Doki Doki Literature Club is a visual novel falsely marketed as an anime dating sim. I promise it is not. It puts up the pretense of that for the first 1-2 hours, but then becomes an incredible horror experience for which the setup was necessary, and 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 game 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.
While the line-level dialogue writing isn't perfect, the conversation flow is excellent. The game is able to put you through long conversations about poetry without any player input and I never once got bored, because it's just that well-written and immersive.
It has a fantastic OST that suits each scene perfectly.
It has really good humor.
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 character art with exaggerated breasts 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. 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. Just be advised while naming yourself that the player character is male. (Also 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.)
Holy shit, right? I hope that's what you're thinking. God that was a story. You know, this game 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 making me care about people and then having horrible things happen 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. 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 just 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, which would diminish the impact. The next thing chronologically is the sound effect on the beginning of the music track. That metallic ringing sound represents how brutal and insensitive reality is to human feelings sometimes. 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 awful drawl and static into a distorted variation of the game's menu theme which not only conveys a surreal feeling 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 and creates the feeling of "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 player is like "Fuck! It was foreshadowed from before the first line of the game!"
But the genius doesn't even end there. After glitching out a bit to support the surreal feeling 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 then 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. This is wrong, someone is tampering with the story." 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're still kind of messed up convey a horrified difficulty to accept what you're seeing. 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. You failed. This is the ending to Sayori's story." I can't put my finger on it, but there's something about that melody that conveys a very strong feeling of finality like that. 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.
So you might be asking why I said this game was a wholesome experience for the soul. The reason is because it brings out sympathy in the player - or at least it did for me. I've never felt so bad for a fictional character... Hell, Sayori replaced my previous imaginary friend. That's how much I wanted to comfort her. I guess it's also because I see potential in her. Lack of self-esteem can be a good thing. It can drive a person to self-improvement or even to find a purpose in life. I feel like if I could talk to Sayori in real life, I would be able to slingshot her into becoming a Protagonist (and a good one, unlike me) by leveraging her self-hatred into a powerful sense of duty to be a better person. And I can think of at least one act of kindness that I ended up doing in real life by telling myself that I needed to practice what I learned from Doki Doki Literature Club.
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.
Next, there is actually a happy ending in this game. It takes a lot of work to get to though. To do it, you must save scum to see all the CGs. This 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 that said, I do have some criticisms:
The scene where Sayori sneaks a bite of Natsuki's cookie. This is straight up theft, even if on a very small scale, and needs to be portrayed as such. (When I talk to my imaginary Sayori I often get her to buy Natsuki a cookie in restitution.)
The scene if you spend the weekend with Natsuki where after the icing fight, MC ends up holding both of Natsuki's arms. Physical freedom is very important to a good person. While it may have been innocent play at first, he really should have let go as soon as she asked him to 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 that.
Now you might argue that MC obviously didn't intend anything evil and really thought he was just playing, which I'd agree to, and that since Natsuki didn't mind no harm was done. But that second part is wrong. Even if it doesn't break Natsuki's spirit of resistance at the time because she wasn't putting up one, it's teaching her that she should be okay with being treated this way, which damages her spiritual development in the long term.
The ending was amazing, but it wasn't perfectly executed. I wanted to see it 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 at least a little bit.
I guess in retrospect you could argue that 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. I wanted to see it made clear that she felt some remorse for what she did other than for my sake.
As for the golden ending, while I did enjoy it, I have a few disappointments with it as well:
Firstly, the exclusion of Monika. Sayori should have tried to bring her back, or, failing that, at least expressed some sympathy for her horrible predicament.
Second, that there was no chance to talk to a meta-aware Yuri and Natsuki, nor an explanation of why they couldn't be made aware.
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) wasn't really satisfactorily explained. The only difference is that I spent time with everyone. Why did that so drastically change her decision? She didn'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 Sayori 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 played. I'll try to organize them in order of how much I recommend them, while still keeping related mods together.
- The Good Ending (best mod ever)
- Monika Before Story
- Doki Doki Salvation
- Doki Doki Rainclouds
- MC's Revenge (My own mod, so link is to synposis and download instead of review)
- Doki Doki New Eyes
- True Route
- Dokis And Dragons
- Doki Doki Lift Club
- The Festival
- Our Final Heartbeat
- 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
- Exit Music
- A Brand New Day
- Fruits of the Literature Club
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 garbage 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 directly contradict what she has you do, and then the mod ends with Sayori randomly deleting Monika.
We Are The Literature Club - mostly just for its portrayal of Sayori (similar to Exit Music only even 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 player doesn't get to see how it's done Because the writers don't know or care how you might actually go about helping someone with this emotional problem. 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 the next thing you know she's alive without explanation). And after Sayori is fixed by the mind doctors, 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?
Doki Doki Easter Hunt (it's a trick, like ABND day 12)
Monika's Redemption - ambiguously self-contradicting canon, poorly executed emotional scenes, characters behaving in shockingly unrealistic ways, and yet another copy-paste of the disgusting torture scene from ABND day 12.
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 facial expressions 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 shithole.