Once again, I’m late to the party—a damn good party at that. Doki Doki Literature Club has been setting the world ablaze for almost half a year, but only now have I come to understand why. The game is mind-blowing, and one of the truest testaments I’ve ever seen as to why games are so far beyond all other storytelling mediums. Before I get into why that is, however, I must give an obligatory SPOILER WARNING. Though admittedly, I don’t believe I’m spoiling this game in the traditional sense—by divulging plot details and narrative twists—I do think knowing as little about this game as possible before going in will result in the best possible experience you can afford yourself. From what the internet tells me, the game’s length is about 5 hours. It’s also free on Steam, so absolutely play through it if for some reason you’re even later to the party than I am.
One of the elements of storytelling that I hold highest is self-awareness. To understand one’s self is an accomplishment in its own right, and being able to articulate that understanding to others takes the accomplishment to another level. Writing, in essence, is thinking. We naturally value competence in our society, and so in the field of writing—the field of thinking—a clear portrayal of one’s understanding can be considered a marker of success. Breaking the wall between art and audience, or the fourth wall, is a particularly straightforward showcase of self-awareness, as it gives art itself the portrayal of understanding its own existence as art—as well as the existence of you, the audience.
The fourth wall can only be broken as far as its storytelling medium allows it to. This means there is a difference between mediums such as television, film, and games. In film and television, you consume a narrative through watching and listening as the story plays out of its own accord (aside from someone initially pressing play). In games, the story progresses purely because you will it to. Your input matters, so much so that the story WILL NOT proceed without you. In the narrative of a game, you are an actor and your perspective inherently feels closer than any film or TV show, despite still physically viewing through a screen in both mediums. This is the difference between a viewer and a player. A player can (and must) respond to what happens on screen, and this is a huge part of what makes Doki Doki Literature Club so brilliant.
DDLC asks for a response that I never knew was possible—the game calls upon you to muck around in the game files itself, deleting things such as character files to produce intentional results within the visual novel. More than just a fun Easter egg hunt, files have been prepared to disappear and reappear, and purposefully warrant deletion to activate change within the game’s story. Without describing what happens in the story, I will try to comment on how ingenious of a fourth wall break this really is:
Never before have I seen a game narratively reach so far, where not only does it call upon you to act (relatively) outside the game itself, but also have that action fit perfectly within the story being told. And not only does your action fit the narrative, it dramatically enhances it—as it has you yourself exploring what is this game, and consequently, what is a game. And the emphasis of this theme does not stop there. For example, there are parts where a character model will stand in front of the text bubble rather than behind it. Describing that alone leads us to understand that it is a simple trick, but dwelling on it further can cause us to find a profound implication—what it means when only one character can become closer to us than the rest.
The game attempts many simple things to get you to think about literature, horror, and dating simulators. I’d argue that they’re almost all successful. From foreshadowing dialogue to skewed decision mechanics, visual glitches and optic trickery, DDLC showcases a myriad of clever designs to bolster its main theme as well as enhance immersion to a mind-bending level. It’s all these little things that come together to not only make you feel closer to the game, but the game feel closer to you. And I know “immersion” has become a bit of a buzzword in the games industry, but I truly mean it here. Playing Doki Doki Literature Club, there came a moment for me when I was honestly questioning reality itself. As if by volunteering to play this game, I may have just taken my first step into an awe-inspiring but nevertheless terrifying nightmare.
Though to be fair, I may have been a tad sleep deprived. I try to tone down my hyperbole because part of me believes this game is too insane to be true—“insane” in only the most admirable of ways. I’ve only played through it once, and although I’m sure to play it again, I have a feeling I won’t be able to unravel all the mysteries in Doki Doki Literature Club anytime soon…if ever.
Thanks for reading.