By: David St. John
Note: I am as vague as possible about this game, so don’t be afraid to read!
“This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed. Individuals suffering from anxiety or depression may not have a safe experience playing this game.”
First of all: what the heck??????? This is not what you expect from a game about moe high school girls who like to read, but when you start Doki Doki Literature Club for the first time, the first thing you see is that warning about disturbing content before you’re welcomed to the brightly-colored start screen with a happy “Doki doki!” and cheery music. Outside of being what turns out to be a very valid content warning, this is the first hint at the style of horror Doki Doki Literature Club is aiming for – a meta horror that plays on the player’s expectations and impressions of the game.
This first warning reels players in; what could be so scary about a funny, dating simulator-esque game about having fun in the high school literature club? The game starts off completely as you would expect if you know about common dating simulator tropes – a male protagonist is dragged into a literature club by his childhood best friend (a staple in the genre), and unsurprisingly, everyone seems to quickly warm up to him and “like like” him. While the game continues in typical cutesy fashion, that warning is always on the mind, and nothing seems scary at all.
After some time, the warning fades away into what feels like a bizarre fever dream (even though this game does have a reputation at this point and you know it has got to get scary eventually – that was my situation at least). But suddenly, you start to get a few bad vibes from some weird lines of dialogue, and then the worst happens: you lose control. The game, the characters, the protagonist – somehow Doki Doki Literature Club makes everything spiral out of control.
What I mean is the game takes a direction you cannot predict, and it does its best to make you feel helpless. The characters start to not just act weird, but they become downright malignant and freakish. When before the characters all got along in the fun and happy literature club, suddenly they are hurting each other and saying horrible and threatening things, and you feel unable to stop things. The game plays with unique strategies to force you where it wants, and it often feels like there is no way to turn back. What makes this game so unsettling is that in typical video games you are never helpless – you can almost fight your way out or solve a puzzle and escape.
Do not doubt me – this game gets scary. This is only a small taste of the weird stuff that starts to happen because I don’t want to spoil the good stuff. Truly there is someone sinister abroad…
I feel like the horror in Doki Doki Literature Club can be described as meta because this style of horror involves the player’s expectations on what is going to happen and what they are able to do. The game cleverly takes the characters in directions you will simply not predict from your experience with games. In addition, there are actions you will expect yourself to be able to do that will be out of reach, and actions that you will be forced to take that will make you feel uncomfortable. Unlike other horror games, Doki Doki Literature Club seems to interact with you the person and not you the in-game protagonist, and that’s just bizarre.
This is not the only case of meta horror I have experienced. An example of a book that uses meta horror would probably be The House of Leaves. I did not actually like that book, but I can recognize that it too interacts with readers on a strangely personal level. If I remember right, part of it is a documentary-style book in a book, and there’s even appendices to help you learn more about what is happening in the book inside the book. This forces the reader to personally dig into the appendices and footnotes, all the while deciphering the bizarre structure – a process sort of akin to researching a string of unsolved murders or some other horror by digging through newspaper clippings and online articles. On top of that, there is narrator who seems to talk one on one to the readers in a diary fashion.
Overall, meta horror is an interesting yet very hit-or-miss subgenre inside horror. I highly recommend giving Doki Doki a try as it is a free game, and allegedly The House of Leaves is worth a read… I question that though.