Now that the new year has arrived, I thought I’d take a look back at one of my favorite things I had the fortune of experiencing in 2018. Although it came out in 2017, I was not aware of Doki Doki Literature Club until only a few months ago.
Before I continue writing this, I’m going to put a few disclaimers here. First of all, there are going to be heavy spoilers for the game. If you don’t know anything about it I highly recommend you play it before reading this. It’s free to play and available on Steam, and it truly is a unique experience unlike any other.
Aside from the spoiler warning, I’m going to be talking about some really sensitive and disturbing stuff, including self harm and suicide. If you’re not comfortable hearing about that kind of stuff, I’d stop reading now. And on top of that, I’d say you probably shouldn’t play this game if you can’t read about it.
Doki Doki Literature Club is many things. It’s a psychological horror game disguised as a cute and innocent visual novel and dating simulator, the kind of game I would normally hate. The goal seemingly is to write poems while you’re part of the literature club at a high school so that you can impress one of four different girls who all have different personalities. You may ask why I’m writing about this game on my blog. It’s because of the music.
My first experience with this game was in my apartment at college. My roommates said they would be having some friends over to play a game later. I was holed up in my room doing work when I heard the same stupid repetitive song playing on repeat. This was the music for Doki Doki Literature Club, and when I finally went out and saw what they were playing, I was just confused. This was the game everyone was so excited about? It was just a dating simulator!
But that’s part of what I wanted to talk about. The first two or three hours of DDLC are boring and straightforward. The same annoying music plays while cutesy things happen with almost no consequence. But it’s like that on purpose. Sayori, your childhood friend tells you that she’s depressed and she keeps getting worse and worse. Finally it’s the day of the festival, a day you’ve been planning for. Sayori doesn’t walk to school with you, doesn’t show up to school, and won’t answer her phone. And for the first time since the game started, the music has completely stopped.
Something is wrong.
The gameplay involves “writing” poems. There should be poems from each of the girls that you’ve read at some point prior to this in the game. But Sayori’s is different. It reads “Get out of my head” a few dozen times and finishes with “But a poem is never really finished. It just stops moving.” It’s a moment that gives you chills. And there’s a reason why. The music has lulled you into a false sense of security. Without it, nothing can save you from what this game is about to become.
After that, you go to Sayori’s house and find her dead, hanging from her bedroom ceiling. After glitching out a little bit, the game restarts and her character file is deleted from the game. This game is about to take you on a ride.
The second act of the game is sinister and just plain creepy. A lot of what happens here is what gives the game its reputation as a psychological horror game. It plays out the same as before but without Sayori. It’s like she never even existed. As you can imagine, the game starts to really screw up as one of its important characters is now completely missing from the game’s files. The other characters’ demeanors take a dark turn. You hear about one character’s abusive father, you find another character cutting herself, and eventually, something far worse.
This section of the game makes brilliant use of music and sound. You’re now so used to hearing that repetitive music that anytime it throws a different note or sound or even silence in there, it’s jarring. There are spots where you hear the sounds of heartbeats, a brief giggle, a glitchy static sound, or a number of other things. There’s even a spot where the music temporarily becomes diagetic. Your character goes out in the hall and the music becomes muffled, meaning that the music only exists in and is coming from the classroom for that moment. All of these things are unsettling and terrifying.
This of course raises many questions about the future of sound design for video games. We know that sounds and music have always been used in video games to enhance the player’s experience. Sometimes it’s used to make the game more realistic. For example, if you’re playing a baseball game it wouldn’t quite feel like baseball if you didn’t hear the crack of the bat hitting the ball. This is true in the earliest baseball games as well as the super realistic ones we have in the modern day.
But what if the sound design of a video game doesn’t just enhance the perception of the content in the game, but the game itself? This is where Doki Doki Literature Club and Dan Salvato stand out among the rest as pioneers.
There are plenty of horror games out there that use sounds and music as elements to scare the player. However, these elements are meant to make the characters, events, creatures, or other things in the game scary. DDLC uses sounds and music to make the player terrified of the game itself. The game’s folder on your computer is just as unsettling as a lot of the stuff you’ll actually find in the game while playing it.
Overall, DDLC has taught me that a game’s music doesn’t have to be amazing or complex to be effective. It’s all about how you use it. This game was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had with a video game or with any other media for that matter. I highly recommend you go play it as it’s free to play by download either from the DDLC website or on Steam. I look forward to future projects by Team Salvato!