'Doki Doki Literature Club' Fits in a Tradition of Subversive Visual Novels


#1

Warning: This article contains discussions of mental health, self-harm and suicide, as well as spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club.

Combining a cutesy veneer with a meta-textual horror elements, Team Salvato's visual novel, Doki Doki Literature Club, has developed a reputation as a subversive visual novel that takes the tropes of the genre and turns them on their head to provide a sharp takedown of its medium.

Be it in Steam reviews for the game, YouTube videos, or chatter on major gaming sites, Doki Doki Literature Club garnered a strong reputation for subverting its audience's expectations. But while its dark twists might have been effective, the reaction to it frustrated me for the way it often dismissed the genre's history and the lineage of the meta elements it employs.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/kzp7gy/doki-doki-literature-club-history-visual-novels

#2

I think what makes DDLC stand out more than most meta games is how it subtly marketed it visual novel as friendly with a few hints of something sinister. Also being free allows for more people to try it. Still this and many other meta games do well at mixing things up.


#3

Having never played not just this game, but much in the way of visual novels, still a great read. Give me a substantial piece of postmodern games criticism and I’ll eat it up.


#4

I think you are right when it comes to being free. That’s part of the larger reason why I think this and stuff like Dream Daddy have taken off, in that they drastically lower the barrier of entry by being easily (legally) obtainable and also don’t require third party software or unofficial translations which can be a pretty big ask.

On the topic of how DDLC fits into the conversation, I am by no means an expert on VNs but I’m friends with a lot of people who are and the discussions around DDLC sound pretty similar to ones around Higurashi or Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi.


#5

This feels similar to western impressions about anime as a whole. There’s a lot of really smart series being made each year, like a Gatchaman Crowds or a Shirobako, that get passed over and filed into the nebulous colloquial category of “oh, anime!” that any series with predominantly-feminine themes seems to get placed into. That goes for a lot of Kyoto Animation’s work as well.

When you get something that does break out in the west for having an interesting gimmick (Attack on Titan) or subverting the expectations of conventional anime (Pop Team Epic), I tend to see articles with a really irritating bent of “here it is, the rare Good Anime, unlike all the other garbage”.

I remember playing through DDLC, and while I get why it’s had a breakout success, it also felt overly familiar. Visual novels have always had a legacy of being both subversive and really dark at times, so when those are DDLC’s primary draws, it feels derivative rather than innovative as the discourse around it suggests.


#6

A friend told me about DDLC and I thought they were referrign to Totono. Even then, that shit is bound to happen when something becomes popular both among fans and publications alike. Yeah, it’s frustrating but it feels more constructive to actually encourage digging into the genre more or where it comes from. The article presents the history of the genre and other games (like Totono, etc.) but reading the author seems profoundly annoyed that people are ranting and raving about it. I just don’t get the point? It feels a lot like people getting mad over Five Nights at Freddy’s being popular when people could be playing xyz horror game instead.


#7

Look, I find the history of this subculture cool. Thank you for the write-up in that respect, it was very interesting. There’s a subculture for everything, and it’s always a thousand times deeper than you expect it to be.

On the other hand, I had this kind of energy once about Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’. Hailed as the great return of the rock opera, the first-of-its-kind concept album, I was angry that everyone was looking right over the heads of bands like The Mars Volta and Cursive, who strictly peddle in grand, visionary concept albums. Why weren’t they getting their due on the cover of Rolling Stone? I was 16.

Now I am older, and I see the deltas in the flow of culture. I see how we generally flock to the deep, generous shores of popular culture, eschewing the divergent streams of subcultures, largely (and understandably) ignorant of their existence given their diminutive size and strength. I see someone say some superhero movie is really good and I may say that I don’t understand why they liked it, but I really just don’t give a fuck that they didn’t watch Super or Chronicle instead or whatever. They’re from over here. That shit is from way over there. I don’t fault them for it.

If they’re interested in finding more like the popular version of the thing that draws on a rich history of similar, arguably better things before it, they can find that stuff. Getting mad that people are ignorant of the subculture that preceded the popular version is…I think it sucks. It’s hostile. Most people don’t seek out and listen to concept albums from beginning to end, let alone play anime visual novels.


#8

Is anyone mad? The article just points out how Doki Doki fits into the trend, it doesn’t mock anyone for not knowing about a japan only visual novel with little english fanbase. It just points out that it exists.


#9

I got a lot to add to my “to-play” list. Another great article from Amr! Admittedly, I’ve spoiled some of them for myself, but it’s the journey, right?

I’m trying to think of examples of “subversive” games in other genres, but I’m only coming up with Spec Ops: The Line at the moment. Anyone got some more?


#10

It opens with a paragraph about how the author is frustrated that this game is getting credit for things that other games have already done.


#11

Hey, this was a really good article! Also really happy to see some attention given to otome games, since they are often ignored even within vn-focused spaces.

While I do think it’s unfair to expect people to have in-depth knowledge of a niche genre when covering breakout hits like DDLC or Dream Daddy, I also don’t think that lack of experience is what frustrates fans of the genre. The specific phrase that I see often and really dislike is ‘finally, y is the one good example of x’ (or any of the many ways you can paraphrase that) because it actively discourages people who have been introduced to x through y from exploring x further.

‘Subversive’ as a modifier also has… some baggage, I feel? It’s not a very useful term unless the person using it has some level of experience with the thing being subverted. Visual novels in particular are really susceptible to this term being thrown about because literacy in the genre is so low, but most people assume they have a grasp on it because they’re vaguely familiar with the idea of dating sims. Even this article, which talks about DDLC’s inspirations and place within the history of visual novels, cites Totono and… that’s about it.


#13

What are some important works in the VN canon? I’d love some kind of visual book club that went through notable but not “subversive” VNs but I’d have no idea where to start.


#14

I’m by no means a VN expert either, but Steins;Gate is lauded as one of the best VNs ever by people I know who are much more well versed in the genre, and it has a pretty great anime adaptation as well.

In the horror vein I’m personally a fan of the Higurashi games. People seem to like them, but I couldn’t tell you if they hold up since I haven’t actually played them or watched the anime since I was like 13.


#15

The significant problem you’re facing is that the vast majority of games that would make up a “canon” of visual novels are not available in English. You could play what people consider to be representative of the best of the genre, since some titles along those lines have been released in English, but the actual influential and significant titles are almost entirely untranslated, even those that have had multiple remakes. (Some of them may be fan translated, but the quality of fan translations can vary greatly and may only work for a specific Windows release of the game from most of a decade ago, which might not be compatible with a more modern Windows OS even if you can find a copy, and so on.)

As a side note (it’s unfortunate how replies work in this forum software; I’d separate this if I could)… part of my issue with the whole DDLC phenomenon is not how this history is ignored - it’s not really realistic to expect most people to know it - but how it’s actively dismissed. The whole “it’s not like other VNs!”, especially when it’s pushed with the angle of it actually being a Western game, aspect of fans promoting it really rubs me the wrong way. I know that’s external to the game itself, so I can’t fault the game for it, but it is kinda grating to see it used for that rather than as a gateway to a medium that fans might like to play more works in. Particularly when even the few VNs I’ve played that line up with that kind of high school atmosphere aren’t nearly so bad as the start of DDLC intentionally tries to be? That I might be able to fault the game itself a bit more for, but at the end of the day I just wish the people that liked it came away willing to give more VNs in general a chance, not just this one, if that makes sense.


#16

The visual novels recs thread has a bunch of them! Mostly recent Western VNs, but as you scroll down, you’ll find a number of “classic” VNs too.

And yeah, it’s hard to build a comprehensive canon of the genre. It’s still difficult in general to talk about VNs at all, honestly, because even without the cultural barrier, they can mean very different things to different people.

Here’s a very, very rough rundown with a number of additional resources if you want to know more:

  • It’s rare to hear about the origins of the genre, in the 80s and early 90s, since most games of the era have never been translated in English, officially or not. ZEAL published what might be the only summary I know of, though!
    The tl;dr is that historically, these games were often graphical adventure games (not unlike their Western counterparts) with a very stylised, cinematic presentation and a lot of gameplay. They weren’t as often focused on romance. Representative games include Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher, Metal Slader Glory (someone wrote about it on Waypoint!), Policenauts

  • Then in the 90s, as ZEAL explains, there’s a gradual shift towards theatrical storytelling, romance, and also pornography, leading to the dominant style of VNs as we know them today. As mentioned in the article, Angelique, the first otome game (Kotaku recently played through it!) and Tokimeki Memorial can be pointed as precursors.
    Classic VNs released in the early-to-mid 2000s include:

    • Key’s works, known for their romance and drama. First Kanon, then Air and Clannad, which are better-known by their subsequent anime adaptations by Toei and KyoAni today.
    • In the urban fantasy genre, there are Type-Moon’s works, Tsukihime and of course Fate/stay night which has given birth to a license of its own.
    • The Higurashi When They Cry series mentioned in this thread is very well-regarded in the horror genre! More broadly, there’s a long tradition of psychological horror in VNs dating back to the late 90s.
    • Nitro+, the studio behind Totono which is mentioned by Amr, is another major studio, though too few of their works have been translated! Besides Steins;Gate, they also made a cyberpunk VN, Kikokugai, and Saya no Uta, written by Gen Urobochi.
    • But as you can already see, even this short history is centering a certain kind of VNs, ones marketed (mostly) to straight men. I think it may reflect the fact that those games received more fan translations and earlier, which is a pity. But if you’re interested in early otome games, this article delves into their history, and links to Game Center CX episodes where those early otome games are played through!
  • I don’t think I could continue listing more recent VNs without committing even more blatant omissions lol. But vndb is a pretty thorough database of Japanese VNs with rankings, dates, and exhaustive lists of (re)-releases if you want to keep digging deeper.
    There are also a number of VNs-focused communities, like r/visualnovels or Fuwanovel, but keep in mind that each community can have very deep-seated beliefs and preferences of their own (namely they’re not necessarily receptive to otome games or Western VNs). r/otomegames is a thing too!


#17

The conversation surrounding the article on twitter is where the anger is at really.

Edit: more specifically the author dropping the link to this with “Happy fucking valentines day” and saying DDLC’s “tricks” are old, and the ensuing “Fuck yeah” from oldschool VN fans that followed. The article isn’t salty but the author + people excited about it come off that way in reaction to it. Just rubs me the wrong way. I understand where they’re coming from but acting like that is doing no service in terms of bringing more people to the genre.


#18

Your list has a lot of what I was thinking of; thank you for doing the work I was too lazy to do yesterday, hah. I’m hesitant to include things like Steins;Gate because it’s personally very hard to tell how significant of a work it is in Japan, especially as a lot of English speaking fans are fans of the anime and we haven’t gotten every Science Adventure title in English. (It’s probably safer to list some of Nitro+’s earlier titles as you did at the end, though!)

I would say there’s a few more notable ones (such that I’ve heard about them) from the 90s that I can add off the top of my head. Kamaitachi no Yoru/The Night of the Sickle Weasle was a very significant sound novel; a few years ago it got a heavily localized English release by Aksys on phones as Banshee’s Last Cry, but on iOS at least it’s no longer available or playable on iOS11 besides. YU-NO is a VN I’ve heard talked about a decent amount when it comes to being influential, and it looks like there’s a pretty old translation patch but I have no idea how easy it is to buy and run the required version of the game (and if the patch is easy to find, or what its quality is, besides).

At least in YU-NO’s case there was a store listing of the recent PS4/Vita remake (though the listing happened about a year ago…) that would indicate we might get a localization announcement of that sometime soon. There’s also an anime adaptation this year, I think? In Kamaitachi’s case… well, there was a Vita remake/sequel/something recently, and Aksys is still releasing Vita exclusives so maybe they’ll have another go at it. That’s the best we can hope for on that front, I think.


#19

No problem, and yeah it’s hard to mention everything, ahaha! It might also be useful to mention Umineko, Subarashiki Hibi, Fata Morgana as other meta-textual VNs, but likewise, I have little to say about their reception and influence.

And yeah context is almost always lost when dealing with VNs, it’s a pity… But it makes articles like this one all the better.

I’ve been very interested in 90s VNs for a while, especially those two, I hope I can read them someday!


#20

Gatchaman Crowds was amazing. It changed how I think about writing.

Also, I’m seeing people here recc Steins;gate so I wanted to pop in and mention that gender in that game is not good. I had to stop playing because of the strange creepiness and how poorly the female characters were written (flat and weirdly subservient/accepting of inappropriate touching). I know people who love it for the story, my gf included, but just be warned to expect that if you’re going into it for the first time. Coming to it after 999 and danganronpa (not that danganronpa is great on gender either!) I was pretty disappointed


#21

I don’t remember 999 being distinctly bad on gender, especially given how bad the other two can be? Did I forget something huge? I’d appreciate details if so, because it’s something I’d like to give a heads up about when recommending the series in the future.

But yeah, I will say Steins;Gate has some really gross scenes, particularly early on, with a few characters and how the protagonist views them. Unlike a lot of people I will say I did enjoy Steins;Gate’s slow start (Okabe is a muuuuch better protagonist than Chaos;Head’s and I had played that soon before) but those scenes were very hard to get through. It at least tries to handle things a bit better later on but it’s still constantly fumbling around a certain character and it’s exhausting at best.

EDIT: Ugh, I just realized this isn’t a reply so it probably didn’t notify you, @sleepiest. Though I’m not sure editing will do so either… hopefully you’ll see this, either way.

This forum software is neat but a little obtuse for me, hah.