Ah, Doki Doki Literature Club!, you seem all nice on the surface with the cute elements of a classic visual novel dating sim. A main character surrounded by a harem of girls to fawn over and finding true love around every corner is something that cannot be avoided. But, the twists in your story even left me shocked. Now to be clear, this game should not be played by a younger demographic nor those who are easily disturbed. With that warning/disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin the rabbit hole adventure that is Doki Doki Literature Club!.
Once Upon a Time…
Created and published by Team Salvato, this is their first game, and it was released for the PC on the 22nd September 2017. It’s completely free-to-play and is approximately 200MB or so to download, so it doesn’t take up much room at all on your storage device. At first, I didn’t hear about this game until earlier this year when a few work colleagues were discussing this title. Curiously, I asked about said title, and their response was, “You have to play it, we can’t describe it.” Naturally, this piqued my curiosity, and I proceeded to download it.
Like most visual novel games, I had a basic understanding of how the formula worked: You, the protagonist, have a series of events that you go through whilst being surrounded by friends/allies to reach an objective through the use of animated cutscenes, text and narratives to pull you along (just to point it out, not all VN games fall into this category). Sure enough, Doki Doki follows this archetype. You, the main character play a high school guy surrounded by a harem of women. Sayori, the happy go lucky best friend, Yuri, the quiet, shy bookworm who avoids conflict, Natsuki, the youngest of the group who likes to read manga and all things cute and last but not least, Monika, the club’s president who likes to make sure we all get along.
Ensuing events lead you to write poems for said women to earn brownie points and win their affections. All of this is wrapped up in cute visuals of highly detailed artwork and music that accompanies it superbly. You’d be forgiven for thinking Doki Doki was anything else than it appears to be at first glance.
Things Are Not as They Seem…
But, you’d be wrong. In my first playthrough, I saw the events that made me realise what Team Salvato were doing here. It is a carefully constructed story that touches upon many dark themes. It explores them in such a way that it reveals itself to you, layer by layer, the more you play. And play this game I did, as I wasn’t sure how to react to the scenes that are buried behind the layers. It’s like a box of Pringles: Once you’ve had a few, you want more. In doing so, you open yourself up to a world of strangeness.
The subject matters that Doki Doki explores does not come across as crass or exploitative in its delivery. Every subject that is touched upon is dealt with in a story driven manner that progresses the nightmare along. For better or for worse, you will be peeling back the layers to reveal the bigger picture which comes in the third act of the story.
As the story develops, glitches appear, and for those of you with a keen eye, you will begin to notice oddities appearing in the game that don’t sit right. The music will feel off somehow, and certain key changes will be made to add to the atmosphere, making you feel uneasy throughout the experience. In my playthroughs, the first time I came to a major event, it took me by complete surprise, so much so that I had to take my headset off in a panic as it was completely unexpected. Surely, something so shocking couldn’t have happened. But, Doki Doki delivers it in spades when you least expect it. Fueled by this, I soldiered on to see what else was in store behind the sweet, innocent smiles of the Literature Club.
A Word to the Wise…
Think of this story like an onion. You start with the large surface area, the learning, the talking, the flirting. Then when you peal back a layer, suddenly it isn’t an onion. It’s an apple. With a rotting core. I don’t want to give too much of the game away because I don’t want to spoil it for those who do want to play. However, my main advice would be to stick with it, role with the story and the “flaws” that come along with it as not all glitches are what they appear to be.
Once again, I repeat that this game isn’t for the fainthearted. It may seem to be a game for the younger generation; however, it really isn’t. The reason I repeat this is not for hype or being over dramatic, it’s because the game really isn’t what it seems to be.
With everything this game has to offer, to simply write it off as a visual novel with a few plot twists is to not do it justice. The story has been written in such a way that it would be wrong to judge it on face value. Only when you have played it a few times can you appreciate the complexity of the story. And to you, the reader, I would say this: Try it out. It’s completely free, so there is nothing to lose.
For those who are uncertain if this game is for them, please visit a recent article from the Manchester Evening News that touches upon the story and its themes in more details, including why it should not be played by the younger generation or those easily disturbed.
Developer: Team Salvato
Publisher: Team Salvato
Release Date: 22nd September 2017