first "playthrough" you'll start becoming privy to each characters' particular mental afflictions, taking the form of severe depression or self-harming tendencies. Though you may start a romantic relationship with her, and promise to help her through her troubles, the first run ends when you find your childhood friend, Sayori, has died by suicide.
From here the game "restarts" and begins again as if Sayori was never part of it. As it plays on the game begins to become corrupted from her absence, and other characters begin to act more erratic, performing extreme forms of their previous self-harming behavior and acting incredibly aggressive. Doki Doki Literature Club finally ends after each of these girls is picked off in gruesome ways, and Monica, the last girl left, reveals it was all a ploy from her to get you, the player, not the character, to love her. By manipulating system files you can get her to finally remove herself from the game, and restart as if she never existed, showing you the final credits.
What was so effective here was misdirection of the cutesy, frivolous story it initially seems to be and the dark tale that Doki Doki Literature Club ends up telling. But DDLC is hardly alone in the way it combines the cute and the disturbing. Rather than seeing the game in opposition to its medium, it might be more useful to see the ways that it is part of that ongoing conversation.
Just one month before DDLC hit Steam, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows released, the second in the Yomawari series and part of a succession of games by Nippon Ichi, alongside A Rose in the Twilight and The Firefly Diaries, which mix cute character designs with disturbing settings. These, too, are only recent entries in that format. In an interview on Kotaku, Salvato himself cited Eversion, Irisu Syndrome and Yume Nikki as inspirations for DDLC, indie games which initially seem pedestrian before revealing their darker sides.
In fact, Doki Doki Literature Club’s owes a lot to games in the indie and doujin space. The aforementioned Eversion began as part of TIGSource’s Commonplace Book Competition, a Lovecraft themed game jam patterned after the book which Lovecraft kept short snippets of ideas in. Yume Nikki is a horror exploration game with a cult following, which went on to inspire several fangames in the absence of its creator, and inspiring parts of RPG Maker games like Ib, LISA, and Undertale.
A constant meta-textual conversation existed within those spaces. Games like This is the Only Level and Achievement Unlocked played with the framework of games and fourth wall breaks. Jesse Venbrux’s Execution gives you a single action, but permanent consequences for it, while his game series, Karoshi, invert the typical goal of surviving and tasks you with killing yourself to progress. Karoshi 2 in particular is notable for the way operates outside the usual restrictions of games, with some solutions requiring you to mess around in the game’s menus, or play a CD from your disc tray.
Even the sarcastic self-critique of games like Hotline Miami began with Jonatan “cactus” Söderström’s early work in games like Psychosomnium, which similarly required you to work against the ingrained language of games to progress. Each of these games, along with countless others, quietly formed a dialogue exploring the boundaries of the form.
This is all before you even get into the self-aware and referential nature of anime and visual novels themselves, which has always been more complex and multifaceted than many Western audiences realize. A play between fulfillment and subversion of genre tropes and archetypes has become a key part of the modern anime and game landscape. It’s also part of the commercial reality of these projects. Despite the size of the market, both within Japan and outside it, anime and related media still remains relatively niche. Otaku focused media can become dependent on this small group, and becomes caught in a back and forth between pandering to this need for wish fulfillment and operating creatively inside these established frameworks.
This back and forth feeds into visual novels. Like anime, despite the size of the market, the audience remains small. Visual novels often occupy a niche within an already niche medium, and this has led to many games seeking appeal via gratuitous displays of sexual content, with some even going so far as to include explicit sexual scenes. At times these can feel almost obligatory, and often these scenes and even references to them are removed when the games are ported to consoles for a wider audience. Several anime series, such as Utwarerumono and Fate/Stay, have roots in games with erotic scenes, though they no longer contain explicit material.
The visual novel space has also been crucial to the development of games made by and for women. Companies such as Otomate, known for their work on the Hakuoki series, have made a name for themselves developing visual novels for women, which explore surprising diversity of narrative genres and themes. Larger companies like Koei, known for their historical games like Nobunaga’s Ambition and Dynasty Warriors, have also played a significant role in developing these women focused games. With the creation of Ruby Party, a team made exclusively of women, and the development of Angelique, a romance focused sim, Koei helped establish the “otome” or “maiden” game genre, which flourishes to this day.
Parallels can also be found to the Hidden Object genre, where developers like Her Interactive and Big Fish Games have created numerous adventure games for a casual audience. Games like the Nancy Drew and Drawn series effortlessly tell stories centered around women, and often star women protagonists.
These are areas the mainstream games industry has notably struggled with, but despite that, these games are generally excluded from the conversation about developing women led stories in games or in discussions of the “death” of the adventure game. Similar sentiments plague visual novels, which are often dismissed as pornographic fodder, or for their focus on romance, despite the breadth of stories within the medium. There's a clear sense that part of their dismissal lies in their feminine trappings and lack of mechanical systems.
Between the popular narrative about the genre, and its niche nature, it can be difficult to see where all these histories coalesce. For the purpose of understanding Doki Doki Literature Club, one particular novel stands out, Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi, also known as The Love Between You, Her and Her, or Totono. In it we see all the devices that worked for Doki Doki Literature Club. This Reddit thread gives a thorough synopsis, but here’s the basic beats:
It’s a school romance once again, involving a love triangle between a childhood friend, Miyumki, and a troubled, pink haired girl, Aoi. Aoi has a tendency to say strange things, sends messages to God on her cell phone, and makes suspicious comments that hint at the fourth wall. The game reveals itself after the first ending with Miyuki is done, and Aoi’s route is attempted, where the protagonist finds it strangely difficult to get close to her. Each attempt will end up with the protagonist getting together with Miyuki, with dialogue changes that get progressively darker. After a few loops of this main route he hooks up with Aoi, where several plot twists occur. During this route Miyuki has been stalking you, and turns up to murder both Aoi and the protagonist for cheating on her (even though in this timeline the protagonist hasn’t confessed to her).
This is when Miyuki is revealed to be self-aware, and her jealousy and murderous rage were spurred not by the protagonist’s actions, but the player. This romantic obsession with the player causes her to crash the game, rewrite the interface to prevent the player from being with anyone else, and delete their save data. From here the final ending can only be achieved by going outside the game and subverting her control.
Sounds familiar, right? In fact most of the core beats from Doki Doki Literature Club will be familiar here. Given the similarities you’d be forgiven for thinking Salvato was inspired by Totono, but he’s said on Twitter that he only became aware of the game after development was finished. That seems believable enough, since Totono never received an English translation, and information about it only exists on forums and online videos of its endings. What ties these two games together is this long history of postmodern thought within anime, and their intentions to turn its commodified cuteness on the player.
If we dig even deeper, we can see that the emotional cores of each are rooted in the yandere anime archetype. Yandere builds on a history of scornful women, and is marked by a loving and caring demeanour, which turns possessive and violent, to the point of killing any rivals in love, or even the mark of their affection, in order to protect those feelings.
In some ways, this trope can be seen as a response to the commodification of cuteness and affection within anime. As Ana Matilde Sousa points out in Yangire/Yandere: a tour of the “poisonous girls” in Japanese animation and beyond, if “‘cuteness is an aesthetization of powerlessness’, the yangire and yandere may be perceived as a revenge of the ‘cutied’ subject, sadistically lashing out against their master’s sadism.” As Sousa points out, these violent tendencies often occur in reaction to past trauma, giving some acknowledgement, however problematic, of the societal violence inflicted on these women.
This makes the yandere archetype a useful vehicle for delivering the type of accusations the fourth wall breaks of Totono and Doki Doki Literature Club employ. Anime and visual novels often leave their protagonists as nothing more than a cipher for the audience, giving them powerful control over the narrative, despite, or even because of, their extremely mundane personalities. Both games directly point out the unfairness in this, drawing attention to how only the player has control over who achieves happiness, and even implying that the other girls are doomed to be miserable without them.
Each game’s yandere characters turn that desire to be centered, and the obsession with that powerless cuteness, to be turned into a violent threat against the audience.
Of course even this has been commodified, and even with the extreme hostility towards the audience, a yandere character can still be seen as appealing and even desirable, given a sympathetic story. Indeed, both Totono and Doki Doki Literature Club build sympathy for their antagonists, in an effort to give weight to the selfishness of the player actions that drove them to violence. And once again, the tension between wish fulfillment and self-reflection reveals its pull, and ultimately both games allow the player a happy, if bittersweet, ending to reach some closure.
Maybe neither of them could escape the need to give their audience that saccharine sweetness they craved. Or maybe, after all that they put you through, they found something salvageable in these escapist fantasies.