Doki Doki Psychology
Huge, huge spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club ahead. Seriously, go play it first, it’s free.
I don’t think anyone unfamiliar with Doki Doki Literature Club was expecting some deeply-affecting horror game. With a name like that, I doubt anyone was expecting a deeply-affecting anything. Visual novels tend to fall into two categories, those that embrace the tropes of their genre and those that subvert them, with very few that march off in their own direction entirely. Doki Doki Lit appears to take that mythical third path with some powerful surprises, but in the end uses those innovations to brutally subvert the genre’s expectations of it. And that’s where it works so well as a horror game, because it peels back what so many of these games represent at their cores.
Before the game even dives into the abyss of madness, there is major foreshadowing at work. With the story centered around a literature club it is in a prime position to comment on the narrative itself, both in indirect and direct ways. One of your first interactions with Yuri has her explaining her love for high-concept horror, calling out how writers can prey on their audience’s lack of imagination to surprise them. Right away this is a challenge to the player to anticipate the brutal turns the game will take, and at the same time it’s something that the player character brushes off almost entirely.
The poems the girls share with you are thick with symbolism for the girls, and obvious enough that the game should appear sinister from the very start. The window into Yuri’s mind is dark indeed, speaking of flickering selves and hapless animals drawn to the blade. Natsuki’s is happier on the surface but she explains her first poem herself as being about futility and giving up hope. Again, the player character ignores all of the warning signs staring him in the face, and while the actual player can take these symbols to heart there is little they can do except brace for what may be coming as a result.
As the first act comes to a close and Sayori reveals the pathos underpinning her character, the meta-narrative of the game begins to take shape. I’m not talking about Monika’s machinations, I’m talking about how her actions and those of the other girls reflect on the visual novel itself. Sayori’s depression is all-encompassing but was kept hidden for the benefit of others, mainly the player character. Her emotional stability is built around the player, and the romantic overtones that blossom at the club have thrown her completely off. Wrapped up in all that mess, she invariably starts to come undone and admits as much to the player. She knows that it’s not fair, that the player should find their own happiness, but nothing she does brings her joy without him. In her own words, “Every path leads to nothing but hurt.”
For someone struggling with depression, it can feel like there are no good options left. But in the context of a visual novel, that notion takes on an entirely new meaning. Sayori, within the game world, is not the one forging down paths. Only the player can do that, to choose which lady presented will be his one and only, at the expense of the other unfortunates. It’s taken for granted that those not selected will accept this decision and make their own peace with it, but as we can see here that’s absolutely not the case. Sayori is completely right, every path DOES lead to hurt, because as the player picks a love interest over the others they are bound to hurt those not picked.
This only becomes a huge revelation once Monika tips her hand completely. Her jealousy of the other girls pushes her to remove them from existence after doing her best to ruin them psychologically. It’s a compulsion for her, really the same compulsion that drives all the girls, the compulsion to become the player’s one true love. In a standard visual novel the ladies will usually compete and spar for the player’s affection in ways that aren’t overly hurtful, but in Doki Doki Lit all the brakes come off. It’s the logical extreme of building a world designed only to provide companionship for someone, that those providing that companionship would grow to live for nothing but their task. Without arbitrary limits of the narrative, this situation would spiral out of control as it does here.
Visual novels provide an escape from the rigors of socializing and relationships by taking nearly all of the pressure off the player. The people they meet are primed to be romantic partners, already hanging on every word of the player from the moment they meet, aroused mentally and physically by the smallest attentions paid their way, and pinning all their happiness on that climactic moment of confession. All the player has to do is make a few arbitrary choices between partners, and usually whomever they click on the most becomes theirs. It’s a far, far cry from how real people meet and grow together, absolving the player entirely of consideration for the feelings of those they pursue and those they pass up.
Here, then, is where we find the actual horror of Doki Doki Literature Club. It’s not in the visual glitches or twitching eyes or bloody knives, but in what these characters are forced to endure because of their roles. Any actual human put into the position these girls are would have to bottle up their doubts and fears to keep the protagonist happy and the atmosphere pleasant. They would have to deny their own feelings that run counter to the protagonist’s interests. And they would have to give up their own hopes and dreams to be what the protagonist needs them to be. We don’t consider these factors because visual novel characters are very obviously not people. But what if they were?
Horror is most effective when it takes something comfortable and makes it uncomfortable. It’s why seeing a strange face in a mirror or an ominous figure at the foot of your bed remain some of the most effective scares in the world. It’s why your best friend acting out of sorts can put you on edge more than any horror movie. And it’s why this game is so horrifying, because it takes a familiar setting and corrupts it with the real. Sayori’s story is a gut-punch because it’s familiar, because we’ve all had love unrequited or lost a best friend to romance. In a visual novel, that’s supposed to be the safe option. Here, it’s a fatal one.
Even the dark force behind the terror is a familiar one. There’s no ghost or monster pulling the strings here, it’s simply depression and compulsion taken to their unfortunate ends. Sayori’s end comes at the hands of depression made unmanageable, Yuri’s comes of enabling her obsession, and Monika’s is the only escape from the terrible compulsion she has. These aren’t choices of the characters at all, they suffer and die because of forces beyond their control, ones baked into their very world. What you witness here is unwell people losing their battle with their illness, again something that most of us have experienced at some point in our real lives. Sayori’s depression, just like actual depression, isn’t her fault, and outside forces (whether Monika or the game itself) make it something impossible for her to overcome.
Psychological horror has become diluted over the years of Silent Hill clones to mean something where the monsters or the levels symbolize some trauma. That’s not psychological horror, that’s just regular horror. If you can really watch Alien or The Shining and tell me none of that has any psychological symbolism, I feel for you. Psychological horror is where the horror is in the concepts expressed, shocking you not through action or image but in idea alone. In the same way that SOMA gets you with concepts of the self, this title gets you with people trapped in a very special hell. It’s not you that’s trapped, if anything you have the most control over their virtual realm. But watching them suffer for simply trying to fulfill their purpose is the very definition of psychological horror, striking dread into your heart without need of blood or jumpscares.
Doki Doki Literature Club is the last game I ever expected to rival some of the all-time horror greats, and yet here we are. All it took was identifying what’s wrong about visual novel tropes and subjecting hapless characters to the worst extremes of them, twisting what most players would find most familiar and comforting about such a title. Giving the characters real-world pathos to struggle with in the throes of their compulsion grants the proceedings more gravitas than any spooky faces or bloody tableaux. It’s a game that makes the most of its format to play on your fears, and does it so expertly that it tells you up-front that’s what’s happening and still gets away with it.