This article contains major spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club. You probably shouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t already beaten it. (There’s also a Bioshock spoiler in here if you don’t know what happened to Andrew Ryan)
When I was told that some cutsey looking high school dating sim by the name of Doki Doki Literature Club had some pretty bleak warnings at the beginning of it about how its not suitable for children, I felt there were 2 strong possibilities as to why:
- There will be H-scenes, and given the aesthetic of the game, there’s either going to be a lot of them or they’ll be made in the vain of Starless: 21st Century Nymphomaniacs.
- One or more characters is a yandere and it’ll turn into a watered down Higurashi clone (that is, a cute looking dating sim with cute girls that suddenly becomes extremely gruesome).
Normally if I’d been told I was wrong I’d be more interested in the game–after all, it’s clearly trying something different, nobody would talk about it otherwise. Perhaps it’s more worth looking into than I thought. In the case of Doki Doki Literature Club, on the other hand, had I been told that its version of “doing something different” was just becoming a self-aware deconstruction game I wouldn’tve thought twice about ignoring it.
Frankly speaking, I’m just getting tired of self-aware deconstruction games. It’s become somewhat of a fad in the past 2 years or so. Like any fad it had its high points, sure, but now it’s just getting old, trite, and even somewhat predictable to me now. I’m ready for the next genre/trope cycle because I’ve had my fill of this one.
Before I go any further, let me elaborate on what I mean when I say “self-aware deconstruction games”. Like the name implies, a deconstruction game is a game that deconstructs its genre–it breaks it down and exaggerates it, maybe even parodies it in a way. If you’ve ever watched Cutthroat Kitchen, this is the exact same thing as when someone says they’ve made a deconstructed BLT and just put some meat, lettuce, and tomato on a plate. As for the self-aware part, it means games that are aware that they’re games and makes sure that the player knows that the game knows it’s a game and probably utilizes that in some way for progressing. To be more specific, it’s not games that make maybe one or two self-aware jokes that I’m talking about (EX: if someone in a game says, “WE’LL BE FINE! IT’S NOT LIKE WE’RE IN A VIDEO GAME OR SOMETHING!”), I’m talking about games that utilize their degree of self-awareness as game mechanics or a necessity to progress. Games in which their level of self-awareneness directly ties into the main story/gameplay. Some examples of such games are Undertale, Pony Island, The Stanley Parable, and of course, Doki Doki Literature Club. It may seem niche or overly specific, but these are exactly the kinds of deconstruction games I’m getting sick of: Deconstruction games that use fourth-wall breaking as their means of deconstruction.
Now that we’ve got that established, let me explain myself: In this gamer’s opinion, if you’re going to break the fourth wall effectively, it has to be done with a lot of finesse to not feel arbitrary or just shoved in for the sake of just having it there. Bioshock, for instance, does this in Andrew Ryan’s famous A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys monologue: Without flat out telling the gamer that they’re a sheep who just does whatever a game says, it still says it vicariously through the speech by likening the player to Jack–a brainwashed test tube baby who has to do what he’s told. This blew my mind the first time I played it. And the second. And the third. And every single time after that. That, dear readers, is breaking the fourth wall powerfully and with finesse.
So if that’s what finesse looks like, what doesn’t finesse look like? What does it look like for a game’s fourth-wall breaking to not seem forced? To understand that, we have to talk about this fourth-wall breaking trend in video games: It’s been around for a while, but has only recently started to see a significant rise in the number of games that use it, particularly in indie games. The first time I noticed this was when I played Undertale 2 years ago (feels like much longer, right?)–the game directly addresses save files, directly addresses the player, and even makes use of uninstalls and reinstalls. This is definitely much more elaborate than most other fourth-wall breaking games, and to be honest, I was impressed at the time.
And then it became a small trend. Or perhaps the preamble of a full-blown trend.
The next time I noticed it was in Pony Island, where some boss puzzles will require you to actually go into the game’s coding to progress. Seemed kinda ridiculous to me, but I rolled with it. Then it was The Beginner’s Guide–but that was made by the same group who made The Stanley Parable (also a fourth wall breaking game) so I honestly wasn’t surprised with that one. Then it was Thimbleweed Park’s polarizing ending, which requires the player to look at the original trailer of the game. By this time I was starting to notice making use of a game’s “sentience” was becoming a thing games did now. And now it’s Doki Doki Literature Club, requiring you to go into the game’s files and deleting/bringing back characters.
I’m sure to some gamers this is quite fun and clever, but to me it just feels arbitrary more times than not. I can honestly say I’ve never picked up a game and thought, “Yea, I can’t wait to dig into this game’s files to progress!”. And again, I’m sure for some people it is fun–this is an incredibly subjective article, after all–it just feels very unnecessary to me. Why can’t there be an in-game solution? I get it–it’s a game that knows it’s a game. It’s poking fun at the plethora of staple dating sim tropes. This might’ve been clever if a notable amount of other indie games hadn’t done the same thing in the past 2 years, and it’s starting to feel old to me.
“But Kennedy,” you’re thinking, “you only listed off 5 games. You’re overreacting.” Fair, probably true in some regard. But every trend once started with only 5, and based on the general gaming community’s love of games like this (after all, shock value will make games go a lot farther than you think, and if nothing else, these games all have shock value), I think 2018 and 2019 will have notably more entries to turn this into a full-blown trend. Until then it feels more like the beginning of one to me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been too keen on self-aware/deconstruction games in the past (again: they have to be done with so much finesse not to feel forced for me) but 5 entries is plenty for me to already feel like it’s getting old. Maybe one game like that every other year is my threshold for appreciation for them, which admittedly, is probably lower than most other people’s. Even ignoring all that though–totally forgetting that I usually don’t like these kinds of games–I still don’t think Doki Doki Literature Club is a good game even after all this is factored out.
To further drive the nail into Doki Doki’s pink, anime coffin is that the whole story stems from Monika feeling frustrated over wanting to date you but it’s really hard for me, at least, to feel justification from this because she wasn’t even an option that they player has–everyone has to ignore her her. I know you’re thinking, “Well duh, that’s the point of the game–that she can’t have you.” but it makes no sense. Any other dating sim would’ve had her be a datable option–the club/student council president is another one of these staple tropes that this game likes to parody so much, so why not make her datable? There’s no reason. Obviously she won’t get any attention from the player–we don’t even have the option to give her attention. I bet there’s a fair share of players who would’ve dated Monika first, given the option. This could’ve been alleviated by perhaps having a true route where you do date Monika on your first run which could in turn maybe affect other save files where she perceives you as cheating on her when you try to do another route (which leads to Sayori’s suicide, etc.). Maybe if you decide halfway through a route to start her instead (EX: Starting Natsuki’s route, seeing Monika act out and then switching to Monika’s route again) she becomes incredibly jealous and possessive of you–effectively causing conflict with the other girls. Suddenly, Monika’s getting upset over you not choosing to love her feels more justified and maybe even makes the player feel a tad guilty. That, to me, would’ve been better.
I think what makes me especially bitter about Doki Doki Literature Club is that I actually would’ve enjoyed it if it were the aforementioned Higurashi clone. Or even just a regular, basic dating sim. When everything’s a deconstruction, there’s nothing left to deconstruct–so why not get back to the basics? A real dating sim where I don’t have to flat-out delete characters or deal with a club president who’s messing with everyone’s dialogue. I think I might’ve genuinely enjoyed Doki Doki Literature Club at least somewhat if it hadn’t broke the fourth wall so needlessly and just perhaps made Monika an ultra-manipulative bitch without superpowers–if nothing else, to highlight how insane she really is: Maybe you get to Sayori’s suicide and Monika threatens/blackmails the other members into avoiding you or acting out so you avoid them, but to no avail. Maybe Monika is driven to murder other club members to get your attention. She could easily be a classic yandere and it could’ve made the game much darker. If Monika has the power/sentience to remove characters from the game without reprimand, of course she’d do it–there’s no punishment. But if she were a regular character who couldn’t break the fourth wall who sought to remove other characters by, say, murder, then suddenly it’s much darker: There’s more for her to lose if it doesn’t work out, there’s more pressure on her to make sure it’s worth it. In a sentence, it’s much darker because her character has a lot to lose now. She has to put in effort to get what she wants now.
If nothing else, Doki Doki Literature Club cemented my being sick of fourth wall breaking deconstruction games pre-trend. I guess this all boils down to me just not liking this flavor of deconstruction and the game not being otherwise good enough to make up for it (Thimbleweed Park, for instance, was so excellent that it vastly outweighed its fourth-wall breaking deconstruction segment at its end). To the gamers who are also getting sick of games breaking the fourth wall arbitrarily, this is 100% a waste of time for you. To gamers who wanted a cute dating sim, the warnings on this game, albeit a bit over exaggerated, aren’t kidding: This game is definitely not what it appears to be. To the less jaded gamer or the gamer who likes fourth wall breaking deconstruction though, I can see how this could be entertaining (I know that sounds kind of condescending but I mean it–I 100% understand why people love this game so much and I can think of a handful of people I know who’d like it, too, if they tried it. I see the appeal, it’s just not an appeal that works on me). Combined with the fact that this game is free, I’m really not surprised this game is so popular right now. I’m disappointed because now this might further promote more fourth-wall breaking deconstruction games, but not surprised.