I tried to write a concise review of this game, but I found it impossible to discuss all its aspects I wanted to hit upon without setting out the proper context, so I dumped that review in the bin and started over. This second take is by far the longest review I’ve ever written. How long is that? So long that this review has a preface. I promise there’s a point to all of it, though.
Well, I guess you can be the judge of that.
Doki Doki Literature Club! is a free English-language visual novel for PC, one that’s been sitting on my hard drive for quite a while now. I kept telling myself I’d take it on eventually, and so I did over an evening after work, and well into the night.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a meaningful review of this game without getting into spoilers, but I don’t think I can. What I can say without spoiling the game (because the game itself gives the player a warning about this upon running for the first time) is that while Doki Doki Literature Club! looks like your usual cutesy dating sim VN, it deals with some very heavy subjects. The cheerful theme and the colorful opening screen featuring the protagonist’s schoolmates wearing the world’s shortiest skirts* don’t tell the whole story behind this game.
When I first checked it out, I didn’t think much of that fact. I played a few VNs years ago like Yume Miru Kusuri that touched on similar issues. But Doki Doki is different. When the protagonist is pressured into joining his high school’s literature club by his ditzy childhood friend Sayori and meets her clubmates – the painfully reserved Yuri, the ultra-tsundere Natsuki, and the charismatic club president Monika – you might expect the usual choose-your-own-adventure style quest to win one of these girls’ hearts, but that’s not quite what you’ll get.
Massive honking spoilers regarding the game’s plot, characters, and endings follow under the below screenshot. If you haven’t played the game yet and don’t want to read any further, the short, spoiler-free version of my review ends with this: if you’re okay dealing with talk about depression, anxiety, and related issues, and you don’t mind some disturbing images, you should absolutely play Doki Doki Literature Club! I promise it’s not just another dating sim. Also, it’s free to download. Also, it’s not an h-game, so no worries if you’re creeped out by those kinds of scenes, but it’s still not really for kids.
I didn’t think a PC game could throw me for a loop again after I finished OneShot. I already had some idea of the reputation Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC from now on, because I’m not planning to wear out my ctrl and v keys today) has as a horror game hidden in the shell of a generic dating sim, so I thought I was ready for anything. But this game exceeded my expectations in that regard. The way the game starts contrasts so greatly with where the game arrives at the end of the first playthrough that the effect has to be astounding if you weren’t expecting a twist at all.
So what makes DDLC so special? If you’ve read this far, you’ve either played it already or don’t care about getting spoiled on it, so I’ll spill it here. DDLC does indeed start out like your average dating sim visual novel set in a Japanese high school. The player character is an average student who likes anime and video games, and every other character in the game is a cute girl who’s ready to fall madly in love with him despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about him. The only thing that seems to be different about DDLC at first is the poetry minigame that separates each in-game day in which you have to go home and pick twenty words to dump into a poem to share with the club the next day. Each of your three romantic targets (the short pink-haired Natsuki, the tall dark mysterious Yuri, and the chirpy, spaced-out Sayori – notice Monika isn’t an option; stick a pin in that fact because it’s important) has certain words she likes according to her personality, and your word choice determines which of them you get closer to. Upon returning to the clubroom the next day, you share your poem with each of your clubmates, who usually shares her own poem in turn.
Developer Team Salvato could have just left it at that, creating a nice little free romance VN for people to download on Steam and itch.io. The characters are cute, the art is well done, and the writing is pretty good for your standard dating sim, especially for a free one. Hell, the writer had to actually compose several poems written by each girl that fit her personality, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. The only poem I’ve ever written was an obscene scrawl about being drunk and broke and horny that’s only fit for publication on the wall of a bathroom stall.
But no. Instead of building a normal dating sim on this solid base, the creators chose to take that tried and true format apart and reassemble it into a game about crippling anxiety, suicidal depression, emotional abuse, and existential angst. But did they pull it off?
It’s not easy to write about the above-listed subjects in a realistic and tasteful way. It’s even more difficult to write a piece of meta-fiction that weaves all these themes together. Despite the initial cheery atmosphere of the literature club, each of these girls has some serious emotional baggage she’s dealing with. Natsuki is raised by a single father who largely neglects her. Yuri suffers from severe social anxiety to the point that she can barely hold a conversation if it’s not about literature, and it’s implied that she cuts herself. Sayori hides a case of chronic depression behind an outwardly sunny disposition. And Monika – well, Monika’s issue isn’t obvious at first, but it’s the one that causes the game to completely run off the rails in the end.
In a normal dating sim VN, the player, represented by the protagonist, pursues the girl he likes the best. If all goes well (meaning he makes the right decisions when presented with branching dialogue and action paths) he’ll typically get a few increasingly intimate scenes with the girl and end up confessing his love to her or vice versa. A nice, clean romance. DDLC makes the player think that’s the path he’s headed down, and then it closes that path off completely, forcing him to take a detour into mind-bending uncanny valley horror land. This shift in tone is driven partly by the psychological issues the other characters in the game are dealing with, in particular Sayori’s depression.
As the first act of the game goes on, Sayori starts to withdraw from the club’s activities to the point that even the dense as hell protagonist notices there’s something going on with her. One day after telling him that she’s got depression, Sayori catches the protagonist in an awkward romantic-looking situation with either Yuri or Natsuki, then once she’s alone with him, she confesses her love to him as she breaks down sobbing. You have the choice of either returning her love or calling her “your dearest friend” (that has to hurt) but either way, Sayori ends up hanging herself the next morning in her room. When the protagonist stumbles upon her corpse hanging from the ceiling after checking in on her, he starts to lose his mind, a black screen with the word “END” pops up and the player is kicked back to the main menu, where Sayori seems to have been completely written over.
The natural thing to do in a situation like this is reload your last save. But guess what? The game has god damn deleted all your saves. All you can do at this point is click on the gibberish option at the top of the menu, which starts a new game, only with Sayori curiously absent. This time around, Monika herself invites the protagonist to join her literature club, and you join Yuri and Natsuki as its newest member. Sayori isn’t even mentioned, as if she’s been erased from existence.
This second act of DDLC is where things get really weird and broken. Yuri and Natsuki start to suffer from bizarre graphical glitches, and their mutual rivalry that was on display in the first playthrough heats up to the point of vicious insults and R-rated name-calling. Monika seems to be the only level-headed member of the club this this time around. You might expect that she’s taken Sayori’s place as an option for romantic pursuit, but no, she’s still just a side character. However, Monika starts to do some weird things too, dropping subtle hints that she somehow knows exactly what’s going on.
The player still ostensibly has the option of romancing Yuri or Natsuki, but this time Yuri reveals her true form as a yandere who is obsessed with the protagonist, using her newly discovered yandere powers to drag him away from Natsuki and Monika at every opportunity. And if you know anything about the yandere archetype, you know that you do not want to be the target of a yandere’s affections.
However, Monika isn’t having it. As Yuri and Natsuki fight over the protagonist, Monika tries pulling rank on them to get you to spend the weekend with her to work on the big festival project the club was planning both in this and the first act. Yuri’s yandere powers overcome Monika’s efforts once again, but not for long – after confessing her love for the protagonist, Yuri inexplicably pulls out a kitchen knife and stabs herself in the heart. The player is then stuck in the classroom all weekend with Yuri’s corpse, the passage of time marked by the sun setting and rising through the windows. For some reason, the protagonist doesn’t get a chance to respond to any of this. You’re still viewing the action through his eyes, but he’s now effectively absent for some reason.
On Monday morning, Natsuki and Monika return to school. Natsuki acts like anyone else would upon seeing the two day-old corpse of her classmate – she vomits and runs out of the classroom in tears. Monika, however, just laughs and apologizes to you for having to spend a boring weekend at school thanks to the “broken script”. She then promises to fix the problem, opens a console at the corner of the screen, and deletes two files named yuri.chr and natsuki.chr. She then decides to go all the way and deletes the rest of the world outside of the classroom.
At this point, it’s obvious what’s going on. Monika is a self-aware game character – she’s known since the beginning of the game that she exists inside a dating sim and that nothing around her is real. That even includes the protagonist, who is now definitely no longer around, or at least not around enough to say or think anything. Monika is now talking directly to you, the player. She confesses that she was the one screwing with the game. She figured out how to alter the game files to aggravate Natsuki’s and Yuri’s character quirks in an attempt to make them more unlikable. She even manipulated Sayori into killing herself when she saw her getting too close to the protagonist, and hence to the player. Monika then expresses her love for you, the player, on the other side of the screen, and says that the two of you are now together forever. Once again, it’s pointless to open the load menu – all the saves have been deleted, and restarting the game just brings up Monika again, who asks you why everything just went dark for a minute (echoes of OneShot there, though in a very different context.)
This might seem like the end of the game, but the astute player will likely be wondering what happens if Monika’s character file is deleted as well. That’s the key to getting to the actual ending of the game, in which Monika’s file is destroyed but she still manages to exist long enough to feel bad for what she’s done and to restore the game and all its characters except for her. This third act (or fourth act, if you want to count Monika’s void as the third act) is very short – basically a lead-in to the ending. DDLC will end in one of two ways depending upon whether you managed to see every special event in the game before it throws you into the “broken” second act of the game. In both cases, Sayori has taken Monika’s place as club president, and in the best ending she thanks you, the player, for being there for all the girls when they needed you most before ending the game – this time for good.
I like the concept of DDLC. I’m not sure anyone’s created a fake-out dating sim turned horror game before this one, or at least one that’s been written in or translated into English. There have been visual novels that use the player’s perspective as a plot point to throw the player for a loop, but I haven’t played one that involves the player himself as a character quite like DDLC does.
More importantly, the creators put together DDLC in a clever way, dropping hints in the first act that something isn’t quite right and building upon that feeling in the second act, culminating in Monika’s deletion of the rest of the game world. Monika has a few strange lines of dialogue in the first act that break the fourth wall (at one point, for example, she says that a joke Natsuki made based on a Japanese language pun using Monika’s name** “doesn’t work in translation”, then everyone looks puzzled for a second before the dialogue continues.) Monika’s poems also make references to her self-awareness as a game character, though these are naturally a lot more obvious during a second playthrough. In fact, upon a second playthrough you’ll probably notice a lot of weird things that you passed over the first time around, like the fact that the protagonist doesn’t respond to Monika’s “Writing Tip of the Day” segment at the end of each day, nor to any of the weird fourth-wall breaking stuff going on in either the first or the second acts. And the fact that in every one of her portraits, Monika is the only character who is always looking directly at the player. This is the sort of thing that you just don’t notice when you’re playing a VN, and the game uses that fact to set the player up for the big twist at the end of the second act.
The second act does contain a few jumpscare-esque moments, but they’re not done in the stupid kind of way you might expect. The best one involves Yuri giving you her third poem, which is a page full of gibberish covered in bloodstains and also a yellow stain that’s probably exactly what you think it is. When you stop reading the poem, Yuri is standing six inches from the protagonist’s face looking at him in crazy-eyes mode (not the crazy eyes in the screenshot halfway up, but extra-crazy eyes) asking him what he thinks of it. I’m not posting a screenshot of that because it is actually pretty god damn disturbing and I do not want to look at it again. The writer and artist both make effective use of that uncanny horror feeling in the second act, especially with Yuri’s increasingly scary yandere side coming out.
There’s only one real fault I can find with DDLC. The meta-fiction derailment of the story in the second act is clever and surprising, but it also prevents the game from more seriously addressing the emotional problems that the characters face. I can imagine an alternate version of DDLC in which the protagonist has to try to romance one of his clubmates while considering not only her feelings but also the feelings of the other girls in the game. DDLC starts down that path in the first act but goes in a different direction after Sayori’s suicide. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but I feel like there was a missed opportunity here. On the other hand, the meta-fiction element of the game is a big part of what makes it special, so I can’t complain too much about the path the creators decided to take. At the very least, Monika’s existential crisis freakout gets solved in the end, though not in an entirely happy way.
And that’s all I have to say about Doki Doki Literature Club! As far as plot, characters, crazy meta-fiction elements and attention to detail go, DDLC is extremely impressive, especially for a free visual novel. You just don’t expect this kind of quality from a free VN you can download off of Steam or itch.io. I certainly didn’t, which is probably part of why it took me so long to play this game. It’s a real achievement, and I hope the developer stays in the business. Maybe they can follow DDLC up with a reverse-twist by creating a VN that everyone expects to be bizarre and meta but that ends up being a completely normal dating sim. Now that would be interesting. 𒀭
* This is a Futurama reference, which means that I’m not being perverted by pointing out the shortness of the characters’ skirts. That’s how that works, right?
** Translator’s note: ika means squid.