High School Dating, the Game: The Interesting Case of Doki Doki Literature Club (spoilers)

Doki Doki Literature Club, developed by indie studio Team Salvato and published on various non-console platforms in 2017, is a game best experienced with as few spoilers as possible. It’s a great game with a fun story, cute girls, and an unexpected twist, and I had to give this post the blandest title ever in order to keep all other details secret. Seriously, if you stopped by to see if this game from four years ago is still worth playing, especially now that Doki Doki Literature Club + is available, the answer is yes. Bookmark this page, go play it – a few times – and then come back. I’ll be here, waiting.

If you’re here (or still here), please know that there are massive plot spoilers below. Proceed at your own risk.

Please note: Doki Doki Literature Club has some pretty heavy content warnings, and as the game progresses, there is disturbing imagery. I’ve kept out any disturbing images here, and will be posting another article that summarizes the story and includes more disturbing images. But this one is safe to read before bedtime, if you so choose.

And with that – last chance! There be unmarked spoilers below.

For real, last chance

Okay, here we go!

Just Monika The Facts

Doki Doki Literature Club is a brightly-colored game with cheerful music that, upon reading the description of the game on Steam, immediately sets off some little alert flags. Perhaps closer to the release date, it wasn’t classified as “psychological horror,” but there it is, looking like the victim of some gross miscategorization. But then as one reads down the page, more bits seem to feel off, with the description being a letter from the president of the titular literature club, signing off by asking the player to please spend the most time with her.

Then comes the warning that this game is not for children or for people who are easily disturbed. And it tells you, like three times and you need to actually click “I agree” in order to continue, only for the game to warn you one final time.

Well, I am not a child nor easily disturbed, so this game was made for me, right? Right?

My first playthrough probably took about six hours, but with the benefit of the internet, I knew that there was a “good” ending I had to unlock. From there, it was messing with program files, manipulating save files, and racing to get to the good ending, whatever that might be (at time of writing, I hadn’t completed that run, yet, so I will be commenting on that in a later post. Oh yeah, you bet this is going to be a multi-post kind of game).

Since its release, Doki Doki Literature Club has gotten solid scores across numerous rating sites, and won IGN’s Best PC Game of 2017 (People’s Choice), as well as several other awards, including “Best Story” and “Most Innovative.” IGN has also included it on a list of 50 Scariest Horror Games of All Time, and named it the 12th scariest horror game of the generation.

So, pretty par for the course for high school dating, if you think about it.

Dating Sim Lovin’

As far as release dates go, as ever I am late to the party. Released in 2017 as a free visual novel on Steam, Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) flew right past my radar. I was still fairly new to blogging, and was sticking fairly close to genres and games that I knew, and not really searching for any new experiences on that front.

Interestingly, I got into DDLC because of a Game Theory video that had a picture of a creepy anime girl as the thumbnail, and said something about the creepiest monster being hidden in plain sight. I watched up until he said something about the game taking over your computer. I clicked off the video, torn between intrigue and deciding I was never going near a horror game that could manipulate my computer.

But, time passed and apparently clicking on that video once was enough for YouTube to be like, “Oh, so you like this dating sim??” and proceed to show me that same thumbnail a few times. Then Game Theory produced a few more videos on the topic, and I thought, “Gee, if MatPat is this into one game, there must be something really good about it.” I watched part of that first video – or listened to it in the car, to get a gist without paying attention enough to get any real spoilers, and decided that a psychological horror game disguised as a high school dating sim was both genius and interesting enough for me to finally pick up and play.

The Gameplay

It’s a visual novel, and I read in an AMA from the developer that it was meant to play like an amateur visual novel. It does this really well, especially at the beginning. The entire game pretty much leads you through its story, with the player being responsible for advancing the dialogue cards and the occasional “choose your favorite girl!” choice.

There is a cute minigame that happens several times, during which the player must choose words from a list to “write a poem.” The aim is to write a poem that your girl of interest will like best. While simple, it was a great way to capture the “literature” part of the club activity, as well as learn about the girl. For instance, Sayori, the main character’s best friend who is just an endless bubble of sunshine, not only likes happy, loving words, but also words that depict sadness or despair.

Each of the characters have these “surprise” words (for want of a better description) which hint at deeper characterizations. For me, it made me interested in playing the game through several times, in order to get to know each of the girls’ stories.

Of course, then the rest of the game happened and then I really wanted to know more about each of the girls.

Also, as an aside, and in case you were wondering, yes I was able to read every single one of those girls (pun intended) and target my poems like a SCUD missile.

And no, these skills have not transferred to IRL. But anyway.

DDLC, you may be interested to know, is an example of an augmented reality game. So, it blurs the line between the computer game world and the physical world, and in this instance, more information is hidden in the game files. Sometimes you open a text file and it’s meant to be converted to a jpeg file. Sometimes it’s a binary code hidden in a QR code-type box. Sometimes it’s a code that needs to be converted two times until it’s put into a language understandable by humans, only to point to something happening just beneath the surface of the game that is only hinted at… But once you see it, when you play the game again, it makes everything even more suspicious…

The Characters (and Plot Spoilers)

I’m probably going to do some profiles of each of the characters, especially now that I have acquired Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! (no, I don’t have a problem, stop looking at me like that). But I do want to leave a few of my impressions from the beginning of the game:

Monika – something seemed off about her right from the start, and she made several fourth-wall breaking comments that seemed out of place. From this, I decided that she had some kind of self-awareness, which intrigued me, and where I was at first interested and thought she was the hero (perhaps she and I would be “teaming up” against a Big Bad before the end!), my opinion on her began to change as the game progressed.

She takes control of the game, eventually, and systematically begins to get rid of the other girls using the game file systems themselves. But more nefariously, she begins to alter the personalities of the girls, as self-aware Monika has fallen in love with the gamer – not the playable character/avatar, but the actual gamer – and is trying to win the gamer’s affections the only way she knows how…

Yuri – I absolutely loved Yuri and thought that out of all the girl, I probably would have been her friend in high school. That is, she and I would have sat next to each other reading and never speaking to each other and mutually thinking the other girl didn’t like us until the end of the year when we realized that we would have probably been best friends. But then I noticed the subtle animosity toward Yuri from Monika and wondered if perhaps Yuri was going to be the bad guy. She was the second character who seemed to show some subtle hints of self-awareness, or at least that something was not “right” in her world. As much as I loved her, there was a part of me that never gave up that there was something not okay about Yuri.

Yuri has some mental health issues, and as the game progressed, her character took a hit. Out of all of the girls, her change creeped me out the most as her anxiety and obsessions went from quirks to “oh my god I never thought I’d say this but I’m so glad Monika is here to get me out of this situation.” But it was hard to tell how much of that was “really her” and how much of that was the altered version of her.

Sayori – Too good for this world. If Yuri and I would have sat next to each other awkwardly being awkward, Sayori and I would have actually become friends and she would have been the reason I kept going to the literature club. I have never been so scared for a character’s well-being in my entire gaming career, and I’ve never shouted at my screen in dismay quite so loudly as events unfolded.

Sayori’s is another life that gets ruined in the course of the game (and we’ll talk about the more graphic aspects of it in another post), but Sayori’s character arc had me furious at Monika, and had my mind reeling at first when the game started “talking” to me, and asking things like “Can you hear me?” I hoped against hope that Sayori would get some justice, because while Yuri caught my eye at first, Sayori is the one I fully liked from start to finish.

Natsuki – Struck me as the yandere trope, and… she was okay. Of the girls she was my least favorite, although I think IRL she and I would have probably bonded over liking superheroes and video games. The last one to show any awareness that something is “wrong” in the game, she writes the playable character a note. I thought the fact that despite all the drama in the club, she figured the best chance of everything getting sorted out was by telling the main character what she thought was going on.

Like the other girls, she has personal issues that are touched upon lightly in the game, but as far as I can tell, she is the only character that Monika just straight up deletes without changing her personality, which I think is an interesting twist. Natsuki had the fewest characteristics that could be manipulated into being caricatures, unless (I suppose) Monika made her an actively violent character, which would have been A Choice on the development team’s part, so this is probably better.

The main character – I hated him. I know he was just supposed to be the “face” that I, the player, wore in the game, but Holy Maker was he a jerk. I hated him. I hated his stupid face and I never even knew what he looked like. I hated him and wanted the girls to just slap him across said face. He struck me as that guy in young adult books who are super broody and sort of mean but all the teenager girls are gaga over him. Shielded by the rainbow as I am, I have never understood this phenomenon, but all I could think of was that he was the broody, moody main character in a YA fiction. However, he goes through a personality change at a certain point in the game… BUT this plays into the ending, which we’ll get to next time.

The Lore

This is something that I’ll talk about in a later post, I’m sure, because I’m still in the process of working toward the “good” ending and I feel like a lot of things will come together. But, having said that, I would just like to reiterate that this is not your average dating sim. A few things of note:

  1. The game can and will modify the game files on your computer, and you will have to do the same, which is REALLY interesting if it’s part of the lore of the game
  2. There are files that you can open and explore, but need to be converted into jpgs or binary or other unexpected formats in order to get the information within them, and the information seems to, again, points to something a little more sinister happening beneath the surface
  3. The main character (the player character) goes from being a total jerk during the game. Then, after completing the game the first time and restarting, the MC has gone through a complete personality transplant and is the nicest, most supportive person. This, also, has some interesting implications regarding a deeper meaning or implication of the game.
  4. DDLC seems to point to a second game that the characters are all a part of, and Monika may be the hero of that game (So does that mean Yuri is the bad guy??)

AND, to top it all off, apparently in the latest release, Doki Doki Literature Club Plus, there are more stories, and files to explore, and from the little bit I heard about it, it starts to peel back the layers even further.

You guys, I haven’t been this excited about a game’s lore in a long time.

Final Verdict

Play it play it play it play it play it!!!!

Have you played Doki Doki Literature Club? Were you as mesmerised by it as I am? Which girl was your favorite? Theories, fan squealing, and talking about the lore is welcome, but please don’t spoil DDLC Plus if you’ve played it…

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!

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  1. Played DDLC for the first time last year after reading in other blog posts about it being considered a “psychological horror” game. I went in not knowing much about it and I was pretty surprised at how much I enjoyed it, considering how visual novels aren’t something I have much experience with. I ended up writing a short blog post on it, even though I honestly had no idea where to begin after finishing it. I still have the soundtrack stuck in my head after a year…

    If I were to make a “tier” of all the DDLC characters, it would look the same as yours. Yuri and Sayori were my two favorites ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s cool. I wasn’t totally sure what to expect either, and even with the psychological horror tag, there was a real sense of wondering if I’d have the context to really “get it.” But yes, it was totally worth it!

      And double yes to Yuri and Sayori! haha

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I know you said not to read because spoilers, but I was vaguely familiar with the twists already because nothing is sacred. That said, you’ve done a much better job of convincing me to check this out properly despite knowing the twists then every other human has. Well done Athena. Might just leave your future articles until I give this a proper run through.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t know they were getting another version of it out. Rather bold of them, to release a paid update to a game they’re still offering for free, but this is a VN that’s definitely worth money. I hope it does well for them.

    Otherwise, I felt the main character was kind of obnoxious, as well, but not out of the ordinarily so, for visual novel protagonists. Which, of course, doesn’t mean he’s not hateable, but hey, it does play into the game. Which, as you said, is an amazing one, and I’ll second the notion that people need to play it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is rather bold of them, and I think if I hadn’t gotten myself sucked into all the lore – and the promise/hope that there’s more – I would have rolled my eyes and moved on. But yes, totally worth the money. So… I guess it worked. I tried it because it was free, and then bought into it, both literally and figuratively.

      The MC… I’m still puzzling over him. Maybe I want to see more where there isn’t, and he’s just supposed to be the typical visual novel protagonist and I just don’t have any other reference points. Hm…

      Anyway, yes it’s a great game and I’m glad to hear you played it, too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I played through until the first ending and then when the creepy stuff started happening I was absolutely done. I think it was the music for me. That creepy, off tune of the original bubbly theme. It was after the major death prior to the first ending. I realizedd it wasn’t a game I’d be able to finish so I wound up watching that same Game Theory video you referenced, and I completely agree the game is genius. I’m very much freaked out by horror concepts that couldc onceivably leak into the real world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah the music was REALLY good for evoking the creepiness. There were also some parts where the picture was slowly rotating and coming closer, and I remember staring at it being like, “Am I going crazy or is this actually moving?” So… they succeeded in that department.

      That’s fair. The Game Theory video is a good alternative if you’re just interested in the lore and not interested in the actual horror game. I’m not easily disturbed, and there were some *rough* parts in DDLC, so I don’t blame anyone for skipping right to the lore!! But yeah, the idea of the horror elements actually existing in the real world is such a wild concept, and I agree that the game handled the AR aspects amazingly well!

      Liked by 1 person

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