I normally don’t bother with spoiler warnings here on MoeGamer, since it should be fairly apparent that in the process of analysing certain works in depth, “spoilers” are something of a necessity.
I will, however, make an exception in the case of Doki Doki Literature Club, a Japanese-style visual novel from independent Western developer Team Salvato. This is a game that is best experienced completely and utterly blind, so if you have the slightest interest in a visual novel that subverts expectations and makes astonishingly good use of its medium, I recommend you go play it through now before reading any further. It’s completely free, can be cleared in an afternoon, and is available either via Steam or itch.io.
Beyond this point lie hefty spoilers, so consider yourself warned!
Doki Doki Literature Club sets itself up like any number of other slice-of-life visual novels. We join our protagonist, who you can name yourself, as he heads to school with his childhood friend Sayori, who is attempting to get him to join an after-school club rather than just spending every day after school by himself watching anime or playing games.
Sayori is a member of the newly formed Literature Club, a small group of girls who meet regularly to read, drink tea and discuss literature, poetry and writing. Besides Sayori, the club also consists of spunky tsundere Natsuki, the quiet but deep Yuri, and the enthusiastic, beautiful club president Monika, with whom the protagonist is casually acquainted from a past class together.
Club activities get underway as you might expect, with plenty of meaningful glances, sweaty palms at the prospect of getting “too close” to a pretty young girl and the protagonist making typical visual novel protagonist-type comments about not being able to believe his luck at finding himself in such a situation.
Things get interesting when the discussion turns to poetry, however. Club leader Monika presents the club with an assignment to write a poem and share it with the others the following day, as a means of getting to know one another and perhaps offering some feedback to each other. When you first play the game, this is a bewildering prospect; you’re faced with twenty pages of words and expected to pick one from each. You can, however, deduce that the different words “appeal” to the different characters, however, owing to the fact that little chibi versions of them animate when you select them, and it’s through this mechanic, which repeats several times, that you’ll determine which of the game’s scenes you’ll see.
This aspect of the game is likely not the part that most people will focus on after the fact, but it’s clear that writer Dan Salvato has a firm grasp of literary theory, as the in-game discussions that the various poems spark are deep, meaningful and thought-provoking. The different characters provide genuinely interesting and contrasting perspectives on their approach to writing, as well as offering advice that can quite easily be applied to the real world.
Natsuki, for example, favours keeping her language simple and straightforward as an easy means of expressing the things she wants to say. Unfortunately, this often gets misinterpreted as her attempting to be “cute”, a fact which frustrates her, but she presses on regardless. She’s a strong contrast with Yuri, who makes a point of using highly evocative language, metaphor and allegory to create a strong mental picture in the reader’s mind.
We first recognise that there is something a little odd about Sayori when we get to read her poems for the first time, however; despite her adopting the stereotypical “childhood friend” persona often seen in slice-of-life visual novels and anime, her poems are infused with an almost tangible sense of melancholy — “bittersweetness”, she describes it as — and give the distinct impression that they’re giving a much more honest insight into what’s going on inside her mind than her general demeanour.
Monika, meanwhile, remains something of a mystery. Her poems are fragmented and difficult to understand and there doesn’t appear to be a way to favour her with your word choices when composing the poems each day. She remains relentlessly positive, however, though over time it becomes clear that she would like to spend more time with the protagonist — she has a habit of interrupting potentially intimate scenes just before they escalate into something explicitly romantic, and even outright states on occasion that she is keen to spend more time with “you”; she never becomes overbearing or unpleasant about it, but something seems… “off”.
Up until now, Doki Doki Literature Club has been reasonably par for the course in terms of slice-of-life, “dating sim”-style visual novels. But things take a seriously dark turn before long, when Sayori admits that the gulf between the things she writes about and the front she puts up to the world are as a result of the severe depression she has been suffering, an affliction that sometimes leaves her unable to get out of bed in the morning.
Sayori’s description of depression is hard-hitting, plausible and eminently relatable for anyone who has been through similar things. She describes feelings of worthlessness and of not being needed — particularly if your choices up until that point have favoured a girl who is not her — but she doesn’t seem to recognise it as an illness she should try and treat. Instead, she regards it as a “punishment” for being “selfish” by believing that she might have a chance with her long-beloved childhood friend. Her feelings are conflicted; she expresses a desire for things to “go back to how they were before”, before she felt this way, but simultaneously clearly doesn’t want to let go of the one hope she has for happiness. It’s the vicious cycle many sufferers of depression are caught in; continue to wallow in the painful but familiar and perversely comforting darkness, or take scary steps towards “resolving” the situation somehow?
I was presented with a choice at this point in Sayori’s arc: to tell her that I loved her, or that she would always be my precious friend. I had clearly been pursuing Yuri up until this point, so I felt that to say otherwise would be disingenuous, and moreover Sayori had expressed a desire to return to how things had previously been. As such, I picked the second option, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach; sure enough, the next in-game day, supposed to be a celebration of the Literature Club at the school festival, began with Sayori nowhere to be seen and culminated with the protagonist discovering her having hanged herself.
Normally, at this point in a visual novel, you’d simply reload to the previous choice and choose the other one. It’s a convention of the medium; works such as Fate/stay night even explicitly lampshade it. But try and do that in Doki Doki Literature Club and you’re presented with a strange error message that gives you a real emotional punch in the gut: Sayori’s character file is no longer present in the game directory, so you’re unable to load the save game and see where the other path led. Sure enough, if you check the folder in question, the file is nowhere to be seen.
The game then starts anew after a slightly garbled title screen on which Sayori’s image has been corrupted. The prologue runs again just as before, only there’s no sign of Sayori and any time she’s mentioned her name is replaced with gibberish characters. Before long, she’s “written out” of the narrative completely and never mentioned again; second time around, it’s Monika who invites you to the Literature Club, not Sayori, and from here things start to get a little more strange.
You’re presented with occasional graphic and text glitches, characters saying things that are seemingly out of character (often in a different font), arguments that were easily and “nicely” resolved in the first playthrough escalating into spiteful shouting matches in this second runthrough, and disturbing revelations about the characters that you can’t quite be sure are real or not, since the text “rewinds” after you discover them, proceeding as if nothing had happened after that. It’s a combination of exploring what would happen if the same events unfolded without the presence of an important character, and a deliberate attempt to unnerve the reader through unexpected occurrences.
I once again pursued Yuri in this second playthrough, as she had, up until this point, been the character that I found most appealing. This time around, however, her charming politeness and hesitancy gave way to obsessive tendencies, with Monika informing me that Yuri had a tendency to cut herself when she got excited about things — something which I may or may not have already witnessed in one of the earlier glitched-out delusion sequences, and which had been at least hinted at in the first playthrough.
Monika was a little more forceful about trying to get “me” to spend time with her in this playthrough, both in-character and in a more “meta” sense; on more than one occasion, there were situations where it was difficult or impossible to choose anything other than Monika’s name using the interface. In one particularly memorable situation, I was given the choice of spending the weekend preparing for the festival with Natsuki, Yuri or Monika, but even getting the mouse cursor anywhere near either of the other two names pushed it straight back to Monika’s name, eventually culminating in the screen being filled with “options” for nothing but Monika. Just Monika.
By this point, it was clear that something was seriously wrong with everyone involved in this whole debacle, but I attempted to see Yuri’s “route” through to the end, accepting her confession of love only to witness her stab herself in her stomach and chest in front of me, then be forced to spend the entire weekend ahead of the festival staring at her corpse as indecipherable gibberish text filled the dialogue window for page after page, and the backlog option in the interface contained nothing but the promotional blurb for the game, written from Monika’s perspective.
Then, darkness. And then… Monika, sitting at a table in front of me, addressing me — not the protagonist — directly. Monika had been aware from the start that this was all a game, and had been frustrated that she didn’t have her own route despite liking me. She was infuriated at the broad character tropes that had been foisted upon the other members of the literature club, believing them to be “sacrificing humanity for the sake of cuteness” rather than attempting to be believable. She admitted to deleting the other character files, and indeed, checking in the “characters” folder at this point, there was only a .chr file for Monika.
She said that all she wanted to do was stare into my eyes for all eternity. So she did, occasionally breaking to comment on the situation and how she believed this was the best way for everything to end up, how much she loved me, and a faint note of regret that she had had to take such “drastic measures” to get my attention.
There appeared to be no way out. I couldn’t save my game — there was “no need to do that now”, she said — and I couldn’t go back to the main menu. There were no earlier saves to load, because those had all been deleted too; seemingly the only option was simply to quit the game, but that wouldn’t get me out of this situation. I knew that if I opened it up again, she’d just be there waiting for me again. Could I take one last, drastic measure to be free from the trap I’d fallen into? Could I do that which I had watched Monika do with such revulsion; that which she had pretty much told me how to do?
Well… after much deliberation, yes, I could. But no happiness lay in that direction, either. For anyone. This had been an unmitigated disaster that had ended up in chaos and oblivion for everyone I had come to care about over the short runtime of this peculiar game. The game won’t even start properly now, quitting with an error message after a farewell note from Monika, and every screenshot I took of my playthrough has been replaced by just shots of the title screen, settings menu or Monika sitting at her desk.
And, you know what? I absolutely loved every minute of it. What a wonderful, unusual experience Doki Doki Literature Club was. It truly was a multi-faceted work, providing both a compelling narrative in its own right as well as insightful commentary on the creative process, the challenge of sharing your writing with others, taking ownership of the things you’re passionate about and even the conventions of the visual novel medium in general, and some uncompromisingly frank exploration of mental illness, too.
There’s a hell of a lot to digest once you’ve “finished” it for the first time, and it’s a prime example of how the interactive nature of a visual novel can do something that would be simply impossible using more conventional linear media.
How I hope, one day, to get someone else to play it without having a clue what to expect from it. Beware men who come bearing the promise of cute girls doing cute things!
More about Doki Doki Literature Club
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