"Are you ever too shy to share your writing because you're afraid it's not that good? It can be really disheartening to get a lukewarm response to something you put so much into. But if you find other people who enjoy writing, then sharing becomes a lot easier! Because instead of just telling you that your writing is good, okay, or bad, they'll want to focus more on everything that went into it and the things you can work on. it's much more encouraging that way and will make you want to continue improving. It's almost like having your own little literature club, don't you think? . . . And that's my advice for today!"
Doki Doki Literature Club-- named after the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of a heartbeat-- is an anime-style, interactive-story, visual novel dating simulator written and produced by Dan Salvato. It was released initially September 2017 on the game's website, then released on Steam in October. It is available on Steam (currently for free) and on the game's website.
At first glance, Doki Doki Literature Club looks like a run of the mill visual novel dating simulator. On a surface level, it even advertises itself as such; its description on Steam in is:
Hi, Monika here!
Welcome to the Literature Club! It's always been a dream of mine to make something special out of the things I love. Now that you're a club member, you can help me make that dream come true in this cute game!
Every day is full of chit-chat and fun activities with all of my adorable and unique club members:
Sayori, the youthful bundle of sunshine who values happiness the most;
Natsuki, the deceivingly cute girl who packs an assertive punch;
Yuri, the timid and mysterious one who finds comfort in the world of books;
...And, of course, Monika, the leader of the club! That's me!
I'm super excited for you to make friends with everyone and help the Literature Club become a more intimate place for all my members. But I can tell already that you're a sweetheart—will you promise to spend the most time with me? ♥
This is immediately belied by the next line:
This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.
In fact you'll find that there's actually several warnings for violence and sensitive subject matter, one of which pops up even before you get to the Steam page. When you actually get the game running, You have to check an age release affirming that you are thirteen or older, and warned that if you struggle with issues such as depression or suicidal ideation, you should avoid the game.
On the surface, the plot is much as Monika described it: You are a boy in a high school setting typical of these kind of dating sims-- in that there appears to be no actual learning, no parents, passing mentions of a teacher who may or may not exist. You are walking to school when your longtime childhood friend, Sayori, runs to catch up with you. You two used to walk together all the time, but lately she's been sleeping in later and later, so you've been going without her. Frankly, you're becoming more and more annoyed by her, but you're still her friend and since she's so eager to catch up with you, you wait for her. She begins pestering you about which of the school clubs you are thinking about joining. You turn out to be a bland and slightly selfish fella who doesn't have many specific interests and isn't wild about the idea of joining a club at all, but you decide to take a crack at it. When Sayori confesses that she's promised her club members that she was going to bring a prospective new member around, you bite the bullet and go with her.
In the club you are greeted by three girls of assorted visual-novel-dating-game-anime tropes:
Natsuki, who is the resident tsundere character and manga fan, who is revealed to be insecure about her small stature and "cuteness." She prefers writing that is direct and simple. Why use a bunch of flowery metaphors when you can just say an idea simply?
Yuri, who is the tall, dark, mysterious one with an affinity for the gloomy and has some severe social anxiety. She prefers more loquacious prose with rich descriptions and deeper meaning. If language were meant to be simple all the time, then we wouldn't even ,have such beautiful words, and ignoring them is essentially intentionally limiting the potential of your work.
And Monika, who is the cheerful club leader and seems to be a helpful side-character there to give you advice on how to woo one of the other three girls. Despite what it says in the game description, you actually aren't given the option to hang out with Monika pretty much at all.
And that's the game! You go to literature club, write poems with the girls and help them prepare for the upcoming club festival where they hope to attract even more club members. The poem creating aspect is cute because it is made to look like an open notebook, and on one side it has little chibi caricatures of Natsuki, Sayori, and Yuri, and on the other it has a selection of seemingly random poetic words that actually relate to each girl's style of writing. For example, choosing words like "enigmatic" and "retribution" make's Yuri's little chibi character happy. Choosing things like "happy" and "sad" make little Natsuki happy, and Sayori likes things like "friendly" and "rain." The next day, you'll share your poems with the girls and they will share poems in return that will give a little more insight into their respective personalities.
As the days progress towards the festival, you'll also be given choices about which girl to help out for the festival preparations; you can help Natsuki bake muffins, or help Yuri with decorations and atmosphere. Natsuki and Yuri actually have their own sideplot as well; each girl's writing style is so different that it puts them at odds, but maybe one receptive new club member can help them see past their differences and appreciate the other's art.
Depending on which girl your poem resonates with, and who you choose to work with, your relationships with the club members (and potential romantic interest) will change and unlock new scenarios where you learn more about each girl's personality. The culmination of the game is the big club festival day where all your hard work will pay off!
. . .
. . .
At this point, it's not a spoiler to say that everything is not as it seems in Doki Doki Literature Club, but the following section will have unmarked spoilers. The game really is best when played blind, and it's currently free on Steam and on the game's website, so I recommend playing it and coming back in four hours.
So, as the multiple content warnings may have clued you in on, there are some disturbing topics broached in DDLC. The game is essentially divided into four Acts. The first Act is the one where it plays like a typical cheerful dating sim-- the poems, the festival, the wooing of the ladies. But the end of the first act ends with Sayori confessing her crippling depression which, despite her assurance that she's always been this way, has gotten worse and worse ever since you joined the club, even though she wanted you to join and make friends with people.
No matter what you say to her, whether you confess your love to her or assure you that you will always be her best friend, Sayori isn't in the second act.
The next day, she doesn't come to school. Your character goes to check in on her, and finds her body hanging in her room. Your character freaks out, regretting whatever they said to her the day before, commenting how this isn't some game where he can just reset and say the right thing, lamenting the tragic death of his best friend and-
The game glitches.
There's an error screen behind Sayori's body that says "see traceback for details". The background flashes grainy and glitchy and out of focus. If you look inside the actual files of the game, a new file will appear called Hxppythxughts.png which will show a crude, corrupted-looking drawing of Sayori speckled with red. Another file called "traceback" will appear with the following text:
I'm sorry, but an uncaught exception occurred.
While running game code:
File "renpy/common/00start.rpy", line 256, in script
File "renpy/common/00start.rpy", line 260, in
File "renpy/common/00action_file.rpy", line 427, in __call__
RestartTopContext: Oh jeez...I didn't break anything, did I? Hold on a sec, I can probably fix this...I think...
Actually, you know what? This would probably be a lot easier if I just deleted her. She's the one who's making this so difficult. Ahaha! Well, here's goes nothing.
If you had looked in the game file folder titled "Characters" you would have see the files for Natsuki.chr, Yuri.chr, Sayori.chr and Monika.chr. If you check during or after Sayori's suicide, you'll find that Sayori's file has disappeared.
The game will give you a black "End" screen and the game will drop you back into the main menu, where the pictures of the cheerful girls are there to greet you, but Sayori's is all glitched up. If you try to load the game, you'll get the start up neighborhood shot, but the dialogue will be gibbrish code. The game will try to repeat the opening lines of the game, where you see Sayori running to catch up with you so you can walk to school together, but her name is also glitchy code. When it comes time for her to actually appear, you see a flickering amalgam of the game's other girls, and then it resets again.
Thus begins Act Two.
You are walking to school alone, as you always do. You feel kind of lonely and think that you really ought to make some friends and meet some girls. You wonder about joining a club, but most of them don't sound interesting. Then the cool and popular Monika shows up and asks if you're interested in joining the new club she is trying to start: Literature Club. There are three members right now, but they need a fourth to be recognized as an official club by the school.
You're not given the option to turn it down.
If you try to load the game, you will find that all of your old save data has been deleted.
As you have probably gathered, the big mid-game twist of the game is that Doki Doki Literature Club isn't a cute romance game that might deal with some deep issues about social anxiety, depression, or suicide, but rather a metafictional horror game that fucks around with the game's own files and satirically (and horrifically) addresses the tropes common to typical visual novel games. As the game progresses, you once again get a chance to meet and interact with the other girls, only everything is worse. Not only is the world subtly glitching out (some of which are randomly generated), but the characters occasionally talk in strange bolded language confessing disturbing and inappropriate things. Small arguments the characters had had before become screaming matches without Sayori to calm them down. Everyone's worst traits are exaggerated and the game eventually devolve into violence, suicide, and murder.
Act Three and Four are a culmination of the story in regards to the person who has been manipulating evens the whole time. They have become obsessed with the player. Not the player character, but the player themselves.
This game has the honor of being comparable to Undertale in how it manipulates the medium of games. Similar to games like Undertale, OneShot, and OFF, the DDLC plays with the notion of meta gameplay. Like in Undertale and OneShot, the game plays with the notion of saving the game, reloading, and having characters notice the effects of the process. Like those other games, Doki Doki acknowledge that the main character is being controlled or guided by an outside force (you, the player), and incorporates that into the story. Unlike those other games, however, Doki Doki goes a step further and acknowledges itself as just a game. Undertale, OneShot, and OFF still act as if the story inside the world of the game is significant-- they act as if the narrative is really happening, and the player happens to be some entity or spirit that has appeared into their world to guide the player character. After the first act, DDLC drops that idea and the major plot points revolve around the fact that one of the characters has been deleting more and more of the game you are ostensibly supposed to be playing. Presumably in the metanarrative of the game, there really was a Doki Doki literature Club wherein you could date some girls and have a nice club festival, but the antagonist has ruined it, reshaping it to better suit her needs.
While Undertale had specific easter eggs that could only be revealed by meddling with the game's files (for example, anything having to do with WD Gaster) and left the main game to be played the traditional way (just playing without fucking around with anything), Doki Doki takes the concept a step further and requires you to mess with the files. The only way to progress the game is if you delete the antagonist's character file. The only way to see all of the game's content and to understand more of the game's story is to open up the game's file folder and look through the assorted notes and images the antagonist is putting in there.
In Act Four, there are two available endings and which one you get is determined during the first act. One is "bad" and one is "good." Both of them end with the game deleting itself. If you want to play Doki Doki again, you have to reinstall. If at any point after the point of no return-- Sayori's suicide-- want to redo something, the developers actually included special instructions on the website on how to do a soft reinstall because the game is legitimately fucked up at that point. There may be other games out there wherein the plot calls for the game to actually destroy itself, but I can't think of them off the top of my head.
This, to me, shows another step in an exiting trend in computer games. I specify computer games because this kind of thing wouldn't work on a phone game or console. What I'm talking about is the idea of game developers more fully embracing the different dimensions and stories that can be told through an interactive medium like games. Most videogames tell a straight narrative-- and there's nothing wrong with that. Fight the bad guys, save the world, comment on the nature of man and then it's done. Solve some puzzles, build a Thing, do the hero's journey or die tragically saving the timelines-- whatever. But even the most involving story tends to still be a one dimensional story; the game is packaged and waiting for you to play it, and all you need is a mouse or controller or WASD controls. Your expeirnece is entirely within the world of the game.
But games, computer games especially, have dimensions that other mediums do not. The most obvious of these dimensions, and one that many a comedian has brought up, is that you can actually fail. You can't be bad at a movie, but you can be bad at a game. But the dimension I'm more concerned with is the potential for interaction between player and game and the game's actual structure. Undertale has hints of in in regards to the extra content you get when messing with the FUN level of some rooms, but Doki Doki needs you to go into a place where a large chunk of casual gamers -- especially the type of gamers who would unironically play a dating sim with pretty anime girls-- wouldn't really go and then change the files there. If you delete some files ahead of time, the characters react accordingly and freak out, then delete the game. If you save the files elsewhere and try to bring them back after they are deleted by the game, the characters call you out for cheating and restart. If you try to bring the antagonist back after they are deleted, they berate you for messing with their feelings.
This is the meta shit I am here for.
Another thing to bring up is how elements of this game are intentionally satirizing the RVN genre. The obvious one is the game's protagonist.
In this game, despite one of the core conceits of the genre being about choice-- picking and choosing what to say to who and who to hang out with-- the player isn't actually given too many choices that matter. In some situations (like Sayori's confession about her depression) the player says things that are supremely arrogant, idiotic, contradictory, or just unlikable. According to the creator, the Protagonist's personality was intentionally contradictory and (frankly) distasteful, as that is how the male protagonists in these kind of games usually act.
"MC was designed to behave like a typical VN protagonist, which, in the end, makes him pretty unlikable as a person. His interactions with the club members are based around what you'd expect from other romance games. He's blunt and a little mean to the childhood friend. He teases the tsundere girl. He's warm and more confident toward the shy girl. And he's not confident toward the popular/star girl. MC is designed as one of the satire points toward typical romance games and how a lot of bizarre or questionable exchanges somehow lead to the girls falling in love with you. I think I've seen a lot of experienced VN players doing a lot of "Hah, yeah, of course that happened" whereas a lot of non-VN players have been going "WHY would you say/do that to her??" I'm glad that it's getting some attention, because it might be a worthwhile statement to think about when it comes to visual novels."
As the game goes on, there are almost never more than two choices of what to say, and the one time there is more than one choice at all (hang out with Sayori, Monika, Yuri, or Natsuki), the game stonewalls it and forces you to actually choose between Yuri or Natsuki. As the game progresses further, the character essentially becomes mute. The dialogue options drop off during Act 3, and in Act 4 there is no dialogue at all from the player character. This essentially serves three purposes: to intensify the feeling of helplessness and lack of control the player has, to emphasize that the antagonist is no longer referring to the player character but communicating directly to the player, and to turn the tables in regards to typical VN conventions. Normally in these kinds of games, all of the actions of other characters revolve around you. The main character has a bunch of people falling over themselves, and the player dictates who gets how much attention. Now, the antagonist has overtaken the game and forces you to act in response to her.
This is a very nifty game. There are numerous details and subtle pieces of writing in the game that are rife for picking apart. I highly recommend it.
"Sometimes, when you're writing a poem - or a story - your brain gets fixated on a specific point. If you try so hard to make it perfect, then you'll never make any progress. Just force yourself to get something down on the paper, and tidy it up later! Another way to think about it is this: if you keep your pen in the same spot for too long, you'll just get a big dark puddle of ink. So just move your hand, and go with the flow!"