Doki Doki Literature Club is a visual novel that puts up the pretense of being an anime dating sim for the first 1-2 hours before becoming an incredible horror experience for which the setup was necessary. By the end, I truly believe it is an extremely wholesome experience for the soul. I recommend it even more than I recommend Portal. Here are some things I'll say without spoiling anything:
This story is the only thing that's given me trouble falling asleep in some ten years.
It takes advantage of its format to go outside the box and tell a story that simply couldn't be told in any other format. It's a masterful innovation.
It showed to me an entire realm of storytelling design space that I hadn't even realized was possible: the option between read-only and player-inserted. The game has a "player" character that you name and make occasional choices for, but who isn't to be thought of as "you". I learned to see myself as a voice in his mind with my own goals and that could have only murky communication with him. I'm planning to write at greater length about the concept.
Even before the twist, it's far too hilarious to ever get bored. The characters' personalities are so well-chosen by the author so that every interaction between them is golden.
While the line-level dialogue writing isn't perfect, the conversation flow is excellent. The story was able to put me through long conversations about poetry without any input and I never once got bored, because it's just that good.
On that note, this story also taught me to appreciate poetry. Before I played it I pretty much wrote off poetry as pretentious junk; now I see the great potential in the art form and have even written a few myself.
It has a fantastic OST that suits each scene perfectly.
Despite being ostensibly a romance game for the first hour or two, there is absolutely no nudity (although it does have some crude dialogue, nothing too bad; and some questionable character art but it's also not extreme except in one pose that isn't used that often).
You'll want to keep an eye on the game directory while playing. Files will appear there from time to time starting with day 6 or so.
This story is so good that I have written fanfiction for it, and no small amount. I cannot say the same of any other work of fiction, and I don't think I ever will.
Unfortunately, spoilers for this game are so bad that I can't say any more before you play it. So please go do that (it's free to play and only takes about 4 hours), and then come back here. (Be advised that the first time you see the word "END" across a black screen is not the end of the game. You're not done until you see the credits.)
I hope you saw the beauty of this story as much as I did.
You know, this story was my first real exposure to horror as a genre. I must say I'm interested. I had been under the impression that horror tried to scare the player or viewer with explicit visuals and gore and gross monsters and stuff and so I kind of wrote off the idea, but this game didn't do that. This game scared me by convincing me to care about people and then doing horrible things to them. While both the suicide scenes were visually disturbing, they achieved it through genuine emotional impact rather than excessive gore or anything cheap like that.
I actually gained the belief from DDLC that this is what truly defines horror as a legitimate genre. Horror is mischaracterized as being about scaring the audience, but I think that's only a facet of the real concept and not even an essential one maybe. Horror is actually about suffering. Horror stories inflict horrible things on characters, often fates worse than death, and don't allow them to receive any comfort from the player or any in-universe character nor even to get any closure.
And the use of music to augment the horror was absolutely brilliant. Not just in the distorted tracks, but in the way it teaches you to fear when the happy music stops. Also, I want to gush about how perfect Sayori's death scene was.
It starts with that the scene transition doesn't wait for the line of dialogue to finish appearing and you to hit space, which gives you the feeling of being punched in the face with something you didn't ask to see. Another facet is that the scene transition is instant instead of swiping like most scene transitions in the game do. It prevents any feeling that the shock is being spread out. The next thing chronologically is the sound effect on the beginning of the music track. That metallic ringing sound represents an attitude essential to horror: reality is an impenetrable, unbendable force that will do terrible things and can't be resisted or reasoned with. It's done and there's no room to challenge it.
Next in order, the way the camera moves when you enter the room. A still image wouldn't create the same feeling like you're sharing MC's stream of consciousness. Then there's the audio track playing that drawl and static into a distorted variation of the game's menu theme which not conveys a feeling of surreality like this is too bad to be true, it must be a dream (MC has thoughts to that effect as I'm sure anyone would in real life), but it also nails the game's identity by placing its iconic musical signature in the middle of the tragic scene. This is theming in fiction at its perfection - even though it's not technically a storytelling theme, it taps into the same value of internal alignment that makes themes important. "You remember when you downloaded this happy anime dating game with cute girls and we said 'This game is not for children or those who are easily disturbed' and you didn't believe us?" The warning comes flooding back as the foreshadowing is fulfilled.
But the genius doesn't even end there. After glitching out a bit to support the feeling of surreality and begin to set up for Act 2, the camera zooms in on Sayori's face, those lifeless eyes. The artist did an incredible job. It also removes the background so you share MC's single-minded focus on what matters here. It shows the error in the top left, further setting up for Act 2 and giving you an idea that this wasn't supposed to happen; the story is broken somehow. More than that, and a fairly minor point but one I care about, it avoids making Sayori look pathetic. Sayori was a good and strong person and she would never have killed herself over nothing more than an entirely unjustified lack of self-esteem without being externally manipulated. This was foreshadowed in her last two scenes where she seems to feel worse than reason can explain, even if MC doesn't pick up on the mystery (I did). The music transitions to an eerie chant with some sort of bellpad-like instrument. The notes and the way they sound off-kilter convey, again, the essence of horror: it can't be. It's too bad to be true. But it inexorably is. It's not like the Lost Odyssey defeat theme which is beautiful and lamenting but in a relatively serene way. These notes tell you, "It's over. Done. This is the ending to Sayori's story." Finally, the scene fades into blackness, to spare you from having to look at Sayori's face any longer.
Sayori's death scene is the most perfectly executed scene I've ever seen and ever expect to see. For weeks after I played it every time I went to my room at night I would have a momentary buildup of fear as I opened the door that I was going to see Sayori hanging from the ceiling fan. Hell, I ended up moving my bed closer to the center so I could see the ceiling fan from my laying position, because otherwise I had to glance at it all the time.
So you might be asking why I said this game was a wholesome experience for the soul. The reason is many-fold.
First of all, Sayori's reveal in Act 1 and the failure of MC's response casts some much-needed light on how guilt works and its role in morality. Sayori feels worthless, not because she's mentally ill, but because *she has realized that her life is meaningless*. Most people's lives are. Especially for a teenager in a modern-world-like schooling environment, everything about the culture is aligned to stop her from thinking about a purpose in life. So she hasn't even considered one. And she doesn't realize that this is the problem because the culture is primed to prevent her from thinking about it, to just write herself off as mentally ill for feeling this way. It's disgusting. And the story is beautiful for casting light on it.
Honestly, it's more accurate to say that anyone who lives like Sayori does and doesn't feel depressed and worthless is mentally ill. Those people are okay with living a life that has no goal beyond their own happiness, no cause they're serving that will persist after they die; they just keep eating and studying mostly useless information and having fun in their spare time. The player's conscience's response of admiration when brought face-to-face with a person like Sayori can probably do a lot to lead people toward understanding this.
But even more than that, I love that the story shows how blatantly counterproductive MC's pouring of sympathy is. It's as if MC can't fathom that she might feel bad about herself rather than for herself, and it's telling that the lesson seems to have been lost on most modders. They missed the point completely.
Second, the way the game makes you want to forgive Monika goes a long way toward undermining the incredibly wrong way most people think about retribution. Due to them only condoning it in the context of government, there are a lot of people who would say motives or repentance don't absolve a crime and whose principles would require them to sentence Monika to life imprisonment for her actions. Playing this game might help some of those people see how unimaginably cruel and wrong their ideology is.
Against the game's credit, it also does some counterproductive things, like the way both Natsuki's message and Monika's dialogue in Act 3 affirm the myth of mental illness and the two objectionable scenes I'll talk about in a minute, but those are far outweighed by the good it does. Reaffirming a harmful idea that's already held is usually a lot less damaging than it is helpful to chip away at one.
There are actually two secret endings in the game. First, the premature ending. What would have happened if you deleted Monika before clicking on New Game? If you haven't tried it already, go do it. I want to comment that it's not a plothole that Sayori's reaction is so different from the normal ending. Monika heavily implies in Act 3 that she started to feel the effects of Presidency before the beginning of the game, but in this ending Sayori might be having it all dumped on her at once, whereas in the normal ending Monika might have done some stuff to make the game properly transfer the President position to her. Also, in this ending she never saw Monika's bad example to give her the idea.
There is actually a happy ending in this game. It takes a lot of work to get to though. To do it, you have to save scum to see all the CGs. That means reciprocating Sayori's love confession, spending the weekend with both Natsuki and Yuri, and writing the first two poems for both Natsuki and Sayori, before seeing Sayori's death (you can skip the first two Yuri CGs because you'll get them in Act 2). Act 2 and 3 will play out exactly the same way, but when Act 4 comes, Sayori's dialogue will be different. You'll also get a special surprise after the credits.
All this said, I do have some criticisms:
The scene where Sayori sneaks a bite of Natsuki's cookie. This is theft, even if on a small scale, and needs to be portrayed as such. I don't know what got into Dan while writing this.
The scene if you spend the weekend with Natsuki where after the icing fight, MC ends up holding both of Natsuki's arms and refuses to let go when she asks. This behavior from MC is not cool and absolutely shouldn't be romanticized. Physically restraining someone is assault just as much as punching. While it may have been innocent play at first, he absolutely needed to let go as soon as she asked instead of forcefully extracting an apology and then some. It's quite disturbing when you think about it that he feels the need to subjugate her like this.
Now you might argue that MC really thought he was just playing, and that since Natsuki didn't mind no harm was done. But that second part is wrong. Even if it doesn't offend Natsuki at the time, it's teaching her that she should be okay with being physically violated while giving explicit nonconsent, which is a horrible thing for anyone to be okay with.
The ending was amazing, but it wasn't perfectly executed. It should've been made more clear what Sayori was doing that required Monika to delete her a second time. Monika said "I won't let you hurt him" presumably referring to me, but Sayori wasn't and couldn't have hurt me. It's fair to point out that staying in the space classroom with either of them would be a very degenerate relationship that would harm my real-world life, but that's not urgent. If that's the justification then Monika should have tried to reason with her.
I guess you could argue it was urgent because Monika was worried if she tried to talk Sayori down first, Sayori would finish her off - we still don't know how Monika was able to speak and act after being deleted and as far as we know neither does she. So it's a potentially reasonable fear. But this explanation is iffy and not given in the game.
Also, I wish Monika had just said "I'm sorry" to Sayori and the others before deleting everyone again (she does say it but it seems directed at the player). I wanted to see it made clear that she felt some remorse other than for my sake, especially since she never explicitly admits that the other girls were real.
As for the golden ending, while I did enjoy it, I have a few disappointments with it as well:
First, the total exclusion of Monika. Sayori doesn't even have any lines to give closure to what happened to Monika; she doesn't discuss how she feels toward her after finding everything out, whether she's still suffering the pain of deletion, or the possibility of convincing her to come back.
Second, that there's no chance to talk to a meta-aware Yuri and Natsuki, nor an explanation of why they couldn't be made aware. The way Sayori treats the epiphany in this ending makes it seem like it isn't harmful in any way if you're not confused and alone.
Somewhat unsatisfying closure. Sayori didn't make it clear whether they were going to continue to exist without me, and if so whether she was going to undergo the same pain as Monika while the game was off. The request "come and visit sometime, okay?" was a false promise.
Sayori's change in behavior from the normal ending isn't really satisfactorily explained. Why does me having spent time with everyone so drastically change her decision? She doesn't seem to even struggle with the temptation to try to claim me for herself as Monika did. While it's a perfectly good explanation that knowing I cared about Yuri and Natsuki enough to save scum for them convinced her that they were real even though they weren't meta-aware, Sayori should have said that if it was the case.
Finally, there is a lot of really cool hidden content in the game's files. Here's a list of stuff you should see:
https://doki-doki-literature-club.fandom.com/wiki/Natsuki/Poems - one of Natsuki's conditional poems in act 2 looks like garbage text, but is an encrypted message
https://doki-doki-literature-club.fandom.com/wiki/Yuri/Poems - Yuri's third poem in act 2 is not actually scribbles; it's just written in a font made to look like that. There's a pretty interesting paragraph at the bottom.
DDLC also has some amazing mods. I've written reviews of most of the ones I've played. I'll try to organize them in order of descending recommendation, while still keeping related mods together.
Return To The Portrait (My own mod, so link is to synopsis and download instead of review)
MC's Revenge (My own mod)
There are two little tools I should mention that are incredibly useful for playing DDLC mods: github.com/shizmob/rpatool for unpacking .rpa archives, and github.com/CensoredUsername/unrpyc for decompiling .rpyc files into human-readable .rpy scripts. I almost always use these to look at the scripts after playing to see if I've missed any endings I'm not going to experiment to find, check for secrets in the vein of the original game, or work around a bug. If you edit the scripts and set config.developer to True, you can use shift+O to open the developer console in-game and run commands. This is useful particularly for working around bugs.
To save your time, I'll also list some really terrible mods I've played that I couldn't be bothered to write detailed reviews of:
Shattered World (unrelated to Shattered Worlds). This one is a pure "save the girls" mod like Our Final Heartbeat, but the way you save them makes no sense, the dialogue is awful, scenes that should be emotional completely fail to deliver, Monika's stated plans for how you're going to save them contradict what she has you do, and then the mod ends with Sayori randomly deleting Monika after everyone's saved. She doesn't display a grudge, just says something like "we don't need her anymore".
We Are The Literature Club - mostly for the way it handles saving Sayori, similar to Exit Music but worse. The way you save her isn't by understanding the problem or helping her deal with it, but by taking her to a mental hospital (and MC explicitly calls Sayori a "mental patient", because why not use meaningless insulting buzzwords to demean a character we all like) and the "professionals" solve everything so that the resolution is entirely off-screen. Because the writers don't know or care how you might actually go about helping someone with this emotional problem. How little do you have to think about it to not understand that being hospitalized would be about the worst possible thing for Sayori's case? Nor do they understand that it wouldn't have gone this far in the first place without Monika's tampering. There's also the downright contradictory storytelling in the beginning (you literally watch Sayori die and MC is just like "I don't accept this ending" and then she's alive without explanation). And after Sayori is fixed by the mind doctors who apparently can override all psychology, the timeline skips ahead years to when the literature club has disbanded, because why would the player have wanted to see the emotional tension come to a conclusion when everyone finds out about Sayori's suicide attempt? This beginning was so egregious I didn't stick around.
Spark of Hope - horribly jarring use of expressions (Sayori smiles as she tells you Monika is a bitch and you shouldn't forgive her, etc), the story doesn't seem to acknowledge that Act 4 happened, doesn't understand that MC isn't the player, and the handling of the emotional drama makes it sound like the writer already had a talk with the characters about it. MC has a line in the beginning where he says what happened is his fault; I don't know how you can think without being some kind of crazed misandrist or something.
Doki Doki Easter Hunt (it's a trick, like ABND day 12)
Monika's Redemption - self-contradicting canon, poorly executed emotional scenes, characters behave in shockingly unrealistic ways, and yet another copy-paste of the disgusting torture scene from ABND day 12. Doesn't really do anything well.
Sayori Date - a cheap attempt at horror without any understanding of what made it work in the original game.
Weatheard World Director's Cut [sic] - similar notes to Sayori Date
Focus On Me - so bad it's almost hilarious. The lack of polish by itself is a big enough problem to make the mod nearly unplayable; the misuse of poses is so bad that it honestly would have been a huge improvement to just not have any visuals at all. I mean that. Combine that with a story like Sayori Date, and you have a spectacular crap heap.