We’re gonna need some fresh underpants in here!
I used to be a pretty big scaredy cat when it came to games (not so much with films, though – the interactive side to games really had the potential to freak me out). After toughing it out for a few weeks with REmake earlier on in the year, I think I made some good progress towards having a normal tolerance for spooky games. I would no longer flinch and switch my console off straight away at the first sign of a zombie, and I realised that I felt no fear whatsoever trying the original BioShock for the first time in October.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I am now immune to blood, guts and gore. In fact, my jimmies were thoroughly rustled just last week by a game that appears innocuous on the surface but is designed to bury its way under your skin, like a rather nasty and persistent parasite. I knew the secret, I knew the surprise. But it still didn’t prepare me for how tense I would be throughout pretty much the whole second half of the game.
This game I’m talking about is, of course, Doki Doki Literature Club.
(Beware: there are massive spoilers for DDLC below. Also, if you think you will experience significant distress from the discussion of suicide, do not continue reading.)
Realistic horror above supernatural horror
Some of the horror in DDLC is based on the supernatural, or rather, the futuristic – it’s hard to imagine a computer file going so rogue that it develops its own personality and its own emotions. However, by far the most striking part of DDLC‘s horror is its reliance on characters being driven to commit suicide and other characters’ distress at seeing the aftermath of these suicides.
Before I leap into whether I think this worked as a horror trope, I have to emphasise that the game is chock full of specific warnings at the beginning about its content. I can’t fault Team Salvato on this point, because they took sincere steps to avoid the game causing serious damage to those who would be particularly shaken by it. Gold star from me for doing that. (Well, really, this is the bare minimum of what you should do if you’re touching on highly sensitive themes, but not all purveyors of Creepypasta memes are quite so thoughtful.)
I think walking in on Sayori hanging from a noose, and seeing Yuki stab herself multiple times, are two of the most shocking things I have ever seen in a game. Actually, no, seeing Natsuki throw up on herself after discovering Yuki’s lifeless corpse was probably even worse. But it’s a close-run contest. Often, “kill-a-thon” games objectify dead bodies, scattering them across the floor, gathering them in piles. Other times, the death of a much-loved character is an emotional set piece, but the camera pans away during the critical moment. Or, at the very least (take Final Fantasy VII as an example, in which you do see a character die by the sword up close and personal) the blood is taken away, to soften the experience at least a little.
Nope. Not in DDLC. Nothing is obscured, and in both instances, the decline of the dead character’s mental state happens so swiftly that you barely have time to process what has happened. I found this all deeply upsetting. Which didn’t lower my opinion of the game, but it left me with the feeling that I never wanted to play it ever again.
Glitches up the wazoo
Let’s rewind and talk about the Big Bad in DDLC: Monika. Monika is, for all intents and purposes, a sentient computer virus that wants all of your attention and doesn’t care which character files she has to corrupt to get you all to herself. And it’s not just the fellow members of the literature club she tears to shreds. The text boxes distort, and the world starts to crumble around the player on every new playthrough of the story.
This is the aspect of DDLC‘s horror that I think worked the best. Whether the game would have gained the cult following and Twitter hype it did around its release if the suicide scenes had been omitted…I really don’t know. They are indeed gruesome and unusual and serve to underscore how pervasive Monika’s influence is. But the glitching of the game is what prevented me from cycling through to the next screen at times, and it actually made my heart race. I never thought that a visual novel could fill me with dread, but this did. Because you never knew what crap Monika would pull when you ventured onto the next screen. Would a character’s eyes bleed? Would you lose control over your cursor? Would the soundtrack speed up without warning? The game is a nightmare for people who hate surprises.
The cherry on the cake was playthrough three, where to get the game to progress, you have to mess about with its save files while it is still running. DDLC leans on some classic horror techniques to great effect, such as breaking the fourth wall, as well as going completely off the rails. I think this part of the game was particularly important to creating the feeling that Monika had control over the whole experience, and by extension, control over my computer. Unlike the unflinching focus on the corpses of your in-game friends, I hope more horror games make use of this approach in the future.
Monika is watching you
As video game antagonists go, Monika is a pretty detestable character. She can feign a sweet, preppy demeanour very well, though you get the impression, even from the beginning, that something’s not QUITE right with her. What makes Monika not just evil, but downright terrifying, is the fact she isn’t just a final boss. She is at the root of the entire game. And unless you stop playing at very specific points and delete character files in a specific order, she cannot be removed from the story in any way that makes it better. As I already said, she is a virus that has infected the game, and it’s incredibly difficult to extract her without everything collapsing in on itself.
The way the game ends on a usual playthrough, Monika simply discards her experiment like ripened cheese, writing you and the other NPCs off as incapable of joy. But, you cry internally, everything would be fine if you weren’t here, Monika! You’re the problem, Monika! It doesn’t matter, because Monika has control of the game, and so, the game is all about her wants and needs. She can delete your save files and corrupt them at “will.” And she is coded, i.e. pre-destined, to do so. The inevitable direction of all my run-ins with Monika made me hate her all the more, because I felt so helpless and manipulated.
So did I like Doki Doki Literature Club?
To me, the question of whether I liked DDLC, the game that shocked me more than any other has in my adulthood, is besides the point. If you’re talking about whether I had an “enjoyable experience,” I LOATHED the game. After I saw the first death scene, I had fitful, nightmarish sleep. I felt ill-prepared for what I saw and carried queasiness around with me the next day.
If you’re talking about whether I felt it was a successful horror game – in many respects, yes, and in many respects, no. I felt it succeeded in combining its own clever twists with tried-and-tested horror mechanics, and I can’t deny that combining a VN (one of my favourite genres even without the added kick) with body horror and science fiction was a clever idea. But the direct gaze upon death? My brain honestly can’t quite process what I saw even now, so I don’t know whether I thought it was traditional horror or a sick, cheap move. I just don’t know.
What I can say with certainty is that the game stayed with me for several days after, which not a lot of horror games do anymore. It didn’t just frighten me – it disturbed me. Like when I watched the remake of Dawn of the Dead as a twelve-year-old, glancing at the door to make sure my parents wouldn’t come in my room and switch the TV off. I still have fond memories of watching that film to this day, and maybe my reflections in the months to come on DDLC will be similar.
Now it’s your turn, commenters of Destructoid. What is the last game that seriously scared you? Disturbed you? Sickened you? Let me know in the comments below.
(Also, please do not post graphic images from DDLC or any other game that may violate site rules or upset readers. Thank you!)