Media Non-Fiction

CALL THE FBI: ‘Doki Doki Literature Club’ as Satire

DDLC points out where dating sims have gone wrong, then tries to draw a roadmap for where they could go next.

Just a heads up before we start: this discusses some disturbing topics. If you’re not able for that, then seriously consider giving this one a miss. Now…

Doki Doki Literature Club is a visual novel and dating sim made almost single-handedly by one Dan Salvato. It maintains its cutesy surface for about three hours before diving into psychological horror territory.

A lot has been said about DDLC already, especially on YouTube. But, most of the commentary has focused on how spooky it is, the cool meta elements, and theorising about stuff like the third eye. All of this is fascinating but I haven’t seen a close look at the game’s satirical elements. So, that’s what we’re going to do here today.

The Basics

Because it’s literally not as advertised, Dan Salvato decided to make DDLC free to download. If you have the time and you’re interested, I’d recommend checking it out and experiencing it first-hand. Nerd culture takes spoiler warnings too seriously but it’s genuinely fascinating to watch the game unfold with its various unexpected turns. I’ll break this down quickly all the same. If you already know all this stuff, please bear with me.

You play as a stereotypical dating sim protagonist: that is to say, an arrogant douche. You’re dragged into the new Literature Club in your high school. From there, you’re presented with three cute anime girls who you can flirt with. Sayori is your sunny childhood best friend, Yuri is reserved and intense, and Natsuki insults you because she thinks that’s what flirting is. There’s also Monika, the leader of the group who you can’t flirt with or date.

This plays out for a few hours. You write poems to impress them, you go down one of the narrative routes depending on who you flirt with best, and so forth. Things take a bit of a turn when childhood friend Sayori reveals that she’s been depressed her whole life.

The crucial midpoint of the whole game comes when you enter Sayori’s room the next morning to find she’s hanged herself. Then the game seems to end and send you back to the main menu.

Except, of course, it’s not over. When you start a new game, everything plays out a little differently. The game itself seems to be falling apart at the seams. Ultimately, Club President Monika reveals that she knows she’s a character in a video game and that she has special powers over the game code.

The whole thing culminates with Monika deleting everyone in the game so that she’s the only one left. What she wanted all this time was to have you to herself – not the in-game avatar but you, the player. To defeat her, you have to go into the game’s files and delete her character file. And that’s the end, except for the part where everyone is restored only to be quickly deleted again. If you didn’t follow all of that ending, I assure you it makes more sense when it plays out slowly.

Clearly, this game is spooky as all heck. The metatextual play is entertaining and creepy, especially in the endgame. More than that, I think it’s reasonable to say that an anime dating sim that turns into horror halfway through is probably trying to say something about anime dating sims.

 

Let’s dig deeper…

Let’s start with Sayori. The cheerful, clumsy best friend is a pretty common character trope in anime and dating sims. Sayori starts out perfectly consistent with it: being late to school, being loud and clumsy and kind of embarrassing, the pink hair with a bow.

Later, it turns out that Sayori acts so sunny all the time because she’s depressed. As Sayori talks about her mental illness, the player learns that she isn’t just a cliché archetype. She more closely resembles an actual person. I think what the game is trying to do here is take a dig at representations of cute anime girls with shallow, cutesy characterisation. It also shows that the reason that she’s cute on the surface is a consequence of her mental illness.

Another girl you can date is Yuri. She’s also clearly based on an anime character trope: she’s the reserved but intense type. She’s a bookworm, she likes tea. It takes a while to coax her out of her shell. Once you start to connect, her attraction to you becomes a little intense and obsessive; some people are into that, apparently. All around, Yuri is the kind of girl for thoughtful, sensitive guys who are attracted to intelligence (and big boobs).

Yuri’s deconstruction is even more pointed. In the second half of the game when everything is going horribly wrong, you find out along the way that Yuri self-harms. Like Sayori, this is a dig at overly simple anime characterisation. It also adds a good deal to the atmosphere of unease which, at this point, is thicc. More than that, it’s a jab at any of the players who found Yuri’s low self-esteem cute and endearing. As before, the reason Yuri is cute on the surface is directly tied to her mental health problems. Self-loathing is only attractive when you’re shown the sweet side. It’s a lot less so once Yuri starts busting out the knives.

The game also gives you a bad time if you were smitten by Yuri’s obsessiveness. As Monika meddles with the code, Yuri’s fixation on you escalates. It stops being framed as attractive and starts being framed as creepy. The culmination of this is when she ‘confesses’ love for you and, regardless of whether you ‘accept the confession’ or not, she bursts out laughing and stabs herself to death.

During the final confrontation of sorts, Monika talks at length about how she knows she’s a video game character. But, she also talks about how it’s inevitable that all the girls in the game will fall in love with you, the player. The destination of the journey is baked into the game’s code, she says. So, when she makes her own confession of love and makes clear that all her alarming actions were taken so that she could be with you, it probably leaves the player feeling uncomfortable.

The creepiness doesn’t only come from a fictional character apparently being obsessed with the actual real-world you, although that’s certainly a factor. The clincher is that Monika is the most realistic in her psychology, the furthest removed from anime character types, yet even she can’t escape the coded inevitability of falling in love with the protagonist. She’s presented as a complete person and yet she’s still a cute anime girl designed to give gamers a few hours of escapism. A lot of the DDLC fanbase got really attached to Monika because of this sequence and that makes sense as a response. But, it should also raise questions about why we make and play games filled with cute anime girls who will always fall in love with us.

I also want to touch on Natsuki, the girl who flirts with you by being nasty. In the second half of the game, she receives a swift and brutal deconstruction. If you make choices that lead you down the Natsuki route, then the obsessive Yuri will drag you away. After a while, Natsuki’s jealous nature escalates because of Monika’s meddling. She becomes so angry and upset that her head rotates 90 degrees on a horizontal axis, killing her instantly. She appears in the next scene entirely unharmed and nobody has any memory of the incident.

So, is DDLC a condemnation of dating sims? Not exactly. The game functions as what TV Tropes calls a ‘decon-recon;’ it deconstructs the dating sim genre then attempts to reconstruct it in a different way so that it can work again. When each of the girls turns out to have some mental health issue which created their surface-level cuteness, it’s an elbow in the player’s ribs but not a slap in the face.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Giving the girls more realistic personalities gives the player much more reason to connect with them. It makes perfect sense that Sayori is more sympathetic as a layered character struggling with depression than she was as a cutesy cliché. This move towards realistic psychology pokes fun at how you’re smitten by the girl of your choosing but it also draws you in further and encourages you to be even more enamoured.

When DDLC screws around with visual novel tropes, it’s not to condemn the whole genre to the trash heap. To paraphrase Lisa Simpson, this game isn’t trying to whine or to nag, but to prod. We can better ourselves! DDLC points out where dating sims have gone wrong, then tries to draw a roadmap for where they could go next.

The game’s illustrations are also tongue-in-cheek in how they sexualise all the girls. It’s easy to miss because usually you only see them from the waist up but they all have skirts so short it beggars belief.

Each of the three routes has some moment of the protagonist and the girl stumbling into some innuendo and getting flustered. For example, you can find a sequence where Natsuki stands up on a stool to reach a high shelf and you have to hold the stool and you accidentally see up her skirt. Speaking of which…

 

Don’t look up Natsuki’s skirt

What age are these girls, exactly? Dan Salvato said on Discord that they’re all 18 so I guess I should preface this section by saying that nobody in the dedicated DDLC Rule 34 subreddit is doing any crimes. But, I have a few small concerns.

When Natsuki is introduced, the protagonist observes how short and slight she is and assumes she’s in First Year. Natsuki later makes a derogatory reference to middle school kids so this presumably means First Year of high school. It’s later strongly implied that Natsuki has an eating disorder and an abusive father who doesn’t feed her consistently. That would explain why she’s short and slight. It’s not that she’s 15 or 16. It’s that she hasn’t physically developed properly due to malnutrition. This is a clever writing move that is consistent with the trend of the girls’ surface-level cuteness being caused by mental health problems.

But, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to be the killjoy at this boner party because that doesn’t totally check out as an excuse. Without diving into the history of postmodernism, I’ll say that surfaces count for a lot in art. Natsuki is presented to us initially as a “First Year.” When we’re shown a scene where the protagonist looks up her skirt, we still have every reason to believe she’s a First Year (correct me if I’m wrong here). Then, we later find out that she’s just malnourished and she was secretly 18 all along. Does this underlying truth overrule the surface appearance?

I mean, maybe. Questions like this have inspired all sorts of scholastic debates for decades. I’m just saying it’s a grey area. I’m not sure what Salvato’s intent was here but either way, I think this functions as part of the satire. Natsuki’s age is a bit confusing and ambiguous in-game for reasons attached to her eating disorder and that draws attention to how all these characters are high-school students. If the player hovers on this thought for even a few seconds, it probably becomes uncomfortable (unless you’re a teenager, I suppose).

When a piece of media tries to satirise the male gaze like this, it usually stumbles over the line into just doing the male gaze. Blade Runner 2049 is a great example of this. Cult classic game No More Heroes has some satirical intent but also just likes pointing the camera at nice lady-butts. Early reviews indicate that the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence movie Red Sparrow fumbles this often, proving all too eager for JLaw to get her goodies out. In this context, DDLC has a clumsy moment but pulls off the trick better than most.

So, is it gross?

Well, I don’t think I have enough data to draw a meaningful conclusion about this. Dan Salvato’s gender politics in this game seem to be pretty on-point otherwise so I’m not too hasty to accuse him of being a paedophile or anything like that. I’m not libelling anyone. No crimes here!

So, is it gross?

Well, it’s kind of questionable to satirise sexualisation of teenage girls in anime by sexualising what appears to be a teenage girl then saying she’s 18 in an AMA outside of the game itself. It’s loosely comparable to The Producers and the questions it raises about the ethics of satire. It’s all well and good in theory until you’ve made a dozen swastika armbands.

So, is it gross?

Dude, I don’t know. Leave me alone. Why do I have to be the first mouse on this one? Why aren’t more people talking about this?

 

Why aren’t more people talking about this?

DDLC has been a hugely successful and popular game. There’s been a lot of chatter about it online. But, like I said, not much of it has been focusing on the satirical elements of the game. So, why has almost all the focus been on the horror?

It’s caused in part by just how cool and effective the horror parts are. But, I think it’s also because the game is, as I’ve already explained, a satire – a gentle and affectionate satire – of how video games write women. And there’s literally a small industry based on internet men ranting about even the mildest feminist criticism of video games.

The natural conclusion there would be that internet men would be getting angry about DDLC the way Paul Joseph Watson and Carl ‘SargonOfAkkad’ Benjamin are currently getting up in arms about Black Panther. Instead, we’ve seen no controversy at all. I think that this might be because the satire on gender mostly went over the heads of the people who usually get angry about this sort of thing.

For example, one of the most popular mods for the game is A Brand New Day, which changes the plot so that everyone gets a happy ending. The impulse to write this kind of fanfiction is understandable; ‘fix-fics’ have been a thing for ages. It doesn’t even inherently contradict the game’s viewpoint since it’s trying to reconstruct dating sims by offering psychological realism as discussed above.

But, this mod does essentially remove the satire and replaces it with a sincere ‘harem ending’ – that is to say, you get to date all the girls at once. There’s also a noticeable moment early on when it’s specified that Natsuki is in the same year as the protagonist. So, whoever’s making the mod viewed the ambiguity of Natsuki’s age as a simple mistake by Dan Salvato that needed to be fixed rather than a choice he made to illustrate a point.

Look, I don’t like saying things like ‘you just don’t get it.’ It’s inherently condescending and positions me as the smart one and you as the dumb one. That’s not what I’m going for here. But, even as DDLC hype reached fever pitch among conventional gamers, I didn’t see anyone talking about the game’s satire. Maybe I’ve just spent too much time in an English course.

So, trying my best to not accidentally be condescending or patronising, I would suggest that if you don’t know much about feminist criticism of media or if you’re not sympathetic to it and if the satire in DDLC went over your head, maybe try opening your horizons a little. Again, I say this not to nag or to whine, but to prod.

 

Final Thoughts: game good, please no shout at me

I’m moderately nervous that some of you are going to grab the wrong end of the stick here. Sometimes a belligerent little shit is going to be a belligerent little shit and there’s nothing I can do. But, what worries me more is that a normal person with no especially strong political opinions will look through this and leave thinking I’m some ‘feminist killjoy.’

So, let’s be totally clear on this: I think that DDLC is a great game. A big reason for that is how well it works as a satire. When I talk about Natsuki and the weird grey area she sits in, I’m not trying to compile a ‘Your Fave Is Problematic’ list for Dan Salvato. Honestly, I don’t care about Salvato nearly as much as I care about the game he made, callous as that might sound. I’m not trying to say the game is child porn or something stupid like that. I’m just trying to have a conversation about it because I find it so damn interesting.

In conclusion: ravioli ravioli don’t lewd the doki loli


Hey, thanks for reading! You can watch video versions of my writing on YouTube, follow me on Twitter, or throw some money in my hat on Patreon.

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