Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! Side stories play you more than the original ever did

This article contains spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club Plus (DDLC+) and its side stories.

Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is destabilizing. Anyone who has played the original version can certainly attest to its disruptive ability to overturn convention and play with the fourth wall. The recent re-release adds hours of new content that fills in the narrative background without trying to repeat past tricks. Instead, the new DDLC+ The side stories are presented as simple visual novel narratives, with you as a player providing all the baffling undercurrent.

It’s not for nothing DDLC considered a psychological thriller. Its cute aesthetic belies a disturbing narrative that plays on mental health issues for shock value. To the developers’ credit, they try to justify the extreme depictions through the game’s fourth meta-consciousness that breaks the wall of its construction, but the shocks are too shocking. Bolstered as the depictions of mental illness are for the most part of the player’s time with the game, they lack the nuance to seem truly serious. On the one hand, this is part of what makes DDLC so memorable; on the other hand, it finds its place in the broader social contexts of stigma and stereotypes of mental illness. The game may be widely loved, but that doesn’t make it flawless.

DDLC+ The side stories were an opportunity for redemption – an opportunity seized but not quite achieved. Side Stories includes half a dozen new stories that explore the origins of the Literature Club and the relationships between the four girls before the player enters the scene. Taken in isolation, these extracts offer milder portrayals of mental illness. They feel honest. Their depictions resemble statements of authentic understanding for struggles with depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, or trauma.

The thing is… Side Stories don’t exist in isolation. They are nestled in the larger package of DDLC+ and locked behind several parts of the main story. While games often lock additional content behind progression or particular achievements, the effect of doing so is different here.

DDLC doesn’t just break the fourth wall with a casual wink at the player to the Solid metal gear; this is breaking the fourth wall. You are positioned as you – the player rather than the player-character – and you become the direct recipient of Monika’s obsession. You go through the moves the game seems to require: composing poems, making choices. But in the end, none of that matters because Monika is aware of her existence within a video game. This insight allows her to manipulate the objective world around her, augmenting other characters’ negative personality traits to achieve the happy ending she is otherwise unable to have. Concordance between the player and the game cannot be restored as a result.

Similarly, the metafictional framing of DDLC+ ensures that you can’t forget that this is just a story. You only see what the creator of this story wants you to see. The packaging of the game reinforces this feeling. As you progress through the main game and side stories, you unlock email messages passed between members of the fictional MetaVerse Enterprise Solutions team, further positioning DDLC like a fiction within a fiction.

Sayori

With the fiction’s implied contract thus broken, the player cannot do not see the ordinary DDLC+ Side Stories as a suspect. In the game, as in reality, your subjectivity is determined by what you have seen, by the unexpected rewriting of the rules of the game, by the way the story changes to accommodate changes that should be impossible, by Monika’s self-awareness, and by extreme portrayals of mental illness.

No matter how serious the side stories are, the metafiction imbues them with a sense of unease. You can’t help but expect everything to go off the rails. After all, the main game first appears as a simple dating simulator. Expecting the side stories to follow its crash convention trajectory seems reasonable. The only question is how?” So, you wait. You watch. You read. You follow the stories of how these girls came together and overcame their mistrust and dislike of each other. You still wait.

Constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop inhibits your ability to appreciate the story for what it seems. Dread always underlies bitter sweetness. This leads to the feeling of trepidation felt when reading the side stories. The different subjectivities of the girls remain exposed, but this turns the lens of the analysis towards you. Side Stories rob you of free will.

In fact, they go further: the player does not exist. except you To do. And you know that because the game has already admitted it. However, you never appear. The stories end, the credits roll, and you’re thanked for playing a game about literature and friendship — there’s no dropping shoes.

At first glance, literature and friendship seem to be dominant themes. Certainly, the Side Stories explore the foundations of friendship, and on a somewhat deeper level, the metafictional quality of DDLC offers an intriguing question about literature (and ludo-literature) as artifice.

However, it more prominently examines the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity. This permeates the whole package. It means nothing can be trusted DDLC+.

Worry comes from not mattering where once you have. The side stories don’t reposition you as a player but as a replacement for Monika who wakes up realizing that DDLC is a fiction in which she has no power and no hope of a happy ending. Except, unlike Monika, you can’t own the game.

On reflection, that’s the truly remarkable and memorable thing about Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! It has an incredible ability to penetrate under your skin. It feeds on the belief that a text does not exist without a reader – it feeds on the tendency to center us as the object of our reality – and uses it to play us as much as we play it.

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