Doki Doki Literature Club is many things. Original is not one of them.
If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet lately, you’ve no doubt heard of Doki Doki Literature Club. This visual novel hit Steam last fall to almost universal acclaim. To the unacquainted, it resembles any other anime-inspired visual novel. Cute aesthetics, adorable characters. What could possibly go—?
Oh. Oooh. Oh God, oh.
Alright, so many the tags on Steam labeling it as a “psychological horror game” should have tipped me off, but I didn’t expect the game to feature suicide, existential dread, and pop culture commentary.
Until I realized that this game is a “deconstruction.”
Deconstruction is a term that’s thrown around quite a lot by people who don’t really know what it means. Deconstruction is defined as “a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language that emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.”
That sounds like a ton of jargon, but allow me to break this down. Deconstruction, in terms of fiction, is when you critically analyze the building blocks of a given narrative. In regards to genre fiction, it usually means tackling the usual tropes and conventions of a given genre, and really asking the hard questions.
An easy example of this would be all those Pokemon fan-comics which ask “Hey, is it safe for a ten-year-old to go out in the wild and catch wild animals that can control the elements and rewrite the laws of nature?” Fans love taking the stuff we love, and, in a good nature way, breaking it down. Parody is a great example of deconstruction.
But, very often, deconstruction can be dramatic, dark, and a little unpleasant. Two of the best go-to examples of dark deconstruction tend to be Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen and the Hideaki Anno’s anime masterpiece Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Doki Doki Literature Club follows Moore and Anno’s methodology for deconstruction.
In all three stories, common genre conventions are broken apart and explored in order to make an observation about the outside world. Watchmen explores the geo-political implications of superheroes. What would happen if superheroes really existed? Moore concludes that wars would be fought differently, social politics would shift, and, in some respects, a real possibly of world-peace could emerge, albeit through vile means.
Evangelion takes the conventions of the mecha genre (a popular anime subgenre), and approaches it from a Freudian and existential perspective. How might a person’s psyche be affected by fighting Lovecraftian horrors in a giant robot?
Both Evangelion and Watchmen are masterpieces, but both are, by their natures, unoriginal. They exist in a greater conversation with the other entries in their genres.
But wait, I hear you ask. That’s all well and good for those stories, but Doki Doki Literature Club isn’t like that. It’s a horror story. How can I, some guy online, say that Doki Doki Literature Club isn’t original? There’s nothing quite like it!
But to that I say that Doki Doki Literature Club is isn’t horror. It’s slice-of-life romance.
Slice-of-life romance remains pretty well-explored territory in most mediums, as well as its sister genre, the slice-of-life gone wrong. You know the type. That ordinary town setting where nothing goes wrong. Somewhere familiar, like a school or what have you, where nothing is wrong…and then Kyle McLaughlin finds an ear in his back yard.
Yes, stories like Blue Velvet offer a great chance to exploit the horror lurking in mundane existence, but Blue Velvet is not deconstruction. It’s straight-up horror.
If you want something similar to Doki Doki Literature Club, we’re gonna have to go to Japan. Two great examples of Japanese media that did Doki Doki before Doki Doki are the anime School Days and the movie Audition. It’s clear that the creators of Doki Doki Literature Club drew heavily from these two sources, for reasons I’m about to explain.
In Audition, a movie director who lost his wife many years ago holds a phony audition in order to find the perfect girlfriend. While the film acknowledges that, yes, this is a sleazy thing to do that will probably get you in a dozen sexual harassment lawsuits, things look like they’re going for the best when the director meets Asami, a seemingly “perfect” girl. First half of the movie sprinkles unsettling imagery in with a seemingly normal romance.
And then the second half happens. And things unravel from there.
There is an insane sequence where the conventions of natural storytelling unravel. It, like Doki Doki Literature Club, deconstructs the nature of romance and affection, as well as our expectations going into it. In this case, by presenting a scenario where perfection is a facade and true desire becomes all-consuming.
School Days, however, comes closer to the typical deconstruction. It starts off as a typical dating sim, where a bunch of girls are involved with one guy. However, the main character is a total asshole player who toys with those around him. When a girl he has sex with, however, claims our charming hero impregnated her, he…runs to another girl.
Things get bloody.
Now, while School Days‘s anime adaptation is somewhat infamous, the series is an adaptation of a visual novel. Yes, like Doki Doki Literature Club. The game featured 20-something endings, and 17 of them were normal dating sim endings. But three of them? Vicious.
Up until the ending, there was no indication that School Days would end up so messed up. The twisted, bloody endings took many players by shock, and turned what would’ve been a generic dating sim into a sensation.
Doki Doki Literature Club simply took the stuff Audition and School Days did, and further deconstructed them.
Remember Evangelion and Watchmen? Both of those deconstructed their respective genres to make statements about society and human nature. But Doki Doki Literature Club exploits genre conventions in order to make a commentary about gaming culture. We play games like Doki Doki Literature Club because we have certain expectations. We have fantasies we wish to live out in games like it. But Doki Doki throws this back at us. The game devs know we want to pursue a friendship or romance with characters like Sayori…so they show you what you love, only to rip it to pieces in front of your eyes, going as far as to play with the mechanics of the game itself to mess with you.
It is unfair to call Doki Doki Literature Club original because its unoriginality is what makes it so incredible. Doki Doki Literature Club ISN’T original, and that’s a good thing. It exists as a conversation piece in a greater narrative about both what we want out of games, and, if that desire for a comfy wish-fulfillment is even that great of a thing. Do we want to remain unchallenged by the familiar and sweet, or, perhaps, do we need to be shaken in our place in order to really analyze what we want out of fiction?
Or, maybe, the devs are just trolls. I don’t know.