(Spoiler/Trigger Warning: It’s impossible to talk about the dark themes in Doki Doki without spoiling the plot, and as the game’s own warning states, the subjects the game deals with are incredibly heavy and may be upsetting for those who are squeamish, easily disturbed or struggling with mental illness.)
I’m a fan of neither visual novels nor horror games. Visual novels don’t give me enough to do to keep my attention and I’m such a fraidy cat that I almost didn’t finish The Last of Us. I appreciate both genres as beautiful and fulfilling art forms, but they’ve never done anything for me.
And yet, when Doki Doki Literature Club flooded my timelines following its release in September, I was curious. From what I had initially seen, it seemed like a typical visual novel about a guy who joins a club full of girls who all fall in love with him. Apparently, Tumblr was (for once) doing a good job of hiding spoilers. Anyone who loads up the game’s steam page is greeted, first, with an age check and tags marking the game as a “dark, psychological horror.” The game is free to play, and upon launch, you see the following warning:
At first, the necessity for such a warning is not apparent but as the plot unravels, so do the horrors of the Literature Club. Team Salvato, the developer/publisher of Doki Doki Literature Club, expertly takes advantage of a naive audience in order to deliver a frighteningly effective scare. Doki Doki is successful because of the way that the game twists your expectations of a typical visual novel plot. You start out with four cute girls: athletic Monika, spunky Natsuki, mysterious Yuri, and awkward Sayori. By the end of the game, it’s just you and Monika. Literally.
Team Salvato successfully created an original story that I wanted to finish, while also delivering on horror and shock value. That’s where the success of the game lies. Going in without foreknowledge of what’s coming makes Sayori’s final scene gut-wrenching. The visual novel genre is all about putting control into the player’s hands, and Team Salvato rips that sense of control away in the most shocking and effective way. I knew the game was going to be a horror fest but I didn’t know how far they were going to go to deliver on those scares. Giving Monika sentience and a tangible power over the player makes the Literature Club one of the most impactful and effective horror games I’ve played.
However, there are moments when it teeters on the edge of being too much, in my opinion. I don’t consider myself a squeamish person, and I understand the necessity of shock value for games like this, but having to watch the graphic suicides of the characters felt excessive. In a less disturbing vein, the dialogue between the action tended to drag. The scenes where it was just you with one of the girls were deep and meaningful, but the transitional scenes felt like they took forever to navigate. That might be a side effect of the game being a visual novel, but I’ve played visual novels that still had forward motion to them during the “down” periods.
I love what Team Salvato has done in combining these genres, though of course there are still some kinks to be worked out and elements to be reigned in. The game is free to play, so if you find your interest piqued and your morale steeled, head to the game’s official website or their Steam page to snag a download. Just watch out for Monika.
What did you think of the horrors of the Literature Club? Drop a comment below and let me know!