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 after that it becomes an incredible horror experience, 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.
- 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 starting with day 6 or so.
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-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 super 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.
And the only amoral objection is that Act 2 makes the same mistake as Dark Souls: you don't know what MC knows. While the glitchy stuff was pretty clearly not being seen by him, even besides that there were some things said that any human being would have been responded to. I know it's brilliant in retrospect because it reflects how 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 imperfect storytelling, because for the time you're playing Act 2, it looks like bad storytelling. The game would have been better if MC remained at least somewhat of a believable 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 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 (though I've heard it's 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'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
- Doki Doki New Eyes
- Our Final Heartbeat
- True Route
- The Festival
- Exit Music
- Shattered Worlds (formerly Puzzled Memories), Episode 1: The Voices of Different Realities
- Shattered Worlds, Episode 2, Part 1: Crimson Hearts
- A Brand New Day
- Dokis And Dragons (these two mods are only at the bottom because they're comedy mods, and I don't value comedy that highly even if it's really good)
- Doki Doki Lift Club
To save your time, I'll also list some mods I've played that you should definitely not play (I couldn't be bothered to write detailed reviews of garbage like this): Monika's Redemption, Doki Doki Easter Hunt (it's a trick, like ABND day 12), Sayori Date, Weatheard World Director's Cut, Focus On Me (so bad it's almost hilarious).