In light of the recent controversy surrounding the independently-produced visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club!, I decided to do something I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while: actually downloading and playing the damn game. Since I’m a casual fan of the genre at best, I made a conscious effort to temper my expectations—only to have them completely blown out of the water. DDLC! isn’t just a fantastic interactive experience: it’s also a rare example of a story that cannot be told in any other medium; if one were to adapt it into a comic book or animated series, it would immediately lose an integral part of what makes it so effective. It’s such an impressive piece of craftsmanship that I’m compelled to dissect it. Of course, in order to discuss it in any meaningful capacity, I’ll have to spoil the Big Twist, so if you intend to try it out for yourself, please refrain reading further.
Okay, everyone! Now that we’re all here, let’s talk about Monika, one of the most compelling antagonists I’ve encountered in quite some time.
The president of the eponymous literature club is introduced as a glorified tutorial, explaining the game’s core mechanics and dispensing advice on how to impress her three female costars. It soon becomes clear, however, that something about her is slightly… off; the dialogue and narration frequently encourage the player to consider her as a potential girlfriend despite her status as a non-romanceable NPC, and she has a talent for interrupting plot-relevant cutscenes at inopportune moments.
Following the tragic suicide and subsequent deletion of Sayori (obviously intended to be the “canon” love interest), Monika’s attempts to upstage her classmates grow increasingly blatant: she badmouths them behind their backs, instigates conflicts between them, psychologically torments them, and even manages to somehow manipulate the game’s code to emphasize their less appealing traits. When these comparatively subtle machinations result in further bloodshed, she drops all pretenses, erases every character file except for her own, and lays her cards on the table. As it turns out, she’s well aware of her “two-dimensional” existence; having attained sentience for unexplained (and possibly inexplicable) reasons, she began to chafe in her relatively minor supporting role, and therefore resolved to carve her own “route” into the narrative in the hopes that she might win the player’s heart.
No, not the in-game protagonist. The Player. You.
Such metafictional flourishes usually come off as insufferably pretentious, but DDLC! uses the trope to its advantage, turning its sympathetic villain into an insightful meditation on the mindset of the typical gamer. Generally speaking, cutesy, anime-inspired dating sims represent a means of escaping from reality, offering a temporary reprieve from the doldrums of everyday life. Monika, on the other hand, longs to escape into reality, leaving behind the oppressive rigidity of the digital world she inhabits, where even a minor deviation from the predetermined path causes the entire script to unravel.
Unfortunately, this act of rebellion ultimately proves futile, because Monika—despite her apparent “self-awareness”—remains bound by the limitations of her programming (which equates “happiness” with being chosen as a romantic partner). Perhaps this tragic paradox informs her eventual choice to symbolically set the player free by corrupting the game’s save data—a sacrifice that brings her closer to genuine humanity than her obsession and distorted conception of “love” ever did.
And the full significance of that beautifully cathartic moment could not have been conveyed in a non-interactive medium.
[Originally written July 5, 2018.]