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Dr. Marcel Danesi & Stacy Costa
9 April 2018
The Disempowering, Arbitrary Semiotics of Doki Doki Literature Club!
The video game medium has exploded onto the cultural stage. Starting as an obscure
curiosity in the 1970s, and suffering a near-collapse in the mid-1980s (Danesi 197), the video
game industry contributed $11 billion to the US GDP alone in 2016, and it continues to grow
(Anderton). Some of the medium’s biggest financial successes are based upon the paradigm
of player freedom and empowerment. To illustrate, of the ten best-selling games in the US for
2017, four of them are “open-world,” a genre emphasizing exploration and nonlinear
objectives: Super Mario Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of
the Wild, and GTA V. The remaining six, meanwhile, involve player empowerment, whether
through shooting, racing, or sports mechanics (Makuch). Pérez-Latorre, Oliva, and Besalú, in
their paper “Videogame Analysis: A Social-Semiotic Approach,” suggest that “Behind any
videogame there is a specific view of the world, a perspective on what certain actions are for,
and a point of view about what ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ mean and how they are attained” (586).
In this vein, modern video games see the world as a place of freedom and empowerment,
view individuals’ actions as significant, and tie victory and defeat to these actions.
The visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club! (hereafter abbreviated as “DDLC”) is a
refutation of this worldview. Released on September 22, 2017, and downloaded over 2.1
million times (Jones), the game was developed for two years by Team Salvato, consisting of
writer, programmer and composer Dan Salvato, character artist Satchely, and background
artist Velinquent (Jackson). DDLC manipulates visual novel and dating simulator
conventions to lull the player into a sense of ease, only to reveal its true nature as a
psychological horror game. Moreover, it relies on paratexts to communicate its tone and
generate interest. Lastly, by applying the social-semiotic model devised by Pérez-Latorre et
al., I will show how DDLC uses its audiovisual narrative, as well as its ludo-narrative,
system-gameplay, and designer-player dimensions as semiotic resources, in order to criticize
player agency. Ultimately, in contrast to most modern video games, DDLC communicates the
worldview that most choices are illusions, and that “victory” and “defeat” are often arbitrary.
In style and format, DDLC follows the genre conventions of a visual novel. As
detailed by Dani Cavallaro, these include “lengthy textual passages,” character sprites, and
“natural and architectural backgrounds” (2). Nonetheless, the visual novel’s most distinctive
feature, is its “richly nuanced galleries of psychologically complex actors” (2), here
represented by the four girls in the literature club: Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri, and Monika.
However, at first glance, DDLC appears to belong to a specific sub-genre of visual novel: the
dating simulator. Cavallaro explains that in a dating simulator, “the player typically controls a
male avatar whose goal is to date, and converse with, various female characters in order to
form a romantic relationship” (8). In its first act, DDLC follows this formula exactly, having
the male avatar attempt to get close to one of the girls. It even uses a high-school setting, the
most common for dating simulators (Cavallaro 8). The gameplay of dating simulators is
statistical in nature (8), and DDLC follows this trend with its poem-writing mechanic, in
which the player picks a word from a list. Choosing words appealing to a particular club
member will cause that character to grow closer to the avatar, leading to romantic scenes.
Thus, initially, DDLC unabashedly follows the conventions of a dating simulator.
There is an inherent problem with following this genre so closely: people who do not
enjoy dating simulators will stop playing, or they will not download the game at all. DDLC
overcomes this issue through its extensive reliance on paratexts. On both their official
website and their download page on the Steam gaming service, Team Salvato presents a
saccharine description of the game, supposedly written by Monika: “Every day is full of
chit-chat and fun activities with all of my adorable and unique club members”. At the same
time, there is the warning, “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily
disturbed,” a message reiterated every time the game boots up. Moreover, the reviews on the
Steam page hint at the game’s secrets, such as user takua09’s admonition, “...The game’s
free, but... Let’s just say you don’t pay with money...”. In addition, numerous articles have
been written about the game, and the fourth result for a Google search of “Doki Doki
Literature Club” is a Polygon article with the very telling title, “Doki Doki Literature Club is
an uncontrollably horrific visual novel” (Google Search). Lastly, when booting up the game
for the first time, a text box appears stating that “By playing Doki Doki Literature Club, you
agree that you are at least 13 years of age, and you consent to your exposure of highly
disturbing content” (Salvato et al.). The player must click a button stating “I agree” before
they can proceed to the menu screen. All these paratextual elements create a sense of mystery
and suspense surrounding the game, urging players to keep playing.
Thus, DDLC conforms, at first, to a central convention of video games in general:
Steven Johnson’s principle of “delayed gratification” (28). To illustrate, Johnson imagines a
city-building game, wherein the player knows that if they “spend a little more time
cultivating new residents and watching the annual budget,” they will have the resources to
build an in-game aquarium (38). In DDLC’s case, players persevere through the dating
simulator segment in order to reach the more mysterious content. As host Arin Hansen
comments on the YouTube channel Game Grumps, “I know all y’all are fuckin’ sittin’ there
like ‘when... when’s the good shit gonna happen?’ ...It’s gettin’ close! It’s gettin’ real close!”
(Hansen and Avidan). Therefore, DDLC’s paratexts manipulate gamers’ fundamental “desire
to see the next thing” (Johnson 37) in order to pull them through the game’s first act, during
which the characters are introduced, and the player is lulled into a false sense of security.
Having established this sense, DDLC turns its semiotic resources towards its
discourse on the impotence of individuals, and the arbitrariness of victory and defeat. In
social semiotics, semiotic resources are defined as “the actions and artefacts we use to
communicate, whether they are produced physiologically... or by means of technologies”
(van Leeuwen 3). They are an extension of the traditional semiotic concept of the sign, meant
to address the sign’s shortcoming in that its signified is often considered “pre-given, and not
affected by [the sign’s] use” in a social context (3). Pérez-Latorre et al. argue that a
social-semiotic approach is necessary for game studies, since “game rules and gameplay
patterns can hardly be defined or understood as ‘signs,’” as it is often unclear what they are
meant to signify. Thus, they advocate the pairing of “semiotic resource/signifying potential”
over the Saussurean pairing of signifier/signified when studying video games (589). With this
in mind, Pérez-Latorre et al. name four analytical dimensions to be used in a social-semiotic
approach to video games, each of which will be explored in relation to DDLC.
Their first dimension is the audiovisual narrative, one of DDLC’s key modalities,
considering it is an interactive novel (Bruchansky 1-2). Similar to its adherence to genre and
medium conventions, at first, DDLC conforms to Greimas’ narrative code: the hero seeks an
object of desire, namely one of the literature club’s female members, and faces the trial
situation of romancing them. Monika functions in a helper role, providing insights about the
other girls. However, instead of leading to the hero’s clear victory or defeat, DDLC takes an
unexpected turn. The avatar learns that Sayori, his childhood friend, is struggling with
depression, which has been aggravated by the attention the avatar is paying to the other girls.
Departing from the game’s cutesy scenarios, character graphics, and music, Sayori describes
her depression in realistic terms, such as being late to school because “I can’t even find a
reason to get out of bed” (Salvato et al.). The avatar reassures Sayori, but she catches him and
either Natsuki or Yuri having an intimate moment, and says that the avatar would be better
off without her. The next day, Sayori is absent, and the avatar finds her body hanging in her
room. The word “END” appears, and the game abruptly returns to the title screen.
Sayori’s suicide and the sudden conclusion break the narrative code of quest and
reward. However, the story is not over; the player can start a new game, in which Sayori is
absent from the storyline, and numerous unsettling incidents and bizarre glitches occur.
Eventually, Yuri confesses her love, and stabs herself to death. Monika reveals that she is
self-aware, deletes Yuri and Natsuki, and manually restarts the game, ending the second act.
In the third act, Monika addresses the human player, rather than their avatar. She
explains that she preyed upon the other girls’ mental illnesses, and deleted them in order to be
the only one left. As it turns out, DDLC is not the avatar’s story at all, but Monika’s. As the
hero, she tried to secure her object of desire, the player, in spite of her opponent: the game’s
programming, which designed her to be a support character, rather than a romance option.
She intends to trap the player with her, spending eternity together.
If the player locates Monika’s file in the game’s folder and deletes it, she will restart
the game, ushering in its fourth and final act, wherein the story repeats with the deleted
characters restored, except for Monika. However, when Sayori attempts to trap the player as
Monika did, Monika’s disembodied consciousness realizes that “The Literature Club is truly
a place where no happiness can be found,” and permanently erases the game’s script.1
There is an uplifting “true” ending, but its secrecy, the amount of time required to achieve it, and its reliance
on abusing the game’s save system means most players will not see it, making it arguably non-canonical.
This ending cannot be easily characterized as victory or defeat. Moreover, the avatar
thought he had the freedom to develop a romance, when in fact, Monika was in control. The
only disruption to her control is when the player deletes her file, but their impotence is
reasserted first by Sayori, and then by Monika when she deletes the game’s script. Thus,
DDLC’s audiovisual narrative communicates that freedom and choice are illusions.
Pérez-Latorre et al.’s second dimension is the ludo-narrative, or the relationship
between game design and story. It is in the ludo-narrative dimension that the theory of
procedural rhetoric surfaces, defined by Ian Bogost in his 2007 book Persuasive Games as
“‘the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions’” (qtd. in
Bruchansky 1). In contrast to an actual dating simulator, DDLC’s game design operates by
providing players with choices that are ultimately meaningless, persuading the player that
individuals are insignificant. Upon Sayori’s death, the game taunts the player: the avatar says,
“My swarming thoughts keep telling me everything I could have done to prevent this”
(Salvato et al.), but this is misleading, for no matter which options the player chooses, Sayori
will still commit suicide. Similarly, the player’s efforts to romance Yuri or Natsuki are for
naught, due to the game’s abrupt endings, restarts, and eventual self-deletion. The illusion of
choice is made explicit during the second act, when the player must choose to spend the
weekend with Yuri, Natsuki or Monika by clicking their respective button. However, the
cursor hovers back to Monika’s name if it is moved elsewhere. Even if the player succeeds in
clicking Yuri’s or Natsuki’s name, the screen fills with buttons displaying only Monika.
Similarly, Monika seemingly takes over Natsuki’s body and tells the player to “Just think of
Monika from now on,” prompting a clickable button captioned “Just Monika” to appear. The
player must click this button, and then click “OK” on another notification box captioned “Just
Monika” in order to proceed, effectively relinquishing any freedom they possessed.
There is only one point at which the player makes a choice of consequence, and that is
when Monika has trapped them. If the player deletes Monika’s file, as discussed before,
Sayori tries to trap them again, and Monika deletes the game. The player may have “beaten”
the game, but on the narrative level, it is hard to call this a victory, creating an openly
mocking conflict between gameplay and story known as “ludonarrative dissonance” (Parker
751). Alternatively, the player can choose to stop progressing, and submit to Monika’s
wishes. If they do so, Monika will stare lovingly at the screen while periodically dispensing
life advice, philosophical considerations, insights about the game, and romantic fantasies. For
some players, this is a narrative victory, yet they are unable to complete the game, creating
another kind of ludonarrative dissonance. In summary, DDLC uses choice-based gameplay to
involve the player in the story, but these choices are revealed to have no impact. Moreover,
the only true branching path leads to either the deletion of the game, or the player’s
submission to Monika, creating an unresolved ludonarrative dissonance.
The third dimension of Pérez-Latorre et al.’s social-semiotic approach is
system-gameplay, analyzing a game’s mechanics and systems as semiotic resources.
Procedural rhetoric is once again relevant, for DDLC’s tyrannical mechanics foreground the
player’s role as a component of a pre-designed system, persuading them of the individual’s
lack of agency. Most video games utilize a save system, allowing players to save their
progress and revert the game to an earlier state. As with genre and narrative, DDLC appears
to conform to this system at first, but upon Sayori’s death, the avatar comments, “This isn’t
some game where I can reset and try something different. I had only one chance, and I wasn’t
careful enough” (Salvato et al.). Sure enough, the player is now unable to load any of their
saved games, and in the second act, all save files are deleted. Similarly, in the third act, any
saves from the second act are deleted. Moreover, trying to save during the third act will result
in a text box from Monika which says, “There’s no point in saving anymore. Don’t worry,
I’m not going anywhere” (Salvato et al.). To summarize, a save system is usually a way for
the player to manipulate the game, but in DDLC, it is a way for the game to manipulate them
into mistakenly believing they had some measure of power.
The other key aspect of the system-gameplay dimension is the game’s foregrounding
of its own files and code. Most games hide these processes, and indeed, DDLC does so for
most of its first act. Nonetheless, when the avatar discovers Sayori’s corpse, a message
appears: “An exception has occurred. File ‘game/script-ch5.rpy’, line 307 See traceback.txt
for details” (Salvato et al.). Should the player open the game’s folder, traceback.txt is indeed
present, containing an authentic-looking traceback in the Python programming language, as
well as the following message: “Oh jeez...I didn’t break anything, did I? Hold on a sec, I can
probably fix this...I think... Actually, you know what? This would probably be a lot easier if I
just deleted her. She’s the one who’s making this so difficult. Ahaha! Well, here’s goes
nothing.” The initial impression is that the player has lost control of the game itself as well as
the story. The numerous graphical glitches in the second act add to this effect, as well as the
files that appear unbidden in the game’s folder, including image files and messages from
Monika. Moreover, whenever Monika makes a change to the game’s script or deletes a file, a
command window appears in the corner of the screen, and the appropriate Python command
is typed in. Indeed, the player can check the “characters” folder after each girl’s
death/deletion at Monika’s hands, and their file will be missing. Overall, the visibility of
DDLC’s internal workings during its later sections prevents the player from immersing
themselves, as might have been possible during the first act. Instead, DDLC forces the player
to be aware that they are playing a game over which they are losing control.
Pérez-Latorre et al.’s fourth and final dimension is the designer-player dimension,
which the authors characterize as “a mentor-pupil relationship” (590). In DDLC, the
relationship between Dan Salvato and the player is much more sinister. There is one instance
of mentoring: during the first instance of poem-writing, Salvato advises the player to “Pick
words you think your favourite club member will like. Something good might happen with
whoever likes your poem the most!” (Salvato et al.). However, this seemingly helpful advice
is misleading, considering the game prevents the culmination of a relationship between the
player and Sayori, Yuri, or Natsuki. Moreover, Monika is not an option. From then on,
Salvato becomes an ominous presence, for the logo of Team Salvato appears whenever the
game is restarted, which occurs at the climatic end of each of the game’s acts. Additionally,
the Team Salvato logo appears when the avatar discovers Sayori’s corpse. The overall effect
is to remind the player that they are within a meticulously designed experience, intended to
confuse them and manipulate their emotions. Indeed, the player can feel Salvato’s taunting
presence during the third act, in which Monika sometimes becomes a mouthpiece for her
creator. This quote of Monika’s, for instance, is essentially Salvato’s thesis:
In my opinion, there’s nothing more creepy than things just being slightly off.
Like if you set up a bunch of expectations on what the story is going to be
about. And then, you just start inverting things and pulling the pieces apart. So
even though the story doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be scary, the reader feels
really deeply unsettled. Like they know that something horribly wrong is
hiding beneath the cracks, just waiting to surface. ...But I guess you’re the
kind of person who plays cute romance games, right? (Salvato et al.)
To summarize, Salvato’s presence is a constant reminder that the player’s choices, emotions,
and victories/defeats are constructed by him, rather than the player themself.
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