|Genre||Visual novel, dating sim, psychological horror (no, seriously…)|
|Free Download||Click here to download from Steam.|
Don’t you just feel like a weeaboo for browsing a game like this? Or maybe you’ve heard some things about a certain literature club that has a dark secret or two… Either way, I don’t judge.
After all, I’m a simple man with simple needs. And one of those simple needs is more anime babes. So, I’m more or less okay with the visual novel genre.
Yes, the visual novel, one of the most niche genres of video games out there for westerners—but quite popular in Japan. It’s a simple concept. Write up a story heavy with narration and dialogue, then present it with artwork and sound. Because most visual novels follow this simple format, it’s much easier for these games to focus on its story and characters. Because unlike most video games, it doesn’t have to focus on deep, complex or fun gameplay to be enjoyed. A completely linear narration or a choose-your-own-adventure format will do just fine.
There are exceptions, of course. Series like Ace Attorney, Zero Escape and Danganronpa are visual novels that have both a rich story and many gameplay elements that set them apart from other games in the genre. An RPG series like Persona uses visual novel elements that emphasize bonding with the characters to progress through the game. And Corpse Party is a survival horror series that possesses some degree of non-linearity in order to expand characterizations and plot.
Visual novels are becoming more common to the west, and I’m thankful for that. Steam is certainly an interesting platform for these kinds of games, because of its strong indie presence. Games like Undertale seemed to become popular overnight thanks to Steam. And by the looks of it, Doki Doki Literature Club! had reached a similar cult status.
And this brings up to our next point: the dating sim. Bear with me, please. We’re almost at the review.
The dating sim is a subgenre of simulation games, where you take the role of a non-descript protagonist and attempt to gain the affections of one of the characters in the game. The most common type is the bishoujo (“pretty girl”) romance, where you try to befriend a pretty girl and eventually have her become your girlfriend. And at first glance, this is the kind of game that Doki Doki Literature Club! appears to be.
For those wondering what “doki doki” in the title means, it’s a Japanese onomatopoeia for a fast-beating heart. You know. You woo a pretty girl, your heart beats fast. Sounds like one of the most sickeningly sweet titles for a game ever, does it?
But when you make some glances at the game, you notice some odd things. The Steam page for this game has the tag “Psychological Horror.” And when you launch the game, you receive a strange disclaimer.
This game is not suitable for children or for those who are easily disturbed.
Or how about this little gem?
Individuals suffering from anxiety or depression may not have a safe experience playing through this game. For content warnings, please visit http://ddlc.moe/warning.html.
And what does the main menu screen look like?
Yeah, such a cute and harmless game, right? And yet, you can’t help but feel curious about the game’s actual content.
Well… okay then. You’re going to get exactly what is stated in the fine print. If you haven’t played the game yet and want to, do it before reading the rest of this review. It’s all spoiler territory from here on out.
Picking Up Anime Babes with Poetry
Story of my life. Why else would I be playing this?
The story begins with you (a male protagonist you name) speaking to your neighbor and childhood friend Sayori. Sayori is worried about your lack of social interactions, so she invites you the high school’s Literature Club. Sayori herself is the vice president of the club.
The other members include the club president Monika, quiet girl Yuri and tsundere Natsuki.
Four Three cute girls, only one to romance. Oh, what to do, what to do…
So yeah, this is pretty much a standard setup for a dating sim. You’re the sole male protagonist. And just like magic, you have a harem of single yet beautiful adolescent girls that you can romance. Pick one to spend time with and get your happy ending.
Doki Doki Literature Club! is a visual novel that has branching story paths. It’s linear but your choices determine which cutscenes you go through.
The main deciding factor is the mini-game. You must compose a poem by picking 20 words, then show the poem to the girls. Whichever girl you want to befriend, you must pick the words that appeal to her the most. As a hint, picking a word will cause one of the sprites to jump in glee.
- Sayori – likes words reflecting happiness, sadness and romance
- Natsuki – likes cute and simple words
- Yuri – likes mature and complex words; also likes horror themes
Monika – likes ?????????????????????????
Then you will exchange poems, getting some insight of each of the girls’ personalities.
There are also some dialogue choices, through they’re less frequent and tend to lean towards the obvious outcomes.
After exchanging poems with the other girls, you will get additional scenes with the girl of your choice. These tend to be more intimate and even awkward.
Yeah, those are pretty cute. But… did anyone notice something… odd here…? No…? Well, I’m sure it’s nothing.
Um, thanks for sharing that, Yuri. But you’re just exaggerating. I assure you, Doki Doki Literature Club! is just a harmless dating sim visual novel. It’s all just part of the process towards the birds and the bees. I’m sure we’re going to have a bright future, we’ll all become better writers from the Literature Club, and…
OH FUCK! WHAT IS THAT!? HOW!? WHY!?
Welcome to Doki Doki Literature Club! Prepare for some romance… and… heart…break…
“Now Everyone Can Be Happy”
Well, that was disturbing. And even heartbreaking when you consider the circumstances around Sayori’s suicide. The way that cutscene played out was eerily similar to discovering a dead body in a Danganronpa game, especially when it’s a character you liked.
And just to further tie in the Danganronpa similarities.
Yeah, strangely fitting, isn’t it?
From the beginning, Sayori was presented as the childhood friend. She is also the cheerful girl of the Literature Club, where she takes on the de facto role of a mediator—particularly, between assertive Natsuki and passive Yuri.
From the viewpoint of the male protagonist, Sayori is a clumsy and carefree girl with a bit of a lazy side to her. He even mentions that Sayori tends to get up late in the morning, often making her late to school.
What seems like a character trait that contributes to Sayori’s carefree lifestyle actually meant something more horrifying. Her cheerful personality is just a facade to mask her severe depression, which is bad enough to drive her to suicide. She tends to get up late, because… well, she just doesn’t want to. She felt no reason to get up and didn’t want to face life.
Sayori also possesses a low opinion of herself, believing she’s inferior to others and thinking she’s a nuisance to everyone. The main reason that she was still around was because she wanted to make the male protagonist happy, her closest friend and the one she loves. The story began because Sayori wanted to make the male protagonist happy. And after seeing him enjoy himself at the Literature Club, Sayori felt that she was no longer needed and later regretted her decision, which further contributed to her depression. She didn’t want anyone to worry about her.
What makes this so heartbreaking is that it’s a realistic depiction of depression. Just because a person is a lot of smiles doesn’t mean that person is truly happy. A depressed person can be really good at hiding his/her true emotions.
Furthermore, sometimes depression can be so bad that the inflicted person doesn’t want help. The in-game example Sayori is caught in a catch-22 situation. If she asks the male protagonist to join a club for his own well being, she considers herself selfish. If she wants to be your girlfriend, she considers herself selfish. No matter what actions she takes, she views herself as weak and selfish.
She doesn’t want help. She just wants everyone to forget about her, so she can vanish silently. Because she’s not worth caring for.
As someone who struggles with depression himself, I understand these nihilistic feelings all too well. What keeps me going is knowing that I still have something to offer to the world. I’m confident that my contributions will be fruitful and I can still make other people happy, however big or small they are. As long I have some things to hold onto, I can face life.
And I’m happy that Doki Doki Literature Club! handles this kind of topic maturely. People with low self-confidence and depression definitely exist, and it can be difficult to help them find their way. Inadequacy is a horrible feeling and it must be handled with care. If you’re close to someone like this, please get them help and convince them that they mean a lot to you. Depression is a serious disorder. You can’t simply ‘fix’ it. The person inflicted with depression is the only one who can ‘cure’ it, just as long he/she finds something in life to hold onto.
A Void Left Behind
Starting from the second act, Doki Doki Literature Club! seemingly starts over with Sayori erased from existence. And that’s when things go truly awry.
Aside from the game seemingly glitching up, the girls don’t get along as they used to. It’s the point where they’re behaving uncharacteristically.
Natsuki and Yuri were becoming more aggravated towards each other, and Monika was spreading rumors about the two of them.
Yuri, once a gentle and well-spoken bookworm, became more possessive of the male protagonist and revealed herself to be a masochist. And Natsuki caught wind of this strange shift in personality, becoming truly concerned for Yuri. But even Natsuki appeared to be hiding some secrets of her own. Her mean personality may be due to a troubled home life. It’s possible Natsuki’s dad regularly abuses and neglects her, and that the Literature Club is the only place where she can be herself.
An outside force seems to interfere with the lives of Yuri and Natsuki, forcing them to say things they normally wouldn’t say and making them less human. Eventually, the next suicide happens.
My theory on this is that Yuri was fully aware of what she was saying and doing, but she couldn’t control herself because someone was using her as a puppet. When she threatened the male protagonist with a knife, she seized control of herself for a short moment and killed herself to protect the male protagonist.
Needless to say, the second act is intense and it’s where the horror themes sink in. After Sayori’s death, the Literature Club wasn’t the same and the game itself seemed to be breaking apart.
Alright, just a warning. This is going to be a long analysis of our villainess, Monika.
Next comes the biggest breaking of the fourth wall of the game: Monika addresses the user of the computer (not the male protagonist, you) playing the game, and erases the other girls out of existence. The Literature Club is now just you and Monika, destined to remain together for all eternity—because she made it that way. Monika is fully aware that she’s in a game and that her friends are just AI programmed to confess their love to the male protagonist.
But not her. She’s just a background prop.
And just to further mindfuck you, she even has her own Twitter so she can continue to spread her love and peace throughout the Internet. Oh, the horror.
But the weird thing is… I’m not even mad at her, after all the shit she’s done to the other girls. Given the circumstances of everyone in the Literature Club, I don’t blame Monika for what she did. And the truth shows itself in the ending.
By literally going into the game’s files (Computer -> C: drive -> Program Files (x86) -> Steam -> SteamApps -> common -> Doki Doki Literature Club -> characters), you can delete monika.chr. Doing this will turn Monika into a faceless entity, becoming angry at you for deleting her. But once she realizes the horrible things she did, she attempted to make amends by restarting the game without herself. Sayori is back, now the new president of the Literature Club. And…
The tragedy was going to start over again, this time with Sayori being the mastermind.
So Monika, still retaining her existence somehow, deleted all of the girls and also deleted everything else, to prevent another tragedy and left us with this wretched revelation.
At first glance, it’s easy to paint Monika as this face of evil that is just one step closer to taking over our computers. But when you think of how her actions tie to her emotions, she’s not evil. She’s someone given power and awareness, with unfair restrictions to what she can or can’t do.
Yes, Monika was the one responsible for escalating Sayori’s depression. She was responsible for pushing Sayori to suicide. She was responsible for amplifying the worst traits of Natsuki and Yuri. She was responsible for putting words in their mouth. She was responsible for driving Yuri into insanity. She was responsible for removing her own friends from the game, with the sole intent of having you (the user of the computer) to herself.
And her last weapon was pathos alone. She attempts to play with the emotions of the user, in hopes that you keep her around. That was her final desperate plea to convince you that she’s real.
That’s really sad when you think about it. Monika didn’t start off as an evil entity who enjoys killing her friends. She lives in a world where only five characters exist: herself, Sayori, Yuri, Natsuki and the male protagonist. The moment she learned of the true nature of her role and the game itself, she entered an existential crisis. The game foreshadows a lot of these themes in the first act.
Monika seemed to have it all: brains, beauty and brawn. Out of the four girls, she has the least number of glaring flaws. She’s kind, insightful, intelligent, athletic, ambitious and loves her friends. Even though she claims to not be very good with people, she is a genuine and dedicated person. One might say she’s perfect. The male protagonist mentioned she’s way out of his league. And even the girls acknowledged that Monika is more desirable than all of them combined.
She seemed to have it all… but she can never gain the protagonist’s love, because the game never gives her the opportunity to. It seems the in-game excuse of “she’s way out of my league” prevents her from having her own story arc. And if she tries to take initiative to spend time with the male protagonist, the other girls heckle her for it. Her established character traits were absolutely pointless and empty. In her own words…
It’s the pain of knowing how alone I really am in this world.
Monika is stuck at being the big sister figure to the other girls, playing the cheerleader. She’s a side character who resents her role and wants to be loved too. She never wanted to directly harm her friends. But she was desperate. She didn’t want to be a fictional character to whom no one pays attention to. And so, she tried to make the other girls less desirable to the male protagonist. But in attempting to do so, she broke them.
The creepy part is that a Youtuber managed to notice a small detail: knowing WHEN Monika is watching. The piano we never see.
The ending made one thing clear: being the club president forces you to know everything that’s going on, but you can also never participate in the game itself. It singles you out. In an alternate intro where you deleted Monika before she reveals herself, Sayori becomes the new club president. But the story didn’t begin like normal. Sayori suddenly panics, as she learns everything that Monika had learned. Combined with her depression, it was too much for her. Unable to face the truth, she causes the game to crash. And when you open it, Sayori had already committed suicide.
Why was Monika the club president? Because she’s probably the only character sane enough to not immediately break the game. If Yuri or Natsuki was the club president, what would they have done? Would they also enter a mental breakdown, just like with Sayori?
Again, in Monika’s own words:
To put it lightly, I at least have it together in the head…and I know how to treat my club members.
But as much as she tried to hide it, the truth behind Doki Doki Literature Club! still hurts her. Perhaps out of the four girls, she is the only one willing to fight for her own happy ending, whether her reality is false or not. Because perhaps she is the most desperate of them all. It was implied in a hidden document that she badly wanted to end her life as well. But you are her one hope to avert that. You are the only thing that stands between her and suicide.
Monika was convinced that there’s no happy ending in sight. Someone has to be the the club president in order for the game to function. But no matter who it is, there will always be tragedy. So Monika deleted everyone, ending her own misery and her friends’ misery. It’s the least that a loving big sister figure can do for her dear friends.
Monika was certainly a pleasant character for much of the story, until it became more apparent that she knew more than she lets on. But the one time you can really know what she’s like is towards the end, when it’s just you and her in a surreal classroom environment. And strangely, this is perhaps her most human portrayal.
Ever since the first act of her story, her own poems foreshadow her true nature. Monika’s poems seemed uncharacteristic of her, focusing on surreal and horrifying imagery. What she’s really doing is conveying her own experiences to the user, in an attempt to make you sympathize with her.
She complains of the game suddenly coming to a stop, placing her in this hellish limbo full of endless noise and pain—she’s referring to you closing the game. To her, it’s like a horrible dream where she’s been killed. And it continues to happen over and over. The act of closing the game physically harms its characters. Despite her situation, she has one chance at happiness: you.
Despite the creepy situation, Monika had proven to be an intelligent conversationalist and someone who will remain devoted to you (just as long as you remain devoted to her). Throughout the game, she gives some very solid advice on writing fiction (no, seriously, her tips are good). And in this one scene, she also gives solid real-world advice, as if she’s addressing you like a real person would. She’s doing whatever it takes to be loving and encouraging. She’s even willing to go through the same nightmares again… just to be with you again.
But the sad reality is that Monika is also a fictional character—in this case, a smart AI that even recognizes if you’re using recording software. Whether she doesn’t know she’s fictional or she denies this is anyone’s guess.
Sometimes it feels like you and I are the only real people here.
Nobody deserves to be lonely.
She is still a mere construct of a person. Just like with the other girls, she behaved accordingly to how she’s programmed. So when she developed an awareness of her world, she felt a strong desire to become human. She wanted someone to appreciate her existence, and she was willing to do the same for her significant other.
Smart. Athletic. Popular.
Those desirable traits are just meaningless buzz words, in a game where literally no one can desire you. Just like how Monika brought the worst traits out of the other girls, she ended up bringing out her own as well. She became jealous, manipulative, obsessive, hypocritical, desperate, and starved for love.
And perhaps that is what prompted you to delete her. When I deleted Monika for the first time, I genuinely felt bad for her. Her reaction to your betrayal was heart-wrenching. But you did what you had to. How the story goes was supposed to be based on your choices, not hers. And she did some truly despicable things to her friends, even if she felt bad about it. You had to let her know that you didn’t want things to turn out this way.
If she were a real person, I could imagine her heartbreak. Not only from the fact you rejected her love by deleting her (something she worked so hard for), but also from the realization that she never should have tried to mess with the game in the first place. She sacrificed everything, including her friends. Though she tried to dismiss them as mere programming data, she still showed genuine concern and affection for them. She realized how hateful she became, so she accepted her fate. If you will it, she will go away.
For me, this is true psychological horror. It’s not just the gruesome deaths of Sayori and Yuri, the trippy jumpscares or the story literally breaking apart. It’s when Monika realized she’s in a false reality, and this revelation drove her to a mental breakdown. And she desperately tried to become real by any means within her grasp, even unreasonably asking the player to remain with her for all eternity—which would mean keeping your computer running without ever turning the game off…
Even though she was the goddess of the world of Doki Doki Literature Club!, she’s still absolutely powerless against you, the player. You can easily end her existence with a couple of mouse clicks. That was why she tried to be the perfect girlfriend for you. She hoped that you would like her enough so that you would never do anything to harm her. You would try to find a way to make her real. She tried to keep herself existing through pathos alone.
But she was still powerless, and she knew it. She hated her role. She hated herself. The game singled her out, as if she didn’t deserve to be a participant. The only thing keeping her around was her intense desire to be loved. Otherwise, she would’ve erased herself already.
And that’s why I can’t hate or even blame Monika, after all the terrible things she had done to her friends. In fact, I felt truly sorry for her. Power corrupts. The knowledge of her own world and the pain of being fictional were too much for her to bear. As implied by the standard ending of Doki Doki Literature Club!, the role of club president would have also corrupted the other girls. When Sayori became the club president of the newly made universe, that was when she learned about the recently deleted Monika and the fictional world. And just like with Monika, she would have abused her power to gain the protagonist’s love as well.
Monika truly loved her friends and the literature club. The moment you deleted her, she had her villainous breakdown and saw you as a traitor. But the realization hit her. She’s meant to be a side character, whether she likes it or not. And if she tries to change that, she ruins the story and hurts her friends. Her deepest fear is hurting you, the one she loves. And she doesn’t want you to hate her.
And that’s why she forgives you for deleting her. It’s just punishment for her sins.
And that is worthy of shedding a tear for. She really can’t do anything, and you can’t do anything for her. Her desire to become human is just a dream she can never make true.
I’m not saying Monika’s actions were justified at all. All I’m saying is that she’s as much of a victim as the other girls. But perhaps her own fate is more tragic than that of the girls. She had to live with the pain of knowing the truth of her own reality. It would’ve been better for her, if she had not known at all.
This theme of existentialism heavily reminds me of Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, specifically this passage:
“Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars—a dream, all a dream; they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space—and you!” “I!” “And you are not you—you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought. I myself have no existence; I am but a dream—your dream, creature of your imagination. In a moment you will have realized this, then you will banish me from your visions and I shall dissolve into the nothingness out of which you made me…. “I am perishing already—I am failing—I am passing away. In a little while you will be alone in shoreless space, to wander its limitless solitudes without friend or comrade forever—for you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature inextinguishable, indestructible. But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free. Dream other dreams, and better!”
Monika, I don’t approve of your actions. But I don’t blame you either. You have experienced true pain and suffering, and you deserved far better. Your role proves that even the most sincere and sweet person can break under the right circumstances. There is a little devil inside us all. And nobody deserves to be lonely.
A Bittersweet End
Doki Doki Literature Club! actually has something of a ‘happy’ ending. Though it would be more ‘bittersweet’ according to Sayori.
Achieving this ending requires some thinking outside of the box. In the first act of the story, you must romance the three main girls and view all their CG artwork before Sayori’s suicide.
This would be impossible for a single run. But you can achieve this feat by creating separate save files for each girl: Sayori, Yuri and Natsuki. After the last girl, proceed with the game as normal. Delete Monika like you would to trigger the normal ending.
Then Sayori gives you different dialogue from before. Instead of trying to keep you to herself like Monika did, Sayori recognizes that you were trying to find a golden ending by trying to make every girl happy. Yes, even Monika. In the scene where it was just you and Monika in a classroom, it was the closest thing to a date for her. And she confessed that it was the happiest she’s ever been.
Sayori recognizes your efforts. All she ever wished is for everyone to be happy. You were there to be a source of comfort for the main three girls and gave them a chance to fall in love. You even helped manage what is supposedly impossible: giving Monika a chance to fall in love, even if it’s for a short time and through unconventional means.
But despite all your efforts, there is no real ‘golden ending.’ Sayori knows this, and peacefully accepts her fate. The least you can do is to pull the plug and end their suffering, while everyone is still happy…
Wow… this game, man…
And yet, we’re still not at the end.
Beyond the white noise, you hear a girl’s voice. In a text-based, mostly silent game, you finally hear a voice. Monika was finally able to get through to you, just enough to directly speak to you. If you think hard enough, it’s like someone from another reality speaking to you. And before you think things will get creepy again… all Monika wanted was to deliver a heartfelt song to you. It’s something she was working on since the beginning, to send her love to you.
This has been quite an experience. I guess you could call it a rollercoaster of emotions. But if you think it’s all over, hehehe…
There are quite a few creepy as fuck Easter eggs, shedding light to some hidden lore that may somehow be related. You could find more of Monika’s hidden messages, something called Project Libitina, a story mentioned in-game called “Portrait of Markov” and other disturbing tales.
Wow… this whole game is a mindfuck…
Doki Doki Literature Club! was definitely not the first game (or even story) I played of its kind. I already brought up Undertale as an example of a self-aware game that relies on player input to determine the outcomes of the characters.
The indie horror game IMSCARED also starred a villainous AI who was simply lonely and wanted to play with the user (in its own twisted little way); it even had the ending where you delete the character’s file, effectively killing it.
The anime Serial Experiments Lain has the protagonist turning into a true god of creation, in which she tried to understand her abilities and how to fit in with the world. But as she learns of her true origins and that her existence can potentially ruin the lives of others, she erases the memories of herself from everyone’s minds, almost like a form of suicide. She voluntarily secluded herself from the real world, hoping she doesn’t ruin anything else.
SOMA by Frictional Games explored the idea of someone with a conscience being trapped in a cold, metal shell or a virtual limbo. Imagine being trapped in a damaged or stuck machine, waiting for Father Time to end your life. But because your body is not organic, it takes much longer for true oblivion to come. In some ways, you’re truly immortal. But you’re also stuck in Hell.
I can definitely see why Doki Doki Literature Club! got as much attention as it did. It uses a combination of these elements and plays on the user’s capacity for compassion, a powerful but complex emotion that allows us to understand and even forgive other people’s actions. You want these four girls to have a happy ending, but you simply can’t give it to them. All it takes is one of them to know everything that’s going on, and the whole thing falls apart. Sometimes, we must accept a harsh reality, no matter how awful it is. Even when times seem to be depressing and hopeless, life goes on. You must make the best of things and enjoy what is left. Don’t take your life for granted, however long or short it is.
Doki Doki Literature Club! is a deconstruction of the dating sim. In a world of seemingly infinite choices, all you get is simply the illusion of choice. It’s a world full of love and tragedy, in ways we don’t expect. It’s sweet, but twisted. It’s horrifying, yet beautiful. I guess you could say it’s… poetic.
And that is Doki Doki Literature Club! This is one hell of a long review that might as well be a research paper, but it’s well worth it to talk about these topics. If you want to support Team Salvato, consider buying some DDLC merchandise. Considering the game wasn’t released too long ago, it’s fair to say that we might pick up some new theories and maybe even discover what other secrets this game may be hiding…
Trivia: this marks my 99th game review, which means I’m considering to pick a special title to review next time. Hmm…
Aw, man… please, not that one…
Doki Doki Literature Club!Free
- Charming characters (yes, there's even an odd charm to their worst traits).
- A gripping psychological horror tale about a self-aware game and its self-aware AI. Themes included depression and existentialism.
- Just Monika. No, seriously. She's a compelling antagonist with a heartbreaking backstory.
- A mix of pleasant moe character designs and some designs that had sunken deep into uncanny valley.