How does Doki Doki Literature Club deliver its horror content?
Written by Avian Michel on August 14th, 2018.
Warning: the following content contains mentions and depiction of suicide, mutilation, and blood, along with general spoilers.
Doki Doki Literature Club took the Internet by storm when it originally came out in September 2017, becoming a hit sensation with its deceiving first impressions and descent into madness. Its premise on launch was a typical dating sim, but with its widespread popularity months later, it’s hard for new players to not have an inkling that this visual novel is a psychological horror. The horror is so much a selling point of the game, it’s not considered a spoiler anymore. As a dating-sim-gone-rogue, this game easily is the best in its field. But compared to typical psychological horror games that operate on the dread of a clear threat, how does Doki Doki Literature Club — a hybrid of horror and dating sim — stack up?
Doki Doki Literature Club’s main claim to fame within the psychological horror genre is that it features a sentient character who alters game files. Monika is president of the Literature Club at the unnamed protagonist’s school. The dating sim aspect of the game features a plot that allows the main character to pursue any of the members of the Literature Club, except for Monika. This exclusion drives Monika, who has come to the realization that she is in a dating sim, to tamper with the game and become the only playable love choice. In doing so, she falls in love with not the protagonist, but the player behind the screen. Monika’s hijack of the game is truly unnerving, but DDLC relies — almost too heavily — on its dating sim basis to push the psychological horror.
Let’s play the horror straight, and take away the plot twist. If DDLC were marketed as a psychological horror game upon its release, would it still be scary enough to compete with other games in the genre? The horror elements of the game consist of various glitches and malfunctions combined with mature topics such as suicide and general gore. Players expecting horror in the beginning of the game find a suspicious Act 1 at best, boring Act 1 at worst. Sayori’s suicide shocks the player much less, and serves as the action kickoff rather than a terrifying mood shift. Her character deletion in Act 2, and the various glitches that litter the screen, become a puzzle the player has to find the source of rather than an unnerving and dreadful atmosphere. Yuri’s madness and suicide is genre-typical rather than corruption. Monika’s reveal in Act 3 holds final boss connotations. DDLC becomes an adventure horror game, rather than a psychological horror experience.
Doki Doki Literature Club does rely heavily on surprise through genre fusion in order to create effective scares. Taking away this element of surprise makes it a merely average horror game instead of the masterpiece that it is. However, by no means is utilizing surprise a cheat. The misleading marketing gives players a different mindset, making scares all the more jarring. This mismatch thus becomes part of the horror itself and adds a new depth and fear to each game interaction. DDLC sets out to carve a new path in gaming — misleading genre marketing is the next step in psychological horror.
Perhaps future game developers need to take a page from the Literature Club.
(Content warnings, though, are a new story altogether…)
About The Author
Michel "Avian" N. (they/them/their pronouns) is an aspiring YouTuber and content creator whose hobbies include editing videos, playing instruments, writing, and gaming. They firmly believe that gaming is a form of art in its own right — interpreting media is generative and creative. Avian's tastes range wildly, but their favorite games are osu! and Black Desert Online.
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