Contains spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club and discussion of self-harm, depression, anxiety, and suicide.

“Have you come across Doki Doki Literature Club yet?” my friend asked. “It’s sort of a dating sim.”

He had my attention at that. I’ve developed a (deserved) reputation for liking unusual visual novel games, especially dating sims. My friend said it was free on Steam; it sounded better by the second. I read the game’s summary, saw a few (non-spoiler) reviews talking about its subversive nature, but was undeterred. After all, Hatoful Boyfriend, a game I absolutely adore, is more than a little odd.

However, my friend also recommended I check the tags. What I found was the usual stuff (Romance, Visual Novel, Cute, etc). I wasn’t expecting some of the others: Psychological Horror, Violent, Gore. If nothing else, this made me want to play the game more. I love anything that takes a genre and pulls it apart, surprising me.

I installed the game and loaded it up. A warning screen appeared, stating that this wasn’t a game for children or those easily disturbed. I dived in, prepared for a perhaps Lovecraftian-horror experience.

Doki Doki Literature Club, Team Salvato, 2017

I wasn’t prepared.

You are a student at school, slowly introduced to four girls. Sayori is the first one you meet. She’s a childhood friend, forgetful and disorganised, but cheerful and caring. It’s a common trope in anime and manga—think Cardcaptor Sakura, for example. Through Sayori, you are invited to join an after-school Literature Club. Anyone well-versed with Japanese education, even if just through anime and manga, will be aware of extracurricular clubs and their social importance. They are presented as things students are expected to join almost automatically, so it feels natural to have a Literature Club as the setting for your romantic adventures.

You then meet some more tropes: Natsuki (cute-obsessed but almost aggressive), Yuri (bookish, shy, but passionate), and Monika, the club’s president. Monika is presented as the perfect student, as well as being beautiful and friendly.

There are few choices or actions by the player, as is the norm for visual novel games. You are cajoled into joining the club, then taking part in a poem activity; by choosing the “right” words that appeal to certain characters, the player can start to earn their favour and begin romancing the stereotype girl of their dreams.

So far, so familiar. It was at this point, however, that things started going off the rails. The further you progress, the stranger the poems become. Yuri leans towards the morbid; Natsuki’s poems hint at a secret pain; Monika’s poems are abstract and surreal, breaking the fourth wall; and Sayori’s poems chronicle a person trying to maintain a brave face whilst falling into despair.

Doki Doki Literature Club!, Dan Salvato, Team Salvato, 2017

I became increasingly unsettled as the bright visuals and cheery music contradicted the often dark subject matters. However, Sayori’s poems began to affect me most because I recognised the behaviour: I had been that person, wanting to pretend everything was okay whilst inside I vacillated between numbness and the deepest despair.

I forged ahead, but something was going very, very wrong. Monika began to make snide remarks about the other characters, commenting on their flaws with passive aggressive digs. Sayori’s behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic, even more forgetful and chaotic. She apologised, sorry for upsetting others but still trying to keep the mood light.

Finally, in one scene, Sayori confessed that she was experiencing depression. Didn’t I, the player, realise that was the reason she was never on time? It was because the weight of her depression meant she had difficulty getting herself out of bed in the morning.

I had to take a break at that point as I felt a tightness in my chest: I was reliving my last year at university.

University was a profound disappointment to me. I have never understood how other people think or work and so, in my first year, I had experienced some spectacular social rejections. After that, I retreated into myself, holding onto my academic ability as a lifebelt. However, the final year challenged me in ways I couldn’t cope with, undermining what little confidence I had, and I hid from my 10,000 word dissertation.

My days were spent in a cloud of cigarette smoke, cocooned in bed until perhaps 2:00 pm. I would cry, telling myself over and over again how pathetic I was. I hid this from my flatmate, trying to appease her but walking on eggshells as my disorganised behaviour increasingly irritated her.

The vicious cycle was only broken after my parents gave me a reality check and physically moved me back home so I could rest, recover and finish my study. I was diagnosed with clinical depression for the first time, though I knew I had experienced it for many years.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep playing Doki Doki Literature Club, but I loaded up the game again and forced myself to keep going. I wanted to know what was going to happen to Sayori, even though I suspected it wouldn’t end well.

Shortly afterwards, there is a moment where Sayori confesses her love to the player, but tells them that she doesn’t deserve love, that she, who is so worthless, should only exist to make others happy because that was all she was good for.

If my similarities to Sayori hadn’t been obvious to me before, here they were laid bare. “Oh,” I thought, a numb sensation snaking through my chest, “Hello, me.” I suddenly remembered the people I had fallen in love with from afar, saying nothing because I couldn’t possibly be worthy of this person’s affection. I would never be good enough for them, I had told myself.

Doki Doki Literature Club!, Dan Salvato, Team Salvato, 2017

I watched my words come out of Sayori’s mouth, lines of text on the screen, and I started to understand how my friends must have felt as they watched me disintegrate in my self-hatred.

The player can then either tell Sayori that they love her too, or that they do not. I tried to think of what the right decision was. I chose to say I loved her too. Sayori seemed unnerved, unsure what to say, but it resolved in what I thought was an optimistic way. I saved the file and moved on.

The scene cut to me waiting outside Sayori’s home the next school day, but she doesn’t arrive. I went to school and bumped into Monika. She showed me Sayori’s poem and asked if I have been keeping Sayori hanging around. A sudden dread filled my chest at those words. On top of this, Sayori’s poem implies that I can’t possibly love her, that she’ll “show” me.

I realised it was a suicide note.

The cheerful music cut out as I raced to Sayori’s home. Her bedroom was at first empty, but then she appeared. Sayori was hanging from the ceiling, dead, her eyes staring blankly at nothing. The screen glitched, the music warped, and the player character began to ramble in shock, asking with increasing panic what was going on.

I quit the screen and tried to go back to a previous save, one before the conversation with Sayori, but the files and character were corrupted. A new playthrough talks about Sayori as an annoyance, rather than a good friend. Sayori’s lines are now just gibberish, her image on the menu screen a pixelated mess. The game restarts and it appears Sayori has been deleted. Monika replaces Sayori in the role of inviting me to the club. All previous saves have been wiped.

Unlike other games, where I regularly save in case I fuck up, I couldn’t undo this. There were consequences, and I was left with that familiar sense of being out of control. Seeing Sayori erased from existence, in that moment I understood how my family and friends might have felt if things had gone differently for me, if I had been similarly overwhelmed by my depression and lack of self-worth. I couldn’t do a thing.

I began to feel the edges of a panic attack creeping into my mind.

I grounded myself, breathing in and out deeply until my vision focused again. Then I uninstalled the game faster than I had ever done anything in my life. That night, I was haunted by the scene of Sayori’s death and my failed choices.

It took me a long time to come back to playing the game through, but I had to finish it. I nearly quit again as Yuri’s obsessive personality amplified in Act 2, further darkening the game. Her self-harming, only hinted at in Act 1, is revealed as the game continues to glitch, jump scares and disturbing images flashing upon the screen. I thought of the times when, much younger, rages born out of anxiety had led to me punching walls and floors until my fists hurt.

The game had a bleak ending for me, though I have read there is an “almost happy” finale. It relies upon making certain decisions at certain points, but I didn’t want to. For me, getting the “right” ending was no longer the aim of this experience.

A hangover of my depressive episode at university is that I have always blamed myself for not dealing better with it, dismissing others when they sensibly pointed out that being depressed was not “an excuse,” but a valid reason for having struggled. I had shrugged this off; I should have coped better, I said, but instead I “indulged” myself and my foolish thoughts. I said that I had allowed myself to get in that situation and I was determined to never have that control wrested from me again. Yet there I was, only able to watch as the game began to play me, to force me to understand that I could not control everything nor should I.

Witnessing Sayori’s spiraling behaviour allowed me to do something for the first time in my life: accept that what had happened to me was not my fault. I have talked about my depression and anxiety with others before, but I’ve never truly felt I was “entitled” to feel that way. Seeing Sayori harshly judge herself, denigrating her very existence, made me realise I had been punishing myself for a long time. Not just that, but more: that I didn’t deserve this endless self-torment, a self-flagellation that had been going for nearly 15 years.

Sayori’s journey finally gave me permission to empathise with a past self I hadn’t forgiven for the simple sin of being human. I never want to play through Doki Doki Literature Club ever again, but I will always be grateful that it provided what I lacked when looking back at my past: acceptance and understanding.