Doki Doki Literature Club is a visual novel that, for the first hour or two, puts up a pretense of being an anime dating sim, but after that becomes an incredible horror experience. By the end, I truly believe it is an extremely wholesome experience for the soul. I absolutely recommend it. 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 really go outside the box and tell a story that simply couldn't be told in any other format. It's a masterful innovation.
- 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).
- You'll want to keep an eye on the game directory while playing. Files will appear there from time to time, and at least one point, deleting files from the game is actually part of the game ;)
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. Everything about the way the camera moves when you enter the room, the glitched audio and visuals at first being exactly what I imagine MC feeling... it was just so fucking perfect. Even today every time I go to my room at night I have a momentary buildup of fear as I open the door that I'm 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 compassion 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 want to comfort her. I guess it's also because I see potential in her. Lack of self-worth 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 telling her that being a good person and fighting for righteousness is the way to stop being a burden. 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.
All that said, I do have some criticisms. Two moral objections, one amoral:
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 compensation.)
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 a super important concept in Protagonism. 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. It's quite disturbing when you think about it that he feels the need to subjugate her like that.
And the only amoral objection is that Act 2 makes the same mistake as Dark Souls: you don't know what MC knows. Is he seeing all the crazy stuff that happens? When time rewinds after he finds Yuri cutting herself, does he remember seeing that? Is he seeing what we are when he looks at Yuri's third poem? We don't know. I know it's because MC is gradually ceasing to exist throughout Act 2 as the game starts to interact directly with the player instead, but my criticism is that that's flawed storytelling. The game would have been better if MC remained a character until Act 3.
Before you move on from the game though, there's some stuff you definitely need to see. 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 accepting 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 (though I've heard it is required to let Monika get to her dialogue loop in Act 3 before you delete her), but when Act 4 comes, Sayori's dialogue will be different.
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 think I'll start writing reviews of the ones I've played, and link them here. Update: I've written a few.
- Monika Before Story
- Doki Doki Rainclouds
- Doki Doki New Eyes
- The Good Ending (best mod ever)
- Doki Doki Salvation
- The Festival
- Our Final Heartbeat
- A Brand New Day
- Exit Music
- Shattered Worlds (formerly Puzzled Memories), Episode 1: The Voices of Different Realities
- Shattered Worlds, Episode 2, Part 1: Crimson Hearts