A casual romance with horror: A critical review of “Doki Doki Literature Club!”

We’ve been on something of an anime kick at Idols and Realities this summer, but we’ve always got it in the back of our pointy little heads that this was supposed to be the “year of the video game review.” Which is perhaps why, when I found myself playing “Doki Doki Literature Club!” (that’s the game’s exclamation mark, not mine), I thought that it would be a good subject for review–it also doesn’t hurt that we just ran up against the game’s one year anniversary.

To be honest, I never thought I’d be reviewing a visual novel or dating sim, let alone playing one, but “Doki Doki Literature Club!” is something I had been meaning to look at for a while. It is always presented as something that you can’t talk about without spoiling, and that’s true…to a certain extent. It’s not possible to discuss the game at any length without spoiling it conceptually, but it’s very possible to discuss the game without getting into its specifics.

Still, it is hard for potential players not to spoil the game conceptually for themselves, at least a little bit. There is this thing called the Internet. One of the main draws of the game is its mashup of high school romance and psychological horror, and it doesn’t take too much digging to learn that there is a metafictional component to it as well. That said, I spoiled the crap out of the game before I played it for myself, and while in one way I wish I hadn’t, in another way I’m glad I did. Of course, your mileage may vary, as they say.

“Doki Doki” puts you in the shoes of a faceless high school student who has joined the titular literature club not so much for its bookish charm as for its all female membership, including childhood crush Sayori, reserved Yuri, excitable Natsuki and alpha gal Monika. You talk to the girls and compose bad poetry in an effort at getting closer to one of them, but time will prove that none of them are quite who–or even what–they seem to be.

“Doki Doki” is a clever game before it’s a good game, but it’s not a bad game. It has nice art, a pleasant soundtrack and a relatively smart script, one which certainly provides grounds for discussion. Although it was seemingly designed to be considered from a media savvy or cultural angle, it’s possible to look at it from the vantage point of existentialism, determinism, feminism or probably a couple of other isms I’m not even thinking about.

The question I do not see addressed as often is whether or not “Doki Doki” is a horror game. Most people take it for granted that it is, but I say, not so fast. I said that in a way I wish I hadn’t utterly spoiled “Doki Doki” for myself, and that’s because it would have been fun to really approach it from a fairly fresh perspective. But I am still glad I did because I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have played it if I hadn’t. I have never finished a visual novel-esque game before in my life, and, had I not entered “Doki Doki” knowing what it was all about, it would not have been the first.

It is hard not to think of “Doki Doki” as a romantic visual novel or a dating sim (there is debate about how those should be divided, but I ain’t wading into those waters–besides, I don’t think it makes a different when discussing this). It uses those types of game’s mechanics. It takes a few hours to play, and you have to click through a lot of text boxes over those hours.

“Doki Doki” does examine genres like visual novels and dating sims through a psychological horror lens, and there is a lot of messed up stuff in those types of games to examine without having to toss in distorted audio and random gore effects. But that means that, while it’s observing the horrific elements in those genres, it has to start from a base of those genres. Perhaps that’s why the horror itself is somewhat clumsily done. It’s a surprisingly slow burn up to the first genuine shock, but after that, the game feels like it has to make up for lost time, and it starts chucking scary gameplay quirks at you like clockwork, which can result in a lopsided, almost cartoonish, experience.

Oddly enough, if you were to remove the game’s more garish efforts, you would probably be left with something more in line with psychological horror because its pacing would be improved and it would lean more heavily on existential dread than jump scares. Most of “Doki Doki’s” best moments are related to said existential dread, and I was actually quite drawn into the erstwhile antagonist and meta-narrative by the game’s climax. In a way, it reminded me of my encounter with Andrew Ryan in “Bioshock.” In both cases, although I knew I had to kill a character to continue, I found myself wishing there was another way.

I’m happy I played “Doki Doki,” and I’m still thinking about its themes long after finishing the game. However, while I will happily recommend the game to anyone interested–it is free, by the way–I personally feel no rush to replay it.

Keep in mind, I don’t make that “Bioshock” comparison lightly. Both games bring horror elements into another genre of video gaming–romance games and first person shooters, and hopefully I don’t have to point out which is which–and both games wind up becoming philosophical commentary on gaming itself, if not reality as a whole. I just happen to be a bigger fan of shooters.

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A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 11 “Infornography”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

Infornography, the title of “Lain’s” 11th episode, is an interesting word to dissect because there isn’t exactly a consensus on what it means. It seems to be a combination of “information” and “pornography,” and it refers to an addiction to information. However, here the meaning seems to be an overload of information.

The entire first half of the episode is a dump of information, which takes several forms. Sometimes it is clips from previous episodes, which are played straight or edited together and filtered through unusual effects to give them an old, distant or distorted appearance. Sometimes it is words, phrases or slogans that appear on screen or are read by disembodied voices. Information comes in less direct forms as well. An opening montage that is apparently interrupted by Lain adjusting connections to the Wired, or a jarring jazz score instead of the usual soundtrack, suggest that, once again, things will be different this episode.

An interesting question is “when” is all this going on? If it is happening in the universe of the show, then it is presumably something Lain sees after her encounter with the self-proclaimed god Eiri, who says to her later in the episode: “It’s dangerous to subject yourself to that much information all at once.” Is this what the world looks like for Lain in her quest to tear down the border between the real world and the Wired? If so, it is a confusing, disenfranchising, even identity destroying place. Given “Lain’s” interest in equating digital constructs with psychological elements of identity, the impact of this flood of information–physical and emotional exhaustion, disorientation and disassociation–appears chillingly like an abstract form of psychological assault.

However, if the episode isn’t happening any time within itself (“Present day, present time–hahaha!”), then it’s a rather extensive and self-aware recap, which would make it one of the strangest examples of breaking the fourth wall ever engaged in by a television show.

All of this is preceded by a phrase that quickly flashes on screen: “Nothing as ambiguous as memory.” Lain is ridding herself of human memory in favor of digital information.

This could be understood within the context of the show’s frequent metaphor that the body is a biological machine and the brain is software, which is brought up later in this episode. Despite the comparison, human memory is not as clean or clear as digital information. Digital information is made of unflinching zeros and ones, and human memory is plastic, influenced by distance, experience and emotion as much as the actual event being remembered, which suggests that memory is ambiguous at best.

However, this episode suggests a dump of pure information has its own problems. If anything, the structure of the recap appears to be as influenced by emotion as any kind of expectation of clarity. It begins with images of Chisa and her suicide, which you would expect if the info dump were guided by the show’s chronology, but it ends with images of Alice, suggesting that the structure is based on subjects that are dear to Lain.

Like a gun or a drug, information–knowledge–is a tool. But tools can be utilized two ways. They can either be used or withheld, and Lain has apparently decided that the best way for her to proceed is to withhold the information that she ever existed from the people she can influence. However, she cannot withhold information from Alice, who seems to remember Lain despite her efforts–Alice seems to remember the old Lain when she is completely replaced in the “real” world with the less savory version of herself. “Lain, you smiled,” Alice says, and it’s far from a good observation.

The true nature of this Lain depends on one’s interpretation of the series–whether she’s an evil technological construct, a shiftless Freudian id, a Jungian shadow self or something else altogether (presumably involving aliens). Perhaps, in the way one’s identity can run amok online, the series is challenging us to consider that the psychological interpretation is not so different from the digital one.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 10 “Love”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

The problem with trying that approach with this episode is that it’s called “love,” and human beings have been trying to define love for the last 14,000 years or so. How is “Lain,” let alone this blog, going to handle that in 24 minutes? Perhaps that’s the statement being made by this episode, since the opening sequence contains no narration whatsoever. It’s as if there’s nothing it can say about the subject–at least not in a literal, vulgar way.

Accordingly, love seems to inhabit the episode in small, odd ways rather than simply or blatantly be defined by it. The characters of Lain and Eiri read each other’s dialogue in their first conversation, which has the effect of unsettling viewers. It also associates Lain rather drastically with Eiri, which associates her with (self-proclaimed) divinity and with an identity that is measured in multiples rather than in an individual. But it’s also perhaps a grotesque parody of lovers who are so in tune they can finish each other’s sentences.

Further, when Lain begins to see the results of erasing herself from the memory of her peers–and thereby ceasing to exist–she experiences the reverse of the old adage: “if you love something, set it free.” Rather than freeing something else, Lain freed herself from those she loved. And yet, when she does not feel love in return, she responds like a betrayed lover. “Why is this happening?” she asks a classroom that no longer feels her presence. “Was it something I did? I always tried to keep something like this from happening.”

Lain returns to her house and finds it empty, in a state of disarray, and yet some things are the same. She feels the presence of her sister, but she cannot reach her. She casts the same bloody shadow–the one she cast when she had a physical body. If Lain was always in the Wired, then she was always connected. Her “father” posits that if Lain connects to the Wired, she will be loved. But being loved is more than being connected to someone–it’s being with someone.

Her father might be closer to a definition of love when he says: “I wasn’t given permission to say goodbye, but I loved you.” Love is, to paraphrase John le Carre, whatever you can still say goodbye to. If you can risk the pain of goodbye but still find it worthwhile, and if you can say goodbye and hear it in return, then you’ve made more than a mere connection with someone else.

In one of the “Lain’s” most jarring sequences, a montage of members of the conspiratorial cult the Knights, having been exposed to the real world by Lain, are killed or commit suicide. A devotion unto death is not the worst definition of love; the Gospel of John reports that Jesus, who it is not unfair to call an expert on love, said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

It goes both ways. The men in black are just as devoted to their cause, and they’re willing to kill for it (from Jesus to Alfred Hitchcock, this perhaps recalls Pat Hitchcock’s line from “Strangers on a Train”: “I still think it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he’d kill for you”).

The show takes one more stab at a definition. After informing Lain about the situation with the Knights, one of the Men in Black turns and faces her, even removing his eyepiece, suggesting he is entering a state of nakedness or vulnerability. “We still haven’t figured out what you are,” he says to Lain. “But I love you.” If Lain really is a god, then this might be the show’s most daring definition of divinity: God is what you cannot help but love.

After offering so many definitions, or at least locations, of love, “Lain” has one final thought for us. “Love sure is a strange emotion, isn’t it?” the same MIB asks before turning away and leaving. Again, it’s as if the show is admitting there is no easy definition, leaving it up to us to figure out.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode nine “Protocol”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

The ninth episode of “Lain” is entitled “Protocol,” a word that usually brings to mind a set of rules, especially those that govern data in an electronic communication system, which seems wholly appropriate given Lain’s electronic leanings. And yet, after the narration, this episode breaks protocol. This is the infamous info dump episode, where all characters are seemingly tossed out the door in favor of documentary style explanations of conspiracy theories.

Beginning with some grainy footage of a desert, a new narrator casually starts detailing the Roswell, N.M., UFO landing. The identity of the UFO has never been proven, the narrator assures us: “Conjecture has become fact, and rumor has become history.” Another definition for rumor, perhaps, but also perhaps a suggestion for caution when considering “Lain.”

Those images cut to the ubiquitous phone lines, then to Lain herself depressed and in her room, alone yet surrounded by the Max Fleischer-esque steaming and green tubed machines that keep her connected to the Wired. The association with the previous images might suggest that Lain is a kind of alien invader–a point further reinforced when Lain sees an alien at her door, the same alien that has been seen earlier in the series and the same alien that might very well be Lain herself.

This all before we return to the narrative of Lain in the Wired, grilling a group of beings who seem to be purely sensual–their bodies are static, television white noise, except for a pair of eyes on one, a pair of ears on another, an arm on a third–which stand in stark contrast to the purely informational dump we are shuffled back into a moment later.

This breaking of narrative rank is not senseless. The entire episode is not a study of protocol, of rules, but rather, it’s a subversion of it. Note that, as fascinating as these sudden dumps of random information are, they are conspiracy theories at best. Theorizing on conspiracy is a breaking of protocol–it’s a breaking down of the rules of society, the background that keeps us all culturally in check. Conspiracy theorists, for better or for worse, are societal rebels.

The episode continues to break its narrative protocol, bouncing back and forth between Lain’s experiences in her room, in the Wired and the disconnected realm of conspiracy documentary. And yet, the conspiracy dump seems to tie to the main narrative–alien technology, courtesy of Vannevar Bush, along with John C. Lily and his sensory deprivation tanks, leads us toward the creation of the Wired. Even the narrative order is skewed. Mystically speaking, we’ve been here before.

Taro, Lain’s child informer from the club Cyberia, gets his date with Lain in what is certainly a break from the protocol of romantic norms. Taro says he doesn’t want to go out with her; he wants the other, wilder, Lain. “We’re the same,” Lain responds. “I’m me. I’m the only me.” And yet, as she says it, the top of her head is cut off and we see her huge, black eyes. The kids in Cyberia recoil in response. This is an unsettling start to a date.

Ultimately, the date is an opportunity for Lain to grill Taro about microchips and for Taro to see Lain’s hacker lair and comment on truth. The Knights, he assures her, are only interested in ultimate truth, the truth that has power because it is true and just. Then, he kisses her. “Hey, this is a date, you know?” he tells her. “I’m a guy. I had to do that.” In other words, he’s just following the rules.

Next, the rules of time and memory are broken. Lain suddenly remembers being shoved into her house, her family being no more than actors standing out from an overbearing white background. Even the rules of individual identity are in question, as she sees this happen to herself and quizzes herself about it.

At the end of the episode, we finally see the psychic form of Masami Eiri, the Tachibana labs employee who killed himself and assumed godhead in the Wired. Before Eiri appears, Lain suggests that there is only one truth: God. This bookends the narration from the beginning of the episode: “If you want to be free of suffering, you should believe in God. Whether or not you believe in Him, God is always by your side.” Perhaps the definition of God in “Lain” is the one who follows the rules even when you don’t.

There is another definition for the word protocol, an older definition than digitized regulations: the first draft of a document. When Lain encounters the sensual beings on the Wired, creatures that are obsessed with record, one states: “Since the moment of the Wired’s creation, you have always been here.” Is Lain the first draft of the Wired? If so, she is the first draft of an effort to link all of humanity into a communicative whole. The information dumps of this episode, if nothing else, indicate how that could be a conscious raising experience or an oppressive, confusing weapon.