Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC) seems to be a cute visual novel about meeting other writing fans in a literature club, only starting to show its true nature over the course of play. With only a simple warning of “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.”, players will be left wondering what’s so off about these innocent teens, only to come to a sinister turn in the free game.
Siliconera had a spoiler-filled talk with Dan Salvato, writer and coder of DDLC, to have a talk about the game’s unexpected change in content, why its true nature was kept hidden, and what effect this kind of game can have on the player in the real world.
What drew you to create this world of sweet teenage romance and bury something sinister within it?
From the moment of the project’s inception, it was designed as a satire on anime dating sim-style games. There’s a very enthusiastic subculture of gamers who seek the "fantasy fulfillment" that those kinds of games provide – that is, cute girls (or guys) flirting with you and falling in love with you. Its notoriety makes it an easy target for satire, because the satire can be enjoyed both by people who play dating sims, and people who make fun of them. It’s a combination of me enjoying writing disturbing content, and wanting to demonstrate what the visual novel medium is capable of doing.
What does that pleasant surface do to the player? What effect does it set up for you that helps you frighten the player later on?
DDLC starts off disarming, to say the least. I think what you get is players who aren’t sure how seriously they should be taking the game, because most of them know that something is going to happen – they just don’t know what. The first hour of the game is important in establishing strict rules for as many things as possible: The characters’ behavior, the flow of the story, the poem minigame, the interface. Once all the rules are all firmly established, I’m going to start mercilessly breaking them, until the player no longer feels like they’re in control.
Doki Doki Literature Club offers a kind of horror that reaches out into the player’s world, affecting them outside the game. How do you capture that kind of horror?
I think this is an interesting topic of discussion and one of the main points of DDLC. Interactive fiction has that power. When you feel like your actions have true weight on the game world, or that you are losing control of your own game, you get unnerved. This effect is augmented by the realism of the issues the characters are facing. If you relate to any of the characters’ insecurities, then the effect becomes all too real, and you end up evaluating aspects of your own life outside of the game. DDLC is a game that reminds you that nothing is okay, and nothing is in your control.
What do you feel is so frightening about a game reaching outside of itself? About a game where players lose control, with the game asserting control? About the media itself being the source of fear?
I think the "uncanny valley effect" is a major contributor to how this works. Games are built around rules and familiarities, and the most well-designed games typically follow a base formula, adding new elements to it over time. We’re so used to following the rules of the game, knowing when we can pause, save, or undo. The game’s menu is a separate entity from the game world, a tool for the player to have more control over the game. If you start crumbling all of those foundations, then the player becomes unnerved. They can no longer trust themselves to understand the rules of the game. Literally anything new can happen at any point, no matter what you’re doing, so it’s a feeling of constant suspense.
How do you approach this kind of horror, from a development perspective? What is different about your approach when you want players to fear the game itself, rather than what will happen to an avatar in the game?
Well, let’s think of the game as several layers: The in-game characters, the player’s in-game choices, the player’s out-of-game interactions such as the menus, the game as a complete entity, and the player themselves. I think all of these pieces need to work together in order to create the full effect. If you don’t care at all about the in-game characters, then the game is just a playground of spooky effects. But I think the horror comes from the player wanting everything to be okay, fighting with the game itself which is bestowing nothing but misery upon its characters. The game is doing horrible things to these characters you care about, and your lack of control is why you ultimately fear the game.
Why keep the game’s horror identity a (somewhat) secret? What did you feel that would add to the experience?
Spoiler warning in this response. — So, what you’re probably referring to is how DDLC doesn’t present itself as a horror game on the website, or in the trailer, or anywhere else outside of the game. This is because outside the game, DDLC is not supposed to be a horror game. The whole idea is that it’s a normal dating sim game where things go wrong once you start playing it. This wasn’t to keep the game’s identity a secret – it was to complete the illusion of what DDLC is. The cause for DDLC "breaking" is a character who takes control of the game, right? The website and trailer don’t know that. Canonically, you are downloading a perfectly normal dating sim that only goes awry once Monika asserts control.
How did you feel about trying to keep the game’s fearful elements hidden? Did you think it would have an effect on how many would try or play the game? that it would terrify a surprising audience?
I was nervous about taking this approach, but it was necessary in order to properly tell the story of the game, as explained above. I was running the risk of people playing the game for twenty minutes and dropping it. The one component that you could say breaks the illusion is the disclaimer and content warning. "This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed." This serves two purposes: It’s a hook for otherwise uninterested players, and it’s also a legitimate content warning. DDLC has genuinely disturbing content and themes that can extend to real life, and I respect players who wish not to experience that. But the effect of the game is diminished if you know ahead of time exactly what kind of horror it is – that the game starts taking control. That itself is one of the game’s plot twists.
What was important to you about catching its players off-guard with horror? Did you think you would catch an unsuspecting audience, and were you afraid of the consequences of that?
I don’t want to "trick" players into playing a horror game. Especially with DDLC‘s heavy themes, it’s mean and disrespectful to do that. If the game’s horror relied on tricking the player into shock, then it would be a cheap and shallow experience. The game’s presentation is all necessary for the storyline and to set up how events unfold. It might disarm the player and make them feel safe – but it shouldn’t trick them into thinking it’s not a horror game. Players have told me they actually spent the first hour on full guard, waiting for something to happen. They paid extra attention to the game because they never knew when something would come back at them, and that ultimately made it a more fulfilling experience.