During the fall season, I spend a lot of time searching for fresh scares. I’m immune to haunted houses and horror movies, because neither one force me out of my comfort zone. I know that movies will progress without my input; even if I’m shrinking back a bit in my seat, it’ll keep moving, and I can live out the full experience. As for haunted houses, with the exception of a few “intensified” experiences, ghouls can’t touch me, and the scares are predictable. I can round a corner and, well, gosh! It’s … a dude in a costume and usually some pretty cool makeup.
I often feel the same sense of ease when playing horror video games. Gore doesn’t irk me, and monsters are so yesterday. I've already seen my fair share of Resident Evil 7 Let's Plays without feeling much in my gut. Like I do with haunted houses and horror films, I always know that none of the scares are real.
But a romantic visual novel, of all things, petrified me recently — just by completely subverting my expectations. It exploited my confidence in the visual novel genre and turned that into a twisted game of its own. It taught my nightmares new tricks.
(Some light spoilers follow below; here’s your spoiler warning.)
Although it looks like a dating sim, Doki Doki Literature Club is a free-to-play, psychological horror game, produced by indie studio Team Salvato. Since its release, the game has earned a reputation as an innovative scare. It’s a slow burn that begins with you and group of cute girls who must prove that their literature club is worth becoming an official school organization. Of course, your protagonist is hoping to forge new bonds with some of them along the way. The game encourages you to pick a girl to write a poem for, and depending on your choices, you may draw closer to the club’s charming, sweet members.
Eventually, true to the game’s advertised content warnings (which you should take seriously, by the way), Doki Doki Literature Club leads you down a dark path, leading to the shocking and emotional death of one character. But in the same moment that it rips your heart open, the game instantly takes a much more unusual twist.
After this initial playthrough ends and the main menu restarts, the dead character’s image is pixelated and warped, as if her death affected the game client itself. The save files become inaccessible, forcing the player into a new game. If and when the player moves ahead to begin this new file, the game seems to react at any hint of this former character, and the client loudly glitches and morphs until it seems satisfied with its outcome.
Soon into the next run-through, the client repeatedly takes control of itself, speeding through text and tacking on unusual images to create grotesque jump scares. But the reality of a sentient game client becomes nightmare fuel on its own.
To make matters worse, in the moment of the character’s death, keen eyes will notice that the game directs the player outside of the client by naming a specific game file, alluding to an outside force changing the game’s universe. It becomes a terrifying mystery, weaving in and out between the in-game plot and the game files’ cryptic implications: What happened to Doki Doki Literature Club?
As I crawled into this “second run,” I wasn’t just horrified; I was mentally trapped in the game's world and its antics. But I still wanted to dive back in, and I spent time with myself to understand what I had to overcome in order to continue the game. In the process, I realized how Doki Doki Literature Club utilizes an underrated aspect of the horror experience: control, or the lack thereof.
On a basic level, the fear of fear (the anticipation, in a word) is what makes horror as a genre so difficult for many people. In interactive media, you’re especially aware of how you’re prompting the horrors by progressing through the work. Worse, a game can mask the world around you in highly efficient ways, bringing down your guard before a good scare. You can start crawling into a space before getting dragged out, or you can open a door that seemed safe before and encounter a new monster. The point of many games becomes, then, that fear often makes you lose control, and just as often, loss of control makes you lose the game.
The “action-adventure horror house” is an effective and proven genre, with tactics such as jump-scares, claustrophobic encounters and high-adrenaline chases that work despite their tired use. Developers have learned how to capture the traditional horror atmosphere and drive tension in such an efficient way that even the aforementioned classic methods are amplified in these settings.
Doki Doki Literature Club uses many of these same familiar concepts, but not in the way you’d expect, and that’s mostly thanks to its breakdown of the fourth wall. Known as “metafiction,” this genre of work is explicitly designed to restructure the dynamic between the work and the person interacting with it. In this case, it almost entirely removes control from the player.
It’s worth noting that metafiction already has huge potential in horror games, because of their inherent nature of directly interacting with the player. This isn’t supposed to happen in a video game, right? The window isn’t supposed to exit, that file wasn’t there before, is that character addressing me? It creeps into and mocks our imagination and ideas of what that game is supposed to be, and that quickly gets under players’ skins. Much like horror, a primary theme is control.
As a work of horrific metafiction, Doki Doki Literature Club quite literally overwrites that control, taking the tropes of metafiction, horror and visual novel genres and amping them up a few notches. It builds moments based on what is assumed to be your understanding of the genre’s tropes and the fundamentals of interactive media. There are ominous text files appearing out of nowhere; a “bonus poem” unlocked by the player in this new run-through can either be a sweet “I love you” or a dark regret of our former character. “Scenes” I expected to be cute are overlaid with static and blacked-out eyes, and characters sometimes zoom in with uncomfortable closeness. The game knew that I knew this wasn't normal, and it used that as a tool to make me uneasy.
More importantly, it kills a character, then explicitly prevents you from doing anything about it. I expected to return to your save file to rescue her or maybe date another girl, but I was not allowed to. She was gone. When the game restarts, it constantly mocked my decisions and regrets. I wasn't given any idea of how fix the universe, short of a hard reset on the game altogether — which would only bring me back to square one.
In sum, this is what’s horrifying about Doki Doki Literature Club: You, as a player and a character within the game’s world, are helpless.
As I dug into the game’s newly-warped world, extra poems and the suddenly-appearing game files, my grasp of the game slipped further. The quest to discovering the game’s secrets becomes a paradox, because as much as I wanted to know more, the process untangles the universe further and further. And, when that realization sunk in, I became less sure what the goal was. All I could do was move forward and find some light at the end of the tunnel. (Well, hopefully.)
Team Salvato has unearthed a new way of terrifying us by ripping apart our expectations of how interactive media should work. Doki Doki Literature Club is a game that played me, and somehow, I'm content to let it take control.