Doki Doki Literature Club is very self aware. As a dating sim, it almost has to be. Generally, the characters in a game of this genre, not unlike a harem anime, are assembled for a shared purpose: to possibly date you, the player. It requires your interest, but also your participation, both cultivated and groomed through the direct dialogue and ensuing conversation with your potential, and virtual, paramours.
But more than that, Doki Doki Literature Club violates the silent contract of dating sims, and almost all games everywhere: it acknowledges the nature of its existence. It’s dark, at times bleak, and dabbles in the surreal. Its premise is poised heavily on letting the player know they, the fictional girls of the titular literature club, are wise to your presence. In fact, they know their very being relies upon it. At any time you could stop playing, or even erase their character file altogether. But please don’t. They love you.
Breaking the fourth wall can be a smug and self satisfied creative gesture if not properly executed—look at The Stanley Parable, a game that questioned videogame conventions but made its point largely at the expense of the player. “Aren’t the mechanics of videogames insincere?” it sneered, while guiding the audience through its next puzzle. The result was almost obnoxious, all but mocking the player for participating in the very parameters the game set up for them.
In the case of Doki Doki Literature Club, however, the staples that otherwise define its genre are subverted to enhance its despairing edge. Audio, art, user interface—nothing is safe, and nothing is sacred. As the story moves along, the music may begin to distort. Perhaps an eyeball seems out of place. The images of the girls start to glitch, or fade out; at times they cross the virtual divide to beg the player for help. The game becomes crueler, more violent. At the end, the ringleader of the literature club is adrift in a timeless void, her entire being centered, inexplicably, around you. Why are you the object of her affection? Why, despite every decision you’ve made to the contrary, does every girl in the game still want only you? And why are they so immediately devoted to you, despite your lack of interest or distinctive personality traits? Why, because you’re the player, of course. There’s no other reason. They’re all here for you.
Doki Doki Literature Club makes a deep comment on themes hidden beneath the surface of dating sim games, like obsession, insecurity and romantic fixation, but it does so by prompting the player to question the writing, rather than criticizing them for engaging with it. To fully enjoy the game, the player must take some hints from the dialogue, and erase files and play multiple times through to get the “true” ending, requiring a level of proactivity both unseen in dating sims, but also extending beyond the generally accepted social boundaries between player and game.
Surrealism is hard to pull off in games, and the effect (especially here) relies on the player’s foreknowledge of how they “work.” The technique is worthless without the audience’s familiarity with the medium, because it often requires subversion of popular mechanics. In the case of Doki Doki Literature Club, it’s used to deftly avoid a defensive reaction from the audience, while guiding them towards self reflection. In this way, the participatory element of games makes the use of breaking the fourth wall not just a nod to the audience, but a means to directly engage them in a way that would otherwise be clumsy and unwelcome. It evolves from the self satisfied in-joke of a bored writer to a sharp narrative tool.
Not bad for an after school literature club, huh?
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.