When it comes to gaming, I am a bit of a weirdo. I don’t like any one genre, though I do dislike several. In the later category, anime, dating sims, visual novels, and JRPGs. I have several reasons for this, which I’ll save for another post, but then Ian told me about a game called Doki Doki Literature Club by Team Salvato, which at first glance looks exactly the opposite of up my alley. I mean:
It looks like everything I hate in a game. Sexualized schoolgirls, romancing said schoolgirls, it’s all very PUA-like. Say the right thing to get the right girl to like you. It’s all creepy and gross, and normally, I wouldn’t even look twice at it. Plus, it’s all froo-froo pink and fluffy. Bleah.
I gave Ian the side-eye, but he reassured me that there was more to it than met the eye, and it wasn’t really a creepy dating sim, even though it’s marketed as such. I trust Ian, and it’s free on Steam, and I’m in between games (though I just bought Night in the Woods, and I’m really excited to try it), so I downloaded it and fired it up. I will say the fact that it has a disclaimer and makes you sign it before it actually starts is my first indication that this game hopefully is deeper than it appears.
The first hour is pure agony, I will confess to you, dear reader. It follows down the dating sim path introducing you (the main character) to four girls. One is your perky, upbeat neighbor, Sayori, who you’ve known forever (girl with red bow), but have grown apart because she has trouble meeting you in time to walk to (high) school together*. She tricks you into joining her club which is the Literature Club, of course, and the other three members are also cute girls. Monika, the club leader, and the most popular girl in school (long brown-haired girl). Yuri, the goth of the group (dark-haired girl), and Natsuki (pink-haired girl), the annoying brat who’s covering up the softness inside.
You don’t want to join the club, but once you realize there are four cute girls with very distinct personalities, well, of course you join. What else is there to do, especially in a video game? What follows is an endless amount of talking and me mashing the button to get through the dialogue as quickly as possible. I read really fast, but still. You have to write poems for this club, and supposedly, the words you pick to write the poems will fit one of the girls better than the others. Or something.
Warning–spoilers to follow. I’m going to try to keep them as light as possible, but it’s hard to talk about the games without spoiling it somewhat. If you have any interest in playing this game, quit reading now and play it. It really is best played with minimal knowledge. For those of you still with me, the rest of this article will be below the cut.
I went down the Yuri path as she’s the one who’s most like me (me in real life, not me in the game). Side note: It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that I’m supposed to be a boy in the game. It doesn’t really matter, and funnily enough, it gets mentioned later, but it just amused me when I realized it.
Anyway, even though the first hour is tedious, embarrassing, and uncomfortable, there are hints dropped that there is a darker undertone to what is a cotton candy surface. Like Sayori not being able to meet me in time to walk to school. Like Yuri talking about how she likes stories with psychological darkness. Like Monika always interrupting you when you’re talking to other girls. Still. It seems like pap at first, and I had to grit my teeth to get through the first hour. If Ian hadn’t told me that there was more there and if I hadn’t done a little bit of Googling (not much because I didn’t want to spoil it for myself), I would have stopped fifteen minutes after I started and walked away without a second glance.
Around the second hour is when it starts getting darker. There’s some kind of festival that Monika wants to get the Literature Club into. Natsuki is going to make cupcakes because that’s her thing, and she likes all things fluffy and cute. Monika is….well, I don’t really remember because I didn’t like Monika. I have to say, before this, Sayori has a meltdown because she asked me if I liked Yuri or her better (basically), and I chose Yuri because I felt I had to be honest with her. Anyway, after Sayori had a meltdown, Monika went to talk to her. That made me suspicious, though I couldn’t say why. Anyway, Monika was doing–whatever it was, and Yuri was going to make little sayings to hang around the room. With candles. Or something. I’m telling you, the story is not the important part.
Anyway, I choose Yuri again. Every time I have to make a choice, I get uneasy. Not only because of my general distaste for this kind of gaming convention, but also because I know that there is no good choice in this game. As you will notice, Sayori isn’t doing anything because she ran away before we had that discussion.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
After this, one character is revealed to be a cutter, but not for the usual reason–she finds it erotic, one character kills herself, and you find her, and the game abruptly ends. My save files were erased, and I couldn’t go back and replay the game as I wanted to do because I wanted to see if I could get another ending. Instead, I could only start a new game, and I did so–with trepidation. It didn’t seem that much different except on the starting page (the first screenshot), the girl who killed herself is missing. Any mention of her is erased from the game, which is really bizarre. Then, the game starts glitching, showing darker versions of the girls along with darker thoughts. All the girls deteriorate at a rapid pace, and they nearly come to blows with each other.
One of the girls becomes obsessed with you, and if you reject her as I do, well, that does not end well. At all. Then other things happen, and the ending of the second playthrough is even more disturbing than the ending of the first. Code gets erased (supposedly), and pretty soon, the last remaining character addresses you personally (she knew my name was minna h, not the ‘meh’ I had used as my name during the game), and she addresses me directly in a way that was unsettling. She mentions something about saying she wanted to be with me in the description of the game, and she says, “I bet you never even read it.” She’s right. I hadn’t until I started writing this post, and she had written in the description that she hoped I liked her best.
After the first hour and until the point of her directly addressing me, I thought the game was really engrossing, disturbing, and thought-provoking. But, once the last character starts in on her spiel, I feel the effectiveness of the game drops. It is too hit-me-over-the-head with a hammer; it’s not subtle at all. She tells you what you need to do to end the second playthrough (it won’t end on its own), and when I do it, I have a mixture of irritation, relief, and mild intrigue. The third playthrough is short and weird, and the ending is abrupt. If you want to start a new game, you have to delete the old one first. I did start a new game because I’m curious about the different endings, but I really do not want to sit through the first hour again.
I think this game is strong from the second half of the first playthrough through the second playthrough until the very end. I appreciate what it’s trying to say about the whole genre, but in the end, it falls a little flat for me. I don’t need the proselytizing to get the point across, and I feel it would have had more of an impact if Team Salvato had trusted the player to draw their own conclusions.
Still. I’m glad I played the game. It’s stuck with me past the point of playing, and it’s an affecting game in many ways. I think it’s worth playing if you can get past the issues I mentioned above. I may do another full game, and I’ll write about it if I do.
*I immediately knew it meant she was depressed because that was one of the issues listed in the disclaimer and because the behavior felt all-too-familiar to me. Also, her room is always messy and my character is always cleaning it up for her.