Now, I’m going to start this off with saying that I realize that this may not feel like it meets the definition for “anime” for some, but personally I feel that Doki Doki Literature Club is close enough and unique in its own way to at least consider it a part of the “anime-esque” media, considering it greatly pulls from the convention of Japanese visual novels. Oddly enough, I could probably be writing this about the actual Japanese visual novel Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi (Totono) and make the same sort of comparison, but without any translation for it (something which I hope happens at some point), this is what I have to work with.
Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) is questionably innovative in what it does for this reason, but that doesn’t make it any less gratifying to see it play out in of its own. There’s something to be said about how we perceive media, and I think DDLC makes an excellent observation about that which can change how we view certain works in the future, while also giving us appreciation for the past works that led up to the creation of a better one. It becomes a sort of love letter to the creators and players of these sorts of games, which I think is pretty neat in its own regard.
If you weren’t aware already of what I’m getting at or have no idea what this popular Western visual novel is about, then perhaps this wouldn’t at first make any sense, as these sort of “cute girls doing cute club things” visual novels are definitely not uncommon by any regard. In fact, there’s plenty out there that will probably never receive any sorts of translations because the market is so saturated, but it’s also important to remember that judging a book by its cover can sometimes be a really misleading thing to do, and yet it’s so easy to do without even thinking about what sort of stories we’re missing out on when we do this. It’s an interesting aspect of how we interact with media.
This is why its so fascinating when you have novels like Totono or DDLC created, something that completely throws you off-guard by what it says on the cover and what the actual content itself is. It makes these works a different sort of media, and while they may be anomalies in terms of other works being just standard fare or perhaps only interesting in terms of its genre conventions, sometimes these small twists are what can cause genres to evolve and also make us appreciate something when it goes back to its roots.
DDLC is not what it says initially on the tin, masking itself as more of a horror/psychological game than a lighthearted romance, and without any sort of community discussion about it, this could have just been potentially overlooked as “another cute girls visual novel” sort of game, which makes it something even more fascinating to discuss about our involvement with media that looks potentially “generic” or “uninteresting”. Mistaking DDLC as “another cute girls visual novel” isn’t necessarily incorrect in some ways, as that’s specifically what it draws from to begin with, and that’s something that seems intentional on the author’s part, and while I don’t necessarily agree with his full statement about them, I don’t think that he’s wrong in some regards.
A prime example of how DDLC uses its genre to “cater” to its viewer is very interesting. Starting out as a lighthearted visual novel game may bore some into thinking that “it’s just another one of these”, which I think is a problematic aspect of some “parody” games as well. Instead of appreciating a parody work for boiling down a genre to its elements, it becomes more of a “this is exactly why I don’t like these games” affirmation instead of a discussion about the ins and outs of the genre itself.
While it’s fine to appreciate or not appreciate a certain genre of media, it’s particularly problematic as we that consume media to think about things only within those parameters instead of looking to find the part of media that resonate with us the most. With a media as diversely artistic and stylistic as anime, even barring some of the more repetitive concepts of the medium, it’s something that isn’t as easily put into a box as some may think.
DDLC then turns the tables on its audience with its narrative, suddenly becoming a much darker game than what we would initially expect it to be from its lighthearted stereotypical romantic subplots in the most unexpected of ways as well. There’s always a feeling of a heavier tone underneath some of the words of the characters, but it never really puts it in perspective until a few hours into the novel, where it approaches a fourth-wall-breaking level of “meta” with its horror aspects.
I don’t know if I would call this anything “meta” in some regards, but playing with the core mechanics of visual novels and how the viewer interacts with those elements makes DDLC a sort of enlightening experience, showing how much just mechanics of the game suddenly not working or functioning as intended can really change how we view a simple romantic-based visual novel and the medium as a whole.
One that begins as “just another cute girls romance visual novel”, now becomes a lot more than that to the viewer. DDLC almost plays its role as a “parody” visual novel game in that regard pretty well without actually becoming one in the process, although I don’t know if anyone ever considered it as a “parody” game to begin with.
The horror aspects of the game are definitely not cheap in many regards either, although there are points where there are some of what I would consider “jump scares”, and depending on your own view of those, may lessen the experience. But DDLC has a lot more to offer than that as well, with feelings of existential dread and just a generalized fear of “things never are going to be right with this situation again” that’s prominent throughout the game.
This together with the core aspects of visual novels just breaking down can create for a terrifying experience. As someone that’s not really into the horror genre itself, I find the aspects used within this game very fascinating on the level of just creating a feeling of “losing control of what’s happening in the game”. As a semi-regular player of visual novel games, there’s a genuine feeling of being “in control” of your decisions that’s not present in the latter parts of DDLC, which just adds to the terrifying experience that the game provides to you.
In the end though, it’s not really about DDLC or Totono or the experience those games provide to you, although that’s certainly an excellent reason to play them. It’s more about using those as core examples to enrich your experience with a particular genre that may feel stale and ordinary and uses those aspects to show that a particular genre shouldn’t be underestimated by what you initially see provided to you in the synopsis, on the cover, or through the art style.
While I understand the problem of having limited time to view media, that alone shouldn’t be a reasonable excuse to disregard entire genres of media that may have aspects that we could thoroughly enjoy and create a meaning for ourselves with. That’s also not to say that there aren’t “flags” that can tip you off into thinking a work might be bad or that you may not get a certain level enjoyment out of it, but that’s part of the decision-making process: can the rewards outweigh the benefits of a work of media?
Challenging yourself using various forms of media can be an enlightening and enriching experience in its own regard, and it’s something I continue to encourage myself and others to do as well.
Push yourself; the sky’s the limit.