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. It is actually far and away the most powerful story I've ever seen, and is also a wholesome experience for the soul; it literally changed my ideology!
Axiological retribution, the belief it turned me away from
- This story is the only thing that's given me trouble falling asleep since I was a kid.
- 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 showed to me an entire realm of story design space that I hadn't even realized was possible: inbetween 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.
- Even before the twist, it's far too hilarious to ever get bored. The characters' personalities are so entertaining and the writer makes great use of them.
- While the line-level dialogue 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.
- 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.
- 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. I don't think I'll ever do that for any other story.
My DDLC mods
Unfortunately, spoilers for this story 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.)
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 creating likable characters 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 think 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, and stories and games that try to focus on that are always really lame. 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. Also, the transition is instant instead of swiping like most scene transitions in the game do. It makes the impact more sudden and sharp and you feel more unprepared. The next thing 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.
Then 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 only conveys a feeling of surreality like this is too bad to be true, it must be a dream (MC has those thoughts), but it nails the game's identity by placing its iconic musical signature in the middle of the tragic scene, like repeating the title of a book after you finish reading it. It also serves as a reminder to the warning you read when you first heard this music: "This game is not for children or those who are easily disturbed", which by now you'd probably forgotten about and stopped expecting something like this to happen. The perfect use of a motif.
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. 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 sad 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.
I also think it's good that the story shows a realistic and respectable portrayal of depression, because this is an area of human nature that most people don't understand well. I love that it 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.
There are also 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 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 because you deleted Monika abruptly, 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 message-related criticisms:
Messages in stories
- 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, not as funny and innocent. And it's extra bad because she does it right after being given a free cookie.
- 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 was innocent play at first, he absolutely needed to let go when she asked instead of forcefully extracting an apology and then some. It's quite disturbing 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 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.
- Both Natsuki's message in Act 2 and one of Monika's conversations in Act 3 glorify the harmful system of psychiatry.
Psychiatry is pseudoscience
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 argue that staying in the space classroom with either of them would not be a healthy relationship, 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. 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 remorse other than for my sake.
As for the golden ending, while I did enjoy it, I have a few disappointments with it as well:
- 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.
- 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 explained. Why does me having spent time with everyone so drastically change her reaction to power? 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:
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
Doki Doki Lift Club (No detailed review for this one as there's not much to say about it, it's just a parody mod, but it's good)
Our Final Heartbeat
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 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 even display a grudge, just says something like "we don't need her anymore".
Portraying extreme emotions in fiction
- 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". This is dangerously close to glorifying the extremely evil practice of psychiatric imprisonment, even though it's not explicitly involuntary here, because it portrays "mental hospitals" as being able to fix emotional problems that logically they shouldn't be able to. How do you not understand that being hospitalized would be about the worst possible thing for Sayori's case? 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 offscreen, 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 (I know some of these mod makers are).
- 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 better to have no visuals at all. I mean that. Combine that with a story like Sayori Date, and you have a spectacular crap heap.
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