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:

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.

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:

Finally, there is a lot of really cool hidden content in the game's files. Here's a list of stuff you should see:

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.

There are two little tools I should mention that are incredibly useful for playing DDLC mods: for unpacking .rpa archives, and 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:

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