There’s been this game running amok in the world of indie games and social media for maybe a few weeks now, something of a different string of game experience. Under clever facades and brilliant writing, the collective internet has been exposed to the next big online gaming mystery that people are itching to solve, piece together, and revel/cower in the presence of. I’m sure the title has popped up on your radar once or twice by now, but it bears discussion for many reasons. Several blogs and online articles do a great job of peeling back the layers as to why it’s been so fascinating an experience, and reviews on Steam race it Overwhelmingly Positive, always a good sign.
Indeedly so, this game rapidly breaking into the realm of infamy goes by the innocuous title of Doki Doki Literature Club. A slow-burn psychological horror that plays on a few uncomfortable meta-tropes and mechanics that, as gamers, most are at least superficially aware of, if not intimately familiar with. But before I delve too far into the subject matter I wish to discuss, I need to preface it with a few disclaimers:
- I’m writing this with the assumption that the reader knows about the game and its major plot points
- I’m writing this with the understanding that the material I discuss is difficult for people who are mentally debilitated might have a hard time coping with or reconciling
- This article is much like the tag-line of the game reads: “This is not for young audiences or those who are easily disturbed”
If you’re still reading this, then I’m taking it as implied consent. As mentioned, this game serves predominantly nerve and willpower testing ride. While there is a great deal of “choice of illusion”, the fact always remains that you, the player, are ultimately powerless in the face of the developments for the story. And, frankly, this might be the single greatest tool to educating people about how mental illness and, by extension, how powerless those afflicted with depression can feel.
There’s this overwhelming issue with trying to sympathize with a character who has depression in video games: by the very nature of the game, the player is always saddled with options for how to approach and overcome a challenge. This also reflects in the choices a developer of the game chooses to build their options and choice-pathways for players to navigate. You can really get a sense from how the developer feels about depression and, in many cases, suicide, by how they choose to allow the player to contend with it.
In many cases, there are hopeful (bordering on idealistically optimistic) about how you can overcome depression with some pluck, determination and stalwart friends. If it sounds like I’m describing many other methods of overcoming challenges, say dragon slaying for example, that’s because the similarities are certainly there. While these aforementioned traits most assuredly help, they’re often not enough; anyone diagnosed with clinical depression (hello) can tell you that this isn’t enough.
Some developers take a slightly more bleak on the subject: depression and suicidal tendencies only end in one conclusive event; where there remains nothing left for those after the tragedy other than to simply move on. Suicide is inevitable, and everyone left behind will just have to live with that. This mentality plays out as a sort of guilt-trip for people who contemplate these thoughts: how dare you do something so selfish to people like that?! Don’t you know they care about you? Again, talk to some people who have contemplated, or even attempted, suicide and they’ll tell you about how little they care about what other people think. And if they do care, guild it the last thing that’ll help in that situation.
Rarely do we see cases where we, as the player, have to rationalize and contend with that logic: games try to put you in the shoes of the person experiencing the problem, and by that very nature, removes some of the problem with depression by giving the player choice. How do you choose to react to this? What options will you pick?
In DDLC, we’re given something different. Enter Sayori, your spunky life-long friend who’s always been there for you, even if she’s really tardy and hungry. Of course, it’s revealed late into the first arc that Sayori has depression, and not the kind of “gee, life is kinda hard, isn’t it?” sort that we commonly throw around as slang. Rather, a crippling and self-depreciating depression that permeates every ounce of her action and behaviour.
I played through the first arc a day ago, but was already familiar with how it was supposed to end. I’d seen people try to give Sayori the affection they believed was needed to bring her back from the brink (didn’t work), I’ve seen people try their hardest to distance themselves from the issue hoping to spare themselves the pain of her death (didn’t work), and I myself tried to do what she asked of us by making good friends with another of the girls and being happy for her (didn’t work).
Ultimately, it always ends the same and robs players of the chance to do anything about it. Knowing what’s going on and having fairly extensive experience with the subject matter myself, I could read between most of her lines and deduce what was transpiring from the very beginning. As Sayori admits: the depression was always there. And for the (rapidly completed) two hours you get to know her through dialogue and gameplay, you unwittingly grow fond of the bouncy creature you call friend.
In the end, however, Sayori’s death by hanging was forever bound to happen. And, because of another clever programming trick: it doesn’t matter if you saved before to try something else, the game will not let you go back. No mulliganning here, pal! Though there are some misconceptions on this topic: it was not your actions that lead to Sayori killing herself, and neither was it her’s (or Monika’s, either).
In actuality, there is no logic to this choice. This can be a maddening fact for most people to comprehend; we like to believe humans are inherently logical creatures, and that we do things because A + B = C. Instead, in this case, it feels like every answer leads to C, regardless. When that power is ripped from the player’s hands, you suddenly start to get an surface level understanding of the powerlessness of a depressed person against their own brain.
Time and time again, Sayori is shown to be a pivotal and crucial member of the Literature Club. Her enthusiasm brings all three girls to cooperate and disarm fights, her understanding lets everyone find common ground, and it is absolutely her that brings you, player, into the realm. When she misses a meeting, you can begin to see the wheels falling off the tracks as some of that gentle compassion is lacking.
In actuality, the gentle compassion is only because of Sayori contending with her own demons and doing what little she can to bring a measure of value to herself. In her confession to you outside your house after Yuri/Natsuki leaves, she virtually shatters as she explains how worthless and terrible she is. Sayori isn’t, however, blind to the good she does: it’s more that she doesn’t care. The pain and misery far outweigh the good: as it has always been and always will be.
Never before have I seen something so poignant and accurately explained about a sensation that I myself contend with on a daily basis, but cannot seem to express in a way that others who don’t live with similar can understand.
And in that cataclysmic finale to Sayori’s existence, she finally decides to take her life into her own hands. It’s not that she chooses to kill herself, but rather she chooses to alleviate a burden from everyone’s mind. Deep within the core of who she is, she readily believes that everyone around her would benefit from her not being part of the picture.
Of course, as a player whose seen otherwise, nothing could be further from the truth. But this raises the question: what, exactly, IS truth? Truth is information that we as a large demographic agree upon and accept. To do that, we rationalize information we are given and, should it fall under particular quantifiers and qualifiers, we deem it as acceptably factual and, therefore, give meaning to truth.
Did that sound a little abstract? Because it is. Truth, by its very nature, is a construct of the mind. A mind that is mouldable and shaped by experience; experience that is controlled by what our own minds process and fathom. And if your mind is convinced that your very being is a burden upon others, and the only means you find value in yourself is in how you can make other people’s lives better…
The danger comes when that illogic becomes too logical, and the logical becomes irrelevant.
If this whole thing makes you feel a little hollow, without confidence in an arguments ability to change anything, you’re on the right track to understanding how deeply disturbing it can be for someone to live with constant knowledge that their brain is out to get them. Cause by trauma, genetics or chemical imbalance, it is a pervasive and invading aspect of life that can’t simply be willed away.
I’d like very much to explore some of the other elements that this game brings light to in regards to mental health and those who live with it, but this blog has already gotten quite long as it. I shall wrap my thoughts here for the time being, with intention of exploring other avenues of this game’s narrative mechanics in understanding mental health.
If you’re reading this and feel like you know someone out there who might be going through similar to Sayori: there are one hundred ways to help. Each person is different and each circumstance impossibly unique. As of presently: learning how to comprehend, even if only on a surface level, is a starting point.