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Doki Doki Literature Club review

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 a horror story. I believe it's a wholesome experience for the soul; it literally changed my ideology! I recommend it even more than I recommend Portal. Here are some things I'll say without spoiling anything:

Doki Doki Literature Club

Axiological retribution, the belief it turned me away from

My DDLC mods

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. (The first time you see the word "END" is not the end of the game. You're not done until you see the credits.)

...

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 audience 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 were disturbing because of their emotional impact, not because excessive gore or anything cheap.

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.

Theming in fiction

Foreshadowing

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.

Lost Odyssey

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 wondering why I said this game was a wholesome experience for the soul.

The game makes you want to forgive Monika goes a long way toward undermining the incredibly wrong way most people think about retribution; this is what helped change my mind about axiological retribution. A lot of people only condone punishment in the context of government, which doesn't see motives or repentance, and would likely 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.

I also think Sayori's portrayal of depression is wholesome because it's very realistic and respectable, whereas this is an area of human nature that most people don't understand well, so exposure to an accurate portrayal is good. I love that the story shows how unhelpful MC's pouring of sympathy is, since her problem isn't that she doesn't feel loved, but that she doesn't feel she *deserves* to be loved.

The game also some counterproductive things, like the way both Natsuki's message and Monika's dialogue in Act 3 promote the system of psychiatry 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.

Psychiatry is pseudoscience

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 in the premature ending 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 of scenes with bad morals:

Messages in stories

Now you might argue that MC really thought he was just playing, and that since Natsuki seems okay with it afterward, it must've been okay. But that logic is unsound. People can decide retroactively that things done to them were okay because it can be emotionally easier than thinking they were wronged by someone they want to like, and that seems the most reasonable interpretation of this scene to me.

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. 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:

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

Easter Eggs

one of Natsuki's conditional poems in act 2 looks like garbage text, but is an encrypted message

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.

The Good Ending

Monika Before Story

Doki Doki Salvation

Return To The Portrait (My own mod, so link is to synopsis and download instead of review)

Doki Doki Rainclouds

MC's Revenge (my own mod)

Doki Doki New Eyes

True Route

Doki Doki Lift Club

The Festival

Our Final Heartbeat

Exit Music

A Brand New Day

Fruits of the Literature Club

Shattered Worlds, Episode 1: The Voices of Different Realities

Shattered Worlds, Episode 2, Part 1: Crimson Hearts

Shattered Worlds, Episode 2, Part 2: Hope For Change

Shattered Worlds, Episode 3: The Blood Moon Chapters: Chapter 1: Before, During And After The Stories

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

rpatool

unrpyc

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:

Portraying extreme emotions in fiction

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