Schools are often depicted as safe, generally uneventful places, where students can make friends and hone their skills. A place to feel nostalgic for when it’s time to leave or simply a boring but essential experience one has to go through. But for many of us, things were more complicated. For many students, school requires master specific sets of skills, devising plans, and making difficult choices just to get through a single day. Perhaps this is what makes school so interesting settings for video games. Of course, school settings are still not as common in gaming as they are in books or anime, for instance, but with gaming communities becoming more and more diverse, many players are keen on games that go beyond epic adventures or traditional horror. Sometimes, what looks like our experience, but not quite, is the hardest and the scariest.
Developed by Team Salvato, Doki Doki Literature Club! begins like your typical dating sim game. ‘You’ are a presumably male high school student, persuaded by your childhood friend, Sayori, to join your school’s poetry club. The other club members are shy, mysterious Yuri, impulsive Natsuki, and Monika, the club president. The girls welcome you and share their goal for the club to make it into the official after-school club ranks.
The game initially involves long, but well-written conversations about literature. Your choices can alter your experience of everyday occurrences like trivial arguments between club members but – apart from a few disturbing hints here and there – everything seems mundane. For every game-day, the player can choose words to include in a poem to share with the club the next day. The four girls’ poems are also available to read. Some of them are very well-crafted and suggestive of their struggles and the stage of the game. As the school festival approaches, your poems and other choices can lead to bonding with one of the girls and spending more time with her.
But if you have heard anything at all about the game, you will be at the edge of your seat throughout this familiar, anime-style premise. Part of the enjoyment (if it can even be called that) stems from not knowing when things are going to change, and how, so it’s better to start playing with as little knowledge as possible (but don’t take the content warning too lightly).
One thing is certain: Doki Doki Literature Club! is not your typical dating sim, although it initially seems to be. The setting might be an after-school literature club, but important issues, from real-life ones, like mental health struggles, to meta ones, such us writing female characters with the sole purpose of being love interests, are discussed in unexpectedly insightful, but very creepy ways.
Dan Salvato, who wrote and developed this unique visual novel, has announced that, although we can’t expect a Doki Doki Season 2 for the time being, new content will be available at some point in 2020. For the game’s many fans, this is definitely something to look forward to.
In a very different style and type of game, the first season of Life is Strange – a 2015 video game developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix – takes the player to a very unsettling school experience. The main character, Max, is an introverted 18-year-old girl who has just moved back to her small hometown, Arcadia Bay, to complete her secondary education in prep school Blackwell Academy which has an elite Photography programme. The storyline contains many of the elements that compose many school dramas: a shy main character with quiet friends, including a nerdy best friend who possibly has a crush on her, the rebellious, troubled friend, the expected bullies, the mean student whose family practically owns the town and the principal who takes action when it’s too late.
But from the very first scene, true to the game’s title, strange things begin to happen. Max wakes up in the classroom of her favourite photography teacher, having had a horrible vision of a storm destroying Arcadia Bay. Soon after, Max discovers she has acquired a mysterious power: she has suddenly become able rewind time without anyone noticing, each time enacting the butterfly effect. This discovery deeply unsettles her, at the same time as it amazes her. At first, she only uses it for trivial things, such as going back in time to give a witty answer to a teacher’s question. But, as the school’s darker side is revealed, Max realises she can use her powers to do some good. Going back in time allows her to know things others don’t, correct mistakes, and sneak into places she shouldn’t, avoiding getting caught. Following Max’s school-life, the player can choose when to move back in time to help other students. Her powers make her feel strong enough to stand up to the school’s bullies, and, if she chooses to, become an everyday hero. But at what cost?
Though very different from Doki Doki in terms of style and storyline, Life is Strange is also full of dark twists. To an extent, player choices matter and even determine the result of important plot twists, but no matter what decisions who make, you will share something of Max’s school experience. From the very realistic dorm rooms, to late-night sneaking in places you shouldn’t, the game brings Blackwell Academy to life; along with its secrets. When serious issues arise that reflect real-life problems, such as cyberbullying, drugs and struggling with mental health, Max’s powers aren’t enough to fix things. This, along with the disappearance of a student that haunts the characters since episode 1, is where the real horror comes from.
So, what is it that make school-settings so suitable for subtle but impactful horror? Perhaps it’s their uncanny effect, the way they feel familiar, almost like home, but still scary when they are empty, after sunset. Real-life problems, such as bullying and struggling with mental health, which can affect one’s school experience, definitely play a role as well, perhaps even helping some players process their own reality. Of course, for some people, no video game will compare to the more mundane but very real issues of their own school experience (though, for me, one or two scenes came close). In the end, it comes down to great videogame writers using horror elements creatively to create twisted versions of school experiences, that still feel eerily real.
Both Doki Doki Literature Club! and Life is Strange are available on Steam, the former for free.