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The genre of visual novel is one that’s often looked at in a controversial manner. Many of them are seen as tacky, unoriginal romance games that have minimalistic character development made solely to cash in on introverted, and in some cases, perverted lifestyles. So when a game called “Doki Doki Literature Club” won the following awards: PC Game of the Year, Best Adventure Game, Best Story, and Most Innovative in IGN’s People’s Choice Awards, many eyebrows were raised. However, after playing DDLC, I can definitively say that the reason it won all of these prestigious awards is that of the similarities and differences between the two segments of the game. These differences are shaped by how the characters in the game interact with the main character, as well as through the poems that the four characters write. I will be comparing and contrasting the way the characters interact with the player in each act, and through that research, I will conclude why this game won all of these prestigious awards.
This paper will be segmented into two parts. In part 1, we will discuss the characters as they exist in Act One of the game. Part two will be comprised of the characters as they are in Act Two, as well as an analysis of the similarities and differences between the characters in the two different acts.
The game starts off in a very bland way. You’re introduced to the main characters of Sayori, Monika, Yuri, and Natsuki. Let’s break each character down.
You meet Sayori first while the player is walking to school. She has a borderline too cheery personality. Any interactions she makes with the main character end with her signature line of “Ehehe~”, which is meant to be read as a cute giggle. Sayori also acts as a type of counterbalance to two of the other extremities within the club during the first Act. This coincides with her being Vice President of the Literature Club. Her happy-go-lucky attitude often puts the character in situations where they’re forced to laugh. This forced laughter is most prominent in Sayori’s poetry.
Sayori’s poetry can be summed up best as bittersweet. She has two poetries I’m going to dissect. The first is about how the sun wakes her up in the morning. She uses personification to describe the sunlight as kissing her forehead. However, she also mentions that if the sun hadn’t woke her up, she could’ve slept forever. One of the moments of forced laughter comes at the end of this poem. The last lines are as follows:
“If it wasn’t for you, I could sleep forever.
But I’m not mad
I want breakfast.”
The sunshine in this poem is meant to represent happiness. At first, I associated the phrase “sleep forever” with death. If the happiness hadn’t woke me up, I’d be dead. Sayori, however, didn’t want this to be the case. As the last line, “I want breakfast” kind of slaps the player in the face with reality because the poem isn’t elaborate and about death, it’s literally just Sayori waking up in the morning and wanting breakfast.
Her other poem is called “Bottles”. This one does describe some of the problems with Sayori’s character. It describes Sayori’s thought process and how she takes better care of her friends than herself. She says that she takes bottles of happiness from her brain, and gives them to her friends. Ultimately, the poem symbolizes how she doesn’t leave any of her bottles for herself.
Next, we meet Natsuki. She is the youngest member of the club. Because of this, she feels like she needs to constantly try hard to keep up with her peers. She has a bit of an inferiority complex as a result of this and comes across as condescending and arrogant. Secretly, much like Yuri, Natsuki does enjoy time with friends and can be affectionate. She has a very tough exterior though. Much like Sayori, her personality is reflected perfectly in her poems.
One of her poems is titled “Eagles Can Fly”. It’s about how people can’t do very much at all compared to other animals on the planet. This reflects her inferiority complex to a T.
Monkeys can climb.
Crickets can leap.
Horses can race.
Owls can seek.
Cheetahs can run.
Eagles can fly.
People can try.
But that’s about it.
Natsuki’s simplistic writing style doesn’t leave much to the imagination, nor does it leave much for interpretation. In Natsuki’s eyes, all she, and other people can do, try. Much like her mannerisms, it is incredibly blunt, and straight to the point. There is character development in the player’s reaction to the poem. He is at first confused how this passes as “high school work” despite the longest sentence being only 4 words long. Natsuki then explains the poem, and the work that was put into writing it, and explains a neat writing technique while she’s at it. “I made the last lines of the poem rhyme so that it would build anticipation in the reader’s mind for the last line to follow the rhyme scheme, but when it doesn’t rhyme, it just makes the ending line that much more powerful. Bet you weren’t expecting that from the youngest person here, huh? Well, it’s like they say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover!’ Haha~!”. This line is doing three things at once. It’s both telling the player about Natsuki’s issues of self-doubt and establishing her as a condescending person, but it is also showing that Natsuki is still nice, given that she lets out a giggle at the end of the rant.
Yuri is the third character in Doki Doki Literature Club. She is a shy, yet a sophisticated person. She covets the affection of the player, but she doesn’t know how to vocalize it due to her introverted tendencies, and ultimately, if the character does choose to talk with someone else, she’s incredibly respectful and happy to call the player her friend. It’s incredibly wholesome. When she starts talking about books that she is invested in, her personality comes alive. She talks at lengths about a minute detail in the book, and the player even says “Yuri’s whole demeanor is completely different. It’s clear that she’s far more comfortable in her world of books.”
Yuri’s poetry, at first, isn’t as perfect a reflection of her personality as Natsuki or Sayori, but after analyzing the poem, you’ll see that her extroverted tendencies are hidden, just like how she is in person. She writes entirely in the script and uses heavy symbolism and imagery in her writing. One of her poems, Ghost Under the Light, reads as such:
The tendrils of my hair illuminate beneath the amber glow.
It must be this one.
The last remaining streetlight to have withstood the test of time.
The last yet to be replaced by the sickening blue-green hue of the future.
I bathe. Calm; breathing air of the present but living in the past.
The light flickers.
I flicker back.
At first, the player thought that the poem symbolized death, but in actuality, it’s just the opposite. Yuri claims that the poem was meant to symbolize the uncertainty of a never-ending future. The streetlight in this instance is all that’s left of an older civilization, which will be replaced by the blue-green hue of the future. But why are the lights blue and green? Why is it sickening? The entirety of the poem draws out questions. Why is this the last streetlight? Why did the light flicker? But Yuri challenges the reader to “breath the air of the present” while “living in the past.” Yuri’s poems have the most substance to analyze, even though not very much appears to be going on in the poem.
And finally, we’re left with just Monika. She is the club’s president and has an air of authority and an unshakeable confident air around her. Monika, in stark contrast to her authoritative demeanor, is a sweetheart. She wants nothing more than to make the club an inviting place for people to share their love for literature. However, despite this, Monika and the player cannot interact with each other. Monika talks with the player, and the player talks with Monika, but none of the conversations have any real weight behind them. Monika’s character is incredibly flat in Act One of the game because of her lack of interaction with the character, but her poetry encompasses a massive shift in both the game and in Monika’s character.
If the poems in this game existed in a textbook, Yuri’s poems would merit the most analysis. However, within a video game like Doki Doki, Monika’s poems shine as the most symbolic writing that I’ve ever read. Monika has two poems that we will analyze at the moment.
First, it is important to know that every time Monika refers to the people in her poem, she only uses pronouns. It can be inferred that anytime “I” is used, it is a self-referential pronoun, and all other pronouns as the game shifts. Now, onto the poetry.
The first is called “Hole in Wall”. This poem seems pretty simple when you first read it. Using only the knowledge and background information acquired in Act One of the game, the player comes to the conclusion that the poem is talking about the early stages of depression. Someone is having an epiphany that, ultimately, their existence is being controlled by someone else. They found a hole in the wall. One of the most crucial lines in the poems is “I realize now, that I wasn’t looking in. I was looking out. And he, on the other side, was looking in.” There are two strange things about this poem. The first is this mysterious “he” used at the end of the poem. This poem is trying to reflect that a person ultimately has no control over themselves, and this mysterious “he” is the person who is actually in control. Is this person God? Is it a real person? We learn the answer in Act Two. Remember this.
The second poem is titled “The Lady who Knows Everything”. This poem talks about a lady who, surprise, knows everything. “Here I am, a feather, lost adrift in the sky, a victim of the currents of the wind.” This shows that Monika is ultimately helpless. She is floating with no purpose in complete isolation. However, the feather, which is representative of Monika, lands in the hand of the lady who knows everything. She speaks to Monika and says that “we seek only the impossible… Your legend does not exist”. Then, the lady casts Monika back to the mercy of the wind. However, in the last line, Monika says something unique. “She blows me back afloat, and I pick up a gust of wind.” This is the first time Monika shows any initiative. Rather than just floating at the wind’s mercy, she is now in control. In order to understand the ramifications behind Monika taking this initiative, we must transition onto Act Two of Doki Doki.
We will need to know more about Monika in order to grasp the true significance of her poems. Monika, in short, realizes that she is a character in a video game. This epiphany parallels the story Monika tells in her poem “The Lady Who Knows Everything”. Monika is the feather personified. Since she is a character in a romance game, that ultimately cannot have any interaction with the main character, she realizes her existence is meaningless. She is the feather floating adrift. Her realization of this parallels when the lady who knows everything catches the feather. She knows that she’s a character in a game now. However, when the lady blows the feather afloat, this isn’t Monika accepting her fate and moving on aimlessly through a pointless story. It is the complete opposite. Rather than accepting that she has no purpose, she is going to prove the lady who knows everything wrong. She is now taking the reins, and she starts to change the game. Her goal now is not only to make the literature club an inviting place but to make herself seem like the only likable person so that the main character will fall for her. She does this by accessing the various characters’ files within the game’s directory and amplifying the negative traits of other people’s personalities. In the game’s ending, Monika ends up creating a new reality where there is nobody except for the player and herself in a classroom so they can spend eternity together. While in this classroom, she describes how her alterations affected the characters. This, effectively, is a primary resource, so we will use it for information when it benefits talking about the various characters.
Monika doesn’t only change the personalities of the other characters, but she also leaves behind “poems” for the character to read. There are only one of these poems that talk about a character, and that character is Natsuki. We will return to this when we delve into Natsuki’s character, but first, let’s discuss the changes in Sayori.
In all seriousness, Act Two starts very early on. It truly commences on just the second in-game day. At this point, Monika is self-aware, and she’s already started messing with various aspects of the game. This leads to one of the most tragic deaths I’ve seen, not just in games, but in media history.
Do you remember Sayori? She was the happy girl who always walks with you to school every day. However, once Monika starts amplifying Sayori’s negative traits, it makes Sayori more and more depressed. This lead to Sayori committing suicide.
Let that sink in. One of the fan-favorite characters, the happy, go-lucky, bubbly character committed suicide. This is the true nature of Doki Doki Literature Club. The game is labeled as a psychological horror game, and Monika is the sole reason why.
Monika decides that after Sayori kills herself that the player shouldn’t need to live through that reality anymore. She literally resets the game, which in turn, wipes the player’s memories. When the game starts up again, Sayori’s character file has been deleted. To put it bluntly, Sayori, as of now, never had, nor will she ever, exist in DDLC’s reality. This has a ripple effect throughout the game. Rather than Sayori being the club’s VP, Yuri is now VP. Your character, in an internal monologue, states that he’s always walked to school alone.
We’ve already discussed how Monika and Sayori have changed between the two acts, so the only ones left to discuss are Yuri and Natsuki.
Yuri initially had a harmless coveting of the player, but after Monika changed her personality, the innocence evolved into a serious mental condition where, now, the player is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
Whenever the human mind builds anticipation, a chemical is released called dopamine. Yuri was constantly anticipating time she’d spend with the player. Therefore, she was constantly producing dopamine. However, dopamine is put into the brain by the anticipation, and it is released throughout the body by the satisfaction of the anticipated event being realized. Yuri was building up so much dopamine, that the short amounts of times the player interacts with her is not enough to release all of the dopamine in her brain. This leads Yuri to be self-harming because she couldn’t understand how she could possibly feel this happy, and she assumes that there is something wrong with her.
Yuri’s possessive nature and this self-harm issue are a deadly combination, and Monika recognized this. As Monika puts it, “Whenever Yuri gets too happy, she finds a corner to hide in and starts cutting herself with a pocket knife… You’ve kind of been enabling her.” Ultimately, Yuri literally pushes everyone out of the clubroom except for herself and the player. Monika knows that if this goes on, Yuri will ultimately get what she wants. She further amplifies Yuri’s self-harming tendencies, and she commits suicide as well.
It’s a horrific scene. However, there are still differences to be noted between Act One Yuri and Act Two Yuri.
Yuri still retains her shy personality during the introduction of Act Two. However, rather than simply covering the player’s affection, it becomes, essentially, an insatiable craving. This drives Yuri insane. She starts saying ludicrous statements, such as, “I just want to pull open your skin and crawl inside you”, or “It feels like I’m suffocating if I’m not breathing the same air as you”. This is a massive shift in the way Yuri interacts with the player. Monika states that her alterations had the opposite effect that she’d intended. She made Yuri’s obsessive traits more prominent. Monika thought that it would lead the player to avoid spending time with Yuri, but instead, Yuri forced the player to spend time with only her. Yuri went from a shy, caring girl, to a possessive and obsessive freak.
Now, let’s discuss Act Two Yuri’s poetry. Yuri gives the player a poem called The Raccoon. This poem is very similar to something Act One Yuri would write – it uses the deep imagery and symbolism as Yuri is known to do. However, this time, the ideas represented are radically different than anything Act One Yuri would ever write. The poem, first of all, is much longer than any of Yuri’s poems up to this point. The poem tells a story of someone (presumably Yuri given that she uses the pronoun “I”, similar to how Monika was referring to herself in her poetry) having “a guilty snack” in the middle of the night. They decide to just eat some bread. Suddenly, a raccoon appears, and the raccoon is also hungry. The author acknowledges that they shouldn’t feed the raccoon because “a raccoon that is fed will always come back for more”. the first hint of symbolism is dropped in the following lines. “The bread, my hungry curiosity. The raccoon, an urge”. Remember that. The author then talks about how the lighting of the moon reflects light better at different times as she cuts the bread to feed herself and the raccoon, indicating a passage of at least one month where the author has been feeding the raccoon. The author even states that the raccoon has taken a liking to her with this line, “You could say that we’ve gotten quite used to each other.” The last two sentences of the poem are where the dark imagery really bares its fangs. They read, “I slice the bread. And I feel myself again.”
It’s strange that throughout this poem, titled “The Raccoon”, which follows a short episode of the author’s life in which they feed a raccoon, that the last line of the poem, the one that may stick with readers most, has zero mention of the raccoon. It only mentions the author. This poem wouldn’t exist had it not been for the raccoon. So why was this pivotal character omitted from the final line? It’s because the raccoon and the author aren’t two separate characters, they’re one in the same. The raccoon, an urge, is about Yuri’s self-harming tendencies and how she grows more accustomed to “feeding the raccoon” whenever she “brandishes her knife”. Much like Act One Yuri, it’s symbolism at its finest, but you start to see the shift in the soul as Act Two Yuri is slowly developed.
Now that we’ve discussed Yuri, let’s move on to Natsuki. Unfortunately, given Yuri’s constant need to be with the player, even if you decide to spend the day with Natsuki, Yuri pulls you away. There are three moments in Act Two where Natsuki shows how the changes to her character file are affecting her.
Natsuki, much like Yuri, still retains core personality features. She is still the youngest in the club, and she still has an inferiority complex because of that. However, the primary trait that Monika amplified was her condescending nature. This changes her character from a somewhat unlikeable person into a complete jerk. There isn’t much to identify in terms of complexity. Whereas Yuri had a psychological issue, Natsuki is just a mean person through and through.
Essentially all of Natsuki’s character development is shown through her poetry. To add to her being a jerk, she is very reluctant to share her poem with you due to your attitude to her first poem, claiming that she’s only sharing it with you because “Monika will make me if I don’t”.
The first new piece of poetry you get is titled “Amy Likes Spiders”. It tells a story about a girl named Amy who, surprise, likes spiders. The narrator, again, probably Natsuki because of the use of the pronoun “I”, cannot understand how someone could like spiders and still have friends. After all, to quote the poem, Amy likes “icky, wriggly, hairy, ugly spiders!” She continues in the poem, and the last lines read as follows: “It doesn’t matter if she has other hobbies. It doesn’t matter if she keeps it private. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s gross. She’s gross. The world is better off without spider lovers. And I’m gonna tell everyone.”
We learn that Natsuki is slowly becoming much more of a mean person. However, these lines have further implications when cross-examined with the poems that Monika leaves behind at the end of the game. We learn through a particular poem and through Monika’s dialogue at the end of the game that Natsuki’s father abuses her. She feels more comfortable in the clubroom than she does at home. The relationship is so bad that Natsuki actually keeps her collection of books at the school. She says to the player while organizing her collection that “My dad would beat me if he found this stuff.” When refracted through the lens of a daughter writing about her abusive father, Amy Likes Spiders, it can be inferred that Amy is Natsuki and that the narrator is actually her father who incessantly ridicules her for her interests, even though “it doesn’t hurt anyone” and “she keeps it private”.
Now, let’s look back at the scene where you read her poem “Eagles Can Fly”. Much like in Act One, the player questions how this is high school level work despite the minimalistic approach. However, instead of Natsuki informing the player about the work put in, and wrapping it up with the fun “Don’t judge a book by its cover” adage, she is incredibly dismissive to the player, and rejects that the player could think that it wasn’t a good poetry. She is incredibly close-minded about teaching the player instead of her Act One personality where she was pleased with teaching others because it made her feel important.
The second change you see with Natsuki is a much more wholesome change. Natsuki notices that Yuri is acting strangely, and rather than writing a poem to share, she writes you a letter. To summarize, the letter says that something is wrong with Yuri, and it’s making Natsuki incredibly worried. Since Natsuki is more comfortable in the literature club than she is at home, she wants the club to stay together. If Yuri keeps these tendencies up, the club might fall apart as a result, and she doesn’t want that. She asks the player to talk to Yuri about if anything is going on. However, this is ultimately a fruitless effort.
Monika realizes that if the player does confront Yuri about this, she might return to her normal self. Monika changes the script of the game, and has Natsuki tell the player not to confront Yuri, and to “just think about Monika from now on, okay? Just Monika. Just Monika.”
As a whole, Doki Doki Literature Club tells a very full story despite its genre not lending to complex storytelling very well. The characters within the game are some of the most fleshed out characters that I’ve seen in any form of media. I believe as a whole, Doki Doki Literature Club provides an immersive experience because of not only the different character arcs that you can explore but also because of the various stereotypes and conventions that are completely disregarded in the storytelling. This game won People’s Choice for PC Game of the Year due to the unbelievable differences between the two acts of the game. The various interactions with each character and the stories are hidden beneath layers of subtext showcase the heart that went into the game’s design, and each character, turning what could very easily be a story about tacky romance into one of the best and most surreal horror experiences of modern gaming.
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