'Doki Doki Literature Club' Makes Surprising Social Commentary About Books
Content Warning and Spoiler Warning:
Game has graphic content, including: violence, self-harm, and suicide.
And there will be spoilers - I'm assuming you've already played the game!
Popular ‘dating sim’ style surreal horror game Doki Doki Literature Club probably leaves a lot of people shaking their heads.
What does it mean?
What are the people who made the game trying to say?
Can you handle a quartet of yanderes?
What if I told you the main point of the game isn’t to talk about some waifus in serious need of therapy, but that it’s about books. It’s a cry for help from books. Finish us! Pay attention to us! We’re not just here to sit on your shelf to make you look smart! Not that – we want to be read or anything. BAKA.
Nobody Reads Anymore?
A crisis of our age is that the rise of screens has meant the fall of paper books. Bookstore chains have been dying steadily since 2000. Barnes & Noble has made up for the declining popularity of printed materials by having Starbucks cafes in the store and selling fandom-related merchandise, toys, games, puzzles, gift cards, and trendy office trinkets like lap desks and the ‘Buddha board’. They’ve also been selling their e-reader, called the “Nook”. Amazon started as an online bookstore, but now has become an online general store, and they made their own e-reader, the “Kindle”. Amazon acquired Audible in 2008.
But the question is, are people still consuming the same amount of literature on new technological formats? Answer: No.
Reading books at all has become less popular (scary articles 1,2,3). So there’s a bit of a paradox: It’s never been easier to read or access books, but trends seem to show people declining in fictional reading. Many classics are available for free, and many ebooks cost a fraction of what the paper version of the book would cost. Also the internet is an open platform, a place where anyone can self-publish, so there are more authors to choose from than ever. But people aren’t, generally, reading books.
Is it that too many choices causes inaction (overchoice)?
Maybe it’s that people’s brains are being rewired by social media.
Or maybe the economy going south in the mid to late 00's made people have a work, work, work mindset, and we see reading as a luxury?
Or maybe, people just don’t see the value in reading fiction. There are important mental and emotional benefits to reading fiction, but they’re less tangible than say, nonfiction books or helpful "how-to" style blog articles. Maybe people want direct words, telling them what actions to take in an uncertain world. Fiction is indirect and allegorical. It uses figurative language to create an image in the minds of readers. Maybe that indirect, romantic, mysterious, emotion-laden way of expressing oneself is seen as belonging to a bygone era.
Also, almost every popular novel is now a movie. People used to read because that was the only way to connect with their favorite story, besides oral recitation. They had to train their imaginations and attention spans for reading - no other choice. With movies, you don’t have to use your imagination. The studio does all the mental labor - turning written words into complete audio-visual experiences. I often say “the book is better”, but what I’m saying when I say that is “my imagination is more powerful than the imaginations of most creative teams who adapt books into movies and TV shows”. But maybe, not everyone thinks this way about reading. Maybe not everyone has the imaginative power I do. So they prefer a visual storytelling format.
One thing's for sure, we have many more choices available now. People didn't suddenly start hating fiction. They've just begun to engage with media that are more visual, aural, or interactive. The rise of video games might have something to do with the fall of the book. Speaking of video games, let's get back to our dear friend, Doki Doki Literature Club.
Why 'Doki Doki Literature Club' Is Primarily About Books
The thread that unites all the characters in Doki Doki Literature Club is desperation. Suicidal and/or homicidal, each girl is desperate for the affection of you, the player character. As you play through the game, you can see their behavior become more unhinged. They gradually lose the masks of normality they have on at the beginning of the game. Even though you barely know them (except for Sayori), they fall for you instantly, so much so that they become crazily jealous of each other.
Couldn’t you see all that as a metaphor for how books themselves might feel in today's world, if they had feelings? Think about how the girls in Literature Club resemble books themselves:
- They represent different writing styles. One is dark, brooding, intellectual, and "edgy". Another likes manga and direct, simple language. Others are mysterious and/or something in between these opposing styles.
- The girls communicate in text and subtext. Text is what happens when the game is normal, with the cheerful music is playing. Subtext is what you get when the game goes all weird, for lack of a better word. The girls pretend the subtext isn’t real, that none of that stuff really happened. Subtext in books is similarly shielded with a layer of plausible deniability. You infer subtext in a book, while text is what is actually written on the page. For example, subtext in X-Men may lead you to think gaining mutant powers is a metaphor for puberty, but that’s never actually stated explicitly.
- They all act very desperate for any attention at all. The literature club is small, and far from the most popular club in school. Ok so what, there’s a metric fuckton of anime and light novels about starting a school club, and they’re almost always the underdogs. Standard anime trope, right? But it could also be about the waning popularity of literature vs. anime. Anime club is the only major club at the school that is explicitly mentioned, multiple times. So the writers of the game may be trying to get us to think about the popularity of anime vs. the waning popularity of literature.
If they wanted to make a game that says something about anime yanderes and waifus, why a literature club? That choice of club, and the use of writing as a game mechanic that helps you unlock secrets about the girls’ psyches, was deliberate.
The Importance of Reading for Building Empathy
It wasn’t Stephen King who first said that writing is telepathy, but he talks about this concept in his book On Writing. Writing is powerful because it lets us, using words, send images and concepts and emotions to other people. That’s why literary fiction is important, it builds empathy. As we read more and more fiction, we get better at putting ourselves in the shoes of the characters, even if they are very different from us. Empathy isn’t some magical gift, it’s more like a muscle, and experiencing fiction is one of the ways you can exercise it.
Monika talks about this in the end of the game scene, where she is alone with the player. She talks about how video games have an empathy problem, because players become used to killing people in a game, desensitized to it. But Doki Doki Literature Club, if it’s trying to say anything at all, is saying we need a way to bring empathy back. They want to make it scary when a character goes from acting normal to acting crazy. They want it to be impactful when a character kills herself or threatens others. In anime and games, we sometimes see a lot of violence that is just spectacle, that doesn’t weigh heavily on us emotionally. Maybe it’s because A Million is a Statistic. Maybe it’s because the violence is sometimes cartoonish and other-worldly.
But mostly, this is caused by lack of an emotional connection to the fictional characters. If you really love a fictional character, seeing them hurt in any way becomes emotionally devastating. If you don’t care about them at all, you’ll probably just end up laughing if they get killed. Doki Doki Literature Club is about literature as an empathy-building experience. And it does that primarily by showing the devastating consequences of a world where empathy has gone out the window, and people are just pursuing their own selfish aims, regardless of any cost to others.