(Vlog's back this Friday, and I am Not Ready.)
Last night I played a game, "Doki Doki Literature Club," and that was a mistake.
The game is a metatextual horror game modeled on the format of a dating sim, and for the first hour or two of gameplay it runs like a perfectly normal sim. The game comes with three screens of heavy warnings not to play if you're suffering from depression or anxiety, or if you aren't okay with extremely disturbing content. But those were easy enough to click through, and entirely forget about by the time I got playing.
Here's a link to the Doki Doki Literature Club trigger warnings page. It, and the remainder of this post, contains spoilers.
The first act of the game ends with your best friend from childhood committing suicide, and the game is heavily weighted to make it feel like it's your fault. In the convention of dating sims, that's when you would go back and load an earlier save to make different decisions. But you can't: after she dies, all your save files are wiped.
It turns out, the 'dating sim' aspect of the game is entirely superficial. There's some light variation in the kind of scenes you can access but there's no real decision tree, everything railroads back to the core plot. But that isn't the experience you have playing it, especially if you go into it cold. Because of the format, it really, really feels like there was a set of actions you could have taken that would have saved your friend's life.
That's when I stopped playing. I 100 percent could not handle that. I stopped playing and I did other things for a while, then I talked to my partner, who helped me talk through the experience I'd just had.
I'm extremely impressed with this game, but I also definitely can't play it. And the trigger warning is absolutely serious: You should not play this game if you suffer from depression or anxiety, or are likely to be triggered by disturbing content.
Instead, I watched a Let's Play.
MatPat of Game Theory did a play-through of DDLC in Game Theory's livestream, which is archived to GTLive. Here are links to his playthrough, which consists of 5 2-hour long episodes:
- GTLive: Young Love At Its Most TERRIFYING! | Doki Doki Literature Club
- GTLive: Love Is a DARK GAME! | Doki Doki Literature Club!
- GTLive: WHAT'S WRONG WITH SAYORI?! | Doki Doki Literature Club!
- GTLive: SHE'S TAKING OVER! | Doki Doki Literature Club! (Part 4)
- GTLive: Monika and MattyPatty FOREVER! | Doki Doki Literature Club! (Ending)
These are direct links to the unlisted full streams of the game, which I recommend over the half-hour highlights videos. This game is very detailed and if you're gonna watch a playthrough I think you should get access to that detail.
Since the original recordings are live, it's obviously not perfect, but MatPat and Stephanie do a good job of softening the deepest moments of horror, first by making jokes about the game most of the way through and then in some cases by straight-up pulling the gameplay footage off the screen for the moments of one of the really bad jump scares.
Between MatPat and Stephanie joking about some of the mild horror, choosing not to read aloud some of the more blatantly horrifying lines, reacting live in front of me, and (emphatically) ME not having to be the one MAKING the DECISIONS that lead to my friends' deaths, I think the livestream approach was enough insulation to help me get to the story's resolution without doing additional damage to my mental health.
And I'm glad I did, because the game really is astonishingly good. I know I'm sending mixed signals here, but I'm really struggling with how to deal with this experience. I want everyone who's exposed to this game to be safe, and I'm genuinely afraid for the well-being of people who play it: this game deals heavily in people Not Getting Better from severe mental illness, and social circles that really suck at helping those people, and those narratives are valuable and important but can also be super toxic to an audience of people having that experience in real life. It's the kind of thing that really gets into your head. Like, digs its nails in.
But that's also such an important thing for mentally healthy people to see, hear, and understand. Somebody who's never been through mental illness but who wants to be able to support the people around them who're going through it would, I think, genuinely benefit from feeling what this game makes you feel.
And that's not even getting into the meta stuff, which is a level I can't even talk about because the "Please friends stay safe and don't play it" tier of discussion is so important.