Content Warning: This piece will contain in depth thoughts and analysis on Doki Doki Literature Club! Do not let the title of this game fool you, this is one of the most horrific, discomforting, and disturbing games ever made. Content will include depictions of and references to suicide, violence, gore, depression, domestic abuse, death, and kidnapping. Reader discretion is STRONGLY advised!
Also there are major spoilers throughout the rest of this piece, as I feel the need to refer to them directly.
Well, I’m not quite sure how to feel about this one folks. Doki Doki Literature Club! certainly is… something. Going into this game, I knew that there was going to be something fucked up. I saw its Steam page presenting it as if it is a cutesy dating sim along with a warning that it is not for children or those easily disturbed. It also said one shouldn’t play this if they suffer from depression or anxiety. I have had a history with both of those conditions but I decided to ignore that part because I have a strong mind. I’ve played through Starless: Nymphomaniac’s Paradise and Euphoria, certainly this couldn’t be any more disturbing than either of those two.
I… can’t say for certain whether or not I was right in that assessment. I will say that Doki Doki Literature Club! has done so in a slightly different way. Doki Doki Literature Club! is undoubtedly a much better game than Starless was, but I am not sure if I can say I liked the game overall. Doki Doki Literature Club! is a game with a very unique premise but little to stand on its own two feet aside from said premise and pure shock value. There were some positive elements, but I legitimately feel unwell when I play this game.
Ultimately, I do feel that Doki Doki Literature Club! is a unique experience and that there is little like it out there. Yes one can point out games that use similar plot devices or techniques, but not quite in the same way. As such, if there is any remaining interest in the game and you have a strong enough stomach and mind, you should probably just go play the thing instead of reading further. I would normally make a greater effort to avoid spoilers like I did with Euphoria, but this game is already free to play, well, that is unless you count YOUR SOUL as a price. Anyway, it can be downloaded here, or you can get it on Itch.Io or Steam if you so desire. I think there is a happy ending mod for the game that is only applicable to the version on their website but I dunno. If you DO think it’s too much for you based on the content warning, but can handle it being described, then this piece should be satisfactory at providing an overview of the game.
Doki Doki Literature Club, at first, is supposed to be the most standard and plain harem visual novel out there. Like a lot of things in this game, it is successful to a fault. Our main character is the typical faceless harem protagonist that gets a harem of girls fighting over him. The game’s own creator even admitted that the MC “wasn’t much of a real character.” Despite being intended as a player self insert, the story will still only allow the MC to be a boy. The game even has a scene later on where the possibility of the player being a girl is addressed directly so there is no reason that the MC couldn’t have been a lesbian. For fucks sake, even Huniepop got this part right and that is not a very high brow game in the slightest. Anyway, this made things notably awkward when I named my character “Annie” only to see this line of text when the MC is introduced.
The other characters aren’t much different. Sayori is the Klutzy childhood friend and genki girl, Natsuki is the tsundere and loli, and yuri is the silent but cultured girl with big boobs. There’s also Monika but she is so bland I don’t even know what her intended personality is for this part of the game. It seriously feels like she is just “there.” The plot is also about them forming the literature club at their school and planning for the festival in order to attract new members. I am pretty sure this was a part of the plot of Kindred Spirits on the Roof, but there are probably hundreds of visual novels with this setup. Of course, this is mainly a set up for a romance with one of the three girls.
You have all the usual Ren’py fair like cutesy and upbeat music, light hearted jokes about boobs and petty fights, and all the tender and sweet moments. You have some choices that effect the plot and some that don’t at all. The only unique mechanic is a poetry mini game where you select 20 words, each of which are chosen among others. The only purpose this serves is which character’s scene you get the next day, and the game shows you which words appeal to which character by having their chibi sprite hop up. Although I will give credit in that the poems shared by the characters themselves are pretty good.
I felt that this was a missed opportunity with the game, as it would have been much more interesting if the words played into the MC’s actual character rather than just getting into the girl’s panties. Why not have the game give the MC different dialogue or backstory based on the words chosen? Why not reveal that the MC is a closet trans girl if they pick both depressing stuff like “death” and “suicide” but also pick girly words like “pink” and “skirt.” Hell some words like “disown” were included that certainly lead on to a conclusion like that, but nope, that requires the first few hours of this game remotely interesting.
Normally when I say something like that, it’s intended to be sarcastic. This time though, that pretty much sums up the intent. The game puts all its eggs in one basket and risks everything on the surprise twist about 3 or maybe even 4 hours in. Doki Doki Literature Club’s intro is NOT bad due to a lack of writing ability; it’s bad because it was intended to be bad. Most visual novels have the excuse of being made in Japan where people are taught to assume you need to wait or have some patience until works get interesting. The whole “cute series turn uber grimdark” HAS been done in visual novels before.
This was practically the entire point of Higurashi No Nako Koro Ni. I have actually read the first episode and I had mixed feelings because it took so long to get interesting, and how it supposedly starts out boring again at the beginning of the second chapter. Clannad was another one I started on but it took too long to get to the dark bits so I ended up refunding it at the time, but I do hear it gets ultra depressing (and btw, it is possible that I could finish those two since I can get review codes from MangaGamer and Sekai Project so let me know if you’d like to see them covered). To be fair, Doki Doki Literature Club DOES get to the point quicker than those two, but it only causes problems of its own.
The first act and the rest of the game are effectively separate games. The first act, while uneventful and kinda boring, DOES have its moments and the characters are fairly likable and endearing. When you get towards the end of the first act where Sayori tells you she has had severe depression her entire life and her Genki Girl persona was just an attempt to cover it up, you realize that the game is going to take a darker turn. At that point, I figured that this game would be taking the route that Higurashi or Madoka Magica took where the fucked up shit that happened IS part of the story and your earlier interactions with them cause a much greater sense of empathy. Following this is the shocking scene where the MC goes to wake up Sayori on the day of the festival, only to come across this lovely image.
This scene was amazing at capturing the feeling of shock and horror of walking in on your best friend’s corpse hanging from a noose. It is a tragic occurrence that happens sadly often. I say this as someone who has spent many hours talking people online out of suicide, and has frequently fended off suicidal urges herself. Dan Salvato has stated that Sayori’s character was based off of his friend’s, and this scene is disturbingly accurate in its presentation. Euphoria was the first game I have played where a death scene made me feel like I actually saw someone die in real life, and Doki Doki Literature Club is now the second.
And I will say, as shocking as this scene was, I kinda saw it coming the moment Sayori started acting depressed. The key issue with these type of “surprise horror” titles is that the moment that anyone figures out about them, the rest of the internet will as well. This was one of my key complaints when I reviewed Pony Island, a game pretending to be about ponies but was actually a game made by the devil to collect human souls. I liked the concept but unfortunately, it was about as scary as Luigi’s Mansion was, maybe even less so. On the other hand, games like Eversion and Doki Doki Literature Club! know how to stand on their own two feet even when you already know they are going to be fucked up.
Everything about this brutal scene makes my heart run cold. If anything, the fact that you know it’s coming but the MC doesn’t just makes it worse. The way how she ends up dead even if you do confess to her, the way it is foreshadowed with her final poem, the creepy AF way Monika says you “left her hanging,” the fact that the MC has to force his way into her house and kick down her door, and that the game does not even wait until you click the last text box to show you the above image. The way it flashes red and then zooms in with the background glitching out, and that horrifying music playing over it. All of this while the MC delivers his depressing soliloquy in sheer disbelief, horror, and grief. How it’s his fault, how he lost his best friend, how he will carry this guilt for the rest of his life and life is meaningless without her, and he cannot take it back like it is some game where he can just reset. Oh but it IS a game, and you CAN reset… oh wait no you can’t, your save files just got deleted!
This is without a doubt the most disturbing and most horrific depiction of suicide I have ever seen in a game, even more so than in Actual Sunlight, and the reason it is so successful is precisely because of the contrast set forth by the rest of the game up to that point. Doki Doki Literature Club! does deserve a lot of credit for this scene alone. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here. It was after restarting I was taken back to the title screen that you see the “new game” option is glitched out. When you select it, you see that Sayori is completely erased from the plot and there are a bunch of graphical “glitches.” I say the word “glitches” in quotes because a glitch refers to a game not working the way it was intended.
I was immediately reminded of my experience with Corpse Party: Blood Covered due to the feeling of disconnect as if Sayori was completely erased from the game. On top of that there are a bunch of weird interface screws like the text randomly scrolling by really quickly and turning into this weird jarring black font, the screen randomly zooming in, the music getting distorted and off, the girls acting extremely out of character and creepy, and Monika standing in front of the text box. While a few of these tend to be only slightly more creepy than typical jumpscares, the way it builds up how “wrong” everything feels does set up an extreme feeling of unease and discomfort.
After you know what kind of fucked up shit this game is capable of, you can no longer look at it the same way, and thus even the parts of the game that are unchanged make you feel unnerved and on edge. On top of that, both Natsuki and Yuri start acting a fuckton more creepy than in the first playthrough. Natsuki’s dad is implied to be overly strict and overbearing on the first playthrough but is confirmed to be outright physically abusive on the second. Yuri had some slightly creepy characteristics on the first playthrough such as liking horror stories and knives while also being the type of nervous and insecure shrinking violet type that is worried people will hate her… kinda like myself actually. In the second playthrough, she has gone full yandere, frequently cuts herself for sexual pleasure, and gives you a poem made of illegible gibberish marked with red and yellow stains that she says she “marked with her scent” while also admitting that she masturbated using the pen the MC dropped, stuff that I definitely have never done to anyone and has definitely not resulted in multiple restraining orders.
Following this, she confesses to you with a creepy AF demeanor while also saying she “no longer cares if Monika notices.” She then asks whether you love her back. Regardless of what you answer, she stabs herself and then you spend 3 in game days staring at her disturbing corpse will scrolling through dozens of glitched up text boxes. You cannot load a previous save file and if you exit out of the game, you get put right back in front of her. In a nice attention to detail, the blood actually turns blacker and gooier over time. You even have a single frame of Natsuki puking as she walks in, and leaving without saying anything.
Needless to say, this was a fucked up scene. Unlike Sayori’s suicide however, this one falls apart under closer scrutiny and does not have much other than shock value. While Sayori committing suicide because you confessed to her was stretching things a bit, it at least felt realistic enough that I could suspend my disbelief due to earlier dialogue of her’s. Yuri’s suicide however, was incredibly forced; as was her instant flanderization. It really does not make sense with how someone who is noticeably insecure and shy would have the bravery to send a letter stained with blood and piss, and she HAS to be smart enough to know how anyone would react. Furthermore, the explanation given was that Yuri got “too excited” and her heart couldn’t take it.
While that may be a valid explanation if she were to have died from a heart attack, that just wasn’t good enough because we got to have that shock value. But for her stabbing herself, it’s just downright farfetched. Even with the explanation that she now gets sexually aroused by cutting herself, that still would not be a likely explanation because there is a difference between “cutting” and STABBING YOURSELF IN THE GUT WITH A FUCKING BUTCHER KNIFE!!!
To be fair, there IS an explanation for all of this, but it’s a stupid one; a VERY stupid one. The oncoming twist was that Monika was behind everything. Monika is either an actual person trapped in the game or a self aware A.I. that fucked with the game’s code and altered the other girl’s “character files” so that they would drive the MC away from them and towards her. She purposefully increased the severity of each of the mental conditions that the girls originally had, which lead to both Sayori and Yuri killing themselves. Yes, that’s right, Sayori didn’t actually have severe suicidal depression that lead to her taking her own life, it’s all Monika’s fault and there was nothing you could have done.
This twist essentially makes Sayori’s suicide meaningless. The entire reason that her scene was so effective was because it made the player feel like they could have prevented it, and the emotional impact it had on the MC. Yes, this isn’t a game where one can just reset and bring her back… except that’s totally what happens in the ending (more on that later). What kind of message do you think this sends to those who actually had a friend or loved one kill themselves? Even worse, what kind of message does it send to someone who has a friend suffering from severe depression that HASN’T killed themselves… yet?
Additionally, it chickens out on using the scenes from the second act to establish any sort of character development. The fact that everything that happened in the game just because Monika fucked with the code of the game removes the possibilities of there being any other explanation behind them. No, there isn’t actually any truth to Yuri having a cutting fetish or Natsuki getting beaten by her father, that shit was just made up by Monika. After all, it’s not like anyone with a severe mental condition could ever be a serious romantic partner. Fuck trying to get the player to connect with someone who may have some skeletons in their closet or trying humanize mental illness, we just gotta have that edgy shock value!
The thing is, Dan Salvato said he based Sayori off a friend of his, and he clearly did not intend any offense to those with mental disabilities. Unfortunately, that’s what makes it all the more depressing that he fucked up on the writing this badly. He wants us to sympathize with these characters but also wants us to look upon with horror and fear. Doki Doki Literature Club! has literally become a parody of itself! It is basically a haunted game creepypasta based on a game that doesn’t exist. In that respect, it handles itself remarkably well and is perhaps the most uncomfortable I have ever felt playing a non hentai title, or at least it did up until the twist ending.
It seems as though every single one of these deceptively creepy games just HAS to fuck things up in the final act because they cannot properly capitalize on the tension they have held. Eversion’s final stage had a disappointing lack of scares, and Doki Doki Literature Club’s ending is absolutely nightmare retardant. Any criticism can now be explained away with “the base game is supposed to be bland and there isn’t supposed to be any focus on anything else.” How can you expect us to connect with your characters when you outright admit they are nothing more than plot devices?
On top of that, Monika being able to alter the game’s code just opens up a shit ton more plot holes than were previously present. Her entire motivation occurred because she had no route and thus was ignored by the player character. So she could go through the effort of creating new scenes, graphics, sound, and endings that were NOT in the game’s code (canonically at least), yet she can’t just create a route for herself? This whole meta commentary shit may have actually worked if she just did that as a secret route, similarly to Undertale’s genocide route.
It is fairly common for games serving as meta commentary to not make sense when someone has an actual understanding of game design. The Beginner’s Guide (a game that I really need to just write my review of already) for instance, has Coda’s earlier games developed using techniques that an amateur developer would not be able to know or that did not exist before when they were canonically created. One can generally suspend their disbelief enough in regard to these inconsistencies because most players don’t understand game design well enough to notice. Unfortunately, Doki Doki Literature Club’s explanation is so out there that even I can tell that’s not how visual novels work, and I never even touched Ren’py outside of playing games made with it. You’re not fooling anyone, we know there are no such thing as “character files” in visual novels. We know that there is a preset script that plays out and that characters don’t have A.I.
Hell, we also know that Monika herself is not based on an A.I. script. The only way that Monika could be passed off as an actual sentient computer program was if she actually was one. Being able to read the name of your computer does not make you a sentient program, and it isn’t scary to hear “you actually go by the name ‘The Gallaghers’ don’t you? And before anyone says something, that’s not the name assigned to the computer I’m using. Yes, this type of stuff can catch you by surprise if you don’t expect it, but it’s been done to death before. We’ve already experienced this with Psycho Mantis in the original Metal Gear Solid, and that game was released 20 years ago! You need to actually have some level of depth or subtlety when you break the fourth wall, it can’t just be “I found out what your name is, super spooooooky!!!!” Such a thing is not much scarier than jump scares, and it was also why Pony Island was such a one trick pony (a line that I really wish I used in my review now that I thought of it).
Furthermore, Monika’s character was oddly sympathetic, not unlike the rest of the cast. Ignoring the fact that Yuri already filled out the designated “yandere” spot on the anime archetype checklist, the game cannot decide if it wants to present Monika as creepy or as endearing. Yes, Dan Salvato was likely going for both but the portrayal was far too over the top and lacked the subtlety to pull it off. Monika was presented as a fucked up psychopath during the entire second act and even in some parts of the first act, but suddenly she’s nice as she starts talking to you about various subjects when you two are the only two left in the universe. As impressive as it is that she has enough dialogue that the player can wait for almost two hours until it starts looping, the fact that many of these included her reminiscing on old memories with Yuri, Sayori, and Natsuki lead me to believe may have an epiphany and may have some realistic character development, something that was completely missing after the first act.
But nope, the solution is to instead delete her from the game’s character files, which she flat out tells you how to do. She DOES actually get her epiphany, but only because you know killed her and not out of any serious growth. This is the equivalent of that South Park episode where the parents realized they were wrong to hire actors to pretend to be future versions of the kids to scare them out of smoking pot because Cartman smeared poop all over the walls of their house; only it’s played straight! They just had to sacrifice serious character development for “oh, we made you access the game’s files now tell us how clever we are” and it undermines everything that this game was going for. After Monika is deleted, you now get Sayori, Yuri, and Natsuki back because you totally can’t reset and bring them back, but this time, Sayori ends up going psycho because being the club president makes you self aware and know everything that has happened apparently.
Afterwards, Monika stuck around long enough to delete the game in its entirety so that no one else suffers anymore… unless you just delete the “firstrun” file and start from scratch. Of course, you can get the good ending if you saw every special character illustration in the first act before Sayori kills herself. Considering that this means you need to know that the game saves these images and that you don’t need to use the same save file to find all them, and need to play through each characters partial route and stop just before Sayori kills herself and your previous save data is wiped, you are likely only going to get this ending if you either used a guide on your first playthrough (which would likely spoil a bunch of shit), or you will be reading through the game again to get them. This would not be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that erasing the “firstrun” data means you can’t skip over text you already read. Thankfully, the option to skip over all text is provided, but that just means you risk skipping over something you never saw before.
Nonetheless, you do get a good ending where Sayori still becomes self aware but doesn’t become evil, and she instead thanks you, the player, for going through as much effort as you did to fix things. That ending was admittedly pretty heartwarming, and it felt nice for the game to actually acknowledge that some players might have actually gotten attached to these characters instead of focusing on creepypasta like shock scares. Of course, the game fails to acknowledge that Sayori still has depression or anything else that came up in the first act, but you take what you can get I suppose. After either ending, you then hear Monika speaking to you in a human voice and she sings the ending credits theme. Unfortunately, you still can’t continue the game even if you got the best ending, which makes no sense because that should mean the player should now be able to access the base game as it (canonically) was intended.
I think I heard that there was a fan mod that DID serve as just that; expanding upon the base game’s story and characters while making it into a finished visual novel that is unlocked after the good ending, but I also heard it only works with the version downloaded off the game’s website rather than the Steam version, so I’m not in the mood to put myself through all that again right away. Also it’s not finished until later this month apparently so i guess I’ll wait and see if I decide to cover it.
As for Doki Doki Literature Club! as it is… I’m really not sure how to feel about it. Story wise, the game is the equivalent of a square peg jammed through a round hole repeatedly until the framing around it breaks and removing it will cause the whole play set to break apart. The dating sim parts and the psychological horror parts both have their own individual flaws and their strengths. However, instead of them complementing each other and playing to each other’s strength, these two put together amplify each other’s flaws eighty six septillion fold.
It is a good thing that this game is free to play because aside from being false advertising, it’s just not all that good. It made for an interesting experiment for sure and it did succeed in making me uncomfortable, but it did for all the wrong reasons. Dan Salvato said that he wanted Doki Doki Literature Club! to be a tribute to the visual novel genre, but it instead comes across as a mockery. He clearly knew how to write an effective visual novel storyline, but just making a good visual novel wasn’t good enough. He instead needed to be edgy and subversive while trying to deconstruct said visual novels in the most shallow of ways. He has what is actually a fairly well developed cast of characters and then proceeds to admit that he was just trying to go with the most generic visual novel possible just so he can turn his own characters into grotesque caricatures of themselves.
Despite all this, I did feel a legitimate sense of attachment to these characters and their world. I find myself frequently flip flopping back and forth between “I like this game” and “this game is not good.” In the end, I can’t really decide, but i don’t have to do that anymore since I don’t bother with review scores. I would say that I can recommend it if you are looking for something unique and not quite like anything else you may have played. In that case, maybe I did like this game. Maybe Doki Doki Literature Club! is oki doki after all.
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