“This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.”
“Individuals suffering from anxiety or depression may not have a safe experience playing this game.”
“By playing Doki Doki Literature Club, you agree that you are at least 13 years of age, and you consent to your exposure of highly disturbing content.”
These are the words that greeted me upon starting Doki Doki Literature Club for the first time. What looks like a cutesy, fun, Japanese dating simulator suddenly seems all the more sinister and not what it seems.
This is exactly what drew me in. I found this game almost by accident, after some trawling through the Steam Library to see what was popular or on sale. I’ve always been drawn to horror games and, after years of playing horror games like ‘Outlast’ and ‘Amnesia’, I can obviously handle a bit of disturbing content. But I didn’t know what I was getting into before I hit the agree button that took me into this game. Horror games scare the life out of me, and sometimes I wonder why I buy games that I have a hard time playing alone, but I think it’s the adrenaline of forcing yourself to face a fear that leaves you feeling liberated. Although I was not expecting an experience like this with Doki Doki Literature Club, I was certainly surprised.
I’ve never been a big fan of dating simulators and, to be honest, I’ve never played one. I’m not against them, and clearly they are popular, but I prefer to go on an adventure like in Zelda or become a Pokemon Master, in my spare time. But, after seeing the tag ‘Psychological Horror’ in this seemingly harmless anime game, I couldn’t resist pressing the download button, and for the low price of £0, it seemed like a no-brainer!
The game begins with our protagonist (A high school boy that you do not see but choose the name for) being pestered by his childhood friend Sayori into joining the school literature club. Sayori is a girl overflowing with happiness. She always has something nice to say and knows how to defuse any hostile situation with her optimistic nature. She is seemingly the personification of sunshine. It is referenced a lot during the course of the game that the player character and Sayori care a lot about each other and are constantly taking more care of each other than themselves. Despite your reluctant protests, Sayori convinces you that joining the literature club is better than spending your after-school time watching anime and playing video games.
It is at the literature club that you spend the majority of your time. Your time is spent getting invested in the world, and the girls that inhabit it. There’s Natsuki, the young pink haired scrappy manga-lover that is as cute as she is feisty; Yuri, the introverted, constantly over-thinking book nerd with dark fantasies and obsessions; and Monika, the popular, beautiful president of Doki Doki Literature Club that cares deeply about the other club members and their relationships with one another. The variety of personalities gives you completely different girls to focus your interests on, and surprisingly each girl feels real. With relatable traits and writing styles, shown through reading their in-game poems, players get a glimpse into the girl’s minds. Natsuki adopts simple but effective writing, Yuri’s is dark and mysterious, Sayori has bittersweet poetry and Monika shows thought provoking works.
The gameplay is mainly reading and following the story. It is, essentially, a visual novel, but your choices and the girls that you write your poems for affect what happens. Writing poems is the gameplay mechanic that helps you to feel in control of the story. At the end of every day you are given a choice of words to use as prompts to write your poem, with cute chibi versions of Sayori, Natsuki and Yuri jumping for joy if you pick a word that is associated with their style of writing. It is this that moulds the story into different shapes, with some characters warming up to you and others being pushed away. And while you think that what you are doing is relatively harmless, the atmosphere of the game starts to change.
The game is right to warn you, the once innocent and vibrant atmosphere soon turns dark and twisted. It’s the psychological aspects of the game that are the most creepy, and while the game isn’t necessarily scary it definitely knows how to make you feel uneasy. The way that the game twists and reveals its ugly face is somewhat mind-blowing and startling, making you question your own thinking and, in turn, your own sanity. Things that were once crystal clear on the surface are now murky, and the line between what you were once so sure of and what is clearly not right become blurry. Doki Doki Literature Club delves into the human psyche to reveal some of the darkest problems plaguing modern day society such as depression, self-harm, and abuse in a very real and troubling way.
Doki Doki Literature Club gets nearly everything right. The anime design is perfect for the genre, and the soundtrack is quirky (and dark at times), and keeps the flow of the game in perfect check. It has just the right amount of challenge and the story length is somewhat customisable; there are many places you can stop playing if it’s not right for you. But for those that do enjoy the game, there is so much to do and the replayability is probably the game’s greatest asset. That being said, the story does wear on you at certain points. The pacing is sometimes a little off, with the first arc’s gameplay being a clicking marathon, with very little to do except read walls of text between the characters. It’s still entertaining, but may be boring to those with little patience.
In the end, Doki Doki Literature Club is an unforgettable experience that gives back to you the more you put in. It’s not ‘Outlast’, or ‘Amnesia’…in fact it’s in a category of its own. Not quite horror but not quite dating sim, either. You’ll probably either love it or you’ll hate it, but for a free game, everyone should try it.
I give it a 10/10
Written for Respawning by Tom Archard.