Doki Doki Literature Club does not look like a horror game, but those who have played it know only too well that appearances can be deceiving. It has an overtly sugary, cutesy anime design, and masquerades as a dating sim where you, as the protagonist, join a literature club with four girls – a club which seems to involve very little literature and a lot of flirting with the potential waifus. It does begin with a content warning, and without spoiling anything, it takes a hard turn with a shocking scene around an hour in. I assumed, seeing this scene the first time, that the content warning had been fulfilled, and the game would now continue onwards, albeit with a slightly more sombre and melancholy tone.
However, what comes next is the unsettling mix of sex, horror, gore, and existential doom which can only be found in the books Stephen King scribed through the late '70s and into the '80s. It's unsettlingly graphic and purposefully uncomfortable. Doki Doki Literature Club is a psychological horror which stalks you silently, waiting longer than most horror games to strike. When it does leap from the shadows, it comes at you with teeth and claws and horns, ready to eviscerate its unsuspecting prey.
It has a good mix of 'corner of your eye' scares, jump scares, and abject horror, and has some decent gimmicks, but for many it's just another horror game. It's an expert at burying the lede, letting you think you've reached the apex of its horror offerings before somehow shifting again and again to something worse. Because of these gimmicks, Doki Doki Literature Club was able to reach inside my ribcage and squeeze at my heart until it found my deepest, most personal fear.
Speaking of burying the lede, I'm transgender. I've been in transition for two and a half years, which is around how long ago I played Doki Doki Literature Club. At that early stage, I had begun using my new name, updating my online presence, and had applied for a new ID. I was still trying 'Stacey' out, and it fit me like a new pair of shoes: the right size but without much give. Usually I make up a specific character name for games, but 'Stacey' needed wearing in, so that's what I named my Doki Doki character. That's how Doki Doki Literature Club's gimmicks were able to grab me by the heart.
Face your fears
In much the same vein as Psycho Mantis reading your memory card, Doki Doki Literature Club reads your hard drive. One of the things this includes is telling you "You're not 'Character Name'… you're 'Real Name'," drawing your 'real name' from the one assigned to your hard drive. Oh, and guess what I had not gotten around to changing? The game stared me in the eye and said "You're not Stacey, you're '[REDACTED]'." You're 'old name. 'Deadname'. 'Boy name'.
You are not this person you want to become, this person you think you are. You will always be what you were born as. You will always be a boy. You will never be you. Horror is at its best when it reflects our darkest fears back at us, when it holds up a mirror and lets us scare ourselves. The scene in Doki Doki is nothing more than straightforward technological trickery, but because of the context I had attached to each name, it became terrifying.
When I changed my name, being called out like that so blatantly was my biggest fear. Experiencing it for the first time gave me an intense scare, more than any scripted horror moment ever could. The developers clearly did not design the game with such a personally intense stab at the heart in mind. However, delivered by a deranged anime waifu, the moment was completely robbed of power. Doki Doki Literature Club scared me more than any game ever has, but in a way I think it also made me much less afraid of real life.
This incident repeats itself from time to time, when I get emails from websites I've long since stopped using, calling me the wrong name like a forgetful uncle. The spectre of my old name and old life lingering in the background, ready to swipe at me with its clammy, ghostly fingers. Whenever it does, I think of Doki Doki Literature Club and laugh. Horror is just comedy without the punchline, after all, except this time, I think the punchline might have been me.
In the run up to October 31, GamesRadar+ is exploring some of the most effective scares that video games have been able to deliver. Click through to GamesRadar's Halloween 2020 guide for more.