Major spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club ahead
Very few games, movies, etc. manage to squeeze themselves into the I didn’t see that coming genre without breaking a few bones. It’s just the nature of horror. As an audience, we’ve all seen it before. The only truly great twist can be something so out of left field that it literally destroys the plot from the inside out. And what is even the point of amazing twist endings? Most good twists get spoiled by online reviews—which some people watch before they actually see the movie for some reason—and there’s really nothing new or cool about squeezing a twist into something. In fact, a lot of the time it just ruins the whole thing. And the twist is hardly ever what would actually make the story stand out. Until Dawn attempts a cliché teen movie twist, but it kind of falls apart because it’s just so fucking predictable. Wow, the guy we’ve literally never gotten the chance to play as is the killer? The guy directly related to one of the girls who died? The one who arranged this entire thing? Who would have thought???!!! The answer is everyone. Very few people were caught off guard by that twist. The game actually has a somewhat better twist with the fact that the entire storyline is an amalgamation of supernatural and non-supernatural horror tropes. Now that is a good twist. But the game gets a pass because it’s literally one huge cliché on top of smaller cliches. It’s not supposed to be taken one hundred percent seriously. Why else would it be almost entirely comprised of teen horror movie tropes? It’s not a bad game, but it’s definitely not the best example of a “good twist”.
Doki Doki Literature Club understands horror in a way most games and movies don’t. It understands build-up, it understands misdirection, and it understands how to structure a story in such a way that barely anyone sees the twist coming. Because the twist is actually three different twists nestled inside each other. How many people were spoiled on this game being a horror game? Probably most of them, including me. Most of us went into this game knowing it was going to be scary. But very few of us knew the exact way it was going to scare us. There are two or three hours of build-up before the huge reveal. And when the reveal happens, it’s instantly actually a misdirect. When the game starts to really break down, the warnings at the beginning suddenly make perfect sense. Most players assume that the big twist is (massive spoiler) Sayori’s depression. It makes sense. We—the players—were likely spoiled that the game was darker than it looked. So when the seemingly true nature of the game is revealed, it makes perfect sense. But then we get to Sayori’s death scene and the whole thing falls apart. This is a game about mental illness, but it’s also a meta fourth-wall-shattering game in which the actual game files are being manipulated by what we’re led to believe is an “outside” source. Sayori’s death feels like it’s the twist, yet it’s only one twist nestled inside of a larger one. And it takes two or three hours of build-up to get to this point. The structure is almost perfect. The game masquerades as a normal dating sim, nose-dives into something dark, and finally reveals itself to be a meta horror game controlled primarily by J̩̃U͗̑ST̩̠̤̲͙ ͓̞̎̏̆ͅM̠̗̊ͫO͕͔̠̹̳͒ͤ̐̍͛N̤̱̙I̳̙͈̟̘͇͊̊̊͆̓͋ͮͅK͚̝̟̖̖ͭ͂̈͐͛Aͨ́. Hardly anyone saw that twist coming. And that’s how a good twist should be: it needs to catch us off guard. Otherwise what’s the point? If we see it coming a mile away, it’s not a twist.
The Invitation does this slightly less well, but it’s still an amazing movie. Throughout the entire movie, the constricted and oppressive atmosphere leads us—the viewer—to think something is very wrong. But it’s not the “Get out of there you stupid dumbasses” brand of wrong that most horror movies try. It’s more of a “there is clearly something going on, but all signs point to the opposite and that contradiction makes the build-up even more tense” kind of wrong. What makes this twist so effective is that it doesn’t feel like a twist until it suddenly is one. We keep expecting some nefarious plot to be revealed, but every lead runs the main character straight into a brick wall. It starts to seem like the main character really is having a mental break of some kind and he might end up being the one who snaps. With nothing really happening up until the end, it makes the twist more jarring. And somehow the movie manages to squeeze in another twist right before the credits roll. Awesome movie. Highly recommended. Not the kind of movie you can watch more than once.
Most horror movies and games are shitty because they’re trying to do things that they really shouldn’t be trying to do. And it’s not just terrible predictable twists. The new Blair Witch horror game—the one with the dog—could have been so good if it wasn’t a Blair Witch game. The witch adds barely anything to the storyline. She’s just an explanation for the horrifying events that take place in the woods. It’s not a shitty horror game, but it probably would have been better if it had either been a game about the Blair Witch tormenting a guy or a game about a man suffering from PTSD. Squashing those two together sort of took away from the game’s overall story. It was like there were two distinct games with their own plots running in tandem with each other, one character-driven and the other driven by the name of a well-known horror creature.
Speaking of horror games, how many horror games have tried to use mental illness as a “plot point”? Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with having a game based around or dealing with mental illness. Neverending Nightmares is one of the best horror games out there. I’m talking about games where the “twist” is that the character was mentally ill all along. Games that use “the character is mentally ill” as a justification for anything and everything, especially if it’s a thin justification for the character committing murder. It’s a very cheap and unimaginative way to justify a character’s actions or surreal imagery, especially if the exact nature of the mental illness is kept vague on purpose because the writers didn’t bother doing any research on the topic. Night in the Woods has a more nuanced and balanced approach to mental illness. But of course Night in the Woods isn’t technically a horror game.
Okay, so why are horror games so crappy a lot of the time? Why is the horror genre in particular so susceptible to this bad writing? Honestly, if I had to guess, it’s most likely because the horror genre is very over-hyped and over-saturated. Creating a horror game is so ridiculously easy nowadays. Creating a good horror game is a unique challenge that many developers just aren’t up for. Why bother creating an actual good game if you can just download one of those pre-made environments, slap in some jump scares, and give an intentionally vague back story? Of course indie game development is—mostly–one of the best creations of the modern era and most of the good indie games are fantastic. But it’s a double-edged sword. For every amazing thought-provoking indie game that comes out, dozens of terrible games are created and released. Games trying to mimic the success of Five Nights at Freddy’s without understanding what made any of those iconic games good in the first place. It’s unfortunate, but it’s just how the horror genre is. Everyone remembers when horror movies became repetitive and every franchise started getting a thousand sequels and remakes. Horror lends itself to tropes more than any other genre. It’s all about what the audience finds scary. Whether it gets implemented in a unique way doesn’t always matter.