Doki Doki Literature Club Is The Best, Most Terrifying Dating Sim Around

(Spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club ahead!)

Doki Doki Literature Club is a single-player, visual novel game developed by Team Salvato and released for PC, Mac and Linux through steam on September 22nd, 2017. The game follows the structure of a traditional dating simulator: the player is allowed to select their own name for the male protagonist which remains mostly unseen throughout the game. The game then opens up on dialogue from Sayori, a childish and excitable, sweet girl who attempts to catch up with the protagonist - who shall be referred to from here on as the name I gave him, my own name, June - and walk with him to school. We then learn, through this written dialogue, that June is somewhat anti-social, interested in video games and anime, and that Sayori is a childhood friend with whom he walks to school most of the time. We have a short conversation with her where she tries to convince us to join the club she is vice president of: The Literature Club. Later, the player is goaded into attending a meeting by the promise of cupcakes. In this introduction, the player is given no real choice or options for interaction. There is a bit of dialogue, where June seems to be quite rude to the sweet Sayori, and eventually we are forced into joining the literature club, where we meet the other girls: Monika, the club president, a beautiful, smart and confident, Yuri, dark haired, passionate yet extremely shy, and Natsuki,  loud, forceful and short-tempered. There we are introduced to the game’s core mechanic: the poem. 

After Monika gives out an assignment to the club to ask that all write a poem for the next meeting, a screen opens up, with a selection of words, and chibi representations of Sayori, Yuri and Natsuki in the bottom. The player must select a word to use in a poem, each of which is associated with one of the three girls, making their representations bounce in happiness at your choice. The next morning, you are asked to have your poem reviewed by each of the girls - Monika will always be pleased, and will both tell you which of the girls will like your poem best, and will give you writing tips. Of the other three, the one whom you’ve pleased the most will be happy with you, leading to a romantic interaction. The other two will give you fairly biased advice on improving. All of them will share a poem of their own: Sayori’s are bittersweet, Natsuki’s are cute, Yuri’s are melancholic, and Monika’s are freeform and mysterious. 

During a first play through, an uncomfortable feeling quickly begins to settle in. June, regardless of your choices, always seems to find a way to treat the girls badly, who only seem to like him more for it. Strange hints are placed throughout the storyline of something stranger. Monika makes passing comments which seem to imply a deeper awareness of the situation than she lets on. Sayori repeatedly talks about oversleeping, lacking motivation, and makes several self-deprecating comments. Natsuki speaks of the literature club as something close to a refuge, and implies an at the very least very restrictive upbringing. Yuri seems over-involved and fascinated by violence. While this at first starts off as subtle hints, phrases here and around that pass quickly and seem to imply more, as the story progresses these become more and more intense… until the first climax. Throughout the game, the player is allowed some form of choice in interaction and can chose to focus their romantic attention on one of Sayori, Yuri, or Natsuki, leading to different scenes. This is a staple of the dating simulation genre, and outside of particularly sophisticated poetry, and interesting hints, nothing seems spectacular about this game. Perhaps the greatest oddity of them all, however, is the meta-text: there is a warning in the game’s opening, for graphic images and violence. And a second warning, warding off individuals under the age of 13, and mentioning that individuals suffering from severe anxiety or depression should be wary of potentially triggering material. On steam, the game is classified, not as a romance, but as a “psychological horror” game. 

This all comes to fruition by the climax of the first part of the game. By this point, the player should have invested some two or three hours of gameplay, reading different poems, having romantic encounters with the girls, and wondering why Monika never seems to be a romancible option despite her flirty dialogue. Throughout all of this the groundwork for a story is laid out: the group is preparing to present their club at the culture fair. The day before, June choses wether to spend the day baking cookies with Natsuki or making decorations with Yuri. Spending the day with Sayori or Monika appears to be an option, but if selected, Natsuki and Yuri will convince you that neither of them need your help: you are forced to chose one of them.  June then visits Sayori, who reveals in an absolutely heartbreaking way that she has been suffering from intense depression. Despite this tragic discovery, the player is forced to leave her to spend time with the person they chose earlier. After this encounter, which leads to a kiss with either Yuri or Natsuki, June finds Sayori again, who, after witnessing the kiss, unveils her feelings for him. The player makes a choice: either to become her boyfriend or keep her as a friend. Either decision makes her cry. The next morning… is the morning of the fair. June does not walk with Sayori despite promising to the night before, as she is late. When arriving, he is greeted by Monika who, referencing Sayori, tells him that he truly “left her hanging”. June rushes back to Sayori’s house to discover that she has committed suicide and… the game resets. 

The player finds himself in an alternate game universe where Sayori never existed. Everything is the same, except much worse. The game glitches, characters turn dark and say awful, disastrous things. the game plays with its own mechanics: one of the choices offered is nearly impossible to get as the game forces your mouse downwards towards the desired choice: if the player succeeds in clicking another option, the game goes white, and a single button appears: the option that the game was trying to force upon the player in the first place. Everything is wrong. And Monika continues to speak to the player. Not June, but the player. The game forces the player to interact with the game’s own internal code to access its ending.

The premise is simple: a single character from a dating simulator game becomes self-aware, and does everything in their power to speak to the only other self-aware individual around: the player. This forces her to interact with the game’s internal code to change it (which is especially apparent if the player checks the game, finding numerous hidden game files  which appear at key times throughout the play through). The result is a game which can only exist in interaction with other games: a commentary on lack of agency within supposedly choice-based games, as well as a deconstruction of female tropes in similar dating games. All of the women are in love with the protagonist, and never is the protagonist interested in them beyond a surface level: their generic differences are outlined, yet the troubling aspects of their personalities, the implications of violence and neglect in their lives. The base storyline is only interesting when in overlay with the shallow aspect of dating simulation games, and the sexist nature of such storylines (whereby the women are uninteresting and respond without fail to the male fantasies of the player).

By breaking the fourth wall and forcing the player to interact with the game in unconventional ways, through hidden mechanisms within the code itself which lead to changes within the game and its story, Doki Doki Literature Club forces the player to dig past the seemingly flat characters it presents and understand them as rounded characters: Sayori suffers from depression, Natsuki is the victim of parental abuse, Yuri turns to neediness and self-harm to overcome lack of confidence, and Monika is obsessive and controlling due to the realization that her actions matter only to the player, and that she exists only in so far as she can please the player. The game sets up expectations, and plays them out almost entirely straight for a long time before allowing the player to break down the game and understand the very complex narrative underlaying it. It is a game leaving hints and secrets for the player to find, which become interesting only when taken outside the premises of the game. And it works. Doki Doki Literature Club gives the player what it supposedly desires for long enough to get the player engaged, them takes it all away, and forces the player to demand more in order to obtain a  (somewhat) satisfactory ending. It’s genius. 

-all images are from the Doki Doki Literature Club art under Team Salvato