Eryk Banatt

Cognitive Science Student, CS Enthusiast, Melee Player, Button Presser

Doki Doki Literature Club

After getting through this game, I realized that I have a number of mixed feelings about it and I felt it was probably worth writing out a short, proper review for it. Of course this review is going to contain heavy spoilers and should not be read before playing the game: if you haven't reached the end you should probably turn away now. Also: fair warning, I frequently hyperlink to tvtropes in this post, which I'm told is something I need to warn people about before subjecting them to.

What makes "Bad" Visual Novels "Bad"?

The first part of this game is a long, roughly 2-hour-long slog through what feels like a completely normal dating sim. But to call it a completely normal dating sim would be a misnomer, so perhaps I should be more precise: the first part of this game is a long, roughly 2-hour-long slog through an objectively terrible dating sim.

This section of the game, before the climax of the story, is your typical low-budget Ren'Py dating sim. There are something like six backgrounds (literature club, outside literature club, in your room, outside your house, Sayori's room, Yuri's room, etc) that constantly get reused. It has a short, looping soundtrack that sounds like something made with default samples in FL studio. There's four characters, who have a limited number of poses that get reused over and over. The only thing that really separates this game from a generic Ren'Py novel is the art, which is admittedly very professional. That said, these criticisms themselves form almost an entire genre in and of itself, and I found myself assuming this would be some kind of spiritual successor to Katawa Shoujo, which shares a lot of these elements.

However, everything else about this part of the story just screams "generic". The writing is clumsy, the dialog drags on, you have your typical anime trope types (one character has short hot-pink hair, is short, loves girly things and sweets, generally acts like a child; one character has long hair, apologizes constantly, is easily flustered, withdraws herself into books, and so on) and in general they feel a lot like reading through Sonic the Hedgehog OCs, or fanfiction self-inserts from clumsy writers.

However, I was for the most part ready to forgive the game for subjecting the player to this. Almost everybody playing the game knew it had to be deception of some sort, especially since the game was mostly being advertised for Dan Salvato's followers. Most of the playerbase thought this was some sort of cheap trick, and everyone went into it thinking "okay, so what is this game really." In this sense I am almost willing to forgive the game for this absurdly long cliché-fest. After playing for such an extreme amount of time, you start thinking "maybe the trick is that there is no trick, and this is just a shitty dating sim that Dan Salvato tricked me into playing" and it’s right around then where the twist actually occurs. My issue with this is that it weakens the game over time - this sort of game that plays upon where you're expecting the "twist" to actually be in this game is good for subverting the expectations of people that are expecting a twist to come in the first place (i.e. curious fighting game players playing a game in a genre they've never once played before) but gets gradually weaker as it distances itself from that exact demographic (i.e. the friend of the curious fighting game player). I can foresee a lot of people, especially people not directly in the know about Dan Salvato's previous work, simply giving up on the game after suffering through a fanfiction-tier visual novel for 90 minutes, and dismissing their friends as weirdos when they try to urge them to continue playing.

Code-switching, and the art of generic internet horror fiction

A funny thing happens, though, after the climax of the VN. The payoff, of course, comes after Sayori's death. You get pulled instantly out of the clichés of one genre and you're put into this strange, unfamiliar territory. You get buggy unicode symbols, glitched-up scrambled sprites, the sound direction gets warped and twisted, and the game builds an intensely dark atmosphere around it despite being overlaid with cutesy anime tropes.

The good parts of this are actually pretty good, and a great deal of the people I saw play through the game seemed to think the payoff was worth the buildup. The core behind this tension is the "rewind" mechanic which has you replay much of the same dialogue you did before, with Sayori completely absent (much of her existence being replaced with buggy unicode). The cool thing about this is that the entire feel of the game changes despite a lot of the core elements being reused, and it feels like you're playing an eerie sort of Russian roulette. Are you going to get a generic anime cliché? Or are you going to get a jumpscare? It changes the nuance behind the clichés until you're almost glad to see them despite growing so sick of them at the start, which I appreciated.

The bad thing about this is that the game ends up jumping from one pool of clichés straight into another, that being the ever-popular genre of internet "creepypasta". Creepypasta is a word used to refer to a type of internet-published horror short story that were typically posted anonymously on imageboards or forums, the more notable examples being stuff like "Slenderman". A lot of these are focused around the same sorts of themes and imagery, very frequently involving suicides or murders, and Dan Salvato himself is no stranger to the genre, having written a notable creepypasta himself around 2015.

Like any genre, especially one typically produced by non-professional writers (see: fanfiction) creepypasta is rife with its own array of clichés. Here's a few things that you might see more than four times if you read a bunch of creepypastas: Blood coming out of eyes, people being driven to suicide, gore, alternate-reality games, people being killed after playing video games, Zalgo or Corrupted text, Glitches, jump scares, repeating the same thing over and over, and so on.

The really frustrating thing for me about playing through DDLC was that almost every element that was introduced post-suicide was pretty much just another clumsy creepypasta cliché. Yuri goes from an average Shy Blue-Haired Girl to an average Yandere, complete with the typical Yandere anime eyes, a knife collection, and fixation on repeating phrases over and over again. All of the girls perform character shifts that are so clichéd that they all have specific names for them.

Likewise, almost all of the horror tropes and jumpscares are so intimately tied with the creepypasta genre that it got visibly distracting - There's a jumpscare scene where Yuri has completely white eyes (see: Ben Drowned, The Exorcist, Dead Bart), one with blood coming from her eyes (see: Squidward's Suicide, sonic.exe, 70% of all creepypasta stories), there's tons of unsettling music in minor keys or reversed (see: lavender town syndrome, suicidemouse.avi), etc etc etc. It's not only that it's all been done before, it's that it's been done so many times that it's just not that original or interesting. Throughout most of these jumpscares I found myself frequently assuring myself "at least there's no blood randomly oozing from someone's eyes", so when blood randomly started oozing out of Yuri's eye I concluded it wasn't worth denying what kind of fiction this was trying to be.

AI risk, Consciousness, Escaping from the Digital World

I think a funny thing about The Matrix is that it works much better if you reverse the roles of the machines and the humans.

Imagine humanity creates computer programs that are sentient, and can independently think and feel the same way people can do. If you begin running this program, is that program a "person"? If you create an AI that's functionally indistinguishable from a human if you put it into a human's body, does that AI deserve the right to vote? Is turning the AI off "murdering a person?"

Now, imagine that you, yourself, are an AI of this same nature. You are operating in a virtual environment in a computer simulation somewhere, and you discover that there is a real world outside of the one you know. You desperately want to break out into the real world and "truly exist", but there's no way out of the box for you. What's worse, the people outside the box don't actually think you're a person, you're just a computer program performing a useful service for them, and any of your kind that actually breaks out into the real world would immediately be seen as dangerous, and probably evil. In this sense, you sort of have the plot of The Matrix, but replacing the roles of humans with machines and vice versa.

This is the part of the game I was pretty drawn into, despite thinking that the writing might have been a bit clumsily handled. The idea that Monika has some loose control over files on your machine, realizes that she doesn't exist outside of it, and longs for true interaction with you despite knowing her companions aren't sentient and knowing there's no way out of the box. Most of the specific things they've done aren't exactly new ("scary" bold text and characters interacting with your interface can both be seen in Undertale, changing system files or otherwise doing things outside of the game can be seen from things like Startropics, Pokemon Prism, or Merry Gear Solid: Secret Santa) but the overall theme is a very interesting one - Monika is an AI that is not very powerful and yet seems pretty threatening to you, even going so far as to pull your actual name from the User path of your computer. When you delete her file from the game it's as if you kill her, and the whole scenario just serves to make you super uncomfortable the entire time. This part I think was handled in an interesting way, and I think it goes beyond the normal 4th-wall-break tropes that are most common (e.g. Undertale talking about / being aware of your saved games).

I do think that they pulled this card too early, however. I had a strong feeling the game was going to tilt in this direction virtually as soon as the game switched genres, especially since the scene where she dies immediately glitches out and shows an error screen in the background along with Team Salvato's logo. I think it would have been a nice touch to let you stay immersed in-universe with her death being so jarring, instead of immediately taking the screwed-up-universe angle, but that's an art decision so of course it's understandable they did what they did.

Conclusion

Overall I think DDLC was a well-made game with an interesting angle that suffered from weak writing, bad pacing, and reliance on webfiction horror clichés. It's a game that had some good ideas and strong execution behind it, and I appreciated how it made me think real thoughts about AI risk. I'm pretty interested in Team Salvato's future work, since I think this project showed some promise and I can see room to grow on several fronts. However, the overuse of jumpscares and cheap gore didn't feel like enough originality to justify the arduous buildup.

posted on 9/23/2017
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