Doki Doki Literature Club was a Japanese-style visual novel that stirred up quite the commotion upon its release. However, unlike Katawa Shoujo at the beginning of this month, the reason for DDLC’s popularity was a little different. With that said, it is a game that heavily depends on its surprise factor. If you missed out on the game at the time of its release, I recommend playing it before reading this article. This is not so much a review as it is a look back at the game and a critique of whether it still holds up two years later, now that the hype surrounding the game has dispersed and people have moved on.
Final warning: this review will contain major spoilers.
Let us proceed
Doki Doki Literature Club presented itself as a cutesy dating sim centered around an anime-loving nerd that is pressured into joining his school’s literature club. Once there, he learns that the club consists of just 4 girls: his upbeat childhood friend Sayori, the pint-sized tsundere Natsuki, the quiet bookworm Yuri, and the club’s president Monika. While lacking an actual interest in literature, our protagonist figures that this is the perfect opportunity to get to know these girls and see if maybe a romance could blossom.
The initial presentation is almost painfully saccharine, with a title screen full of cute anime girls, a colorful, animated background, and the happiest music human hands can produce. Each of the girls fits famous anime tropes and their introductions play out as by-the-book clichés, such as Natsuki going through the entire tsundere routine. This is all a front, as the game is actually a horror title and reveals itself to be so around the 1-hour mark, depending on how quickly you read.
The entire first act keeps up the facade of a dating sim, letting the player make decisions that steer the focus towards one of the girls, excluding Monika who has more of a support role. An additional layer of gameplay lies in the writing of poems, where the player is given a list of words that all correspond to one of the girls. The player picks 20 and the next day the girl who likes the poem the most will get more screen-time.
Throughout act 1 the tone steadily shifts. Your selfish romantic pursuit causes friction within the club and the cutesy, wholesome stereotypes of the girls gain more depth as you spent time with them. It deals with topics of self-harm, abuse, and suicidal tendencies, which is initially handled tastefully and, according to many, realistically. Not only do the girls cope with such problems, but they also fall in love with your character and end up in competition for your attention. On one day I accidentally wrote a poem more to Sayori’s taste than Natsuki, which caused Sayori to burst into tears the next day when I came back with a poem that clearly favored the latter. In another situation, I was forced to choose which of the four girls to help with preparation for the school festival, and some options were made unavailable because picking them caused arguments to break out.
I like the idea of a dating sim visual novel where it gradually becomes clear that romancing a love interest and staying friendly with the rest of the cast is difficult or even mutually exclusive. DDLC has some good writing and dramatic scenes, it does a great job at getting you invested in the characters, and the build-up towards the big plot twist is harrowing, even when replaying the game. However, that is not what the game is about in the end.
The moment Doki Doki Literature Club loses me is when its otherwise fantastic plot twist is accompanied with fake glitches and the background is replaced with a python error code. The story goes from an intense romantic drama to full-on creepypasta mode and that is the moment where my goodwill towards the game slips away instantly.
From that point on, the game asks you to replay it while a meta-narrative unfolds about the game falling apart. It’s being rewritten on the fly by some maleficent force, causing glitches and broken code to alter the entire experience. The negative aspects of the girls’ personalities are intensified and the glitches become increasingly gory and violent in the renewed build-up towards the festival. And while the breaking of the fourth wall and its sudden turn to horror gave the game internet fame and even landed it in international news, I felt it really didn’t hold up.
It’s still kind of fun to read and see what crazy stuff is in there, but it’s not scary, it’s not doing much to explore characters, it’s not romantic, it’s not fun, and the drama hinges on scripted glitches and unrealistic “scary” scenes. It loses that unnerving realism that preceded the first scare, that helpless feeling of being unable to help somebody no matter how hard you try, and in its stead is an overlong parody game that keeps extending itself long after it peaked. And, most painfully of all, the game really loses its opportunity to have a serious representation of that heavy subject matter, when the same game also has a scene where the screen turns dark and the cute anime girl starts crying blood before randomly dying of nothing in particular.
DDLC has novelty and it presents its breaking of the fourth wall well, yet it still feels like taking the easy way out. After you have seen its scripted freak-out once, I found that the game has little to return to and it can’t really surprise you with its antics the same way twice. I feel that the game will be remembered well for its subverting of dating sim expectations; certainly, no other visual novel can hope to pull of the same antics without being compared to it, and its characters are semi-famous and popular enough that people are still making comics and fan content with them now.
For all its problems… the game is still successful and makes people happy. And isn’t that what it’s all about in the end?