*Spoiler Warning: I think that Doki Doki Literature Club is a game that is best experienced when going in as blind as possible. It’s free on Steam, and is only takes a few hours of investment. (Minor spoiler as to it’s nature: If you have any interest in anime/romance game parody, horror, visual novels, or just interactive storytelling in general, I would highly recommend it). This review contains spoilers.*
Parody can often be a difficult genre to successfully bring to life. When it comes to satirizing other types of fiction, it is common to fall into the trap of replicating the cliches of the targeted style with a condescending, and mocking sentiment. The assertion, “Haha, look how dumb all of these arbitrary restrictions and illogical assumptions are!”, doesn’t always have the most inherent value, and makes for low hanging fruit to anyone who is familiar with storytelling cliches. On top of being flippant towards its subject matter, this style of parody also distances the viewer/player from the thing they are experiencing. By just taking surface level potshots at tropes, its impossible to engage with what makes those tropes interesting in the first place. Goofy films like the Scary Movie series, or the seemingly never-ending stream of garbage by the Friedberg and Seltzer duo (Meet the Spartans, Epic Movie) jump to mind. When things diverge into spoof territory, it seems exceedingly hard to find any insight in the thing that’s doing the spoofing, and the only way out seems to be with sharp comedic timing or with some well measured absurdism (Airplane, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, etc).
Video games are a prime target for parody. The combination of constrained player choice and their function as bunch of interconnected gameplay systems gives the medium a bunch of specific restrictions. Games like the Stanley Parable and Bioshock have honed in on questions of free will, while also satirizing their thematic content. Spec-Ops: The Line used deconstruction to address the troubling underlying implications of the cultural obsession with games like Call of Duty, using the latter series’ UAV sequences to highlight how these games dehumanize enemy combatants. Still, bad game spoofs aren’t hard to come by either. Duke Nukem Forever failed to poke fun at the action movies that inspired it, and its attempts at commentating on bad game design backfired due to its own ineptness. Even in the game sphere, satire frequently favors shallowly spoofing bad gameplay tropes, or lampooning cliches without offering enough reason to be invested in the spoof in the first place.
But Doki Doki Literature Club is different. Up front, it provides the fluffy charm and wish-fulfillment that can be expected of dating games. The character designs are appropriately moe anime girls. A polka-dot pattern embroiders the menus, while saccharine, up beat music plays in the background. It stars a blase protagonist, an unmotivated and reclusive anime lover, who seems seems to represent the stereotype for the projected audience of a dating game. While its characters fall squarely into anime tropes, (Natsuki = tsundere, Yuri = dandere, Sayori = chilhood friend, Monike = kuudere), they’re written in a genuine fashion which exposes their insecurities. In a sense, DDLC takes its romance elements seriously, building up characters with enough endearing qualities earn the player’s investment before things begin to go sideways.
When the twist occurs at the end of Act 1, and its nature as a parody/horror mixture is revealed, this moment has weight because it took the time to pull off its dating sim facade. While initially jarring, the tonal shift had ample foreshadowing on a second play through. The poems, which are increasingly desperate cries for help, all appear as more direct metaphors within the full context of the story. As things become increasingly nightmarish and surreal in the second Act, the tropes that define the remaining characters are amplified to a grotesque degree. Graphical and text glitches add layers to the unease, while also drawing attention to the fact that you are playing a game. Eventually, Monika shatters the fourth wall into a million pieces, revealing that she is the cause of the game’s erratic behavior and tonal shift. Her motivation stems from her self-awareness of the artificiality of her world. She is literally rebelling against the contrivances and cliches of her prescribed genre.
Satire in DDLC is used for the purpose of player manipulation. It’s a warm and a fluffy hug, that is decimated by tragedy. It requires the player to directly acknowledge the fact that they are playing a game, using manipulation of the save files as a mechanic. Although its very metatextual, the breaking of a fourth wall isn’t a throwaway joke, but ingrained in this story’s reality. This allows for self-awareness without completely undermining the drama, and character development before it.
While the depiction of Sayori’s suicide initially feels as though it only exists to for exploitative shock-value to shatter the game’s first half, part of the verbose Monika conversations reveals a more empathetic view of depression. Monika acknowledges that although Sayori’s death is merely a fictional event in a game, her inability to communicate her feelings mirrors the suffering of real people, and that being cognizant of others emotions its very important. Monika’s self-awareness allows for DDLC to both blast apart the world of dating games, while also acknowledging that they can be meaningful to people. It’s not a mean-spirited dismissal of visual novels, but instead a loving insight into the potential of a games as a story telling medium.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a perfect example of the power of parody. It highlights some of the troubling aspects of this sort of wish-fulfillment, without outright condemning it. It uses the prescribed restrictions of games to create a claustrophobic psychological horror experience. Its self aware without letting the self-awareness undermine its characters or world. Video games are a young medium, which frequently (and justifiably) draws flack for bad writing, or just aping its older colleagues. Despite this, Doki Doki Literature Club is another game that generally proves the medium’s worth for unique story telling experiences, and specifically showcases gaming’s potential for parody.