After showing several warnings that this game is not advised for children and those with depression or anxiety, the 2017 video game “Doki Doki Literature Club” begins by almost boring you to tears with a typical story for a dating sim. You are a remarkably unremarkable male high school student in Japan with a love of manga. Your neighbor and closest friend, a cute and ditzy girl named Sayori, drags you to her literature club after school out of a shared concern for your lack of social skills. There you meet her equally cute friends who you are obviously smitten with as they fit anime tropes: president and queen bee Monika, tsundere Natsuki and mysterious Yuri. You are forced to play the game straight, meaning repeatedly playing an almost dull mini-game where you form a poem by strategically picking words from lists in order to win over the girl of your dreams.
In the droning rhythm of the game, little hints that something is off are something you shrug off. But they’re not quite subtle enough. There is clearly something wrong with the girls that they keep hinting at. And yet you must continue forward with the story, as you are rarely given the opportunity to engage the girls on a more personal level. The game starts acting wonky as well, and makes you start questioning your sanity. Does the cheerful music keep getting distorted? (Yes.) Are there supposed to be “errors” in coding that makes the normally sweet girls’ dialogue shockingly dark? (Yes.) Do the glitches when the girls appear scrambled or out of place happen intentionally? (Yes.) And yet you still feel secure as you continue this mindless journey schmoozing the anime girls as you discuss writing poetry, because nothing this pastel can get under your skin like it claims. Right?
Wrong. Spoiler alert: the horror in “Doki Doki Literature Club” is revealed slowly by undoing what you know about the story, and then goes a terrifying level further by undoing what you know on a technical level about the game itself.
The cute girls of the literature club all kill themselves and in a way that implicates you in their death. It is shockingly dark in and of itself to find out that each of them is hiding dark secrets. Sayori has been struggling with depression for years. Natsuki is neglected and physically abused by her father. Yuri cuts herself. The way these sweet two-dimensional girls are dealing with all-too real issues is shocking and unnerving.
Yet what is weird is that the errors in the computer game makes them reveal this to you. Sayori screams in pain when you share your interest in the other girls before she reveals she likes you. And then she hangs herself as the music distorts, restarting the game! Natsuki’s eyes change animation style as they pop and bleed after you give her a poem tailored with a different girl in mind. And then she snaps her own neck before her figure is pushed to the front of the screen, restarting the game! Yuri has blood running from cuts all down her arm after she gets excited and dashes out of class to be left alone. And then she clunkily stabs her otherwise static body after she confesses her feelings to you! No matter what you do, the game’s glitching pushes the horror from the imagery of the characters committing suicide to a profound moral guilt as you are made complicit in the demise of these girls who have no other choice but to love you. But it gets worse still. Why did this happen?
Because Monika knows you’re out there, and she wants you all to herself. Yes, you, behind the screen, even though she knows you may not be a boy and that the name your computer is registered under is not the one you used in the game for immersion. She did all of that to her so-called friends. For you. And so she proceeds to destroy all the sets and characters in the game until she is in a timeless void in space with unending time to spend. With you.
The unnerving obsession that is made grotesque in this game speaks to the excessive romanticizing of dating in general. Thankfully, I put the game to rest by deleting Monika’s character file on my computer, effectively killing her. This was a small feat, as the game hints at this time after time. But I could not kill the sleep-stealing fear she instilled in my heart.