I really wanted to be able to report that HumaNature Studios’s Doki-Doki Universe is a thoughtful, cheerful, charming—if a bit weird—reflection on the concept of humanity. I wanted to be able to say that it offered nuanced explorations on themes such as bullying, insecurity, friendship, prejudice, and love all packaged in a cute, colorful, innocent, yet profound experience. I wanted to see the human condition in a new way with a refreshing new game.
The page for Doki-Doki Universe on the Playstation website describes it as “a charming interactive game that takes you on a journey to explore humanity and personal discovery.” Unfortunately, Doki-Doki Universe completely misses that mark. …Or it ironically and unexpectedly offers a completely bleak perspective of human beings, their inclinations, and their interactions. But I really don’t think that this is what it was going for. I think the game is totally unaware that its presentation of humanity is actually pretty dismal.
In Doki-Doki Universe, you take on the role of QT3, a robot whose child owner Lani left him and his companion Balloon on an isolated asteroid with the promise that she would soon return. Thirty-two years later, Alien Jeff arrives and informs QT3 that Lani won’t be returning—QT3’s model has been discontinued after having been found to lack humanity. But Jeff offers QT3 an opportunity: travel the universe and learn about humanity to avoid being scrapped. With that, QT3 embarks on a journey to understand humanity, help people, resolve conflicts, and discover himself in the process.
By extension, the game prompts players to do the same. You go from planet to planet, diffusing tense situations, investigating problems and offering aid, and negotiating between quarreling characters. Additionally, scattered across the universe are asteroids that provide personality tests so that you can supposedly learn about yourself and the way you approach certain situations (though honestly, I’m not entirely sure what the point of these was). The game provides similar information when you select dialogue options with NPCs, noting that you’re a “people person” or “intuitive” or “a thinker” based on your responses.
However, despite these premises, the game doesn’t really say much about humanity. Except, maybe, that humanity is absurd, arbitrary, self-centered, and often creepy. Nor does it ever prompt you to reflect on yourself or your actions. In fact, it offers very little reflection at all.
Doki-Doki Universe’s gameplay is structured as series of successive fetch-quests. When you arrive on a planet, there are characters with issues that demand immediate fixing. They want this object or that object, this problem solved with this phenomenon or this relationship. To respond to their demands, you walk in a straight line, lifting up a few scattered objects that have presents behind them. Usually these presents have whatever the NPCs of that planet want. You take the object back to the NPC that requested it and then instantly summon it for them. Their problem resolved, you go to the next ailing NPCs. Repeat process. Occasionally, you’re asked to pick from three dialogue choices in some conversation threads. But more often than not, these are transparent, superficial, or just plain silly, and offer little in the way of carefully thought-out approaches to solving the matter at hand.
The game wants you to think you’re going through a cute, humorous, and heart-warming process of relationship-building. Taking the time to understand a character and to help them out will make them like you more and will supposedly deepen your relationship and allow you to better make peace between conflicting characters. But what “understanding a character” ultimately amounts to is a superficial and materialistic list of likes and dislikes. NPC-A will like you more if you bow instead of blowing them a kiss. NPC-B likes rain but is scared of predatory animals, so summon some rain if you want her to like you, but be sure not to summon a saber-toothed tiger in her presence or else she’ll get upset. If you handle a situation poorly, just repeatedly summon whatever happens to be on a character’s “Likes” list until they’re friendly again.
What results is that you’re never really navigating through a process of understanding characters and their human problems and human interactions. You’re just engaging in a cycle of instant gratification. Yours and theirs.
Identifying a want—a pie, a scorpion, a house—I would search the planet or my existing inventory until I got it. I would bring it back to the insistent NPC. I’d be done. I’d move on. They got what they wanted and so did I: progress, saving QT3, finishing the game.
But you’re not really learning anything about humanity through this model. …Except that humans are selfish, self-serving, and only open for cooperation if you bring them exactly what they want right this minute.
And I think that these fetch-quests were supposed to inspire some creativity and prompt some imagining on my part. As if I was supposed to ask myself: What’s the funniest way I can deal with this? How will characters respond to these different, ridiculous items that I present to them? As if I was supposed to experiment. But usually I just took the path of least resistance, choosing not to lift up so many objects in search of presents or wade through the clunky, endless inventory of summonable objects that can be neither sorted nor searched. I’d snatch the first thing that matched and then I’d go.
Worse still is that there is very little, if any, connection between what NPCs insist you bring them and the lessons about humanity that you’re somehow supposed to glean from their problems. Often the scenarios were so outlandish, silly, bizarre, or downright disturbing that any underlying message was lost in the arbitrariness and absurdity of it all. And worse even still is that these little scenarios and lessons often fell into terrible stereotypes and prejudices all their own.
The worst offender that illustrates all this is the segment on the planet Afri. …Which, if you couldn’t guess by the name, is a stand-in for Africa. Yep.
On planet Afri are caricatures of black Africans living in a tribal village. As Philip Kollar describes in his review, Afri’s residents are “dark-skinned tribal people living in huts who are amazed by technology and think that it’s magic.” Upon your arrival, Alien Jeff stops by and tells you that your lesson here is going to be about jealousy. You quickly learn that a mother and son are being plagued by a lion that won’t leave the area around their home. They’re afraid the lion might attack them. With a little more investigating, you discover that their neighbor has allegedly transformed the father into a lion because he is jealous that the father has a family and he doesn’t.
To remedy this situation, the neighbor wants you to provide him with a family. First, he wants a daughter. You summon a little girl for him out of thin air. He tells the little girl that she’s now his daughter. Next, though, he wants a mother for his daughter, someone to be his wife. You summon a woman for him. So to move forward, you just make two women abruptly materialize and suddenly they’re his (on that note, this happens quite a bit in Doki-Doki Universe: characters wanting you to bring them companions that amount to possessions and that have no say in their suddenly taking on this role).
Having done all this, though, you find out that the neighbor actually isn’t responsible for turning the father of the other family into a lion. He’s just jealous and hadn’t denied responsibility up front so that you’d give him what he wanted. The real perpetrator is an invading leprechaun who just wanted to prank the family. Just because. To get him to transform the father back into a human, you have to summon Irish music to make the leprechaun homesick enough to want to go home, then provide him a vehicle to leave.
When Alien Jeff returns to fetch you, he asks you what you’ve learned. The responses amount to things like “when someone gets jealous people get turned into lions” or “leprechauns are pranksters.”
What was I supposed to learn about jealousy here? The neighbor’s jealousy was entirely disconnected from the conflict or its resolution, and the jerk got what he wanted in the end because I passed it over consequence-free…all because I wanted to continue in the game and “win” in the end.
In this situation—as in many others—the absurdity of QT3’s presence as an instantaneous-all-wish-granting robot amounts to a sort of divine intervention. The fact that you just give NPCs whatever they want whenever they want it removes any responsibility that they may have to their neighbors, friends, enemies, or companions. There’s never any real reflection on what it means to be insecure, what it means to trust your friends, what it means to be prejudiced or to experience prejudice, what it means to follow your dreams, what it means to cooperate, what empathy means when there’s a godlike robot around to summon a soulmate for you or banish meddlesome leprechauns or to play mediator because you pointedly refuse to go talk to others and actually try to work things out or express any sort of understanding of your fellow human beings—even after the situation gets resolved.
Even though the lesson constantly seemed to have been “if only X and Y had spoken to each other and had made an effort to communicate, none of this would have happened!” the game never offered it as an actual lesson. The lesson was only ever “good thing QT3 was here to give me this object I wanted, otherwise we would’ve never gotten this solved.” No character ever said “Let’s try to understand each other better, empathize, and communicate,” they said “Thanks QT3, I’m so glad I have this thing I wanted” and went about their business as normal.
In the end, you learn that the whole setup was a lie. QT3 wasn’t lacking in humanity or at risk of getting scrapped. Alien Jeff was the one lacking in humanity and at risk of being fired from his job. Jeff was using QT3 and his journey as a way to learn about humanity himself, to keep him from losing his job. And he’s learned so much about humanity that it looks like he’ll probably get promoted!
The lesson, then, is that you were being used the whole time. Here again we have the theme of humanity being self-centered and self-serving. Jeff manages to save his job by using you, the self-centered and self-motivated player. The NPCs had their conflicts resolved by using you. And you, player, were able to finish the game by meeting all of their desires.
There were a few times that Doki-Doki Universe came close to having something insightful to say with a quirky, upbeat solution—what, I suppose, it had intended throughout the entire game. On one planet, a group of humans arrived that spoke a different language. The native population couldn’t understand why they couldn’t communicate, and simply assumed that the visitors were stupid. QT3 aids by summoning a “translator parrot” and learns that the visiting humans are tourists that have lost a member of their group. Here, at least, the game comes close to a lesson that just because someone doesn’t speak the same language as you, they aren’t any less human.
But even overt and directly-spoken lessons like “Friendship means having faith in your friends” often fell flat. There was the general disconnect between problems, their causes, and their solutions. There were also constant inconsistencies between lessons and solutions. For instance, the lesson of one planet apparently(? from what I gathered from its bizarre setup in which animals had humans as pets) tried to deal with the issue of treating other human beings as property. That, however, was in spite of the fact that countless characters throughout the game wanted to be given pets (that were sentient and personified) or have human companions handed over to them.
To add to the problems with lack of empathy, there were also some uncomfortable situations involving physicality, when ways to solve situations were to hug, tickle, pick-up, or otherwise physically interact with characters without ever asking for their permission first or being invited to do so. The worst of these was when one character is panicking in fear. QT3 is asked to calm him down—but the only way to calm him (and thus move forward) is to hit him. (Another character prompts that he finds that the only way to deal with the other NPC’s fear is to “get tough”). These physical impositions were honestly pretty disturbing. A hug may seem sweet, caring, and harmless—but not when it’s totally uninvited, unsolicited, and no consent has been given to do so.
So while Doki-Doki Universe suggests on the surface a cheery, quirky experience of understanding humanity, reflecting on ourselves and our actions, and developing empathy, it’s rife with its own insensitivities, cruelties, and oversights. What I took away was a pessimistic view of humanity: humanity as selfish, self-serving, covetous, demanding. Humanity as want and fulfillment of wants. If that was the message, then the game totally succeeded in communicating it in a creepy and ironic fashion with its cuteness and its brightness and its frivolousness. If not…well, I found little to be hopeful about here.
(Also, Doki-Doki Universe had this weird preoccupation with poop and farting. Which was kind of strange, but I’m sure it’s possible to read into it and say something about human waste and wastefulness if we want to keep going with the “humanity is negative” analysis of the game. Especially since a couple of the planets dealt with excessive and careless waste, garbage deposits, etc. Anyway.)
((In other news, this is a pretty decent segue into my next post on Dark Souls II. Which I am still working on, I swear.))