(Note: This article contains significant spoilers for the freeware visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club. Those hoping to avoid spoilers should play the game prior to reading.
Content Warning: Mental Health, Depression, Compulsion, Self-Harm, and Suicide.)
Life is painfully complex.
It’s made up of long strings of coincidences, accidents, uncertainties, lucky breaks, shattered plans, love, heartbreak, terror, sweetness, friendship, comfort, tragedy, perfection, and the intersection of tastes and life experience. All of it gets bottled with caffeine, carbonation, and shaken liberally until all that’s left is an fizzy experience that is at once too sharp on the tongue, a little too flat from hardships in transit, and surprising mouthfeel.
In short, life comes with everything. Enough experiences to give intrigue and rondure to even the most seemingly mundane passerby, depth and dimension to both passions and pursuits, but also to saddle even the most perfect-looking person with mountains of baggage. Life is messy, joyful, cataclysmic, jubilant, and strange. It’s all of these things, all the time, and also none of the time. Society smooths over all of the rough edges with its niceties and propriety, but almost everyone has deeper shadows that what shows up at even measured inspection. We’re all fighting battles, and most of us are in some state of losing, even though we all get up the days we can and keep marching forward.
Sometimes in life, it’s okay to put aside the grimmer sides of reality and enjoy the aspects of life that are unapologetically joyful.
First loves often end in heartbreak, but offer such wonder in the process. They’re filled with exploration, curiosity, and joy of companionship just for the joy of companionship. They’re rarely as burdened with expectation as their adult counterparts, so they’re mostly filled with memories of sharing a new stage of life in a new way, with new companions, new hopes, new experiences, and the utter absence of ironic enjoyment.
In a way, every relationship aspires to recapture moments of unbridled joy, an utter absence of self-consciousness, and to rekindle the way to view the world as a funhouse with an ever-expanding set of rooms that haven’t been explored yet.
Doki Doki Literature Club promises all the saccharine joy of childlike infatuation and easy relationships. It is cute, charming, playful, and offers its players new ways to interact with the girls in ways that are meaningful to them. To take brief dips into their lives, read the unfiltered thoughts that speak to them, and share in their passions critically but nonjudgmentally.
Without even a fraction of hesitation, Doki Doki Literature Club drops the hammer. Bathed in static, breath rushing, heart pounding, the player character enters their lifelong best friend’s room to find her hanging by her neck, lifeless body swaying in the room. The rest of the room, piled over with stuffed bears and the echoes of a young woman’s apparently indulged life, serving as the backdrop to a corpse. Her neck is red and raw with the friction of the rope. Her fingertips stained with the strain of regret. The noose did not break her neck, she choked, furious energy squeezing the air from her lungs, until a corpse took the place of her life.
This is the end of her—there’s no taking it back. The hints of depression she expressed in her poetry lead to this moment, red fingertips attached to a pale body. It swings lifelessly. Life is painfully complex. Baggage comes with costs. This cost was terminal.
The protagonist points out, aghast, that life has no save and load function. Attempting to interact with the game’s saving system will inevitably lead the player into Act II, which restarts the game with the best friend’s life utterly erased. She is not just dead, but unmade entirely.
Act II follows suit, dialing each of the girls near-invisible struggles higher and higher until it becomes impossible to avoid. There’s a morbidity that’s inescapable. The youngest girl sticks to the Literature Club because her home is a place of abuse. The tallest has an enduring fascination with morbidity that paints physical scars on her arms by prodding the psychological ones. These both culminate in neurotic frenzy, driving the girls deeper into madness, while the president of the Literature Club seems to display a jealous, laser focus on both the protagonist, but also on the player. As time rolls forward, the fourth wall breaks down. Features of the game’s very file folder become a part of the meta-narrative, and the very system itself is unable to contain the neuroses bursting from the seams.
Act II ends with another corpse. Cold, pale, painting the ground in blood, as the day turns to night through the nearby windows.
Doki Doki Literature Club has taken the promise of unburdened sweetness and joy, and murdered it in shocking honesty. Our lives are not collections of happiness. Our lives are messy, complicated, and sometimes they drive us to the darkest places we can go. Sometimes it kills us. The frankness of that is harsh.
The worst of it is when it’s revealed that the Literature Club’s president is at fault. She’s been manipulating the emotions and tragedies of the other girls from the beginning. She’s aware she’s in a game, and loathes the banality of it. She sees a kindred spirit in the player, and wants so desperately to escape her world. She wants it so hard that she kills for it. Twice.
Monika’s baggage is the worst of all of it, driving semi-autonomous intelligences to ruin and suicide all so she could have a moment of love from the only peer she finds in her world. Others lives aren’t worth it—they can’t be—so she makes corpses of them. As long as she gets what she wants, no cost is too high.
It kills me to see it.
Doki Doki Literature Club leaves me feeling grim. It’s a hard story to swallow because even though there’s an omniscient figure pulling strings to drive the girls to suicide, I don’t feel like there’s much fiction there. There’s a part of me that knows behind everyone’s smiles, passions, and personalities lies the risk for something terminal. Life can be saved or ended by little more than a quick turn of phrase or a moment of kindness. Anything can go wrong, and it all comes crashing down. The total collapse for little more than a few decisions and some tough circumstances. All it takes is just one poorly timed nudge, and life comes apart.
Even though I know I’m being manipulated by Doki Doki Literature Club, I still feel like it does something powerful. Not only does it toy with my expectations for what a visual novel can be, it also shows me a fictional world that’s too real. Behind a litany of good lives are libraries of heartache and heartbreak. My choices, no matter how well-intentioned, can’t always overcome other forces in people’s lives. Sometimes bad things have already happened and there’s no getting away from it. Sometimes art is the only way we can speak our minds before it’s too late. Maybe people close to us are praying for an outcome we don’t want. Maybe all of these at once.
We’re all a half-second from ruin.
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and person enthusiast. He writes words on several websites, enjoys talking about narrative and art, and struggles on how to navigate mental health in an increasingly unhealthy world. You can find more of his work across this site, and also make friends with him on Twitter.