Let’s celebrate this holiday by reviewing the latest psychological horror phenomenon to sweep anime/gaming culture.
Doki Doki Literature Club is an indie game on Steam that’s built up a cult reputation amongst those who prefer their games with a weeb-ish touch for being the Madoka Magica of video games. If you’re not familiar with that series, that basically means it’s is a visual novel that subverts expectations regarding what a dating sim should be like. I’ve been having another October horror game splurge this year, so when I saw the psychological horror genre labels assigned to it on the Steam page, I figured I’d give this a whirl and see what exactly this game has got. Sure I may not be a fan of playing visual novels, but I was informed that the game was only a few hours long, so at least the tedium should be short as long as I constantly played Let’s Play videos of Musical Gamer yelling about how much Kokichi from Danganronpa V3 was an asshole in the background.
And just because the fanbase keeps issuing this warning, I should clarify that no, I never looked up what the game was actually about or what the dark twists exactly were before playing. I understand that this game is best to experience with as little knowledge of it as possible, and while I always find those sorts of warnings to scream “gimmicky” (School-Live and School Days for instance), there are always exceptions to the rule. However, I should point out that these sorts of games are hard to talk about without spoilers, and since there’s very little gameplay in Doki Doki Literature Club besides clicking through text, I have to talk about the story in order to get a proper review out of it. So if you’re looking to play this game, my review is not recommended for reading at this time. Or just skip to the conclusion, but even then the images will probably still clue you in a bit.
Doki Doki Literature Club starts off with the plot of every dating sim story ever in that you play as a personality-less male avatar who joins a school club consisting of nothing but cute girls with the end goal being that you want to date one of them – and no the harem ending doesn’t exist in this game. There’s the happy go-lucky childhood friend named Sayori. There’s the tsundere who secretly craves to suck on your circumcised personality-less dick named Natsuki. There’s the blue-haired timid beauty named Yuri. And then there’s the perfectionist and for some reason “not an option” girl named Monika.
You mostly spend your days writing poems and sharing them amongst your friends with certain keywords increasing your relationship with them. Eventually you get so friendly with them that they fall in love with you, so naturally you confess your feelings (or don’t), and the next day, Sayori hangs herself in her own room, sending you the player into an existential crisis. And yes, she’ll always do that regardless of your decisions. Bit of a dark direction, but it was at that point when the dialogue clicking stopped being tedious, so I’ll support it.
Also, I’m not kidding about the existential crisis. Your save file gets deleted after that event and when you start a new game, you experience random glitches and Sayori suddenly not existing within the game, so the story progresses a little differently. Eventually it leads to Yuri stabbing herself to death and you stuck with her rotting corpse for an entire weekend (that you need to skip through because otherwise you’ll be stuck on that scene for days). Then the game starts addressing you, the player. Not the avatar that you created for yourself. The actual player by computer ID. Yes, this game breaks the fourth wall, and it it does in the form of a cute girl who didn’t get her own route.
Yes, the big plot twist of Doki Doki Literature Club is that Monika is fully aware that she’s a video game character and is salty about how she doesn’t get her own route for god knows what reason. So she somehow hijacks the game, erasing the other girls from existence, and forcing you to spend sweet-nothings with her in a dark moody room. And by sweet-nothings, I mean spouting out a lot of philosophy regarding the world and how psychology degrees earn you jack whilst preventing you from saving your game in the process. She also none too subtly hints at how she exists due to a character file in the Steam folder, so a few seconds in the Recycle Bin and that’s all she wrote.
But was erasing that file really the right thing to do? Because at the end of the day, Monika really liked you and even supports you after the deletion of her character file ended up screwing with the game more than either of us expected. Well I won’t bother going into too much detail about it. Let’s just say that that “just Monika” meme is a lot more encompassing than expected.
My feelings on Doki Doki Literature Club can best be described as mixed. For the first few hours, you have to sit through some really tedious dialogue with nothing for gameplay but clicking the mouse with one hand and watching Mindhunter with every other part of your body whilst waiting for the advertised psychological horror to start. I was mostly speed-reading a lot of the dialogue and it still took me about two hours before I got to the part where the game stopped being hackneyed. Yes it’s supposed to be ironic, but you’re still making me sit through canned laughs and insipid interactions for two hours, game. Besides, playing things straight for a long time only to go “psyche” at a certain point is a generally poor way to earn your plot twist when it occurs.
Once the suicide does happen (and goddamn is it terrifying even when you know it’s coming) and you find out that all of the online guides lied to you about there being multiple routes because unless you use save-scumming to get all the CGs, you’ll always have Monika hijack the game in the same manner. Things kick off a fair amount around then, but you’re still mostly playing through the same hackneyed scenes except now you’re wondering where the hell the game is going with these fourth-wall breaking glitches and code rewrites. It’s only when the next brutal scene occurs that things get really scary permanently, and then the game goes into Monika being even more of an evil demon lord than Monaca from Ultra Despair Girls. And while I’ve never been a fan of “it gets better” as an excuse, fuck me if Monika didn’t grip me with her presence when she decided to become the only girl in this game.
I have to say though, I don’t really understand what Doki Doki Literature Club is trying to get at by depriving Monika of her own route and having her be mad at the creators for it. Yes a lot of visual novels tend to have girls you can’t date until the inevitable expansion pack or fandisc comes out, but there is generally a good reason for it like lack of chemistry or budget. I never really got a sense that those un-dateable girls really cared that they didn’t have their own CG dick sucking, and even if they did, what’s the point in being subversive about it? The girls all having psychological issues sort of falls under that “so what” train of thought as well, because that wasn’t really all that new when Higurashi did it more than a decade ago and Madoka more than half a decade later. DDLC probably pushes the boundaries further in some aspects, but let’s just say I wasn’t too surprised when I saw the horror tags attached to this game.
What I will support though is that Monika is pretty well-realized as a character. There’s just something about how she always cares for the player if she doesn’t have the best method of showing that affection that really endears her to me. Maybe it’s because said flawed affection is a very relatable character fault that you don’t see in most female love interests. Maybe it’s because her dark issues don’t feel arbitrary compared to the other girls. It would be a challenge to bond with her after she drops the facade, but I honestly think the payoff would be really worth it.
Incidentally, if you delete Monika’s character file before you get to the suicide scene, Sayori discovers that she’s actually a character from a video game and decides unusually quickly that the best thing to do is prevent the player from interacting with Doki Doki Literature Club beyond a graphic scene that will force you to uninstall and reinstall the game in order to get past. I haven’t tested or looked up what happens when you delete the other character files ahead of time, but I’m sure similar results will occur as consequence for thinking that you can manipulate a happy ending out of this sugary sweet depressant. Honestly, that addition feels like it was added to be a mix of cheap shock value and a middle finger to the player for trying to cheat the system. In other words, I’m half and half regarding respecting the system and being confused regarding why they had to go that far.
So Doki Doki Literature Club is effective at the dark stuff when it shows up, but when it comes to the light stuff and making a point, the execution is a bit iffy. Yes it’s a deconstruction of the visual novel genre the same way Madoka is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, but to what end? The best deconstructions use the subversive cliches to tackle higher concept issues, and I’m not really sure what DDLC is trying to say besides being an extra is lonely, which isn’t exactly what I’d call “grand existentialism”.
And as a pure horror game, the problem with the game’s scares (along with part of the reason why it’s recommended to go in with as little knowledge as possible) is that it can’t work a second time once you know a jump scare is coming unless you have a phobia to hanged corpses. Not to mention going through dialogue that’s mostly build-up isn’t exactly engaging the first time, let alone the second time. It reminds me of Until Dawn and how while it impresses on a first playthrough, the subsequent ones will frustrate you thanks the tank controls and how the story never really branches no matter who dies. Sure Doki Doki Literature Club has a skip button to get you through the repetitive stuff, but that’s beside the point.
Doki Doki Literature Club was definitely an experience, but I’m not sure if I’d recommend it after all is said and done. Once you know the twists and turns, the impact gets lost on multiple playthroughs. And without the shock factor of those twists, you’re left with a video game that’s one-half uninspired and one-half “hey you remember how people like that Undertale game? Well we can do something similar as well”.
The game is free to play so you wouldn’t lose out on anything by experiencing it unlike, say, The Beginner’s Guide. And also just like that game, while the overall message of the story probably wasn’t worth getting through that sluggish first half, Doki Doki Literature Club made its point and it made it well. I don’t really know enough about dating sims to understand if the twist can be applied to the majority of them considering how the ones I know either have all the girls as options or get updates later on that include girls in the supporting cast as options. But hey, it gave us this iconic Gladys-like song, didn’t it?
- Monika sounds awfully American for a Japanese girl, doesn’t she?
- So how about that new season of Stranger Things, huh?