On Doki Doki Literature Club, science fiction, and self-awareness. An incredible volume of spoilers below, so if you have any intention of playing DDLC, play it before reading.
The standard (and pretty moldy) introduction to this topic, I’m told, is Star Trek, but fuck that, there’s tradition to uphold! As always, we can’t just talk about philosophy–we have to insult someone, and, here, “someone” is a distorted amalgamation of John Kessel and Orson Scott Card.
The background, which is in no way current, is as follows: Sixteen years ago, Kessel wrote an essay criticizing the moral thesis of Ender’s Game (published 35 years ago, for reference). As disclaimer, the essay is good, and, frankly, Ender’s Game is good. Moreover, discussion has almost certainly taken place on this topic since the essay’s initial publication (if the “2009 postscript” is any indication), and in Wittgensteinian fashion, I intend to interact with none of it. My concern here is not whether Kessel or Card are habitually wrong nor even whether they are prone to sloppy thinking. Rather, I want to talk about this one particular morass of sloppy thinking because it makes for a lovely journey through something completely different. We aren’t there yet. Patience.
So Kessel writes this essay, tearing into Card’s vision of morality (“moral and immoral standing is determined by intent rather than action”), provides citation after citation of evidence that Card’s setup is hopelessly contrived, and closes with “in the real world genocide is not committed by accident.” Heh. You gotta admit it’s funny to watch a guy shoot himself in the foot, even if you feel bad for him afterward. In case you missed it, the previously glossed-over Star Trek factoid is this: The advantage of the science fiction genre–arguably its primary literary purpose–is that it allows you to consider problems (moral, ethical, experiential) that may well exist but, cordoned off by safeguards in reality that technology has not yet stripped away, just don’t come up in normal, everyday life. So yeah, duh, genocide doesn’t happen by accident in the real world, but did you forget you were a sci-fi author or something?
The real criticism of Card’s setup, the one it looks like Kessel was trying to make, is that he didn’t let the setup breathe. You can’t just wave it all away–the ansible, the genius-breeding programs, the complete and utter control the establishment has over Ender’s life, the layers and layers of vicious abstraction needed to make interstellar war look like a computer game–with an “it don’t be like that.” You have to engage with the argument on its own terms. Here’s Ender, charged with genocide and two counts of manslaughter that the system literally built him for. By virtue of the facts that the system used him for this purpose, that he never intended to kill anyone, that he did not, in fact, know that he killed anyone, does he get to be “innocent”? The answer that Kessel does not dare provide (but which I think is correct, nonetheless): Yeah, I guess.
There’s a second question, of course, and I admit it’s a little suspicious Kessel doesn’t ask it: Ender’s innocent–we’ll even take it as a given. So, uh, what does it mean?
Some years ago, I wrote a novel. I never published it, it was sloppy, whatever, but my setup was similar. It was this: One man has been given credible information that the world is about to end in a magnified Malthusian crisis as human population continues to increase. The event horizon for this apocalypse is one year out. What do?
He considers his options. His evidence is convincing to him but subtle enough that anyone who hasn’t seen it firsthand won’t believe him–thus, convincing any major government (let alone all of them) in a year that there is even a threat is a non-starter. And, of course, this is to say nothing of getting them all to agree on a solution without any defection, tragedy of the commons, etc. That about kills the top-down approach, so what’s left? He settles reluctantly on a cull via mass-murder. He convinces a small set of colleagues to help him build a doomsday device that will wipe out 90% of human life on the planet, and with the effort nearly complete, he (Johnathan [sic], in the below quote) fulfills his obligation as a sci-fi protagonist and ruminates on the morality of it all:
“The problem, Doctor Romanov,” he said, “is that you want me to justify mass murder, and I can’t do that. You can’t justify mass murder.” I stared at him.
“Wait,” I said. “What?”
“The greater good necessitates mass murder, but it doesn’t justify it,” he replied, sitting back up in his chair. “You’re looking at the wrong costs.” I didn’t move, but I began glancing around the room, trying to make sense of the phrase.
“What do you mean by ‘wrong costs?’” I asked, finally.
“You’ve identified mass murder as the cost of the greater good,” Johnathan said. “But that’s not a cost and it can’t be justified. The cost is the part of your identity that mass murder will swallow up. The cost of the greater good, for you, is becoming evil.” I thought about it. I probably thought about it for much longer than an acceptable pause in conversation. Eventually I looked back to Johnathan.
“Becoming evil,” I said quietly. “Complete with punishment, I suppose?”
“Of course,” Mishibezeyu said, leaping onto the table. “Just imagine, you could do what most good people do and commit blazing suicide out of shame for the horrible things you’ve done.” The cat smiled. “When the time comes, you could give everything.”
“Or,” Johnathan said, tapping the table. He was obviously annoyed. “Or you could not do that. A better solution: You could live through it, shoulder the responsibility, bear the pain of guilt–”
“And give more than everything,” I said, still mulling over the notion.
-The Torment and Misery of Samuel Delacroix, Chapter 41
First, yes, my thesis is not Card’s. I’m gonna throw out there that if you commit genocide, you deserve social censure no matter how justified it was. Fittingly, Johnathan’s collaborators attempt to murder him when this is all said and done. But be that as it may, I’ll still take a joyride in Card’s boat because that’s what the setup deserves.
Is Card’s setup contrived? Hell yes, and so is mine (the contrivance is a plot point–we aren’t there yet). But the proper response to a question is not to deny its pretext. “It doesn’t work that way.” Yeah, but what if it did? What if you could be manipulated into committing genocide through no fault of your own? What does that imply? I’ll quickly jump back to Kessel’s side to agree that it certainly does NOT mean that people in general are good and bad independent of their actions, but I think the hangup might be on the question itself. I’ll substitute it with a different one, less direct but perhaps more illuminating: What happens next?
For Ender, this is vague penance by way of attempting to reseed the Formic race as well as lifelong devotion to the construction of a philosophical/religious framework meant to validate that what he did was Not Evil. Meanwhile, he peaces out to another solar system and disavows his identity as, predictably, people turn sour at the fact that he committed genocide. We can probably give Card a break here–this is well within the realm of reasonable consequence for what went down–but does it exonerate Ender? Haha, no. The Nazis who made it to Argentina are, of course, free to live out their lives in the haze of whatever cognitive framework helps them sleep at night, but should they ever reveal themselves, it seems fair for the system to scrub them, right? So too with Ender.
“So what does that imply?”
Can a person commit genocide and still be good? Kessel shoots back a categorical “no”; Card tries for a “yes”, and I see why. Whether Jesus of Nazareth might be responsible for the millions killed in his name–and all the other similar questions–demand answer in this age of increasing hostility to religion, but Card’s thought experiment, his overwrought and careful setup to make the sequence of events possible, offers no relief. Ender’s Game simply doesn’t answer the question.
Yes’s and no’s are rough, so let’s move onto something completely different. As the title might suggest, I’ve been playing Doki Doki Literature Club. In case the title did not suggest that to you and/or you have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about, Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) is, nominally, a visual novel. Since the setup here plays on your expectations, the expectations you “should” have are these: This is a narrative-focused game that will place the player in the shoes of a high school student attending an after-school literature club. Through limited and gimmicky mechanics for player input, you will be able to romantically pursue one or more of the other (female) characters in this literature club. The characters are tropey, and the aesthetic is clearly for people who like anime/manga/cutesy Japanese things.
“Sounds like trash.” An aggressive opinion, to be sure, but I won’t really disagree. The twist is that those are just the assumptions presumably intended by the branding. The setup is actually this: One of the four characters, Monika, is aware that she is in a dating simulation, is aware that there is no plotline in this game that gives her a happy ending, has access to the game files/source code, and is altogether not pleased with the whole affair. This, of course, is playing a little fast and loose with the fine line between being a deconstruction of the genre and a Bitch You Thought prank, but it’s very well written, and once you peel away the slough of what the game is pretending to be, it cuts pretty deep. The topics include fairly honest discussion of some of the heavier issues high schoolers go through (depression, self-harm, parental abuse, everybody’sgotbaggage, etc.), but the meat of it all isn’t a high-school slice-of-life quandary–it’s a sci-fi one, one that our rapidly increasing proximity to functional AI is making more apt every day: What happens when an artificial intelligence discovers its circumstances?
This is a broad question, so I’ll here clarify that this is not the [killer robot/singularity/end of human civilization as we know it] angle. That has its own questions, but they’re all pretty irrelevant here. Rather, this game is posing a more benign, much more individual question: What is it like to be a simulated being who knows they are a simulation?
Oh wait, I wrote this too:
“But what will happen to you when we actually open the second chamber?” Christophe asked. Benjamin raised an eyebrow, evidently confused.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“If all of this is virtual, like Espereza said it is,” Christophe said, “then you’re part of the program. Won’t you disappear when all of this ends?”
“I’m…part of the program?” Benjamin asked. The concept was obviously disturbing to him. “I..um. I don’t know. This is a program?” He looked around the circle. “Are you saying that I’m not real?”
-The Torment and Misery of Samuel Delacroix, Chapter 21
The obvious first sub-question is whether the simulated entity is a simulacrum or a “person”. In my own work, it’s solidly the latter, as the distinction between real and virtual space is vanishingly ill-defined and the simulations wind up escaping into the real world. DDLC has a rough time with this one, though, and it relies on goodwill from the player to interpret it kindly.
A lot of this is the game’s length: It’s very short, and while the questions it explores are good and the methods of exploration (glitching, psycho-horror, fucking with game files as a play mechanic) are innovative, the lack of weight makes it easy not to get invested. If you aren’t invested, you are more tempted to look at the overall work as a prank rather than a deconstruction, and you won’t pay as much attention to Monika’s dilemma–she isn’t a person; she’s an image of a person, pretending to be a broken simulation.
While this is “true”, it’s a little heartless, and besides, when was the last time you read a novel where the characters weren’t literally simulacra? “Why are we even discussing Jean Valjean? He isn’t a person, he’s just symbols on paper pretending to be a person.” Yeah, well you’re not invited to dinner anymore. This is the setup. You can’t walk away from the Ender’s Game argument yelling “it’s just a book, man!” You need to engage with the setup on its terms, which for DDLC means taking as given that Monika is a person.
DDLC does take the extra risk of having Monika address–indeed attempt to court–the player directly, but the wall is one-way. She can speak to you, but you can’t communicate with her, except via the options the game provides, which become meaningless as she dismantles the plot they were meant to support. Still, as we consider her dilemma, it becomes an interesting exercise to pick out the pieces that are her character and those that are artifice, which is to say, part of the setup implied by the deeply flawed simulation in which she is trapped.
For example, she is absolutely smitten with you, despite absolutely no knowledge or experience of who you are–is this part of the simulation? Is it inherent in her identity that she should be in love with this presence that she can just barely detect behind the player character? Or is she just a teenage girl who has caught a glimpse of a world far grander than her own limited horizons, who has latched onto the only identity with which she can associate that alternative? Frankly, both possibilities are pretty cursed, but this is a good jumping-off point. We have our setup–what happens next?
Well, first she drives the player character’s best friend to suicide to stop them from falling in love. Then she does the same to another potential love interest (albeit in a much more horrifying fashion) and finally just says “fuck it” and deletes all the rest of the game’s supporting infrastructure. All that’s left is her, staring into your eyes from a room suspended in space:
Her plan is apparently to “date” you, which seems to entail her staring out of the screen and you staring back in forever, except for the times when you really need to get up, in which case you can bring her along in a flash drive or something. Yeah, you can say it: That’s whacked. But is it killer-robot whacked or just depressed-teenage-girl whacked? I’m sure Baudrillard would like a word, but I’m gonna err toward the latter. Fucked up programming is only so interesting of a motivation–let’s look at it through a slightly different lens.
Monika admits in her “confession” that she wasn’t just motivated by jealousy (though it seems a pretty hard part to ignore). She had begun to see her world as grey and two-dimensional, had become hyper-aware of its shortcomings and limitations. Her friends weren’t “people”; they were just semi-reactive collections of dialogue meant to support the game’s plot, and, feeling completely and utterly alone, she was just about ready to kill herself before she realized the player character was a window to the outside. Remember, a priori, she’s a person. What does that mean?
Well, first, the friend thing, even by the logic of the game, is hogwash. Though Monika seems to be able to fuck with their memories and cognition, the other characters do, in fact, react to non-plot events. After the second character commits suicide, the last remaining member of the club walks in after 72 (in-game) hours to find you standing over her rotting body and, in a very human fashion, freaks the fuck out. Likewise, as Monika begins tweaking their personalities, the other girls certainly notice. They take note of the changes in their perception, they feel that something is wrong. Consider the numerous historical examples of how easy it is for a person under stress to discount the humanity of another human. I don’t feel like it’s a stretch to assume that they’re as real as she is. Likewise, “grey” and “two-dimensional” could be reference to the medium, but they fit “anhedonia associated with major depression” even better.
Before this gets too bizarre, no, I’m not saying we should look at this medically. I’m saying if you’re looking at a person’s behavior, put yourself in their shoes. Let’s say you, in some freak epiphany, get absolute, unequivocal confirmation that there is an outer world, and someone is looking in, watching you. “Sounds like schizophrenia.” Sounds like you need to go back and read the Ender’s Game section again. It doesn’t matter whether accidental genocide happens in the real world; it doesn’t matter whether you would actually be convinced that the world was going to end in a year; it doesn’t matter whether the nature and quantity of proof necessary to make you believe you live in a video game is implausible–that’s the setup. Should you become convinced of this, what might you feel?
Could it be depressing? Could the sudden smallness of your world affect what it means to you? What if you could access pieces of the code that governed your world, such that you could see bits and pieces, you could see the plan the simulation has for you? What if that plan was just that you should just be a set-piece, a spectator on the sidelines of life–except you’re not even there to see anything. It’s even worse than that. You’re just there to be seen. It isn’t entirely without upside: You can change the code, but no matter what you try, you can’t create with it. You can only make things worse. All in all, I think two outcomes are clear: I would expect you to be upset, and I would expect you to be very interested in the watcher.
I dearly wish DDLC had gone there more readily. Make no mistake: It went there, but the sheer brevity of the game prevented it from diving in, and dear god, there is a lot to dive into. As it was, it hinted at that depth, but mostly it was just sad. All of the characters are, ultimately, compelling examples of humanity that you get to engage with only barely. There is no resolution, there is no reparation; even with a lot of fiddling, the best you can really maneuver it all to is a vague impression of bittersweet. And for Monika, even the best ending involves near erasure from existence (you have to delete her character file from the game directory). Frankly, it fucked me up for days.
And after all of it, I have to wonder if I don’t already feel the same sort of hopelessness, living in a tiny corner of a vast reality as the Powers That Be watch with disinterest from above. I can see how the gears turn, driving the system forward, but I can’t really bend them to my will. I can chuck a wrench in, maybe fuck someone’s life up. I can certainly hurt myself, but I’m mostly just a spectator, and it’s not clear that it matters whether I watch.
“What’s the point when none of it is even real?” Monika asks, having destroyed her reality so that she can stare you down on the most equal terms her circumstances allow.
Sorry, girl. It’s lies all the way up.