Warning: This post contains lots of spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club. If you somehow reached this point not played this Visual Novel, please go play it and then come back. It’s free on Steam or on the Doki Doki Literature Club site.
So recently a Visual Novel by the name of Doki Doki Literature Club has gained a lot of popularity on the internet. It mostly gained this popularity due to its outside appearance of a cute, slice-of-life visual novel but upon further inspection being a rather Surreal, depressing and disturbing game due to its fourth wall breaking story and it’s unique visual and sound design. So today on the VN Completionist we’re going to deconstruct Doki Doki Literature Clubs meta-textual narrative and the design choices by Team Salvato to create a captivating and unique experience.
I think we should first establish what I mean by a Meta-textual Narrative. A Meta-fiction or Meta-textual narrative is “a fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques.“ In the context of Doki Doki Literature Club this refers to the way Monika is consciously aware she is part of the game and intentionally manipulates it to get an ending in which he can be with the reader, not the protagonist, literally the reader themself.
There are various ways in which the game uses not only its narrative but various systems within the game to immerse the reader within its world and create its unsettling atmosphere. The main ways the game does this is firstly with the way it messes with the typical branching narrative structure that you would expect from visual novels and the way this affects the choices you make, Secondly the way it uses its own unique mechanic of poetry writing and the way it affects the story, Third the way the games visual and sound design is affected by the narrative and compliments the atmosphere of the story and finally the way the narrative exceeds the scope of the game and in the way it makes you physically manipulate the game in order to progress the story.
The first way this games narrative manipulates you as the reader is in the way it subverts your expectations of the game. The game is presented as a rather generic slice-of-life story in which you eventually pick a girl to spend time with and develop feelings for, the main heroines are also wrote to fit specific tropes typical of visual novels like the Tsundere, the timid, quiet girl and the cheerful and optimistic childhood friend. These narrative choices were intentional on the part of Dan Salvado who intentionally designed the characters in a way that would appeal to visual novel fans and lure them in with a false sense of security but also create a contrast between the themes of the game.
This philosophy with character design is also framed by Monika who, after the deletion of all the heroines, doesn’t understand how you would become so invested in the other girls despite them beings blatant caricatures designed just to appeal to the reader on a superficial level
Doki Doki Literature Club’s use of choices and the Illusion that your choices are really affecting the story in a meaningful way is one way in which the meta-textual narrative of the game was made. The Illusion of Free Choice (pretty sure I just made up this term) is the idea that your choices have no affect on the story whether this is intentional on the part of the writer or not.
In the context of player, this is framed as Monika controlling what happens in the game in order to create an ending in which she can fall in love with you and ultimately being completely subjected to her will. This is represented in its narrative as your choices having very little effect on the progression of the story and it only changing as a result of Monika manipulating the games script, the games visual assets or just physically manipulating the game to make you spend more time with her.
In the context of Monika, this suggests that regardless of her ability to change the games script herself, she is still subject to the limitations of the game and cannot create a world in which she can be with you and remain a part of the literature club which she also holds dear.
The poetry sections and its specific mechanic is also part of the way the visual novel forms its meta-textual narrative. Doki Doki Literature Club has a mini-game where between days it allows you to select 20 different words from a set list in order to create poetry which appeals to either Yuri, Sayori or Natsuki. Picking simple and cute vocabulary will appeal more to Natsuki, nuanced and metaphorical language will appeal more to Yuri and Sayori responds best to romantic and bittersweet words.
When approaching this system it comes across as incredibly overwhelming and complex with such a large list of vocabulary with very little indication of how these choices could affect the story. I even naively looked up a list to help me figure out which were the best words to pick.
In retrospect the system itself has very little affect on the overall story due to Monika’s intervention but subconsciously reinforces the idea that you are playing a game and how these choices will affect which ending you will get. This extra level of immersion makes the changes to the game aesthetically feel more shocking and unsettling and the final reveal more impactful.
The Poetry that you receive from the girls also contribute to this as well. At the start of the game Monika asks all of the Literature Club to start writing poetry to bring to the club each day, the game implies that poetry is a form of self-expression and a reflection of the thoughts and emotions of the person writing it. This is true even in the context of the narrative as the poetry received from all the girls indirectly expresses all their thoughts and feeling throughout the story but also gives the reader insight into and frames each character’s world view
In the context of Sayori, who this is most obviously showcased, her poetry and the vocabulary she initially used reflected her cheerfulness and optimistic outlook but as the story progresses it frames her depression and all the feelings associated with it and how her optimistic outlook was a facade used to hide her feelings and how it’s the only way she feels useful to others.
For Natsuki, the cute, straight forward vocabulary and the honesty depicted in her poems eventually changes to frame her feelings of loneliness and her relationship with her abusive father and in the case of Yuri her poetry becomes warped to frame her unhealthy obsession with the protagonist.
In the case of Monika, her poetry initially feels rather abstract and difficult to understand. Some readers may have been dismissive of the content of her poems writing it off as gibberish but more keen-eyed readers would keep the contents of the poem at the back of their minds as the story progresses. We established how each of the poems presented by the girls is a reflection of their own world view so the question we should be asking ourselves is “how does her poetry reflect her feelings and showcase how she views the “world” of Doki Doki Literature Club?”
In retrospect, Monika’s poems establish her epiphany about the nature of her world and how she knows she is apart of a Visual Novel due to metaphorical language she uses. Her poetry also shows how she lacks the agency to change her fate despite her ability to manipulate the game world. This also becomes much more obvious as the game becomes more corrupted and the meaning of her poems become explicitly obvious.
The Visual and Sound design of the game also contribute to the meta-textual narrative of Doki Doki Literature Club and immerse the reader in multiple ways. The first way is how the visual aesthetic of a typical slice-of-life visual novel works with the story in the same way the story’s setting does.
The cute character designs, the bright colour palette and cheerful, light-hearted music were designed specifically to appeal to the target audience of slice-of-life visual novels and lulls the reader into false sense of security which makes the later parts of the game, with its corrupted music and visual assets, feel much more unsettling and creepy in atmosphere.
Following on from this, the corrupted visual assets and audio was the visual novels most obvious and strongest tools for creating and immersing the reader into its meta-textual narrative. It give the reader a clear indication that something is clearly wrong with the game but with only subtle changes to characters and the progression of the story.
It creates this unsettling feeling that this is something intentional with the way the game tries to direct you to spend time with Monika and it compels you to keep reading to see how far down the rabbit hole goes. The way the game breaks also subconsciously reinforces that it is a game but doesn’t manage to break your immersion in its world.
The final way it uses it visual design is how it affects the various mechanics of Doki Doki Literature Club and Visual Novels in general. The game constantly manipulates the reader with its narrative choices, controls, game functions such as saving or loading and the specific mechanic of creating poetry.
The first instance you see of this is after the death of Sayori which results in a bad ending and you being returned to the main menu. Instinctively, I went back to my saves in order to load back to an earlier point to change my decisions to get an alternate ending only to be greeted with a pop up saying my save was corrupted and Sayori’s character could not be found (check the game files when it happens, It’s gone). The game is then reloaded and in a broken state in which Sayori no longer exists.
This is the first point in which Monika has affected the game by deleting Sayori and is done at a point in which it would be most impactful for the reader. Not only is this done after an emotional scene but is done in a way where you played into the expectation that you would immediately go back and try to change you decisions because you want to be able to get a better ending. The game goes against your own expectations not allowing you to reload a save and undo your actions giving them more impact.
Aside from the obvious changes to the game such as the absence of Sayori and the visual downgrade, we see the game more aggressively force the player down a single path. This is done by forcing you to spend more time with Monika and Yuri whether you choose to or not. This is presented in the story as Yuri’s unhealthy obsession forcing you to spend time with her and Monika intervening with intimate moments and manipulating the games scenario.
Monika’s changes to the games script was also presented visually as her manipulating and controlling the choices you could make in the game. Two clear instances of this were during the argument between Yuri and Natsuki and when you decide which girl to help with the school festival. During the argument you are given the choice to pick a side between Yuri and Natsuki, Pick either doesn’t end the argument but instead zooms in on whatever choice you click until Monika intervenes and drags you outside.
The second during the festival has you pick which girl to help with their preparations, you given the choice between all 3 girls that remain but your mouse cursor will be dragged against your will towards Monika’s name. Any attempt to pick another girls name breaks the decision boxes and the screen is then filled with the option for one character’s name, Monika.
This is a clear indication that Monika is becoming impatient as despite her intervention causing Yuri to become more madly obsessed with you and making her seem more undesirable, she is still unable to stop you from getting into a romantic relationship with Yuri so she is more aggressively forcing you down a different path which we eventually find out still doesn’t succeed.
After the death of Yuri we reach a sequence which completely breaks the script and the continuity of the story. After the scene in which she kills herself, we are stuck observing her body and whatever text is supposed to be present is corrupted. You then try to click past the text to no avail, it remains corrupted. Out of boredom you eventually decide to skip the text until you reach something you can read but something strange happens.
You see the sun rise and fall multiple times over her body until eventually this sequence is broken by the return of Natsuki who throws up at the sight and runs away. Monika also enters and comments how you have been there for days unable to move and how broken the script of the game currently is. This results in the game being restarted one more time and you being placed in an empty room alone with Monika.
Not only does this scene mess with the continuity of the game, losing all sense of time passing and the sequence of events being completely messed up, the game also messes with multiple game options that are available to you. Using the skip option as previously mentioned fast forwards the text but it doesn’t actually progress the events of the story which makes this scene seem even more unsettling being unable to progress the story staring at Yuri’s lifeless corpse.
You can also view the text back log which may give you some context as to what is happening. If you open it, you will see the synopsis of the game, which is wrote from the perspective of Monika giving you a much less subtle indication of who may be behind this mess.
We also see that the poetry sections in the second half of game are also affected by the absence of Sayori. It’s pretty obvious to the reader that she isn’t in the game any more but you still have the ability to pick words that appeal to her. Picking ones that do can actually cause her chibi sprite to jump up from the bottom of the screen but the sprite itself is a more creepy version of it.
You can also sometimes pick words that appeal to Monika and you can her sprite move in the same way at the bottom of the screen. I only managed to make it happen once so I don’t remember what the word it was but it probably alluded to either her intentions or the epiphany she had about the nature of her world.
During the sections where you share poetry with the other girls, you will find at the end you will get a pop-up asking if you want to see a secret poem. The poetry itself seems rather nonsensical at first glance but upon further inspection appears to be in relation to the now missing Sayori.
This seems to be some indication that upon her deletion she reached the same epiphany that Monika did but no longer has the ability to act on this knowledge. This is something you realise at the end of the game when Monika restores all the other girls upon their deletion.
This may be some earlier indication of how the characters aren’t completely removed from the game like Monika states upon her deletion but also a way in which, in a meta sense, the continuity of the game is fixed much like how Monika takes the place of Sayori in earlier scenes and how she still appears in the word selection for the poetry creation.
The last and most obvious way the game is manipulate is during the big reveal where Monika reveals she knew the whole time she knew it was a game and now you are the only two characters left and can spend eternity together. At this point, nothing in the game works as intended and even if you find a feature that does work Monika will disable it.
If you try to go to the main menu, Load a previous save or quit the game using the options menu it won’t work. If you try to save the game for what ever reason, you get a pop-up saying “There’s no point saving any more Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.” Try to fast forward and she will get annoyed at you, wondering if you’re getting bored talking to her, after telling you there’s nothing left to fast forward she disables the option.
My favourite interaction, which if you watched somebody stream this game you may have seen it, is if the game detects you running X Split or OBS Monika will comment on how she is being streamed and how she is quite camera-shy. She will then say “Hi” to whoever is watching and then pull a prank on you. If you haven’t seen it you should go watch it, it’s rather amusing.
Something that I personally never really considered or even thought about during my first play through of the game is how the music and sound design are used to construct this visual novel’s meta-textual narrative. Something brought up by this video and something I checked out too on a second play though was the use of Piano and how it represents Monika’s being present within a scene or taking part in it without your knowledge.
The Video first establishes how each character has a different rearrangement of the main theme for the poetry sharing sections of the game but only Monika’s contains solo Piano. It’s established that Monika has only recently started learning the Piano (i.e. at the start of the game) so it is implied the Piano we hear in the soundtrack is her practising. This shows that she is present in some way during scenes involving the other girls and knows the event that occur in them.
This become more obvious after Sayori tells you about her feelings of depression and you decide whether to accept her confession or not. The day after Monika comments about how she knows what happened in her room but brushes it off as her telling her via phone and she also tells you in detail about Sayori’s suicide when you are alone together in the empty room.
The music present during that scene is a gentle piano piece typical of emotional scenes in Visual Novels which is a really insidious and cunning way of hiding her involvement in her death. There are many other examples of this in the video by Jake Butineau and I highly recommend you check it out.
The final and my personal favourite way the game constructs its meta-textual narrative is the way it’s story and game mechanics exceed the scope of the game forcing you to interact with the narrative in a unique way. When you first went to start the game you probably noticed the conspicuously placed folder named “characters” in which all four of the heroines character file can be found, If you were playing on steam you probably didn’t know about this until the end when you have to delete Monika.
In the context of the narrative Monika claims to manipulate these files and the script in order to influence the events of the game even going as far to delete them, she even comments on how easy they were to find. This isn’t just for show, as the story progresses you can see for yourself the files disappearing. Of course, as you find out later into the game, you can manipulate these files in the same way she does.
This isn’t just the case at the end when you delete Monika, you can delete all the heroines files and this will affect the game in different ways. I won’t spoil what they do in case you didn’t try it yourself but go back on a fresh install and have a go messing round deleting all the girls files, you will get some interesting interactions.
This is the part of the game that contextualizes what I liked about this game the most. The fact these files are being interacted with gives the reader the feeling that Monika’s character completely exceeds your expectations and is a presence even outside of the game’s story. The fact you can also manipulate these files give the feeling that you are interacting with the narrative in a way which defies logic and gives you the feeling that Monika and the world of Doki Doki literature club are really sentient.
The Character files themselves have the file extension of .chr which if you tried to open in any program won’t work or contain complete gibberish because obviously this is not a real file extension. Despite this, a Reddit user by the name of Mithost actually managed to open and make sense of the four character files. This can be found on the Reddit thread here, where this person discusses what he found and how he managed to make sense of these file. Highly recommend you check this out even if you aren’t too computer savvy.
I think the reason I decided to make this post was because I think that despite it’s popularity, people may have just wrote this game off as being a dark, scary Visual Novel with crazy girls in it, so I wanted people to not only think of the game’s story in a new light but also see its subtle nuances and the care taken to construct this somewhat compelling visual novel. This post was pretty long, I may have over analysed this game just a little bit but I’m glad if you stuck with it all the way through.
If you did so, Thank you for reading this I appreciate it. If you enjoyed this post please feel free to check out any of my previous posts and follow my blog or social media to see more of my work in the future. Thanks again for reading and I will see you again on the next VN Completionist.