Okay everyone! Here’s the deal.
Assuming you’re not turned off by the content warnings but don’t even worry about that, I want you to play Doki Doki Literature Club. It’s a free visual novel that takes about three hours of time and is great. But it’s also one of those things were you need to know about the experience in order to be motivated to get it, but you’re going to have a better time the less you know about it when you start it up. So we’re going to do a thing here. If you trust me, just close this now, go download Doki Doki Literature Club, play it, and come here when you’re done. Once again, it’s free. And it’s amazing. You have no reason not to. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back. For the rest of you, I’m going to post about the game. We’re going to start very shallow, then get deeper and deeper into what this is the further we go. If at any point you get to thinking you might like to check it out, stop reading this post right there, leave me a comment telling me how amazing I am, then go get the game. Seriously. Try it. It’s good. I promise. Just play it all the way through. I know, I know, it might not be your cup of tea to begin with. Stick with it, though. It will take you places.
If you get to the end of the post without wanting to give it a try, or you do play through it and find you don’t like it, please submit a complaint that’s as scathing as possible to my official complaint box at theotakujudge.com/about/.
Seriously. Go play it. You won’t regret it.
Actually you might but don’t worry about that!
Ok, for those of you who don’t trust me yet, here’s getting into the experience.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a romance visual novel. About a literature club. Full of beautiful women. Who all think you’re great, and want to spend all sorts of time with you doing that thing you like. Seriously, I don’t even know what you’re into, but this place has got it. You like that super energetic child hood friend budding romance? She’s there. You like to help a shrinking violet come out of her shell with your love? Oh, she’s just waiting for you. You into that girl who looks a bit underdeveloped but is still 18 so you can totally talk about the sex stuff with her without being creepy? All over that. Into the over-achieving class president type who has those challenges no one can see? Well she’s mostly wingman here but she’ll still help you get in with those other girls.
Best part of it is that they all want on your jock. Or maybe you’re a woman. In which case they want on your lady-jock. That’s right, you could get a girlfriend! Just pick who you like. Look, you guys are jerks to each other but you’re friends so it’s all banter with her! She’ll bring you cupcakes, and the way to your heart is through your gullet, right? She’ll give you quiet book time in that cool young librarian way!
And I guess there is that but don’t worry about that! Look, here’s the president. You don’t get to date her because she’s kind of a tutorial/facilitator but look at the way she smiles at you!
Her skirt even flips up when she does that, for some reason! Doki Doki, right?!
Still here? Fine. Like I said, Doki Doki Literature Club is a visual novel. You start off joining a small book club in GENERIC JAPANESE HIGH SCHOOL #19857. It’s a small club, on the verge of not being a club at all, but again, full of friendly beautiful women who love spending time around you. And you’re all there to read. You can use that for your romance. At the end of each day, you all go home and write your poems. You get to choose what words you’re putting into yours. Different girls like different types of poems, and they’ll react differently depending on what words you choose to you. You get that cute little romance moment that makes you feel all squishy inside with a girl that depends on how they like your poems.
Doki Doki Literature Club seems to be made by a guy that doesn’t like romance visual novels all that much but don’t worry about that but Team Salvato here still seem to know a lot about what makes for a good romance. Your potential romantic partners all fit into typical archetypes at first, but they’ve got some real depth to them that emerges as you spend more time with them. The characters are very well written, too. I found I was actually caring about what happened to them as we went through their stories on a level deeper than just what’s shown through dialog. They started feeling more and more real as they were revealing more of themselves. I find it really interesting how the writing has the characters occasionally breaking expectations and doing things outside the typical storytelling patterns, but in ways that completely seem in character for them.
The game has a mix between linearity and player choice. The overall plot is set in stone, but you have a lot of moments in between that react to the choices you make. You’ll get small events with the girls you end up for the day, a few moments where you get to make hard choices when they’re presented to you, and a lot of little dialogue changes or scenes that react to things you did earlier.
Don’t worry about that. Hey, let’s take a look at those romance options!
She’s been your friend a long, long time. Which means she can be your girlfriend for a long, long time! She lives right next door, so you know, easy access, and you get to see each other all the time. She’s the happiest, too. The. Happiest. Always full of energy and good feels. And you start the game with a good relationship with her! It is hard to make a more convenient girlfriend.
This is the girl you get if you want to go squee all the time. She looks cute. But then you start getting to know her, and turns out she’s that tsun-tsun mild jerk to you all the time, that some people, probably you, like. Then you get to know her deeper, and turns out she is actually into all that cute stuff in personality too. Then you get deeper, and it turns out she’s actually got a lot going on even beyond that. She’s got layers to her. She’s like an onion. An onion you can smooch.
So Natsuki’s the girl for you if you like smooching onions.
She’s the quiet nerd girl. Nerd girls are still sexy, right? Yeah, that’s her. She don’t talk much, until you get to a topic she likes, then you get to see a bit more of what she’s like when she’s not anxious. She likes to share her passions. She’s into those big, complicated, meaningful stories. Also, she’s been reading a lot of horror lately, but don’t worry about that.
You don’t get to date her, sorry. Yes, I know, totally hot, and she’s obviously into you, but yeah, freeware game, nonprofessional developers, some things get overlooked. A shame. She’s the club president, the organized one, the one that gets things going. She seems to have it all together, and is very socially aware of what’s going on with everyone else, but does have a bit of trouble dealing with people and conflict below the surface. She does seem at least partially aware this is a game, and often gives you tips on when to save or how to go after the other girls in the party.
Don’t worry about that. Hey, are you even still here? Okay, fine, let’s get a bit more serious with it then. So Doki Doki Literature Club could almost be seen as a sort of analog to Katawa Shoujo. Whereas Katawa Shoujo was a romance visual novel that took a very humanizing look at people with disabilities, Doki Doki Literature Club almost takes the same look at people with mental health issues. Now, depictions of mental health in media are something I’m very sensitive to, because media almost always gets it judgmentally wrong, but Doki Doki Literature Club is mostly sound with it. There are a few of what I’d call missteps in its treatment, but otherwise, you could tell the creators really put in their research. Honestly, it adds a whole lot to the work, that it gives you this extra, well-thought out layer to these lovely young women, takes it well beyond just your typical romance visual novel.
What are you waiting for? Go get it! Come on, go play it! It’s free! It’s not a huge time commitment! And you can find love and further your understanding of a hidden yet common source of suffering in our world! What’s not to like?
I’m being serious here. After this, I’m going to get into spoilers, the type that’s honestly going to change your enjoyment of it if you know beforehand. Stop now. Play the game.
Don’t worry about that. Seriously, close your browser. Come back in like three hours, we’ll talk then.
I’m starting to get offended here. Where’s the trust? I’m telling you, this is great, and it will be greater if you don’t read the next part.
Why you gotta play me like this?
I thought we were friends.
Go back, look at those girls up there. Tell me you don’t want none of that.
It has everything. For everybody. Why haven’t you played it yet?
Seriously. I thought we meant more to each other than this?
Why are you this way?
I’m disappointed in you.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a secret horror game.
And it buries its lede very well. I had multiple people bringing it to my attention by saying that I would like it because I liked Higurashi. Because of that, I already strongly suspected that this would devolve into a horror experience. I went into the game with that in mind. And still, I was fooled. The romance visual novel part is so well done, and carries it along just long enough, that I started to doubt the warnings it had set in place. Honestly, I had started to think the content warnings were there because of the mental health aspects of the work, and I was beginning to mentally draft a post about how over-sensitive the game was and how needing a content warning for mental health issues absolutely harms the ability to discuss it.
Then it hit its moment. It hits its Moment. It was blasted shocking, turned the narrative on its edge, and it was beautifully horrific.
I don’t think I’ve felt like this for a horror piece of media in years. I was bemoaning around the Halloween season last year that I don’t really get the fun spooks the way I used to, but Doki Doki Literature Club delivered. It’s very psychological. Specifically, the work runs off of giving you a highly curated sense of wrongness. It’s not actively threatening, but things are out of place in a way that you know it’s only a step away from that. And I loved that.
The horror of Doki Doki Literature Club would not work were it not for the excellence in its writing. Everything just fits in so well. The way you get to know all the characters before everything goes wrong, the way the game itself seems to be twisting around you, even subtle things such as the way your character does not react to all the off-script things going on in front of him, I really do have to commend Team Salvato for their craft in creating this. In fact, I found I cared about everyone, throughout the experience. Even as things were crumbling down, even as characters lost themselves, even when I found myself face to face with red devil big evil, I still cared about every single character in the game, honestly hoping they would all end up well in the end. That’s a really big thing with me.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a meta-narrative. It uses and analyzes the structure of being a game itself. Not nearly as much as Oneshot does, but it does work with and beyond the screen in some creative ways. The story works because it’s a game, takes advantage of the ways games are structured, and does some twisting of the craft of creating games. It’s not quite of the level or playing the player, but it does seek to draw you in and make you a part of the narrative, then use that against you.
Beyond that, though, well, once again, the experience is just really well designed. Things start crashing down around you, but slowly, the pieces start coming together, and it all ends up making perfect sense in the end. It’s one of the most satisfying horror experiences I can recall. I’m not going into detail here, so as to continue to try to protect those jerks reading this far without playing the game from spoilers, but the mix of not-so-stereotypical romance with psychological horror just works so well.
The only real negative I have to say about this is its length, and probably not in the way you might think. I had my way through the game in two sessions. It was just a little bit too long to finish in one. A lot of the reason this works so well comes from the build up, the stacking up of wrongness from that first moment. With me having a break in the middle, a lot of that momentum was lost. I tend to read slowly, some of you may be able to finish it in shorter than three hours, but if you can do it in a single playsession, I’d strongly recommend it. The continuous build up really adds a lot to it.
So yeah, that’s Doki Doki Literature Club. As with most horror media, it’s going to very much be a your mileage may vary deal, and opinions may run the spectrum. That said, my opinion is better than everyone else’s, and my opinion is that you should go play this. Right now. Now that I’ve spoiled everything for you. It’s still good, I promise! It’s presumably free as an introduction to this developer, giving them attention for future releases, but if this is any indication, Team Salvato is definitely a group to pay attention to. Give this a try. You’ll thank me later.