Doki Doki Literature Club

Doki Doki Literature Club is a psychological horror game disguised as a visual novel. That much is obvious from its stern warnings that the game is not suitable for the easily disturbed despite otherwise marketing itself solely as a VN, so that’s not really spoilers, however I am spoiling the Hell out of it below the break.

So, DDLC does that thing that nobody but Undertale has ever gotten right by going meta. I’m totally on board with going meta, but the problem is that so very few games are willing to take on the challenge of actually doing it right. Instead, the game delivers a perfectly normal, sub-meta story, throws a few meta elements in, and has you messing with file directories as one of the puzzles. DDLC, for example, is about a Visual Novel wherein one of the girls realizes she’s a dating sim character and learns to manipulate the code. Upon realizing that she doesn’t have a path (i.e. nothing the player does will result in their ending up together), she goes full yandere and starts mucking with other characters’ code until they off themselves, are deleted from the game completely, and you’re trapped in a classroom floating in the void with only her. You can kill her (mostly) at this point by deleting her character file.

That all works out great if you follow the game’s rails. The problem is, when the game goes meta, it can’t also ask you to accept that your ability to influence the game be limited to moving straight ahead. I can accept that Mario or Master Chief are going to take a course of action I disagree with. I can even accept that a character I’ve designed in a WRPG is being created within a certain limited design space, and that creating someone whose response to the main plot is to tell it to fuck off is not an option. I am not willing to accept that the actual, real me is going to follow totally linear game rails even when it’s in my best interests to act otherwise. If you cast me, not a character I control or one I’ve created but the actual me as your main character, I expect to be able to behave in the manner that I would within that game’s fictional context. That means when I am both scared of and enraged by the actions of the game’s villain, I am immediately going to be looking for ways to shut her shit down, not just sitting around and waiting to react to whatever horrifying curve ball she’s winding up to throw at me.

There’s a concept in gaming called “the magic circle” wherein the magic circle is a metaphorical or sometimes literal space within which we, the audience, suspend our disbelief and accept that magic is real and we’re a dragon-slaying elf, or whatever. All video games are fundamentally absurd without this suspension of disbelief, because all you are really doing is manipulating a pattern of lights on the game screen in a totally arbitrary manner. Only by agreeing to pretend that Skyrim is real can we care about how many dragons we have killed in it. Since some philosophical types tend to follow these kinds of premises to lunatic ends, I want to be clear here that pretending to believe in something is not the same as actually believing it. A Skyrim player knows that Skyrim is not a real place, but pretends otherwise in order to have a fun time.

The point of this aside is that when you bring the game’s file directory into the magic circle, I expect that file directory to respond to my actions consistently with the way you’ve established it working. Done right: Undertale brings the game’s save/load system into the magic circle, and reacts appropriately to any permutation of choices made within the game, each of which includes the understanding that this may not be the first time you’ve played. The protagonist will anticipate things that were originally surprises on the second playthrough. The fourth wall breaking villain will notice when you reload a save to avoid killing someone and won’t be pleased with it. That same villain praises a willingness to slaughter everyone, acknowledges that you’re probably just doing it to see what happens if you do, and then mocks people who don’t have the guts to actually undertake genocide to see the content but are instead just watching it on YouTube. Undertale brings the save/load system into the magic circle, and you can go ahead and use the save/load system any which way you want and the game will react consistently to it.

Done wrong: Doki Doki Literature Club establishes that each of the four cute girls has a character file, and that when this character file is deleted, the girl is totally purged from the game. It’s how the yandere chick manipulates the others into killing themselves (and ultimately just deletes the last one outright) and how you can ultimately kill her yourself. These files don’t actually contain any game relevant data at all, just some unreadable script which, if properly decoded, turns out to be some ARG puzzles giving hints to some unrelated game Team Salvato (the game’s makers) is working on, and in one case a random creepypasta from two years ago that might be an unsolved puzzle or might also just be because the game had four characters but they only had three relevant puzzles, so for the fourth file they just grabbed an old creepypasta and encoded it.

Okay, fine. The game’s premise is that manipulating these four character files allows the personalities of the girls to be altered and ultimately for them to be destroyed, and that doesn’t have to be literally true any more than Skyrim has to be a real place. It’s fine that the character files are actually totally detached from the game’s actual code, which is a standard VN script and doesn’t actually have dynamic AI at all. The problem is twofold. One, a character in the game is able to change the game’s structure by altering data in these character files, but there is no such function. Two, the game only meaningfully responds to character files being deleted when the plot wants you to. If you delete those character files before the game’s villain began to meddle with them, then one of the random other girls panics and kills herself, ending the game. The same girl kills herself no matter which file you muck with, and no explanation is given for why this would cause the game to immediately end. If you try to kill the villain after she’s killed one of the other girls but before she whittles the cast down to just one, the game doesn’t even really acknowledge your actions. How come deleting the villain in Act III results in a drawn out death sequence, but deleting her in Act II is a total non-event?

It’s not like this can’t happen in a blind playthrough, because that totally happened to me. Immediately after finding the villain’s first victim dead, I tried to reload earlier and find some way around it (there’s actually text strongly encouraging you to try this, although I made a go at it before even getting that far), and this causes the game to fake-glitch and reset with the dead character now totally absent except as a ghost. The game is clearly “glitching” with junk data showing up where the dead character’s name and image would normally be, so one of my first instincts was to go digging through the game’s directory folders and see what I could find, see if I could track down the glitch and possibly fix it to bring the dead character back to life or at the very least understand how it had happened and thwart it in the future. So it’s very quick that I discover a “characters” folder with the fake character files in it, and the dead character’s is missing. It’s clear at this point that the villain was directly involved in the victim’s death, both because she strongly hints at knowledge of it and practically mocks you over it, and because she leaves a note in the directory trying to excuse her actions which makes reference to why each of the other three characters deserve to die, leaving only the villain as potential culprit. So the game made overt references to errors and glitching, made it very obvious who’s responsible for the murder, made it equally obvious that she is messing with the game directory, and then made it very easy to find out how you’re ultimately supposed to kill her. You can figure out all of this within minutes of starting Act II.

And then you delete the villain’s file and…nothing happens.

It’s a testament to how well the game was going up until that point that I didn’t even think how complex the game script would have to be to accept the sudden deletion of any character at any time. There would be several extra games’ worth of material locked up in the player’s choice to delete people at random times, especially in Act I when there are lots of characters and no reason for the player to be mucking around in the game files yet. But, y’know, it’s still possible, and when the game makes that mucking a critical game mechanic later on, it should react to said mucking consistently throughout. The spell was so thoroughly broken for me that I abandoned my playthrough altogether when I discovered that I was 1) on rails and 2) being railroaded into actions that were completely out of character for me. There’s not really any gameplay, so the game sells itself exclusively on its writing, and my suspension of disbelief has now been permanently shattered by the fact that I, the real, actual me, was cast as the main character, and the game’s fiction revolves around my having the ability to delete characters from the game, but if I happen to be the kind of person to figure that out early and be the right combination of scared and vengeful to do it, the game doesn’t even react.

Even worse, the villain later claims to be able to exacerbate (and, presumably, tone down) certain personality traits by modifying the files. Since no such variables exist in the game’s actual code, presumably that is also a fictitious element of the .chr files. Adding in that to the game would be even harder. I don’t know if Ren’Py is even capable of scraping .txt files (which is essentially what most of the .chr files are, since they just open up cipher text when you open them in notepad) for variables and then updating actual variables in the game script to reflect the values there. Even if it is, setting checks for said values would be maddeningly complex and far beyond what’s needed for the fairly simple deconstruction of anime tropes the game is attempting. The problem is, it introduced that as a possibility but then refused to let it be explored. Meta games need to stop bringing things into the magic circle that can’t actually be made a part of the game’s fiction.

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