[Note: This post contains spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club and UNDERTALE. You've been warned!]
Doki Doki Literature Club was a disappointment.
I say this as someone who liked the game. I'm generally not one for visual
novels, but I thought DDLC was a capable entry in the genre, and the initial
premise of subverting the usual ~
LE ANIME REEEEE~ tropes appealed to me a lot.
I went into it completely blind, playing it over the course of two days with my
girlfriend, who had already seen most of it.
For the two of you who haven't heard of the game before, it starts off as another bog-standard dating sim. You're some featureless clueless anime protagonist who's dragged into attending a literature club with your fellow students, you don't want to be there at first and then slowly warm up to the idea, blah blah blah. If you've played any visual novel, you know the tropes; indeed, the first two hours are essentially a carbon copy of those of any entry in this genre, to the point where I know more than a few people who turned it off because the beginning burns slower than Chernobyl.
This game is different, though, and it has an excellent reason for the slow start.
It isn't different like most genre-bending horror games try to be. Strange things don't start happening. You don't have odd nightmares, no doors open and close on their own, and none of the girls start crawling around on the ceiling. Indeed, the first two hours aren't really even horror, and those of us who are less observant might not notice anything out of the norm. If you pay attention, though, it becomes pretty clear that one of the girls -- Sayori -- is suffering from severe depression, and you might even begin to suspect that all of them have their own neuroses, somewhat invisible to the player. Eventually, this is outright stated, but not before you've already spent an hour and a half playing the game.
Portraying mental illness in media is a sticky business. People on the autism spectrum are too often portrayed as emotionless robots, people with ADHD as "hyperactive" or "random", and those with depression as just sad all the time. Media is often insensitive, ill-informed, and even insincere in its portrayal of people who have some sort of mental disorder, which is why I was extremely surprised that Dan Salvato wrote one of the most believably depressed characters I've ever seen in, well, anything. This is in a genre where, ordinarily, characters are so one-dimensional that they can be distilled to one word like "tsundere" or "yandere." Even in comparison with the other characters, which themselves are somewhat more fleshed out than the average visual novel character, Sayori is as three-dimensional as it gets.
She exhibits all the signs of depression, but you don't really see them until a second playthough. She's constantly doing things for other people, regardless of the consequences to herself. She even writes this in a poem:
I pop off my scalp like the lid of a cookie jar. It's the secret place where I keep all my dreams. Little balls of sunshine, all rubbing together like a bundle of kittens I reach inside with my thumb and forefinger and pluck one out. It's warm and tingly. But there's no time to waste! I put it in a bottle to keep it safe. And I put the bottle on the shelf with all of the other bottles. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts, happy thoughts in bottles, all in a row. My collection makes me lots of friends. Each bottle a starlight to make amends. Sometimes my friend feels a certain way. Down comes a bottle to save the day. Night after night, more dreams. Friend after friend, more bottles. Deeper and deeper my fingers go. Like exploring a dark cave, discovering the secrets hiding in the nooks \ and crannies. Digging and digging. Scraping and scraping. I blow dust off my bottle caps. It doesn't feel like time elapsed. My empty shelf could use some more. My friends look through my locked front door. Finally, all done. I open up, and in come my friends. In they come, in such a hurry. Do they want my bottles that much? I frantically pull them from the shelf, one after the other. Holding them out to each and every friend. Each and every bottle. But every time I let one go, it shatters against the tile between my feet. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts, happy thoughts in shards, all over the floor. They were supposed to be for my friends, my friends who aren't smiling. They're all shouting, pleading. Something. But all I hear is echo, echo, echo, echo, echo Inside my head.
Of course, it gets worse over time as she sees the player get closer to everyone else, but what's interesting is that it also gets worse even if the player writes their poems for her. There's nothing you can do to stop what happens next, which is very realistic for depression -- that is to say, you get this poem no matter what you do:
Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get. Out. Of. My. Head. Get out of my head before I do what I know is best for you. Get out of my head before I listen to everything she said to me. Get out of my head before I show you how much I love you. Get out of my head before I finish writing this poem. But a poem is never actually finished. It just stops moving.
...followed by what I consider to be one of the most horrifying jumpscares a horror game has ever pulled off. Suffice it to say, the game is really, really sad, and brilliantly executed up to this point.
Unfortunately, the game then executes SYS.EXIT() -- er, sorry, crashes. And what follows is, well, typical. Strange things start to happen. Windows start to open and close on their own. Girls start to glitch and crawl around and bleed from the eyes and :) :) :) smile way too widely. We have, in other words, reached the land of the video game creeeeeeepypasta.
Is this executed well? Yes, although I'm a wuss, so your mileage may vary. At the end of the game, Monika comes out and talks to us and we delete her and it all works really well in the moment when you suspend your disbelief and then you get out of the game and you're just left with a feeling, similar to the one you get after watching a mainline Disney Star Wars film, of "wow, there was the potential for so much more."
And there was. A gripping, genre-defying story about heartbreak, loss, and banding together as a group in the face of adversity; of growing closer to your friends and going through the grieving process; of helping those close to you deal with the unimaginable -- all of this was lost in favor of another game about being "horrifying" and "meta." And it doesn't work in hindsight, because I can't suspend my disbelief forever. In the moment, Monika may have seemed real enough, but removed from the experience she's just another character that the story wants you to believe is real.
We should have gone to the festival. We should have gone through the grieving
process with the club. We should have gotten more character development from
everyone. Frankly, I think it's a shame that all of this was discarded in favor
of an experience that feels far inferior. I mean, when you have to make cringey,
contrived references like "oh geez wow my friend is hanging from the rafters and
this isn't a game that I can just SAVE and LOAD oh man" or "wow, it would really
suck if you entered your Steam library and went to DDLC/Show Local
Files/SaveData and deleted
pleasenodelete.txt but you'd never do that
riiiiight?," it just leaves an awfully bitter taste in my mouth. Oh, wow, we
gave up our story for this. A neurotic schoolgirl who can hack Ren'Py. How
I feel like I'd take to it a little better if the beginning weren't so jaw-droppingly amazing -- after all, if I didn't feel like we were losing anything by doing the whole haunted game shtick, then I could evaluate the rest of the game after Act 1 more impartially. I don't blame Dan Salvato, though. DDLC is a fantastically popular project for what it is, and the scope of the game dictates its form. It would've taken more time and energy to make the experience that I wanted.
It would've been a better game, though.
Undertale is a project that, while not in the same genre as DDLC, shares some similarities with it. They're both short one(ish) man indie projects. And, more importantly, meta is integral to both of their stories.
Undertale is one of those precious games that can cross the threshold from being good to being truly amazing. The vast majority of the game is excellently written, light-hearted, and examines gaming in a penetrating way that very few if any games have ever been able to do. I think both the Pacifist and the various Neutral paths are masterworks in game design and storytelling, because they integrate a "meta" component (SAVING and LOADING) in a way that doesn't bludgeon you over the head with how hipster the game is for acknowledging that there is, in fact, someone playing it.
The Genocide path, on the other hand, is different. Or, rather, one tiny decision you can make in it is different. I think, overall, the Genocide path is just as brilliantly executed as the others, as it satirizes what people do in RPGs all the time: grind. Sans is an excellent final boss, too.
No, the thing that irks me about this particular path is the final decision you can make.
At the end of the game, Chara stands before you and offers you two choices: ERASE, or DO NOT. If you ERASE, the game ends (somewhat) permanently, and you move onto playing other games, which probably merits its own blog post at some point. The other, however, leads to this:
No...? Hmmm... How curious. You must have misunderstood. SINCE WHEN WERE YOU THE ONE IN CONTROL?
...followed by Chara making a :) spooky :) and jumpscare-slicing you for 9999999999999999etc damage.
All audiences get their personality to choose this ending. Every single one. Every single streamer or YouTuber who takes audience input gets like 95% of people saying "DO NOT." And why wouldn't you? It's a jumpscare versus... nothing. Two lines of text and then you can never play the game again (unless you wait for 10 minutes). Compared to that, "DO NOT" seems positively optimized for a Let's Play. Actually, catering to Twitch and YouTube seems like a trend for "meta" games -- in DDLC, Monika jumpscares the screen if you're using XSplit, OBS, or an equivalent.
In the moment, and especially on a stream or in a video, this can work, because it's entertaining to watch a YouTuber or a Twitch streamer react to Chara going BOOGAHBOOGAHBOOGAH at the screen. If you're in the moment, just like in DDLC, it can even seem scary and emotional.
Looking back, though, it doesn't seem like either. Chara can't hurt me. Her attack was utterly futile. I'm fine. UNDERTALE didn't punish me for my actions at all. It's all reversible. An edit to a save file here, a tweak to a config file there, and Sans is all happy-go-lucky again and everyone can go to the surface without being murdered.
I can print 9s on a screen too-
99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 99999999999 9 9 9 9 9 9 999999999999999999999 9 99 9 99 9 9 99 9 9 99 99 9 999999
Oh, wow, look how scary. Look how impactful! I bet Cirno is really happy right now.
I love UNDERTALE. I quite liked DDLC. But a game can't rely on my suspension of disbelief anymore when it's breaking the fourth wall. Those are two incompatible ideas, and it's precisely for that reason that getting sliced by Chara or staring at a sprite of Monika while Dan Salvato talks to me about whether or not he believes in God is such a hollow experience. When you get meta, the suspension of disbelief goes out the window, and suddenly the emperor is quite naked, indeed.