Content warning: This article contains references to suicide, as well as major spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club.
From the very first screen, it is apparent that Doki Doki Literature Club is no ordinary dating sim. Don’t let the candy-coated color scheme, bouncy music, or plot points as contrived and malformed as the spines of the impractically posed anime girls fool you.
As soon as you boot up Doki Doki Literature Club, you’re met with an ominous disclaimer: “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed. Individuals suffering from anxiety or depression may not have a safe experience playing this game.”
Once you click through, saccharine music begins to play—so sickly sweet that you could almost forget the portent of doom you just agreed to. Almost.
Just a Normal Dating Sim…
Doki Doki Literature Club is a stealth horror game masquerading as a classic dating sim visual novel, released by Team Salvato in 2017. The game begins with a fairly standard slice-of-life scenario: The player, a high school student, joins the school Literature Club at the urging of his chirpy, sweet childhood friend, Sayori. There, he is thrilled to discover that (in true romance anime fashion) the club is made up entirely of cute girls. In addition to Sayori, there is the pink-haired tsundere (a character whose tough and abrasive demeanor hides a soft, sweet interior) Natsuki, the soft-spoken Yuri, and the popular club president Monika.
The game unfolds fairly normally for about an hour or so. The player flirts with the girls (except for Monika, who is not romanceable), writes poems to win their favor, cycles through a routine of club meetings, and walks to and from school with Sayori. All the while, Monika makes sure to remind you to save your game frequently, just in case you make a choice you regret.
…And Then it Gets Dark
Just when you start to think that maybe you somehow downloaded a defanged version of the game, and you’ve been tricked into playing a pleasant-but-dull dating sim about poetry, the tone abruptly shifts. At Literature Club, Monika shows the protagonist a poem by Sayori. “Poem” might be a bit of a stretch, really. It’s more of a desperate, unhinged scribbling, pleading with some unnamed entity to “get out” of her head. Realizing something is wrong, the protagonist rushes to Sayori’s house, only to find that he is too late. Sayori has hanged herself, and she is dead. As the protagonist agonizes over what he could have done to prevent this, the game ends.
At this point in my first playthrough, I remembered Monika’s advice to make frequent saves. I was no fool; of course I had saved my game. So, I pulled up my save file, and prepared to make different choices that might save Sayori’s life. However, when I did, I received an error message that the file had been corrupted.
The game quit, and restarted from the very beginning, with the protagonist walking to school. This time, though, something was immediately and chillingly different. While the first playthrough began with the protagonist walking to school with Sayori, as he apparently had every day since they were children, this time I was met with a sentence that made my heart drop into my feet:
“I’ve always walked to school alone.”
Not only was Sayori dead, but there was no getting her back. She had completely vanished from the game. It’s difficult to explain what was so disquieting about this moment without playing it yourself. For me, it was not just the fact that Sayori was gone. It was that the game had tricked me so thoroughly.
I’ve logged hundreds of hours of visual novels. I have my strategy of avoiding bad endings down to a science, and I was counting on that to save me—and, of course, Sayori. The game built up my hopes, encouraging me over and over to make sure I saved before difficult choices, knowing that, when the time came, it would yank the rug right out from under me.
There, alone in my bedroom, in complete darkness save for the pink-hued glow of my computer screen, I knew I was hooked. From that point, the game continued to slowly chip away at the fourth wall until there was no barrier between me and the story pulling me along. It was exhilarating. It was bizarre. It was terrifying.
What is the Fourth Wall?
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the fourth wall, it refers to the invisible barrier between a piece of fiction and the person consuming it. When you’re watching a sitcom—say, about a group of friends—and those friends are doing shenanigans in an apartment, how many walls can you see? Three. The fourth wall is invisible, the barrier keeping you from hopping into the television, and the only thing stopping you from giving Ross Geller the beating he so heartily deserves.
Many pieces of media deliberately break down the wall, with a variety of intended effects in mind. Deadpool breaks it for comedy, and to give the most annoying guys at the comic book convention something to aspire to. The titular protagonist of Fleabag breaks it with conspiratorial glances at the camera, inviting the audience into her inner life and giving you the sense that you’re being allowed to witness something secret and personal. The fourth wall can be broken down to heighten comedy and drama, but it can also be used to ratchet up a sense of dread and danger in horror media.
One of the benefits of watching a horror movie is knowing that, no matter what plays out on-screen and no matter how hard the babysitter gets murdered, the credits are going to roll, the lights will come up, and you’ll be completely fine. That story has nothing to do with you! You’ve never even met Jason Voorhees.
A game like Doki Doki Literature Club comes along and shatters that illusion of separation. It reaches through the screen, grabs you by the collar, and says, “Did you think you weren’t a part of this? Let me show you just how wrong you are.”
The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You
Of course, Doki Doki Literature Club is hardly the first game to break down the fourth wall in a bid to truly horrify the player. Many games, whether technically classified as horror or not, have broken that barrier down in order to raise the stakes and ratchet up a sense of dread.
In the survival horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the protagonist’s sanity dipping too low causes visual hallucinations in the character, including cockroaches crawling across the screen. In Freddie Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator, certain jumpscares will crash the game, as if the scare was too much for it to handle. Additionally, if you finish the game with the “Bankruptcy” ending, all of your achievements will be wiped. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, exposure to Scarecrow’s fear toxin can cause the appearance of the game glitching, and trigger a fake “game over” screen. Even an innocent-looking flower can be responsible for making a video game feel uncomfortably personal. Undertale’s Flowey remembers the player’s actions in previous playthroughs, and will use them to taunt and menace the player. Flowey knows your sins, and he will not let them be forgotten.
Other games take a more meta approach to breaking the fourth wall. Indie games Calendula and Pony Island each play with the concept of a “game with a game,” with very different approaches. Calendula is based around the premise that the game you are playing does not, in fact, want you to play it. It forces the player to look for workarounds, and even claims to have identified problems with your computer hardware, all while you attempt to get the damn thing to just let you play. It sounds frustrating, but don’t worry—it’s also a nightmare!
Pony Island, on the other hand, is all too easy to play. The game appears to be a vintage arcade game with a crude point-and-click adventure game style. Then, as you get deeper into your play-through, you start to receive glaring hints that (of course) there is something much darker at play. For example, if you play the game on Steam, you will begin to receive messages from random accounts featuring ominous phrases like “ANSWER ME, MORTAL” and “pathetic fool.”
There Is No Fourth Wall
Though there are other games with similar goals of eroding the line between the game and its player, I have still never played anything else quite like Doki Doki Literature Club. As you tunnel deeper into the darkness, the game begins to close in around you. The edges begin to fray as the illusion comes apart bit by bit. Images become warped and corrupted, the music changes key and tempo, making it sound just slightly wrong, and blocks of text are replaced with gibberish. As the gameplay falls apart, so do the characters you are still futilely attempting to romance. Natsuki becomes more and more aggressive; Yuri becomes obsessive to the point of violent outbursts.
There are frequent deliberate fourth wall breaks throughout the game, including one where the player’s cursor stops responding to them when presented with a prompt asking them to choose which club member to spend time with. No matter who they try to select, the player’s cursor is dragged to Monika’s name until they simply give up and select her. Another particularly infamous example occurs only if the player is livestreaming the game. Monika makes a comment about being watched, and responds with a deliberate jump scare to spite the player and their audience.
Finally, after an incident that leaves Yuri dead and Natsuki out of commission, the truth is revealed: Monika is behind it all. She knows that she is in a dating sim, and she has been slowly, but surely, taking out her competition. You see, she is in love with you. No, not the protagonist of the game—the person playing it.
Trapped as the only being with consciousness in a cardboard cutout world, she became attached to the only three-dimensional being she has ever known, deciding: if I can’t have them, no one can. Her tampering has, unfortunately, destroyed the game’s code, leaving only Monika and an empty room with a burning world visible through the window. She rests her chin in her hands, gazing lovingly, obsessively, out through the screen at the object of her desire and the reason for every horrible thing that has happened throughout the game: you.
Not only is the story all about you, but you—the person who downloaded the game—are the only one who can end it. In order to complete the story, you must go into the game files on your computer and delete a specific file. There is no other way out. The only alternative is to leave Monika there, in that hellish room, sitting across the table and staring at you with those expectant eyes. Forever.
I hope to see other games follow in Doki Doki’s footsteps, playing with the audience’s preconceived notions of what a horror game can be, and where the scares can come from. In the meantime, Doki Doki Literature Club is free to play, or you can purchase the recently-released Doki Doki Literature Club Plus for a retooled version of the game with added content if you’re willing to invest a bit more in psychologically terrorizing yourself for fun.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a great reminder of the versatility of horror storytelling in the video game world. You don’t need high-def graphics or an abundance of jump scares to get under a player’s skin. All you need is to thoroughly subvert their expectations, and, above all else, remind them: just because there’s a screen between you and them, that doesn’t mean you’re safe. The fourth wall is a flimsy thing, and, if an enterprising cartoon character sets her sights beyond it, it cannot protect you. There is no fourth wall anymore. There is just Monika.