Undertale and Doki Doki Literature Club: How to hide your story in plain sight

 

I know there are a lot of people who didn’t click on this video because, man, just look at that title. And I know there are many more people whose fingers are hovering over the close button right now, but hear me out. Doki Doki Literature Club is a ridiculously named game that released a short time ago to very little fanfare, to the point where I can barely find any mentions of it on big forums like reddit’s /r/games. It’s a shame, because this free visual novel that’s over in about five hours is actually really good, and that’s coming from a person who has never liked visual novels. There are certain aspects of its story structure that reminded me very strongly of Undertale, an indie game from a few years ago that I thought was brilliant, and that’s what inspired me to make this video comparing how the two of them tackle the same story beats to different effect. However, I cannot do so without spoiling each game from beginning to end, and both games are the type where the intended experience is to go in knowing as little as possible. So please, if you have even the slightest intention of playing either game, go do so before watching this video. It’s only a small investment of time (and a little money in Undertale’s case) and it keeps you from missing out on two very interesting games. For those who still don’t feel like  playing it, I’ll do some brief recapping so we’re all on the same page. This will be the last spoiler warning.

What a cute and completely unassuming looking game!

So, the title I actually wanted for this video is “Undertale and Doki Doki Literature Club: How to hide your horror in plain sight”. I’d be a real prick for putting a spoiler in the title though, so forgive the vague one you got. “Hidden horror” is what I’ve taken to calling games, shows, and so on with horror elements that hide it under their aesthetic or story structure, typically baiting the audience in before the big scare. Both Undertale and DDLC employ hidden horror, as well as elements of surrealism and fourth wall breaking, but with very different intention and results.

I should say going in that I’m not exactly unbiased about these two games. Undertale is a game I love, while Doki Doki Literature Club is a game whose relationship I have with it could best be described as intense appreciation. But this isn’t a matchup. I’m not talking about which game is better, or even which did hidden horror better. This is about how the two of them handle the same broad strokes of a central story idea in different ways, which I’ve separated into the following steps: the hype surrounding it, the initial hint that something is off, the big reveal, the surreal depths of madness after the reveal, and the abuse of the fourth wall. With that in mind, let’s get started.

Part 1: The hype

Undertale’s hype was difficult to avoid. It already had a bit of a following before it came out and it positively exploded on release. The fanbase could charitably be described as “passionate” and this earned the game a lot of unfair malign from people who hadn’t even played it. While I think the Undertale community gets a bit of a bad rap, I can’t help but think that for all the good they did getting the game out there, they did a fair bit of harm as well. Undertale is a game that hinges on its surprises, and having a large clout surrounding increases the chance of an unwelcome spoiler. Not to mention that having people rave to you about how amazing the game is can color your perceptions before going in.

Adventure awaits!

My experience discovering Doki Doki Literature Club was quite different. There was very little fanfare surrounding it. This can partially be attributed to it coming out very recently, but I’d argue a larger part is that it’s a visual novel, a genre with a much smaller and much quieter fan following. I found out about DDLC on 4chan’s /v/, the same place where I found out about Undertale. Surprisingly, there were no spoilers in the OP’s (except for that one guy who posted “Monika did nothing wrong”, but that’s to be expected). When poking my head into one thread to see what all the fuss was about, I was surprised to see another newcomer who was immediately told to leave, and was even chided for going into the thread when he hadn’t finished the game yet. I don’t know about you guys, but this is NOT the /v/ I know. That alone was enough to kick up the interest gauge another few notches.

When looking at both games’ Steam pages, you can see the beginnings of how their intentions diverge. The description for Undertale is mostly goofy, while the trailer is a mixture of of fun, a little bit of hype for adventure, and some subtle hints at the darker aspects of the story. Doki Doki Literature Club, meanwhile, fully commits to its disguise. The trailer, screenshots, and descriptions are all about the cute girls and how much fun you’re going to be having with them. Other than a single disclaimer, which I’ll talk about more in the next section, and a single line that’s a tad ominous, there’s nothing immediately suspicious about this game.

This is establishing what will become a recurring trend wherein Undertale is surprisingly forthcoming with its intentions. The game’s certainly full of surprises, but at least for the first run, it doesn’t outright lie to you about what kind of game it is. It’s an adventure, it gets goofy, and there might be something scary lurking around. DDLC is happy to lie directly to your face, but that’s okay. The game is much more focused on its deception, while Undertale has many other ideas. If this were a competition, I’d probably award this point to DDLC, if only because the community surrounding it has been surprisingly disciplined about keeping the game under wraps. It’s a rare thing these days.

Part 2: The early hints

Undertale establishes right away that something is up. There’s a miniature version of the larger bait and switch in the first two minutes of gameplay, where Flowey, the malevolent talking flower, quickly drops his cute facade and tries to kill you. It doesn’t take, but it’s enough to put you on edge. The rest of the game is practically business as usual, with only the occasional reminder that something is indeed out there. The big reveal that’s coming is a different variety of surprise – one where you know its coming, but the nature of the surprise is still, well, a surprise. It’s a curious way to go about this sort of thing, but it also sets up the game’s tendency for abrupt tone shifts and more or less lays out all of the game’s different “moods” in the first hour or so. It’s also an effective way of manipulating the player’s view of the world. It puts you in a position to instinctively mistrust Toriel, only for that to be slowly eroded over time as you build an attachment to her – which is a perfect setup for one of the game’s greatest tricks in the hidden horror department. More on that later.

Doki Doki Literature Club’s approach is… a bit weird. The game’s entire first act, where things are happy and normal, is almost completely devoid of any sort of dark foreshadowing, or at least that I picked up on. There are a few lines that seem like in-jokes that, in hindsight, are actually hints of some of the wilder ideas coming later on. Towards the end of the first act, you start getting inklings that something is about to go wrong. For the first several in-game days, though, it just plays like any other visual novel. If nothing else, it’s pretty unified with the game’s apparent philosophy of lying to the player’s face. Or at least that’s what I would say, if it weren’t for the disclaimer I mentioned earlier.

Seriously though, Monika did nothing wrong… okay, maybe she did a little bit wrong

It’s at the very top of the game’s Steam description, and it’s the very first screen you see in the game. “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed”. It’s literally your first exposure to the game. After that it cuts to the title screen with the upbeat music and cute anime girls, and all I could think is “man, who are you trying to fool?”. Even though I just said there was nothing strange early on I nonetheless spent the first few hours playing “spot the foreshadowing”. Despite the cute aesthetic I was more tense playing that game than anything else in recent memory.

And you know what? That’s a pretty good thing for a horror game to achieve. There’s nothing scarier than your imagination running wild. My earlier guesses for what would go wrong ranged from the club being full of vampires or succubi, turning the relationship mechanic typical of visual novels on its head, to one of the girls murdering whoever I got close to. The only question this leaves me with is whether this is the experience the developers intended. My impression was that this game intended to be a true bait and switch, luring you in with high school romantic adventures before going for the jugular. In that case, it seems baffling that they’d give away the charade so openly. I appreciate trying to protect people who might not want to see this kind of thing, but it undermines it for those who do. On the other hand, if it WERE the intended experience, then it’s actually brilliant. The opening act was just long enough that I was beginning to think that I was being double-baited and I was actually just playing a completely normal visual novel that everyone was pretending was going to turn scary. That ended up, in turn, lowering my guard right before the big “gotcha” came in. This almost certainly wasn’t the intention, but if it were, then this game would be a level of meta-horror that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Between DDLC and Undertale, there’s once again a contrast between a game that is about one thing, and a game that’s about many things. One isn’t necessarily superior to the other, but they require different approaches. DDLC is all about the horror, and everything in it is built around it – necessitating some deception and wrong-footing. Undertale has more on its plate, so it establishes the existence of its horror early on but nonetheless takes it to unexpected places later on. It’s a bit of a debatable topic as to whether it’s a good move to advertise your intentions early on. Personally, I think that as a general rule it’s a good idea for any narrative work’s opening act to be something of a microcosm of what it intends to be. This doesn’t mean you can’t be surprising later on, it just means those surprises have to be a little more creative. If the “genre flip” from cute to horror is the main thrust of the game, well… you’d better make damn sure you do it right, because structuring a story like that means that if it fails, there isn’t much else to go on. Fortunately, that’s DDLC’s strongest aspect.

Part 3 – The reveal

This is the culmination of hidden horror. The reveal can make or break the entire experience. Both games have it, but with very different intentions. Doki Doki Literature Club opts to focus on making the player, specifically, feel like shit. Regardless of your choices, you’re funneled down a route that forces you to a make a decision where no matter what, someone is getting heartbroken. And man oh man, do they get heartbroken. I later found out, to some dismay, that the ultimate result is exactly the same regardless of your choices. But as a fan of Mass Effect, I’m not exactly one to throw stones in this department, and if the writing is convincing on your first time through, I can let it slide. The big moment comes when this cute little ball of energy with crippling depression confesses her love to you, and even if you accept her she realizes that this still doesn’t make her happy, followed by… oh. Oh my. Yeah, it ends with a very sudden and graphic suicide, and you really feel like it’s entirely your fault. The game baits you as hard as it can to load a save and maybe try to save her. Do so, and it will tell you that her character data is corrupted, and the game restarts, minus one girl and plus one set of horrifying glitches. It all works pretty well with the slowly declining pressure of the preceding hours, and doubly so with some really convincing character writing that really ratchets up the guilt. Personally, I let Sayori die because I was hoping for a shot with Yuri. I’m a bad person.

Undertale’s version of this scene, meanwhile, is one of my favorite gaming moments of all time. Truthfully, it has two of these. The second is a bit more standard, but what I find more relevant is the fact that there’s an optional “holy shit” scene that takes place just an hour or two into the game. Through some clever design, you’re put in a situation where you’re very likely to accidentally kill a very endearing and friendly character. Like DDLC, the game baits you pretty hard to re-load a save and try to save her. If you do, surprise! It actually works. It gets a bit surreal but you get a heart-warming little scene for your trouble. But then that bastard Flowey shows up, and he’s got some choice words for you. “I know what you did. You murdered her, then you went back because you regretted it”. The pure brilliance of this scene is that it’s entirely optional. You’re very strongly pushed towards it, but you’re never forced into it. You have to make a conscious decision to try and change fate, and your reward is this truly chilling scene. Not just because it’s taking saving – a feature that has made gamers feel safe for decades, and ripping it away from you, but because it gives this feeling that you’re finding something that you weren’t meant to see. You’ve looked too far, and you got burned for it.

Uh, yeah, kinda.

Would DDLC have been better with this sort of reveal? Perhaps. Even though the buildup to the suicide is impeccably executed, everything after it feels a little less inspired. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen fourth wall screwiness in games like this before. But this is a talk about hidden horror, and nothing quite exemplifies that idea more than a moment that truly gives you that “you’re not supposed to be here” feeling. After a moment like this, there are basically two options: shove the player back into the regular game to let this simmer uncomfortably in the back of their minds, or use the reveal as a jumping off point to go REALLY crazy.

Part 4: The depths of madness

By “depths of madness”, I mean the sequence immediately after the big hidden horror reveal. Both games opt to crank up the surrealism to the extreme, favoring visual glitches, breaking art style, and horrifying imagery. It could be said that this the part that gives weight to the big twist. It wasn’t just a one-off thing. This is the new reality, or at least the game wants you to think that.

You definitely aren’t Sayori… (Do you know how hard it is to find decent resolution images of this game?)

Now that Doki Doki Literature Club has fully committed to its identity as a horror game, it makes the most of it, so the depths of madness lasts for about half the game’s run time. The theme of this sequence is the entire world unraveling. The game starts again from the beginning, but the girl that killed herself is now completely absent, with the occasional jumbled textures and gibberish text in her place. Other characters regularly glitch out too – psychotic behavior, eyes popping out and in, and a few lines replaced with altered text saying sickening things. I can’t say it doesn’t do what it sets out to do. The only thing is that while it goes on for a while, there’s nothing that explicitly makes me feel like it HAS to be that long. It takes about as much time as the first segment, long enough to get through the same set of days. You could say that it’s the pace the game has set for itself, but by the end it felt more like necessity – we’re going this long because that’s how long it’s supposed to be, not because it’s how long it HAS to be. The horror doesn’t get stale, but I can’t say I didn’t get a feeling of “c’mon, get a move on” by the end.

Undertale arguably has two of these sequences, but I’ll be discussing the first one, which is encountered at the end of the neutral route. It’s comparatively short, only lasting over the course of a boss fight, but it leaves a serious impression. Flowey the asshole flower ascends to elder god status and begins rewriting the fundamental nature of the universe. This is actually a bit of a reversal in this comparison, because while DDLC had many different ideas for horrific imagery, Undertale mainly sets on one, which is the complete shattering of its art style. Cute pixel art that was either monochromatic or composed of simple colors gives way to photorealistic textures as Flowey the punkass flower assumes a new form that appears to be made of human flesh but is DEFINITELY not human shaped. This is the only moment in any game ever that’s ever made my jaw drop, purely from the perfect timing and execution of the reveal. The rest of the fight doesn’t really have any new ideas in the way of horror imagery, other than the fact that you have to keep on looking at that thing, but it expands its horror into the narrative. The fight is completely hopeless. You’re a puny child struggling against a creature that freely controls time and space. The fourth wall starts to break down, too, with the game crashing every time you die.

You thought I was kidding when I said human flesh that wasn’t human shaped?

A major difference between these two is in how the sequence ends. If you’re in this purely for horror, then depending on your taste, Undertale might not be what you’re looking for, because you actually win in the end. There’s a heroic comeback sequence that gets hilariously cut short, followed by an actual comeback where you ultimately defeat Flowey the tragically misunderstood flower. From a plot and character progression standpoint, it’s great. From a horror standpoint? Well, you just faced down a lovecraftian abomination… and won. Exhausted and horrified as you may be, some part of you realizes that you’re more or less unstoppable at this point. Empowerment is pretty antithetical to horror. Now, Undertale actually DOES find ways to work in horror despite the player character’s power (or rather because of it) later on, but for this stage of the story, it decisively brings that aspect of the game to a close.

DDLC is having none of that. The depths of madness sequence ends with another suicide, this one even more horrifying and graphic than the first, followed by the final obliteration of the fourth wall. Despite the breakdown of reality, you can’t help but feel that, once again, it’s your fault. I’ll admit that this sort of rock-bottom despair isn’t really what I seek out in entertainment. Nonetheless, it displays a real commitment to its themes and doesn’t back down. This is why I said earlier that I appreciate DDLC rather than love it. It’s the kind of thing that keeps you awake at night, unable to keep the image of Yuri’s deranged expression right before she stabs herself out of your head.

Part 5: Breaking the fourth wall

Undertale’s fourth wall breaking is often misunderstood. Many of its most pivotal moments SEEM like fourth wall breaks – manipulating saves, breaking the rules of combat, acknowledging mechanics like text boxes and so on. The thing is, one of the underappreciated strokes of genius in Undertale is that every supposed fourth wall break is actually just a reveal that something we thought was a game mechanic was actually a real thing within the world of the story. Saving, for example, is actually an extremely potent temporal superpower that passes from person to person. When Flowey says everything is “just a game”, it’s a reference to how the whole story is really just about Asriel and Chara, as if the two of them were kids playing make-believe.

This fella in particular has some choice words for your fourth wall. Or rather, choice tridents.

I, personally, liked this a lot more than standard fourth wall breaks. For one, it’s no longer sharing space with other stories that merely use it for comedy. Not that those uses are bad, it just makes it a little harder to take it seriously in this context. Secondly, I think this type of “fourth wall leaning”, for lack of a better term, actually works better for hidden horror. Doki Doki Literature Club opts for the maximum fourth wall break, where one of the characters is revealed to be self aware and manipulating the game from within. It’s a decent conclusion to the story, but it doesn’t stop the little voice in the back of my mind telling me that some writer scripted her to say “I know that I live inside a game”. For all the tricks it pulls (I’ll admit that calling me by my real name caught my attention), this sequence straddles the line between feeling real and being a regular game that got too big for its britches. Undertale avoids this problem by keeping everything inside the game. When you learn that the save system is an actual story element, it keeps you immersed and makes you less likely to think “hey, maybe this jerk flower was just scripted to say this if an invisible trigger detects a reload”. A lot of people think that fourth wall shenanigans in general are pretty lowbrow. I can understand that viewpoint, but I think Undertale represents a decent compromise. It keeps the essential elements of shock and occasional comedy, while keeping things mostly grounded within the context of the story.

Part 6: Epilogue

Undertale’s focus is just one of many things that makes it good. But being focused doesn’t mean it’s solely about one thing. The hidden horror part of its structure is merely a part of it, used to prop up its central story. Doki Doki Literature Club really is about one thing, and that’s fine. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny that it fully committed to what it was and did a good job at it in the meantime. This does have the downside, however, that if this aspect of the presentation falls flat for someone, there really isn’t much else to go on.

I’ve heard some people say that the reason DDLC hasn’t been getting much discussion, besides its niche appeal, is that there really isn’t much discussion to be had. Unless you’re one of those people who completely misses the point and picks a waifu from one of these psychologically damaged cardboard cutouts, what really is there besides the twist, right? Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. The reason I even made this video in the first place was because I couldn’t stop thinking about it for several days after playing and even right now the surprisingly heartfelt credits song is looping over and over in my head. Even though Monika makes a distinct effort to dehumanize the other characters, and I make mean jokes about them being cardboard cutouts, you see just enough of their struggles to be happy that watching it all fall apart really gets to you. It’s the smiles you couldn’t protect that stick with you the most, you know? And that’s not even to mention that the game gets dangerously close to having “themes” at the end, as Monika’s song reflects on how her obsession with the player has only caused suffering for everyone involved. It may seem like a strange thing to say about a game so gruesome, but DDLC was definitely made with a lot of love. I guess that’s another thing it has in common with Undertale.

One thought on “Undertale and Doki Doki Literature Club: How to hide your story in plain sight”

  1. Hi, my name is Robert. I really enjoyed Undertale, which lead me to DDLC. I love the concept of using games to teach a worthwhile lesson in an interesting way, which I feel like Undertale did, and DDLC kind of did. I feel like your critique lined that up pretty nicely. To the author of this blog -> Let me know if you ever want someone to bounce ideas off of.

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