“I can’t tell you anything about Doki Doki Literature Club. Just play it.”
“It starts slow, but it’s totally worth it.”
“You have to play this blind to get the full experience. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever played.”
That is how people talk about Doki Doki Literature Club. Everyone wants you to play the game blind and yet that’s practically impossible. First of all, if you do go in completely blind then you’ll never make it past the first fifteen minutes of some of the most tedious dialogue and shallow characters I’ve ever experienced in a game, book, or movie. Second, Doki Doki tells you multiple times that it contains disturbing content before you even reach the title screen. When you start playing the game, you’ll already know that it isn’t a straightforward dating simulator. The only question is “how long will it take before the weird shit starts happening?” The answer is “too long.”
It’s impossible to review this game without giving some contextual spoilers, however I’ll keep the specific details to a minimum until a clear spoiler section below the score at the end of the review. Doki Doki Literature Club is a visual novel dating simulator, or at least, it’s a riff on those games. You play as a high school guy who is pressured into joining the school’s new literature club by his sweet next door neighbor. He joins up because he doesn’t have anything better to do and the fledgling club consists entirely of cute girls. I can relate.
The first two hours consist of getting to know some of the most shallow, vapid, and annoying characters I’ve seen in the modern era of gaming (Full disclosure: I haven’t played Breath of the Wild yet, so that may change). The characters in visual novels, especially dating simulators, are often extreme stereotypes. I’m fine with that so long as they are vaguely interesting along with it. I don’t have “SJW issues” with the idea of young girls all being available for the main character to date. However, there’s barely any dating in Doki Doki. There’s no sense of progression or character development. One second you’re preparing decorations for a school event and the next a girl is sucking blood from your fingers.
“But Doki Doki is a paroday of dating simulators. It’s supposed to be extreme because really it’s a horror game.”
Okay, let’s deal with that. Regardless of what alternative story the game is trying to tell, my first two hours with Doki Doki were possibly the most tedious of my life. To put that into context, here are some facts about me. I used to spend eight hours a day working at an amusement park for young children that involved watching a ride move around in circles for two minutes at a time. I worked as a tax accountant for four years. In law school, I had two-hour lectures on U.S. Civil Procedure. In 2017, I played Prey. I thought I understood boredom. I knew nothing.
The writing is dull and you have limited opportunities to interact with the girls. Visual novels and dating simulators can be good or even great. Steins;Gate is one of my favorite games of the last few years and that is sappy as hell at times. Calling your game a visual novel or a dating simulator does not excuse this kind of tripe. Worst of all, because of the content warnings at the beginning, you’ll know that “shit is going to go down” the entire time you’re clicking through this inane nonsense.
If your brain is still functioning after those initial two hours, then you’ll get to experience the psychological horror part of the game. First up, is a ham-fisted attempt to introduce mental health issues that I found borderline offensive in how lazily they were implemented. The first ending is supposed to be shocking, however I just laughed. It’s a pathetic attempt to make your game seem serious and tragic by shoving in a plot point that in real life is serious and tragic. It doesn’t work.
Most of the horror centers around playing tricks with you as the gamer. I need to keep this vague, but let’s just say, if you’re spooked by bold font and random pixelation of images on screen, then you’re going to have nightmares for days after playing. The visual effects are supposed to freak you out, however they remind me of Hollywood depictions of hacking. It’s how people think a game file might get corrupted, instead of how it actually happens in reality. You never feel freaked out. It’s funnier than it is scary and it isn’t funny.
Doki Doki’s one redeeming feature is the ability to mess around with files on your hard drive to affect parts of the game. It’s a neat idea, but also fairly limited. It would have been nice if I could have altered the files to affect more minute aspects of the story and characters, although I appreciate that’s a technical challenge. There’s also some Alternate Reality Game (ARG) elements in here as well for those who are that way inclined. I’m not.
To sum up Doki Doki: you flick through two hours of tedious nonsense until you get to a “twist” which thinks it’s a lot scarier than it actually is. It attempts to be psychological horror and it fails miserably.
Doki Doki Literature Club is free and I feel slightly uncomfortable being so critical of it. However, it also demands over four hours of your time. We all have backlogs of games we’ve already payed for and yet haven’t found the time to play. Go and play one of them instead. Doki Doki Literature Club isn’t worth your time.
***SPOILER DISCUSSION BELOW***
The second half of the game was a huge let down. Sayori tells you she’s struggling with depression and then suddenly commits suicide. You find her hanging from a rope in her bedroom. I take mental health issues in games incredibly seriously, so when I say that I laughed at this bit, that should be a reflection of the terrible presentation of a serious issue.
The story twist and the attempts to scare the player feel like huge missed opportunities. Without wanting to disparage the genre, dating simulators are often a touch silly with the way they present you with loads of young girls who all want to date you. That’s cool. These games can be fun. What’s annoying is the lazy take Doki Doki has on the genre. In most dating simulators, all the girls are really horny for you. In Doki Doki, one of the girls is really really horny for you. She’s aware that she’s in a game and she corrupts the files to make you choose her.
This could have been so much better. How about instead of one of the girls going crazy for you, the girls all develop their own consciousness and hate the way they’re abused by players. They set out to take revenge on those who play the game by destroying their lives in the real world. For example, the girls could all be impossible to please and require constant attention. Imagine if it borrowed mobile game elements and you had to boot it up a couple of times a day to check in on the girls and keep them happy. The game could try to drive you—the player—crazy in an attempt to destroy your life in the real world. The girl you develop the closest relationship to could then feel sorry for you and tell you what’s going on. She then tells you to look closer at the game’s files which lets you mess with the girls’ personalities. This could be an interesting social experiment. Would you make all the girls like you? Would you feel guilty about adjusting their personalities? Would they notice the changes?
The attempt at psychological horror is just as bad. The blatant visual effects used here aren’t enough to get under the skin. There’s one section where you have to choose a girl from a list except you are forced to pick Monika’s name. It’s obvious what is happening; Monika is making you pick her and therefore she is the one in control.
How about something more subtle? When you have that list of girls, the game could hard crash every time you select the wrong name. The player might think it’s a real bug and end up going with Monika as it’s the only way to progress the game. That way the eventual reveal might end up being surprising and creepy.
It’s not enough to parody a genre to make a good product. It has to be a good product in its own right. Doki Doki Literature Club is neither a good dating simulator nor a good horror experience.