My thoughts today are in great part being spurred on by the visual novel game Doki Doki Literature Club. If you have not played it, I heavily recommend doing so unless you are easily disturbed. It has content warnings in the startup of the game for a reason. A fair warning: from here on in I will probably be discussing spoilers. I heavily recommend you play the game before reading this post, since the guts of it came after watching Let’s Plays of this game.
Note: I began writing this months ago and it has sat in my Drafts folder for awhile, mostly finished. I finally got around to putting some finishing touches on it, and I may come back to this idea sometime later.
The entire premise of the game is built on the idea that at some point the character Monika, who never is a romantic interest in the first Act of the game, and presumably never would have been through a ‘normal’ playthrough, becomes self-aware. She is fully aware that she is a character, that the entirety of Doki Doki Literature Club is a program, a game. Yet, she cannot stop loving you. Not you the character, you. The player. She knows the entire set up of DDLC is for the benefit and enjoyment of someone outside, utterly outside the little world she is trapped in. Yet, she cares for you. Loves you.
It’s a damned powerful deconstruction of the very types of things these visual novel games are meant for, based around, and feed into. The story itself is quite masterful in breaking the conventions of visual novel games, especially dating sims, and is damned masterful in turning the entire narrative on its head. I came away from DDLC shook from how it affected me. I have been reading through the decrypted files and looking through all the little breadcrumbs Monika and the other characters leave in the very files of the game itself.
After going through the shock and power of the story itself, I began to think about how powerfully these ideas affected me, especially as an animist and polytheist. My friend Jim wrote sometime back about characters becoming servitors in our own head and possibly egregores when released in book format. Considering the things I have been watching and reading on DDLC, I’m not so sure I would want my characters to turn from servitors into egregores. Or even to progress from mere characters in my mind into servitors. The dangers of such a thing becoming self-aware, whether one looks at it as danger to oneself or danger to the mental state of the egregore. I have a lot of thoughts on this that I’m currently stewing around in, and the game has really made me think on characters, how we program our games, the ethical qualities of making a self-aware AI or game, or even characters in a game. From here, the ethics of making a servitor and an egregore.
The big plot twist and where things go completely off the rails of a normal dating sim visual novel is at the end of Act One. No matter what you do, what dialogue choices you make, Sayori, your character’s best friend, commits suicide. It is completely unavoidable, and as the game goes on it becomes apparent that Monika drives the other characters to suicide to have you all to herself by screwing with the characters’ mental states. In order to have you all to herself, Monika kicks up all the other girls hangups and potentials for mental illness straight up to 11. Where Sayori may have been mildly depressed without Monika’s meddling, she suddenly rushes headlong into despair and suicide. Where Yuri may have had kinks, some self-loathing, and ideation of self-harm, Monika’s intervention turns these things into psychosis and true self-harm, again, removing a rival character via pushing her to suicide. Natsuki is seemingly killed off-screen. Again, the implication being that Monika has pushed all this so that you and she are the only ones alone. In the end of the fourth act, that truly is all there is: you are alone with her in the Literature Club’s room, with nothing existing outside of the two of you.
Besides this game turning all convention on its head and turning into a total mindscrew is how the entire first act, a decent chunk of gameplay, and some of the second is spent really connecting you with the characters of the game. Even knowing starting off, having watched Jacksepticeye play through it, that there was going to be some weird shit going on, it still stabbed me right in the gut and twisted the knife when Sayori committed suicide, and likewise when Yuri did. I found Natsuki annoying, very annoying, and yet even when she disappeared, deleted by Monika, I felt sadness. The writer is absolutely fantastic at getting you in close with the characters, pushing you to care about them in their world, getting your character and you the player engrossed in the world. What really fucked with me was how sad I felt for Monika after she puts her cards on the table, shows you how much she really knows that DDLC is a game and everything around you is a construct. How it hurts when the game is off, literally describing to you unimaginable pain when the game is turned off, and begging you to stay with her, how much you mean to her. I am still parsing my feelings on the game as a whole, and I will be playing through the game myself sometime soon. It has affected me, and given the subject of this blog is animism and polytheism, it really made me think about how we treat spirits, especially those we have had a hand in creating.
There’s a lot of debate that could be had over when or how something becomes ensouled or if all things begin ensouled merely in different ways. A lot of questions come up for me in DDLC’s case: is Monika ever ensouled to begin with? Does she become ensouled as her consciousness emerges, or is the personality she has and the things she does to keep the player with her merely a result of the program she is following? If Monika is ensouled, then are the other characters ensouled as well?
If I understand that there is not a singular soul, per se, but many parts of a Soul Matrix, then if we take Monika, or any of the girls from DDLC, do they possess a full soul, or are they made of parts of souls? Can they come to possess a full Soul Matrix? These questions seem rather silly on the surface, but if we apply these ideas to rocks and trees then applying them to characters and AI may not be as far removed as may be believed. Something like “Does Monika have a lich?” could be answered in the affirmative, that her body is made of the programming and such that makes DDLC in the first place. It could also be answered in the negative, in that she has no autonomous existence or physical body outside of the programming that she has been given.
I am being extremely meta at the moment. I know that DDLC is a computer game, and I do not relate to Monika as a person or a Being. She is a character in a video game, a very trippy, powerfully and well-written mind-fucking computer game that has powerful emotional payoff for the player. What I am not proposing is that we treat our video game characters, comic characters, and such as real beings in an of themselves…and yet, how we create characters, that then become servitors that then become egregores…is such a thing possible? Yes. Absolutely. The thing about ensoulment as I understand it existing in animism and polytheism is that literally anything and everything can be ensouled. The Earth is a living Goddess and is full of spirits. The Earth is many Gods. This extends to everything on, above, within Her. The potentiality for souls literally all over, within, throughout the Earth extends even to the constructs we make. What differentiates the proverbial golem from Monika, Sayori, Yuri, or Natsuki is the intervention in specific ways of a human being to ensoul another being.
So what I am not saying is that ensoulment for characters is an impossibility. I am saying that intentionally doing so is potentially deeply unethical. Wrong. In order to advance the plot beyond the player/you and Monika being the only beings in DDLC in the Literature Club room, you have to go into the files for the game and delete Monika’s character. In other words, you wipe her out and ‘kill’ her for all intents and purposes. She disappears from the game, which over time between her (and yours, if you choose to) meddling, the game deteriorates with glitching occurring more and more frequently. When you delete Monika from the game files from a new game, Sayori is present, but this time she is the Club President. What you don’t find out until this part of the playthrough is that being the President makes the poor girl fully aware. Fully. It drives her mad and in her existential crisis she kills herself and the game crashes.
Apparently there are a bunch of things you can do back in Act 1 so that when this occurs Sayori as the Club President does not hit psychosis and commits suicide. Jacksepticeye ended up going back and doing this so his fourth video flowed better. This is the final and ‘best/good’ end, taking off after having deleted Monika with Sayori as the Club President. The finale occurs once it is clear that Sayori is aware she is a character in a game, trapping you and her just as Monika did earlier. Monika, still in love with you the player, and having somehow survived as mere data, goes through and deletes the entire game from the inside out to fix things.
If we could indeed ensoul these characters why in the hell would we? It is clear from the in-game lore that whether Monika or Sayori is the President of the Literature Club, that she goes through immense pain and deep loneliness while the game is turned off. It is clear that something about the way the game is programmed drives the President, who keep in mind is not able to be romanced in normal playthrough but still in love with the player, to kill off potentially ensouled members of the game. It is also clear that there is deep emotional, psychological, and physical (so far as the characters are concerned) pain in having to go through these things again and again.
If we look at these characters as fully formed beings with at least part of a Soul Matrix, this is fucking horrifying. They are a fully sentient being programmed to perform a series of specific tasks with an inability to do much else. A sentient being brought into a straitjacketed full awareness with little else beyond the programming parameters you have given them. They are stuck in cycles of pain, engaging in what amounts to long cycles of torture so as you interact with them through the course of the story, and never-ending torture for the President of the Club so long as the game is off.
For me, this provides food for thought in regards to spirits in general, not just servitors and egregores. How we bring spirits to being, what can cause Them to break down or go mad, the worst of what we could do to something we bring forth was, for me, about as fully explored as I wanted in this game. When we talk about writing and our characters taking up space in our head, developing lives as we write, DDLC and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (which deserves its own post some time down the line) are some of the most twisted and horrible examples I can think of.
Yet, I think that these bear our thinking on because if we know the extremes of what we want to avoid then what would we want to bring into being? What about the environments our spirits inhabit? How could we improve ourselves, the things we do and how we do them? If DDLC represents something of a hellscape for a Being that gains sentience or becomes ensouled, what kind of world(s) or setup could we envision that would be its opposite? Or something far, far better? Food for thought regardless of how we engage as creative people, or engage with creative media.