This article contains discussion of mental illness, self-harm, and suicide.
In 2018, I found a visual novel in my Steam library that I was sure I hadn’t ordered. I knew the title Doki Doki Literature Club at this point — fellow industry members spoke of it in the same ominous, “you have no idea what you’re in for” tone as anime series like Ringing Bell and Madoka Magica. They also told me this game was absolutely “my thing.” By the time the game was glitching out and baring its Ren’Py code at me, I knew my friends weren’t wrong.
Doki Doki Literature Club is the brainchild of Dan Salvato and his friends at Team Salvato, and isn’t so much a love letter to dating sims as an invitation to an intervention. Naturally, anything that blends dark subject matter and cute art will spark “think of the children” controversy, no matter how many layers of warnings you put over it. But it wasn’t the mainstream media’s unsurprising take on the “killer game” that surprised me; it was the claim of many in the gaming community that DDLC is a poor, even insulting, portrayal of mental illness.
The game isn’t perfect. However, even in the face of the game’s second act and Yuri’s full yandere switch, it provides one of the strongest depictions of mental illness I’ve ever seen in media. And that’s because, when it comes to the game’s slowly unraveling middle arc, we’re not looking in the right direction. Instead of sizing up the bizarre actions of our fellow club members, we should be looking at, as instructed, Just Monika.
Sayori and Writing Depression
As someone who struggles with mental illness, I can confirm that putting the experience into clear words often feels impossible. We know that what goes on in our minds — the things we tell ourselves, the way things look and sound and feel to us — won’t make a lot of sense to people who fundamentally can’t access our experience. Laying out our mind’s internal workings just sounds to the uninformed like we’re listing off foolish misconceptions, leading to the idea that this can all be fixed if we’re just told loudly and firmly enough to not feel this way.
Sayori’s confession of love to the player is a footnote in her broader confession: that she is battling depression, and has been for pretty much all her life. Her feelings of worthlessness have underpinned every quirky, childish, absentminded action the player laughed at throughout the beginning of the game. Not only that, she doesn’t want the object of her affection to attempt to help her. It isn’t that she feels she’s done something to be undeserving of love, but rather that she’s so worthless on a universal scale that anyone reaching down to assist her would just be wasting their energy. And that viewpoint is a constant presence in her mind, to the point that it’s become an inarguable truth. There’s no talking her out of it or “making her understand.” That’s just how it is.
It’s a keenly accurate description of a feeling that many, including myself, have battled. It made me feel more seen than any amount of fourth-wall breaking throughout the rest of the game. And it’s a valuable piece of writing, both for those coping with depression and the people who care about them, because it captures both the feeling of worthlessness and the explanation for why we just can’t be helped. Of course, there’s no right answer when Sayori asks how you feel about her, because you can’t love away someone’s pain, either — yet another truth that often goes unstated.
So why did the rest of the game seem to destroy its intelligent take on mental illness by turning Yuri into a stereotypical, horrific parody of herself?
Yuri, Natsuki, and Invisibility
Before we go on, let’s be clear on where our other “love prospects” stand. Yuri, the club’s elegant vice president, is revealed to self-harm. Natsuki, the youngest member, appears to have an abusive father. Both of these situations have one very important thing in common: they’re not nearly as visible as we pretend they are.
We can assume that the first run-through of DDLC is the closest we’re going to get to anything resembling reality. This is the point at which nothing, or at least a negligible amount of activity, is being tampered with. Here, we’re seeing the girls of the Literature Club as they would be normally. Sayori is forgetful and clumsy, Yuri is quiet with moments of strong emotion, and Natsuki is on edge with a side of vulnerability. None of these behaviors on its own gives any indication that these girls aren’t living pretty okay lives. And that’s the whole point.
Remember, Sayori has struggled with depression for almost all her life — and that includes the beginning of the game. Monika informs the player that she did not write depression into Sayori’s code; she just amped up what was already there. Thus, we can assume that Yuri was always struggling with self-harm, and Natsuki was always from an abusive home, even while everyone was eating cupcakes and having awkward teen moments on the way to the supply cupboard.
Moments in the first act confirm this, if the player is willing to spend actual time with everyone. Yuri actively wrestles with the intersection of her own creativity and darker thoughts, with her poem “The Raccoon” outright referencing the adrenaline rush of self harm. Natsuki hides her manga in the club room to keep anything from happening to it, and pushes to keep the club small, familiar, and safe. Sayori’s depression is equally hinted at, with her poem “Bottles” addressing her self-worth coming second to her friends’ perceived needs.
Are these things evident? Somewhat — they’re absolutely more evident with context. Sadly, that’s the way these situations often are in real life: we didn’t know. They seemed fine. Maybe there were one or two clues but they didn’t make sense until it was too late. Thus, if we’re going to talk about how Yuri and Natsuki are depicted by the author, we need to look at the game’s largely normal first act. Yuri’s full Silence of the Lambs turn and Natsuki’s clingy aggression aren’t symptoms of their circumstances. They’re symptoms of someone else’s.
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Monika and Narcissism
By all accounts, Monika is perfect: pretty, intelligent, athletic, and motivated. From what we can tell, the three other members of the Literature Club are actual friends of hers. They joined the club, after all, and speak highly of her. But when those three friends get in the way, and Monika realizes she controls the horizontal and the vertical, all bets are off.
The term “narcissist” gets thrown around a lot, but it is a genuine mental illness. Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder listed in the DSM-5 include a severe lack of empathy, an extreme need for attention, a tendency to exploit others for personal gain, a belief in their inherent superiority, and an inflated sense of entitlement. With Monika’s demand for attention, sad musings about how her friends aren’t “real” but you and she are, and her willingness to rewrite those friends to death with a big smile on her face, she fits the bill.
Once again, the game’s first act gives us little to no sign of any issue with Monika, right up until Sayori’s suicide begins to break the game. Monika just really likes the player a lot and seems to take it a bit personally when your eyes aren’t on her. But when playing by the rules of the game doesn’t net her what she wants, she takes things into her own hands via an unpleasantly effective smear campaign.
One tactic narcissists often take when not given attention is defaming the people allegedly in their way: calling them “crazy,” playing up aspects of their life or personality into something they consider undesirable, and sometimes outright lying or putting words in their mouths. In other words, they do through social media and personal interactions what Monika does by tinkering with the game’s code.
Yuri and Natsuki’s behavior in the game’s broken second arc isn’t them: it’s Monika slandering them to the player, turning what she sees as their “faults” into behaviors she’s convinced will turn you away. But, as with real victims of narcissistic slander, their saving grace is in your knowledge of them as people prior to these instances.
In short: was the depiction of Yuri as a stereotypical crazy-eyed cutter disrespectful? Yes, absolutely. But the writing in the game’s first arc gives ample proof that this depiction comes from the mind of a character, not Salvato himself.
Players learn very quickly that Doki Doki Literature Club isn’t joking when it covers itself with warnings of psychological horror. The game goes all those places, to the point that I have told certain friends of mine that I do not recommend they play it, despite my own love of it.
Salvato has said that DDLC’s message is about the importance of listening to and engaging with people. A typical dating sim teaches you to focus all your energy on your desired 2D waifu, but the only way to find a happy ending in the Literature Club is to cheat the system and devote time to everyone equally. It’s also the only way to see the full story of all the characters, and how each is coping with their respective trial, before Monika comes in and distorts the narrative.
This is all important to remember, as Salvato has announced DLC for DDLC. What will that entail? At the time of this writing, there’s no firm description. All we know is it won’t be a sequel. This could mean more poems, more cut scenes, perhaps even another loop before Monika takes full control. One thing will almost certainly stay the same, though: we’ll find the truth of the characters and their struggles hidden in the happy moments.