That much is apparent, paradoxically, from the very beginning, when the game displays a content warning: “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.” But on its face, in screenshots and in its Steam description, it’s a lighthearted anime visual novel in the style of so many others. This smiling face masks a very different, much darker personality, one that bides its time, luring you into a place of comfort, before it finally makes itself known.
(Before I continue, quick warning: This article will contain spoilers. All the spoilers. Go play Doki Doki Literature Club before you continue reading. It’s free, it’s only a few hours long, and it’s incredible.)
Doki Doki Literature Club begins with a carefree walk to school alongside your childhood friend, Sayori. She chides you for dragging your feet in choosing an after-school club to join, then coerces you into joining her in the Literature Club. Not being a big book guy, you only go begrudgingly, but decide to stay when you see the club is made up entirely of cute girls. Each girl, Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri, and Monika, have distinct and charming-in-their-own-way personalities, and a good amount of time is spent getting to know them. Each day you’re tasked with writing a poem to present to the rest of the club. This takes the form of choosing words from a list based on how you think your favorite girl will respond to each. If you impress a particular girl enough, you’ll get a special scene with her the next day. This goes on for a few days, and everything seems good. The game might have even successfully lulled you into forgetting that content warning.
Then everything changes.
(Okay, last chance. Seriously. Play this game before reading on.)
Your best friend kills herself without warning, and the game restarts. Only now, menus and text are glitchy. The music distorts. It’s as if the game is falling apart at the seams, not able to handle the strain of the twist that’s been forced upon it.
To make a long story short (because hopefully, if you’re reading this, you already know the whole plot), Monika has become self-aware and realizes she can manipulate the game’s code to make you, the player, fall in love with her. She alters and then removes the character files of the other girls — from your actual hard drive — until only she remains. “Winning” requires you to beat her at her own game, diving into the filesystem and deleting her character yourself.
DDLC gets under our skin for a variety of reasons — the flashes of horrific gore, the distorted music, the strange behavior of characters you’ve come to know — but one way in particular is striking to me. It reveals Monika to be, essentially, a self-aware artificial intelligence. As A.I. becomes more and more integrated into our world, it’s becoming harder and harder to avoid interacting with it. The idea of talking to a phone or computer was seen as ludicrous in the past; today, Siri and Google Assistant are always listening, ready to help. Our homes are our sacred places, where we refuse entry to anyone we don’t know and trust; but Amazon Alexa is becoming a welcome guest, and her always-listening A.I. mind is ready to play you a song or help you convert cups to quarts.
At the same time, we all have a bit of fear, somewhere beneath the surface, about how much these A.I.s know. How intimately familiar they are with our lives. The movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, even demonstrates the future possibility of A.I.s falling in love with us, and us with them. Monika is not just some piece of science fiction — she is rapidly becoming science, now, today. Using deep learning technologies, artificial intelligence is close to becoming just like us. It can solve problems in a very human way. It can learn and grow.
But what if we can’t trust it? DDLC shows us this by having Monika physically alter the game to force you to choose her over the other girls. If we give A.I.s full access to our information, our most personal files, what guarantee do we have they will never change them, and thus impact our understanding of the world? Our perception of reality is formed by the information we have. Change the information, change the perception. Trusting an A.I. with something as critical as our perception seems risky, and it’s a big part of why DDLC works as a story.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a new classic, a bold and risky step in a new narrative direction. It achieves its success in part because it seems to know where we’re going, what we will be afraid of. It’s one thing to scare an audience with gore or jump scares, things we’ve been conditioned over millions of years of evolution to fear.
It’s another thing altogether to peer into the future and reveal terrifying things we didn’t even know existed.