Disclaimer: We've reviewed Doki Doki Literature Club here without spoilers, but for this article we'll be talking in detail about the events of the game, which will include tons of spoilers, so look away now if you want to go into DDLC fresh!
Doki Doki Literature Club was a game that kind of snuck up on the world. Last year we were greeted by a game that was for all intents and purposes cute and cuddly, but then became one of the horror smashes of the year, gathering accolades aplenty for its disturbed story, subversion of expectations, and narrative methods. What exactly was it though that made this four-hour long visual novel such a hit? We're not talking only with players either, but the Internet in general, with YouTubers like Pewdiepie, Jacksepticeye, and more showering praise on the game and showing their responses for the world to see online.
First of all, if you're jumping into this article and thinking "what is that game about? I'll look it up?", don't bother, because you're either going to find material that gives away the entirety of the plot, or you'll find official marketing material that doesn't reflect the truth of what's in the game. It's one of those games that you really need to sell to someone without saying anything about why you're selling it to them... which makes it a very hard sell indeed.
A project from lead designer Dan Salvato's studio Team Salvato, the game was released on PC in September of last year, and at first glance you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was just another dating simulator with cute anime girls that's all about flirting your way into their hearts, and that was kind of the point. This sickeningly sweet exterior was intended to deceive and throw people off of the scent, even down to the name (Doki Doki being a Japanese phrase referring to the sound of a heart beating), and it's not until you did deeper that you find out the real appeal of DDLC.
On opening the game you're greeted with a disclaimer that tells you that this pink, fluffy dating simulator contains deeply disturbing content, and even goes as far as to make you confirm an agreement consenting to this before entering in and hearing the chirpy fairytale music within. From that point onwards every time you open the game you're warned:
"This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed."
We're conflicted about this. Of course it needs to be there just like a PEGI/ESRB rating is, to warn of content that could be inappropriate, but we're torn as to whether this is to the benefit or the detriment of the experience. On the one hand, seeing such an extreme warning at the start of such a seemingly innocent game as this may well get people curious to see what's going on; to see what's different about this compared to others. On the other hand though, we felt it kind of spoiled the twists that were to come, as you were always expecting something to become disturbing.
In fact, the disclaimer at the game's opening goes as far as to say that this game may not be safe for those with anxiety or depression to play, and directs those concerned to visit the game's warning page, which can be found here. Team Salvato has very responsibly detailed here that self-harm, depression, suicide, and abuse are all featured in the game, and that "these themes are not merely suggested, but are often portrayed as realistically as possible, and thus may disturb you as if they were real. Furthermore, the above list is not 100% exhaustive. For those with extra concern for their mental health, our recommendation of the safest approach is to avoid playing Doki Doki Literature Club. We trust that given your understanding of your own mental health, you are able to make the decision that is right for you."
From your introduction to the game's narrative, you wouldn't think that any of this would be the case. At the start you're introduced to your bright and bubbly friend Sayori, who you've known since you were little, and she pesters you about joining a club. You're only interested in watching anime though, so you don't want to join a club, that is until Sayori badgers you enough to at least accompany her to the Literature Club meeting.
This club is established by Monika and other members include Sayori, Natsuki, and Yuri. After going and meeting them all, you're then guilted into staying after they all lament your departure, although that doesn't matter - you're surrounded by beautiful girls, as your character makes clear. Whether it's the feisty Natsuki, your close friend Sayori, or the shy Yuri, every girl has their own appeal, and it's the classic dating simulator setup; which girl will you choose?
What's more is that they have their own taste in literature, and the next few in-game days you spend writing poems to share with the class, using keywords to tailor your poems to the girl you like most. Yuri will like intellectual words and dark, brooding themes, for example, while Natsuki likes the cutesy stuff like kittens and unicorns. Your choices here determine who you get closest towards, but in reality these changes are only face value, and don't alter the overarching outcome.
As you'll know if you've played the game, this isn't about getting a happy ending with one of your love interests. It's actually hard to say what the game is about, but what we can say is that once you start preparing for the school's festival, you'll get closer to the girl you've been wooing, only to find Sayori telling you that she has depression, before confessing her love to you. Whether you reciprocate or not is immaterial (you get the choice), as once you respond to her she doesn't leave her house on the day of the festival. You go back to her house to find that she has hanged herself, and the game abruptly ends.
Sayori's death is perhaps the most impactful part of the whole game. Up until the day of the festival the bright melodic soundtrack, the typical high school romance storylines, and the visual style all lull you into making you think everything's okay. This is for over an hour, we should stress; this isn't just an opening half an hour of things being fine, but a sizeable portion as you grow to know these girls and get into the swing of normality. Once Monika tells you that she hasn't heard from Sayori though, Salvato silences the soundtrack, moves you slowly from step to step towards Sayori's room, and then hits you with the sudden inescapable image of Sayori's hanging corpse.
This effectively marks the halfway point, and what's hugely impactful up until this moment is the human and very relatable portrayals of certain issues. The game wasn't kidding when it says that these are portrayed realistically, and Sayori's emotional outpouring when revealing she suffers from depression is incredibly poignant. She talks about the confusion, the guilt she feels when people care, and the inescapable misery, meaning that her bubbly persona is simply a facade to stop people trying to care for her, as she considers herself worthless. And what's more is that you can't make it all okay by saying you love her back. It's not about you making her sadness ok, but her inescapable illness inside.
These issues aren't just confined to Sayori either, as Yuri and Natsuki deal with their own things too, although in less stark terms. These are more clearly revealed in the latter half of the game, but for instance at one stage in the first half you walk in on Yuri with a knife rolling up her sleeves hurriedly, and we find out later on that Natsuki may be dealing with parental abuse at home, hence why she always mentions that she likes to come to the Club. All of this is done is an understated way without melodrama for this opening section, and makes the rest of the game all the more shocking.