The author as a word tamer. Words as the eternal, respected enemy.
Copyright for the photograph used: Catherine Thines (2016)
I dedicate this poem to every person suffering from depression and especially to close friends of mine going through these difficult times.
We cannot simply take this illness out of your souls, but what we can do is be there for you no matter what. Know that you are not alone and are loved for the person you are.
In this post I discuss the visual novel „Doki Doki Literature Club!“. I will talk about the plot, characters and all the little twists and turns of this true masterpiece. It goes without telling that this cannot be properly done without spoiling practically every aspect of this work of art. Go experience it for yourself if you haven‘t, it is definitely worth it (here is the link to the official download page: https://ddlc.moe/) and if you choose so, it can even be completely free (the developer lets you decide what you want to pay for the download). I would definitely recommend supporting the developer but you are of course free to choose for yourself.
I will start with a short summary of the plot. After that I will continue with my discussion.
Unusual but in the best way possible
I usually do not discuss visual novels on this blog. I certainly do not discuss video games, as this is a literature blog. And never in a million years would I think of discussing a Dating Sim (=dating simulator, a type of game which focuses on the protagonist dating one or often several characters).
Doki Doki Literature Club! presents itself on the surface as exactly that: a dating sim in anime style. However if the famous quote „Don‘t judge a book by its cover“ was ever intended for one specific book (or visual novel) it would be this one.
The visual novel starts and seemingly delivers what it promised. You name your very relatable and underachieving protagonist, a high school student who is pressured by his childhood friend Sayori into finally choosing a club to join. Although he initially considers the anime club, Sayori convinces him to visit her club, the literature club. There our protagonist and we ourselves meet the other characters: Natsuki, the energetic and feisty youngest member.
Yuri, the tall, mature but also very shy „maiden of mystery“ as the novel itself calls her.
And of course Monika, president and founder of the literature club, whom the protagonist knows because they were in the same class together. She is portrayed as the „popular girl“, being described by the protagonist as „smart, athletic and beautiful – basically completely out of my league“.
The novel continues to portray itself as a dating sim, making it clear to the player that he can romance three of the four girls in the literature club: Sayori, Natsuki and Yuri. This is done, interestingly enough, by writing poems. As the player you pick twenty words you think the girl of your choosing would appreciate (for example Yuri tells the protagonist that she enjoys horror and very metaphorical writing, so to impress her you should pick words like „inferno“, „destiny“ or „afterimage“).
After some time though the novel starts to feel „off“. It begins to change tone and abruptly changes after Sayori commits suicide by hanging herself just after having told the protagonist that she has been suffering from severe depression almost her entire life.
At this point you also begin to understand the very clear warning you get before starting the visual novel, about it containing disturbing content and it therefore not being suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed. Infact this novel deals with a lot of very heavy topics like depression, suicide, self harm, domestic abuse and contains some very graphic imagery.
As you find out at the end of the novel, Monika is a self-aware character. She is aware that she is just part of a fictional „game“ and fell in love not with the protagonist but with the literal player. She manipulated the character files of the other girls, first to make them seem more unlikable to the player, so that he would spent more time with her but after realising that this didn’t work, literally drove Sayori and Yuri to kill themselves.
So far goes the overall plot of this visual novel. Besides the phenomenal game design (Monika literally manipulates the game files on your computer, by deleting character files or putting notes in the folders for you to see) and a very catchy soundtrack, there are some other elements that made me absolutely fall in love with this visual novel. I want to discuss those in detail now.
Let‘s start with the people you spend so much time with, the members of the literature club. They are designed to fit certain stereotypes of the dating sim genre. Their dialogue however is so well written, that the illusion of just having some very predictable „copies of copies of copies“ (you can tell that this is no ordinary story when I quote „Fight Club“ during my discussion) is almost immediately shattered.
Every single one of the girls deals with very serious and difficult problems. Sayori has suffered from depression her entire life, Yuri is prone to cutting herself, Natsuki has to deal with a neglectful and probably also abusive father and even Monika has to cope with her epiphany, that she is trapped inside a „game“ with no way out.
As the player you feel with every single one of them. You really care about these fictional characters because the writer (Dan Salvato, who is also the developer and composer of the soundtrack) managed to put so much life into their dialogue.
At some points the writing just crushes you emotionally. Especially at the end of the first act, when you discover Sayori‘s depression. She is the very first character you meet and she is presented to you as your „old childhood friend“, always cheerfull and just a ray of sunshine in general. To discover that this is just the fassade she puts on to get through the day and that in reality her thoughts are ruled by the feeling of not being worthy of anyone‘s attention is simply devastating. Especially so, because as the player you share the helplessness of the actual protagonist who is clearly overwhelmed by Sayori‘s confession and obviously almost frustrated by his inability to help her.
Even Monika who is the one responsable for messing with all the other girls becomes a sort of tragical figure at the end. To progress the game you actually have to delete her character file. Thinking about the story one realizes the actual pain of a character like Monika, who is trapped inside a world she knows isn‘t „real“, hanging on to the player, the only other „being“ who shares with her the knowledge that this entire story is a work of fiction. In the downer ending, she even comes „back from the dead“ to once and for all delete the literature club, after realising that Sayori, who became president of the literature club after Monika was removed from the game, now had the same awareness of herself as a fictional character that Monika did. Why did she do that? Because she didn‘t want any of her friends to go through the same horrible experience she did. Even the „villain“ of this novel manages to break your heart in the end.
The role of literature in the literature club
One of the other bigger surprises for me personally, as a writer and especially a poet myself, was that the literature club was not just a fassade or a plot device for the novel. Dan Salvato managed to create a very engaging literature club where writing, poetry and the essence of literature itself are discussed in a surprisingly complex and detailed way. Not only do you as the player „write“ poems for the other members, but you also get to see their works. They each have very different styles and I found myself actually looking forward to their next creations and the discussion about their respective writing styles that usually followed.
DDLC focuses on literature as a way of expressing oneself which it does really nicely. For this plot and especially for the amazing characters Dan Salvato created, I think this was the best approach to take. The advice you receive from the individual members (Yuri being the most experienced writer, Natsuki bringing in a fresh „new“ perspective with a focus on very simple words and Monika turning out to be a quite talented artist) is, from my perspective as an actual writer, very good and if you are new to writing and want to know how to improve you should honestly consider it!
I also found it to be very impressive how the poems were used to tell the individual stories of the girls on one side and also the overall plot on the other. I have to admit that it felt really good to see someone give poems such an important role in their work, especially since this project got very popular. Thank you in the name of all poets out there Dan Salvato!
It is of course not very difficult to get someone like me engaged with literature, as my whole life practically revolves around it at this point, but what I am really happy to see is that other people, who are maybe usually not that interested in literature and especially poetry, develop an interest through this visual novel. The best example for me is how Dan Salvato manages to present Natsuki‘s writing style. She uses simple words straight out of everyday language and often writes about topics one would usually consider to be pretty mundane. Most people don‘t take this kind of writing seriously and in DDLC Natsuki often fights with Yuri about this. In her dialogue however Natsuki manages to present the strengths of this writing style really well. Poems written in Natsuki‘s style can be very powerful, because the individual words have much more weight to them. Natsuki‘s poems and the discussion you have with her about them, really get this message across.
I personally as a player felt most drawn to Yuri, which didn‘t really surprise me. I appreciate „darker“ characters and her writing style is also very close to my own. Yuri‘s descend into madness during the second act is also one of my favourite parts of the novel, because the psychological horror elements really start to kick in here. I wouldn‘t consider myself a fan of the horror genre in general but I do appreciate good writing and as stated before, Dan Salvato did a damn good job with this visual novel.
A love letter to literature and art in general
I am really glad that I convinced myself to experience this visual novel. Very few things can compare to the feelings that this work of art made me go through.
I am even happier that I could experience it, without having the plot spoiled beforehand. That is also why I put this disclaimer at the top, I really wouldn‘t want to ruin the story for anyone else.
My love for this visual novel goes so far, that even after this discussion (which I hope you found at least a little bit interesting by the way) I don‘t want to stop posting about it just yet.
Over the next couple Sundays I‘m going to do something more special. As you know, in the novel you don‘t actually write poems for the other members, but pick words to use in them. The poems of the protagonist are never shown but I thought to myself that I could maybe change that. Since I am a poet, I decided to write the protagonist poems myself. I will play through the novel again, pick 20 words at random, for all girls and try to write the poems in their respective style. I’ll probably start with Yuri, since her style is the closest to my own, which will make writing the poems for her a lot easier. Also, I think I will write three poems for Monika, even if you can‘t pick words for her. I love the literature club as a whole and it will be my little tribute to this amazing visual novel.
So come back next Sunday and don‘t forget to bring your own poems to the club…!
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