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:

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:

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 played. I'll try to organize them in order of how much I recommend them, 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 garbage mods I've played that I couldn't be bothered to write detailed reviews of: