Back in September of 2017, a game called Doki Doki Literature Club was released on PC. While the nature of the game is pretty commonly known at this point, it was presented as a colourful dating sim game. Join a school literature club, date some girls, don’t worry about that adult content warning at the start I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.
It has now been a few years since the game’s original release, and it was last week brought to consoles as Doki Doki Literature Club Plus, an updated port with a handful of extra content added, as well as a new content warning settings option.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about the execution of Content Warnings in Doki Doki Literature Club Plus. We’re going to talk about where the content warnings failed in their execution, how they could be improved, and what lessons they could learn from better examples they have referenced prior to release.
So, fair warning, this video will contain some necessary spoilers for Doki Doki Literature club. We will be talking about some of the more potentially upsetting moments in the game, while trying to keep some of the mystery intact for those looking to play the game for the first time.
DDLC is a horror game masquerading as a visual novel. It starts off very cutesy, but slowly gets more unsettling, until a major turning point where a character commits suicide, and it’s implied to be the player’s fault. From here the game warps into an unsettling fourth wall breaking experience, with frequent and often detailed character suicides shown.
The original game had a very generic warning screen when initially booted up that it wasn’t a game for children and contained graphic content, but the warning was very non specific. The exact nature of what was going to happen was used as a shock surprise, designed to catch the player off guard with potentially distressing content. A big part of the game’s success came from people playing it blind, deliberately, to record their reactions when the game takes its dark turn.
In the run up to the release of Doki Doki Literature Club Plus last week, a big deal was made by the development team, via a blog post, about the fact the console port would contain specific detailed content warnings. Specific reference was made to Ikenfell as inspiration, an indie game we covered very positively on this show last year, which suggested a high bar of quality was being aimed for with how these content warnings would be handled.
If you’d like a detailed breakdown of what content warnings are, check out our video on the topic linked in the video description, but in short content warnings offer players with personal trauma around specific topics to be warned about the existence of those topics, so they can choose to either not experience the piece of media at all, experience it at a time where they feel mentally prepared, or skip past that moment and continue with the piece of media.
If, like me, you have trauma about certain types of suicide attempt for example, you might not want to be caught off guard by highly detailed depictions of those events in your recreational media consumption without warning, as that happening could really emotionally effect you. Those are situations content warnings can be helpful for, they allow the player to mentally prepare before experiencing something they know will be upsetting.
So, I picked up Doki Doki Literature Club Plus on launch day to check out the execution of the game’s content warnings, but was ultimately left pretty disappointed.
So, at the start of the game, the player is now given an option to see spoiler based content warnings on some of the specific content found in Doki Doki Literature Club.
While described as spoilers, the warnings given here are minimal in number, lacking in detail, and by the game’s admission not an exhaustive list. The list favours being non specific, despite being behind an agreement that the player is okay with spoilers in order to know what is coming.
The warnings at the start of the game if you pick to see them are just four single words – Depression, Suicide, Self-Harm, and Abuse. This list covers a VERY small portion of what makes Doki Doki Literature Club an unsettling experience to play, and while covering the big plot points, they leave a lot of useful specifics unsaid.
This list actively avoids mentioning several content warnings which show up later in the game, and are very mild on spoiler content. For example, toward the end of the game there is a spoiler warning for vomit, which doesn’t show up in this list at the start, and it’s tough to imagine why you wouldn’t include that in the start list.
Players are then told to go into the settings if they want content warnings to appear in game before particularly distressing scenes, and are asked to click agree to acknowledge the game’s age rating and disturbing content.
So, with that out of the way, players get to the main menu, and can head to settings to turn on in-game content warnings. This menu setting is terribly designed, light text on a light background, and the content warnings toggle is very easy to miss entirely. I opened this menu several times, unable to find this setting, because it’s poorly signposted.
So, before we get into the actual execution of Doki Doki Plus’s content warnings, let me explain what I assumed this content warning setting would do during gameplay. The opening warning with its four words only seemed weirdly vague. I assumed that by opting for a dedicated content warnings mode I’d get more detailed information as and when it was relevant.
Given that the developers cited Ikenfell’s execution of content warnings, I expected that right before a traumatic moment a screen would come up, with more detailed contextual information about what was about to happen, and an option to skip it, or have it summarised instead. I expected the warnings to be prominent, hard to miss, and with lots of information to help players make informed choices.
What I got instead was at the start of a given scene, considerably before the distressing moments occurred, a single text box appeared on screen containing one of the aforementioned single word content warnings. No additional context, just “Depression” or “Suicide”.
The box is easy to accidentally skim past, as a single press of the “advance to the next text box” button will close it, and neither restarting the scene from an autosave or checking the text history allows for going back and checking the content warning if you missed it.
Let’s look at Ikenfell as a quick example of content warnings done correctly. In that game rather than just warning the player with the word “blood”, the game offers warnings like “Discussions of, but no depictions of, blood”. That additional context is vital for making an informed choice. When Doki Doki Plus tells me a scene contains “suicide”, that doesn’t tell me the method, or if it it will be presented as the player’s failure, or how much or little it will be actively shown or lingered on.
That said, there is a single content warning that showed me, as a player, the developers of Doki Doki Literature Club do clearly on some level understand how to do this right. Before the first major self harm depiction in the game, we get a content warning that is more than a single word. Self Harm (By Cutting), and Blood. It’s not much, but it gives proper context for what exactly will be shown, gives additional information not included in the original four content warnings, and takes place right before the moment in question. This is much closer to the right way to implement these warnings.
That said, it sucks seeing blood introduced here as a content warning, and then ignored for the rest of the game, where every subsequent blood instance in the game gets no warning attached. And it sucks seeing specificity of method in this content warning, but not for the suicide scene near the start. The inconsistency is infuriating to see in an advertised player safety focused feature.
Also, and this might be the thing about Doki Doki Literature Club Plus that annoyed me most in terms of content warnings, was that those four content warning topics given at the start of the game are not consistently given warnings. It sucks that their content warnings were not comprehensive on a wide range of topics, but promising content warnings for a tiny handful of topics, and not getting those topics done right, is a really fundamental failing to safeguard your players. If someone boots up the game, is told they can rely on content warnings for self harm while playing, let their guard down, and then get blindsided by a self harm depiction or detailed reference without a warning, that harm is a result of the developer telling them they were safe to let that guard down.
If a player is asked if they want to see a special poem, agrees to it because there are no content warnings for self harm and suicide, then sees the poem is a poem about suicide and self harm, smearked in blood from the aftermath of self harm, that’s not okay.
Additionally, there are a BUNCH of potential content warning triggers in Doki Doki Literature Club that are simply not addressed.
In the latter half of Doki Doki Literature Club, players can stumble upon randomly activated events, designed to catch the player off guard. Some of these random events pertain to obvious trigger warning content, but feature no content warnings before them. A clear example of this is the game’s first suicide scene gets a content warning, but as soon as 10 minutes later it is possible for a photograph of that same suicide scene to appear on the back wall of room, this time minus the content warning.
I spoke to Joanna Blackhart, the designer for Ikenfell’s content warnings, who was mentioned in the DDLC developers blog post, about how she felt about the situation. Here’s what she had to say.
“While I’m pleased @TeamSalvato has embraced Content Warnings overall, the Ikenfell team recognized the importance of getting it right the first time, to set a standard.”
“The unfortunate truth is, with CWs this uncommon in gaming right now, any unsuccessful attempts to include them will be looked upon by opponents as a reason to reject them.”
“With that in mind, I hope that @TeamSalvato will improve this system as quickly as possible. Not just for the benefit of DDLC+, but for any games going forward whose first interaction with content warnings will be this game.”
Mithost, a member of the development team on DDLC, did reach out to me, and offer a few statements on the launch state of accessibility, and content warnings, in Doki Doki Literature Club Plus
“On both points (the warnings and the access to them), I hear you and fully agree. We are currently working on an accessibility pass of the game (on all platforms) which will help fix both this and the text size issues that we weren’t able to get to for the initial launch.”
“I’m genuinely sorry for the state of this at launch. It’s something we learned of late (before text lock for loc) and I was unable to get much time for additional passes, but that doesn’t excuse them if they stay like this.”
“I’ve been combing through all discussion boards, social media, DMs, etc for examples of areas we’ve missed, and am hoping that the next pass includes each and every one of the ones I see in detail.”
We’ve since spoken a bit over DMs privately, and Mithost seems genuinely apologetic for the situation. I won’t delve into the specifics shared of how this happened, but Mithost assured me he hopes to see this fixed within a week or so of launch. As a result, it’s very possible this will have been updated by the time this video drops. If so, I will address that in a pinned comment on this video.
According to Mithost, the team are working on ways to implement content warnings for random event scenes, as well as looking into ways to let the player disable or reduce those events from their playthrough.
So yeah, Doki Doki Literature Club Plus sold itself with the promise one of its new features would be robust content warning support, and then failed to deliver on the promise. It’s a real shame, as I was so happy to see their introduction.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a game very much popularised by catching people off guard with distressing content and for many that unexpected twist is integral to what the game actually is. It would have been so easy for the developers to look at that success and decide that traumatic experiences were too inherent to the game to try and help. Seeing a game like this strive to include content warnings is a really positive step for the industry, even if the execution here was flawed.
When I’ve talked online about Doki Doki Literature Club Plus getting content warnings, one common response I see is people baffled why players in need of content warnings would even play the game in the first place. To give a little context, I myself have some pretty personal trauma around suicide, and certain media depictions can be very emotionally difficult for me to experience. But, I love fourth wall breaking meta narratives. Someone might be really into certain aspects of the plot, but have specific scenes they find difficult. Having one scene they may need a little warning for shouldn’t mean they can’t enjoy the rest of a deeply fascinating video game.
I’m glad to see Doki Doki Literature Club Plus is striving to be more accessible, even if it’s disappointing seeing how the initial attempt failed to live up to the inspirations that were cited prior to release.