This article contains mentions of depression and self-harm.
There’s something deeply unsettling about the inner machinations of the minds of horny cishet men, especially when narratives are already predominantly centered around and written by them. What’s obviously even more horrifying — to an extent I can never truly understand, given my own identity as a cisgender man — is the harm this misogyny results in. In his 2017 psychological horror game, “Doki Doki Literature Club!,” game developer Dan Salvato critically examines the misogyny that’s particularly relevant in games and other media by parodying the male gaze itself.
Salvato’s game, dubbed DDLC, is a genre-bending, hard-to-define visual novel, structured as a Japanese anime-style dating simulator. The moral murkiness of dating simulators, the protagonist’s nauseating attitude toward the women around him and the restrictive stereotypes that said women are pigeonholed into all coalesce into a fascinating discussion of how the male gaze warps reality itself.
DDLC is heavily informed by the dating simulator genre and, in promotional materials, it’s primarily advertised as a dating sim. A dating simulator is essentially a subgenre of video games in which the explicit purpose is to charm a romantic interest by managing things like “time,” “affection” and “trustworthiness.” The goal is to simulate the experience of wooing and dating an actual person, but in reality, it’s really just to pretend you can get into someone’s pants. It should come as no surprise that this subgenre traditionally caters to men, and female characters are often the ones to be “wooed.” The concept of a dating simulator, as a result, is inherently problematic. It is a brazen objectification of women, and its existence revolves around the perpetuation of the male gaze. The mere fact that the characters in such games are programmed to “love” the player reinforces the lack of agency women are afforded and constructs a fantasy world in which “no” simply isn’t a possible answer.
However, DDLC is also billed as a psychological horror game, though the “horror” aspect is only briefly alluded to in gameplay trailers and plot summaries. The passing mention of a “psychological horror experience” in a trailer full of cutesy anime girls causes cognitive dissonance (especially when these darker themes are not directly mentioned any further in their promotional materials), but more importantly, the brief hint at the true nature of the game establishes a set of expectations. This creates an implicit association between “dating simulators” and “horror,” while the emphasis on the former lulls the player into a false sense of security. Dating simulators are non-threatening and comforting, so it can be tempting to overlook the issues with the genre. But when you’re immersed in the gameplay and the game starts drawing attention to those issues, not only are you too engaged to be able to ignore the discomfort, you’re also much more sensitive to the ways in which your prior expectations are subverted. The contrast shows how merely operating from a problematic framework or mindset can lead you to ignore or justify accordingly problematic worldviews.
A primary way in which DDLC elicits such discomfort to confront the male gaze is through the protagonist. Even though the protagonist is faceless, it is clear from the limited dialogue options you are given in each encounter that you are a terrible (and horny) person. The protagonist (whom I named Alex because God knows I’d never bestow my real name to such a misogynistic, insensitive, pathetic loser) is a high school boy with exactly one friend. This friend, Sayori, has been his neighbor since childhood and does nothing but watch out for Alex and encourage him to make friends. Yet, Alex treats her like shit, whether that means scoffing at her “laziness” (which is later revealed to be one of her depressive symptoms) or calling her ditzy or embarrassing. Regardless, one day, Sayori invites Alex to her book club, the “Doki Doki Literature Club,” which Alex hesitantly attends, in spite of his worries that it will be filled with a bunch of losers (ironic, I know). When Alex’s creepy ass arrives at the literature club, he is stunned to see the club is “full of incredibly cute girls!!” Classy.
Here, the game’s objective becomes clear: You (playing as Alex) have to date the hottest girl in the club you can find. Hell, maybe date all of the hot girls. You have your pick of the lot, after all: Each of the four club members is programmed to fall in love with you, so regardless of Alex’s ineptitude as a human being, you can’t lose. You can woo the girls by “writing” poems to impress the girl you want to seduce (you just click on words that each of the girls like, and those words end up as the “poem”) and then grow closer to the girls by reading their poems. So, for the first half of the game, you click through dialogue and words that match the girls’ personalities and watch as the club members fawn and fight over the irresistible hunk of man meat you are because that’s totally how women act.
The protagonist’s problematic attitudes present a bit of a dilemma for the player. Video games are, by nature, participatory. The medium is unique in the sense that whatever actions the protagonist takes, the player is not a passive reader or observer but rather a co-conspirator. Regardless of the amount of actual control the player has over the events of the game (in the case of DDLC, players have virtually no control), the player is implicated in the actions of the protagonist.
As a result, positioning the player as a snotty high schooler places the player in a bind. Regardless of your actual opinions, you are forced to inhabit Alex’s horny little mind. You listen as Alex daydreams about becoming “more than friends” with the girls, you watch in frustration as he fails to see metaphors for depression, anxiety and self-harm in the others’ poems, and you shake your head as he reduces the girls’ personalities to “ditzy” or “cute” or “shy.” The issue is that the protagonist is effectively you. You are in control and because you’re ostensibly responsible for his actions, the impact and harm of his actions are also placed on your head. It leaves an icky feeling in your stomach, a feeling that goes beyond “Wow, this guy’s a dumbass.” His repulsiveness is neither justified nor explained because the point isn’t to sympathize with or humanize those who commodify women, but to parody and unflinchingly stare at them.
The player’s proximity to Alex’s thought process is also a constant reminder of how problematic he is. In every other line, he’s spitting out absolutely rancid takes, so hating him becomes easier as the game goes on. But by exaggerating the entirety of Alex’s character, even his less egregious thoughts become suspect. Why does Alex do what he does? How are even innocuous choices he makes influenced by his own problematic beliefs? So, when the player grows fond of the other characters in the game, another important question is raised: “Are these characters likable because they are sanitized to be appealing, or are they actually well written?” The susceptibility of Alex’s perspective forces the player to look to their own biases.
Thankfully, Alex isn’t the only character in the game, nor is he the true star of the narrative. That honor belongs to the four club members he can seduce: Monika, Sayori, Yuri and Natsuke. Monika is the totally-out-of-your-league, preppy and smart president of the Literature Club, Sayori is the “ditzy” but sweet vice president and Alex’s childhood friend, Yuri is the dark and intellectual “shy” girl, and Natsuke is the tiny but feisty girl who insists she’s not “adorable.” At a glance, each of the girls seem like a charming facsimile of a human, manufactured to fall neatly into common tropes and stereotypes, all for Alex’s pleasure. The girls are presented as caricatures, archetypal females who clearly appeal to particular male fantasies.
However, close observation reveals the club members aren’t as one-dimensional as Alex views them. The poems and dialogue of each of the girls reveal a deeper narrative, one of interweaving mental illnesses and personal struggles. Sayori’s “laziness” is explained in the context of her depression, and her general cheeriness illustrates how easy it is to mask mental illness and appear OK to others. Yuri’s shyness isn’t as cute as Alex thinks it is when the player realizes that it’s due to social anxiety and deeper insecurities. Natsuke’s insecurity with being called “adorable” stems from her not being taken seriously by her peers.
Tropes of “ditzy,” “adorable” and “shy” girls are turned on their head, yet Alex is too blind to recognize any of it. Alex’s inability to see these complexities until they stare him in the face shows how the male gaze literally warps reality. The capacity to serve Alex, rather than their qualities as human beings, provides the context of their personalities. Even when one of their poems practically spells out their inner traumas, the poem is shrugged off as “confusing” or “complex.” At times, the girls appear more human and complex than Alex could ever be, due to his own stunted emotional intelligence.
There’s a clear sense that these girls had interesting and complex friendships before the player character came into the picture. Yuri and Natsuke are competitive and stark opposites in terms of writing style, but they eventually come to appreciate each others’ poetry. Monika struggles to handle the responsibilities of running the club and her reputation as the “preppy popular girl,” while Sayori’s zest and passion keep Monika grounded and the club functioning. There are echoes of these dynamics throughout the main story (explored further in prequel “chapters” included in an expanded version of the game released in 2021), but the player’s presence causes it to all devolve into chaos, with the girls reduced to bickering over Alex’s affection. Because, again, that’s totally how women act. This illustrates just how corrosive Alex’s warped reality is — his perception ripples into those lives that would have been better off without him.
Ultimately, DDLC dramatizes the dehumanization of female-identifying individuals as a catastrophe waiting to happen. The second half of DDLC warrants an entire article in and of itself, but in many ways, the game stretches all the concepts explored in the first half of the game to their extremes. As the plot progresses, reality becomes more unhinged, and Alex’s world becomes increasingly unraveled. His actions, sexist attitudes and ignorance of reality begin to have tangible consequences on the health and well-being of the other club members. The tragedy of what happens to the club members over the course of the story is a distillation of how the male gaze ravages personhood. The damage escalates to a degree where neither Alex nor the player is able to ignore their roles in perpetuating the pain. By no means is DDLC revolutionary in the ideas it presents — the male gaze is a feminist concept developed long before the game came out. But “Doki Doki Literature Club!” is an interesting experiment in how a video game can be used in unique ways to explore old concepts. DDLC just happens to do so while challenging the patriarchy.
Daily Arts Writer Tate LaFrenier can be reached at email@example.com.