When I looked up Doki Doki Literature Club! on Steam after a friend recommended it to me, I couldn’t help but question his taste and his weeaboo tendencies. My friend (pointedly ignoring my weeaboo comment) quickly assured me that I would love it, told me not to read the reviews, and insisted that I just download and play it. The game was (and still is) free – so I did. And man, did I get more than I expected.
Doki Doki Literature Club! is a quirky, adorable, genuinely terrifying visual novel that just about perfects the psychological horror genre. The gameplay is essentially a point and click, and though at times it did feel like there was a lot to push through to get to the story, overall DDLC! does a good job of balancing the minimal gameplay with the storyline and character cut scenes. Visually, the game is beautiful and horrific in turns, using cues that anyone familiar with computers will have an immediate negative reaction to as it purposely appears to glitch and unravel as the increasingly disturbing storyline plays out. The anime artwork itself is very well drawn, though at first the poses of the characters can seem rather limited, this is possibly because any changes in character design throughout the game are used to unnerve the player.
As with any good horror, sound plays a huge role in building tension. The music starts out upbeat and cheerful, but as the game progresses it skips and is played out of tune in ways designed to make you uneasy. The use of classic horror sound effects such as cheerfully manic giggles interspersed with heavy breathing (and even the clever inclusion of complete silence in some scenes) help to push the player’s ever-growing discomfort to the next level. I would highly recommend playing DDLC! while wearing headphones so that you can get the full experience.
The game itself follows a young man as he is convinced by Sayori, his childhood best friend, into joining the literature club at their high school. There he meets the three other members of the group; Yuri, Natsuki and the club president Monika. Over the course of a few days within the game, you get to know these characters as they share their writing with you. In turn, you share your own poetic creations with them through a simple word choice mini-game.
As you progress and you begin to get emotionally invested in what – at face value – seems like nothing more than a cute dating sim, you are struck by tragedy, and you find Sayori after she has committed suicide. The game then appears to glitch and reset, losing all previous saves, and you start the game anew – this time, without Sayori. You play through the game again and as you play increasingly there is something… off. The normally cheerful music might stutter. The design of a character will be changed disturbingly. The text of the character speaking might run off the page, too quick to read and at times completely illegible. The characters begin to behave in ways that you simply don’t expect. These things, small at first, begin to build and create a tension so thick that it will crush you in your seat. Friendships with both Yuri and Natsuki provide increasingly disturbing storylines, and as you helplessly watch the various horrors that this disarmingly pink and cutesy game has to offer, there is (just) Monika. Monika, who smiles benignly and assures you that everything is fine, all the while appearing to manipulate not just the other characters and your own choices, but also the game itself.
It is fair to say that I perhaps should have trusted my friend more than I initially did. It is also fair to say that I should never trust him again and that, in the future, I should probably read the game tags before playing. Overall, Doki Doki Literature Club! has far more depth to it than I first expected and is a unique addition to the visual novel genre. The game plays on your expectations, luring you in with its pastel colour scheme, the promise of young love, true friendship, and the bubbly theme song. It begins to turn against you subtly, and then not so subtly, as you play through again and again, desperately searching for the happy ending you thought you were promised. If you’re anything like me, there will come a point where you will start to feel like the game is playing you, more than you are playing it. You won’t be entirely wrong.