“Can you hear me?”: A critical analysis of “Doki Doki Literature Club” (2017)

It goes without saying that language is important in “Doki Doki Literature Club!” The game is a visual novel, which means that a lot of the game requires players to click–and click and click–through boxes of written text. One prominent gameplay mechanic involves players selecting individual words, presumably prepping to write avant-garde poetry. It’s even in the title; the game is set in a literature club.

Poetry, literature, text and words. Language is the foundation of both “Doki Doki’s” story and gameplay. But the game is doing more with language than using it as a building block. It also makes a statement about language, about its purpose and value in defining us as human, and it does so with the character of Monika.

A quick exploration of “Doki Doki” fandom online reveals that Monika is one of the most popular club members. Perhaps this is unsurprising because, once you get past the memes and conspiracy theories, Monika is by far the most personable character–well, personable aside from acts of wanton digicide, but she had her reasons.

This has everything to do with the way the club members are all characterized. In the cases of Sayori, Yuri and Natsuki, the game uses stock visual novel character tropes to reveal depth and help us sympathize with them. Sayori is an overly cheerful optimist whose bright exterior hides a depressed interior; Yuri is initially aloof and chilly, but she grows passionate and intense; Natsuki’s blunt and harsh attitude guards her sensitive nature.

Combined with their cute anime designs, the characters’ personalities encourage players to get to know them, understand them and possibly help “fix” them–except one only has to watch Sayori’s story unfold to see that this isn’t that kind of game.

“Doki Doki” encourages us to sympathize with Monika in a much different way. For the first two acts, she never neatly conforms to a character type like the other club members, and she is largely a referee in the background while the game happens in the foreground.

But in the distinctive third act she winds up sitting across from the character. What does she do with her newfound focus? She talks. And talks. And talks. If you leave her “alive” long enough, Monika will talk indefinitely about a wide array of topics, as well as reflect on the present, have a concept of the future and perhaps reveal feelings of guilt about the past.

While this suggests that Monika is–or has been programmed to be–a deep thinker, it also indicates that she has been starving for someone to talk to. After all, before the player came along, who else was there? Not one of the other club members. They were never meant to think outside or be aware of a world beyond their personality types, and they don’t characterize themselves through meandering conversation. Monika has been waiting for someone like herself–someone informed and speculative–to come along.

This desire might go back to the purposes of language itself. Language has the practical benefits of helping us communicate and identifying us as members of a particular tribe. Language also has a psychological benefit; by naming objects or events, we gain a sense of understanding or control over them. Combine these benefits and another more existential or ontological benefit emerges. Language helps us affirm our humanity to others, and we use it to gauge the humanity of others as well.

We use language to determine other people’s knowledge and trustworthiness; to determine their identity, from what part of the world they come to individual quirks that identify a specific person; to determine their intelligence, since well spoken people are, for better or worse, generally thought to be smarter.

This is partly based on how our language is a representation of our intelligence and identity, both to ourselves and to others. We can’t help living inside our heads, and we observe and interpret reality through those heads. Language provides a way to catalog that reality for ourselves, as we can use language to categorize experiences, memories and information.

When we translate that inner dialogue to others, we can use spoken or written language. This is why writing is so personal. It’s not just words. It’s an expression of how smart we are, how much we have learned and how we see the world. It is also an expression of shared humanity–this is how I see the world, and I know I’m human, so if you’re human too, you probably see things in a somewhat similar way (ever notice how we often assume that people we like hold similar beliefs to us?).

Recognizing a fellow English speaker is an expression of a shared culture; recognizing a particular memory is an expression of a shared experience. In these cases, language provides a structure that bridges the gap between individuals. Any time we point language toward another human being in a reflective way, we are acknowledging their shared humanity while attempting to prove our own. That’s perhaps why the Turing Test relies on language–essentially the ability for a machine to use language in such a way that it appears to be human–to test machine intelligence.

The phrase “Can you hear me?” is used multiple times by Monika. She says it in text box to get the attention of the player rather than the player character; it’s the name of a .txt file, presumably written by Monika, that appears in the game’s directory in the second act; and it introduces the song that plays over the closing credits, the only truly spoken dialogue in the game. It is not enough that Monika can speak. She wants to be heard, she wants you to do the hearing, and what she wants you to hear is that she is basically human–unlike those other club members who were clearly not.

There is debate about whether there is something special about Monika’s character, but she is the only club member who seems to have some of the attributes we use to determine humanity: complexity of character, intelligence, a sense of destiny and agency. It’s one reason why it’s possible to reconsider Monika’s character and her horror movie actions. After all, if you suddenly found yourself the only truly human being in a world where you were surrounded by philosophical zombies–pesky beings whose humanity you could not verify and did not trust–what would you do to get close to the only other apparent human being and have a real conversation?

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