So I was recently roped into playing Doki-Doki Literature Club, and I figured I’d write down some thoughts on it. This article will be extremely spoiler-heavy, so duck out now if you want to experience it for yourself. It also covers some themes that may be upsetting.
Doki-Doki Literature Club looks very much like a cute and obnoxious high-school romance visual novel from the outside. A couple of people I know were very eager for me to give it a try, though, which instantly made me suspicious. What also made me wary was the fact that the game was tagged on Steam as “Psychological Horror”, though that tag is also used on “Disney-Pixar Cars: Radiator Springs Adventures”, so it’s not always the best indicator.
However, starting up the game presented me with this screen, which pretty much was the nail in the coffin for any expectations that this was not a horror game hiding in a dating sim disguise.
Yet the game was still able to catch me by surprise.
After the initial warning above, the game settles into a very by-the-numbers storyline (though for once you’re not playing as a transfer student). Accompanied by a bright interface and cheery soundtrack, you’re introduced to the protagonist's long-time friend Sayori, who it seems is disorganised and has a tendency to oversleep. She tries to convince the protagonist to join the Literature Club, of which she is Vice-President. He’s clearly not eager, but is eventually convinced by the promise of snacks.
The next sequence introduces you to the club itself, and the three other members. Monika is the cheerful President, Natsuki is a defensive manga fan who has a talent for baking, and Yuri is a quiet yet passionate reader who has a penchant for horror. A brief conversation about horror writing had me nodding to myself that this was inevitably going to exchange the cutesy story for something darker.
Following on from this, the game sets up the main pattern for the rest of the playthrough. Natsuki has apparently written a poem but is afraid to share it, so Monika suggests an activity for the club: everyone will write a poem before each session, and they can then share the poems with each other. The protagonist, who hasn’t quite agreed to be part of the club yet, is subsequently coerced into staying, not least because he’s interested in seeing where he can get with any of the girls.
So far, then, the story and presentation have all been very normal for this genre, if we ignore the stern warnings on starting up the game for the first time. You might be wondering when things are going to start changing, and it’s with the poem-writing that I noticed things were off.
I thought this idea was great. It came in at just the right point in the story, and I smiled at the simple genius of the idea.
In order to write your poem for the next session, you play a little game where you pick out a key word from a list of ten. On the left side of the screen, you have cute little pictures of three of the girls, and if you pick a word they like, they’ll jump and cheer. The game indicates that choosing such words may cause something good to happen with your favourite club member.
When I went to school I tended to be the quiet type who read books in the library more than socialising, so I picked out Yuri. Natsuki struck me as a bit grumpy and hostile, while Sayori, while nice enough, felt a bit too extroverted for someone like me. Since Yuri was a horror fan, I figured that I’d go for some of the more negative words in the list.
It wasn’t Yuri who celebrated many of the words I picked, though. In the picture above, Sayori is “celebrating” after I picked the word defeat. This went for many negative words I chose, though I still managed to just about favour Yuri in this round. While Sayori had seemed perfectly social and cheerful so far, it seemed that she was hiding another aspect of herself that we had yet to see. At this point I was mostly amused by the idea, nodding to myself that I could see where this game was going, expecting her to be some sort of axe-crazy murderer as I was still focused on purely horror.
At the next meeting, you then get to share your poem with the club members, and choose the order you share it in. For this playthrough, I went with Yuri, Sayori, Monika, and lastly Natsuki. I’m not going to pretend to fully know or understand exactly how your choices influence the game, but as the story went on Natsuki got so fed up with my favouritism of Yuri that she flat-out refused to share her later poems with me.
Monika meanwhile gives you another Tip of the Day: “Sometimes you’ll find yourself facing a difficult decision… When that happens, don’t forget to save your game!”. This break of the fourth wall is a neat nod to the end of the first playthrough, where it’s likely that you’ll want to load an earlier save and see if you could do anything differently. However, you don’t get a chance to do so, as your save file(s) can no longer be accessed.
Toying with the functions of the game itself is part of the horror aspects in the latter part of the visual novel, but I feel it also presents the futility of such thoughts in the real world, where you don’t have the convenience of reloading an earlier save when things go wrong. I got a helpless feeling when the reliability of saving was taken away from me, even if I didn’t reload all that often (I’ve mostly been using it to grab screenshots).
Anyway… as I mentioned before, the game settles into a clear formula. You write your poem, present it to the group, and depending on which words you picked, the girls react to you in a variety of ways. Yuri slowly came out of her shell a bit and shared her love of reading with me, Sayori showed enthusiasm at my poems with me while expressing a bittersweet reaction to how I was getting on with Yuri and the club, Monika remarked a little on the goings-on while sharing a Tip for the Day, and Natsuki got steadily more hostile towards me.
It’s during this daily routine that a major plot point is also laid out – the festival, where the club President, Monika, intends to attract lots of new members. Despite the reservations of many of the club members, Monika presses ahead with her plan to have them all read out a poem in front of whatever audience they manage to attract. It seemed likely at this stage that the finale of the story would take place at the festival, whether as a regular dating sim triumph, or a Carrie-esque disaster.
On the next day, though, a change comes over Sayori. She avoids talking to people, and brushes off your concerns when you speak to her about it. Monika identifies that Sayori’s thinking about you, and goes to speak with her. When you share your poem with Sayori later, it’s clear that their talk hasn’t helped, and she soon decides to go home instead.
The rest of the session goes by as normal (if we ignore Natsuki’s hostile rejection of my poem), at which point you have to choose who to help with preparations for the festival. I recognised that this was an important choice, and likely the one that Monika had foreshadowed with her Tip of the Day about saving, so I wavered between helping out Sayori or my chosen love interest for the playthrough, Yuri.
I eventually decided to go with Yuri, figuring that if I was going to focus on that particular romance path, I might as well follow it to the end. I’ve since found that the choice ultimately doesn’t matter all that much – if you try to choose Sayori, the others remind you that she’s already helping Monika, and bully you out of it.
Now this is where the story gets tricky for me. I’ve played quite a few horror games in my time, and while they can still get me to jump here and there, I’m mostly not too unsettled by what goes on in them. If anything, I tend to get more irritated by one-shot and hiding mechanics than frightened. However, when your character goes to visit Sayori over the weekend, I really struggled to get through it.
The protagonist decides to check in with Sayori, figuring that she needs him right now, and lets himself inside and heads up to her room. He boldly declares that he knows that something’s wrong, and she eventually spills her heart out.
Sayori reveals that she’s actually had depression her entire life, and then breaks down all of her little “funny” quirks that were established earlier in the story. Her messy room and late mornings were no longer about her being silly, but instead a symptom of her lack of energy and motivation. As she listed off all of the basic things she struggled with, I had to stop for a few minutes; it is somewhere I have been many times in the past, and I had trouble revisiting it.
The protagonist struggles to deal with it as well, attempting to comfort her with limited success. He boldly proclaims that he will help her work it all out, and she slowly seems to come around a bit, returning his hug and encouraging him to go spend the day working on the festival project with Yuri.
At this point, the protagonist finds it hard to understand what Sayori has told him, and he tells himself that she will be fine, and that he should just focus on his day with Yuri instead. The following sequence returns to regular life, with little-to-no mention of Sayori and what she revealed to the protagonist. Instead, the story focuses on the protagonist’s budding relationship with whichever girl he picked, throwing out a few more hints to their backstories, and possible questions that might come up at the festival on the next day.
For example, if you help out Yuri with the banner, she doesn’t reveal what she wrote on it, setting up a potential shock for the next day. I think that’s one of the things Doki Doki does really well in this particular story – juggling a feeling of inevitability with Sayori, while still leading you on to think that perhaps things may return to normal.
When Sayori catches you becoming romantically close to Yuri (or Natsuki), though, she is unsurprisingly devastated. She also drops a hint that Monika said something that has been playing on her mind, though it’s quickly brushed to one side. At this point, you get two options. One is to declare that you love Sayori, while the other is to explain that you care about her as a friend.
Certainly it’s a rough choice, but since I’d gone with pursuing Yuri, I figured that “lying” to Sayori would be cruel, so I picked the latter option. Sayori takes it terribly, and I was left wondering if I shouldn’t have lied after all. Unfortunately, if you do choose to say that you love Sayori, the outcome is almost worse. Part of Sayori has been yearning for the protagonist, and yet when the moment finally arrives, it doesn’t actually make her feel better at all.
Either way it’s a troubling set of events, and it only gets worse the next day. Sayori doesn’t meet you to go in to school, and instead of checking in on her, the protagonist decides it would be “a little too much”, and goes on in without her. At this point I was quite certain how things were going to play out, and that we’d never get to see the festival.
Sure enough, when you meet Monika, she presents you with the different poems everyone will be reading at the festival. Sayori’s poem is quite disturbing, and the protagonist realises that he needs to go check on her right away.
It’s an interesting thing with stories. Sometimes you can be disappointed by how predictable something will be, and on other occasions you can know what’s coming but still be affected by it. By this stage I was fully involved in the world that had been created, and I dreaded the last visit to Sayori’s house, and the inevitable reveal after you enter her bedroom.
To its credit, Doki Doki doesn’t linger too long on the death scene. After the initial shock of seeing Sayori, it returns to a black screen, while the protagonist chastises himself for handling things so badly, and letting this happen. There’s no further story after this – the festival, the romance, everything else is dropped. The screen is occupied by darkness, broken only by the word “END”.
So that was it. The game had successfully bait-and-switched me, tricking me into expecting a spooky tale and instead presenting me with a challenging story about depression and how easily the seriousness of it can be overlooked.
Except that’s not quite true…
You see, at this point, you can start the game over, and this time around it changes to the horror game that I was expecting. Here’s where my own opinion splits into two.
The problem is that I think Doki Doki is pretty good at the horror genre, but it comes at the expense of Sayori’s story. It plays with the format of visual novels in an effective way, twisting the story and presentation in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways. Occasionally character sprites appear uncomfortably large, the background might be off at an angle, or even some of the scenery might be altered in such a way that it can easily be overlooked. These examples aren’t big things (except perhaps that last one, if you catch it), but they help to generate a sense of unease that something’s wrong.
However, there’s the more overt occurrences, such as Yuri becoming frighteningly obsessed with the protagonist, or a broken-necked Natsuki charging at the screen, before presenting you with a fake “END” screen. These were all interesting ideas, but ranged wildly between unsettling and comical for me, nothing like the trepidation I felt when returning to Sayori’s house that last time in the first playthrough.
The story, as it emerges (or seems to, at least), is that one of the characters, Monika, is aware that she is in a visual novel, and she has become obsessed with the player/protagonist, seeking to force them to fall in love with her by messing with the game, whether through rewriting the script, turning personality traits up to undesirable levels, or deleting saves and characters.
This is where my feelings are mixed. I think the concept is great, and I enjoyed the full set of playthroughs and finding what had changed. The imagination in how they played with the format, and even had you dive outside of the game to toy with the files, was exceptional.
However, none of it really came close to how I felt when playing that first story with Sayori, and that’s where the real problem came in for me. Monika, in her motive rant, discusses how she messed around with Sayori’s personality to stop me falling for her, which goes back and spoils the thing I felt was most important about that story. Suddenly it’s no longer an exploration of depression, but instead a plot mechanic for a tale about an obsessed AI (or whatever, precisely, Monika was), and I found that a little disappointing.
That’s where I feel stuck, then. The original story is excellent, and the horror sequences that follow are also top-notch, but together I feel that they didn’t fully complement each other. The latter horror sequences came at the expense of Sayori’s very real conflicts, which I felt was a shame.
If you’ve read this far without having played it yourself, I still recommend giving it a go even if I’ve spoiled everything. It’s actually free to play in its entirity, though you can purchase stuff on their site if you feel like supporting them. Of all the games I’ve played in 2017, I think this has had the greatest emotional impact on me, and I fully recommend giving it a try.