One of the more difficult task of a critic is to separate the popular from the good. I used to say that we were living entire lifetimes in a single day, so the obvious corollary to that is the any piece of media can become a hit within the snap of your fingers and be just as easily forgotten before anyone can judge it on its merits. And as unseemly as it may seem, having a critical discussion of popular media is vital to the larger discourse around gaming: specifically, what attracts a particular audience to a particular game.
As hard as it is already, visual novels have their own paradigm when it comes to critical thought…namely it’s difficult to get people to look beyond VNs as popular entertainment meant strictly for an insular tribe within larger media consuming communities. There are a lot of reasons behind this, including its doujin-fandom markets back in Japan, developer culture here in the West and the relationship between developers and media outlets in North America specifically. These and so many other factors limit conversations around the medium and as it grows into a profitable market in the West, whether we can actually talk critically about visual novels could define its continue growth.
That brings us to Team Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club. It’s been hailed by my fellow critics and YouTube personalities, streamed into the pavement, and has been called by PC Gamer, ‘one of the most surprising games of the year’. However, all of this brings us back to the original questions: is it good or just popular? Shall we find out together?
Also, there is no way to critique this game without going into spoilers. So, please consider this your only spoiler warning before we dig in.
After some prodding from your childhood friend Sayori you (well, The Player) join the fledgling literature club at your local high school. You are joined by Yuri, Natsuki, and club president Monika. You spend your days writing poetry and discovering more about the lives of the members of the club. But something’s not right in this passive, high school world. Maybe it’s the way the girls are far too interested in your opinion to be normal. Maybe it’s the type of poetry the girls fight over with a zeal that is a little too intense at times.
Maybe it’s the out-of-nowhere suicide that bookends Act One. Yeah, that might be it.
When I first hit that point, I was admittedly intrigued, because it seemed like the scenario had switched from subverting the audience’s ignorance along with certain anime tropes that still get trotted out from time to time, to a darker mystery as the player tries to figure out what is going on. To be fair, DDLC maintains some element of that, but it is less interested in engaging its audience on that level and more interested in hooking the audience with easy scares.
Once you’re beyond said easy scares though, DDLC proves to be narratively hollow. Here is a fun question to answer if you’ve played the game; what is the narrative reason why the in-game Player should keep playing the game after Sayuri dies? For the real-life audience, the answer is clear: weird stuff is happening, and we want to see more weird stuff. However, once you put aside what the audience wants, there is no diegetic reason to continue. Sayuri’s death doesn’t affect the events of the story as the story simply repeats. So, why should The Player, who again is a character of the story as well, continue to play their role?
The short answer is that the player shouldn’t. There is no cogent narrative diegesis to keep the story together in Act Two. Just the morbid fascination of any outside force with what’s going on in the larger meta gameplay and the potential to see a bunch of tropes getting murderized until the culprit is revealed. Considering that seems to be its goal, I cannot say it’s a failure of developer intent. However, the trade-off is that without an audience to play for or watching someone react to it, everything past Act One is boring.
Without a narrative hook, the only thing keeping the game afloat is the culprit behind everything: Monika. Originally written as a side character in the meta-fiction of DDLC, Monika somehow achieves self-awareness, realizes she can control the game from the inside, and decides that she wants the player to herself. So, she writes in a bunch of darker backstories to the other girls to scare you away and when that doesn’t work, she kills them off until she is the last girl standing.
Admittedly, it’s not a bad motivation for a slasher horror fest. Also, there is a thread of an idea here that is a recurring theme in a lot of current generation anime (and even older generation anime): what happens when someone’s fantasy of life crashes headlong into reality. That thread is shelved about as fast as I typed it down in favor of Monika simply being an obsessed yandere with a God complex. Her motivation lacks any real conviction or depth: she just kills because she’s the villain de jure and that’s what she’s supposed to do. However, it doesn’t help that I can unravel everything again with a single question –
If all Monika wants is a romantic route in the game, why not just write herself in as an option? She can control the other characters to the point of driving them to suicide and change the game’s world as she sees fit. Soooooo, why not just write herself in from the jump?
‘Because she’s crazy JP! She’s crazy and she loves the player! That’s why she did it!’
The only other character of note is The Player: the metafictional character who is the actual center of this universe whom the real-life player controls. The Player is the most defined of the bunch: someone who comes in expecting to play a cute highschool romance VN and instead is treated to a horror show. Ideally, the meta Player and the real-life Player will go through similar reactions to this change, in which case, the meta Player’s intent should be examined through the lens of a character if they’re supposed to line up.
Unfortunately, we know very little about the Player. The only interaction the audience has with The Player is as the in-game universe intends with only two deviations to give The Player any sort of context. As I said before, Monika never actually writes herself in as a romantic option. She just does yandere crap and expects a cookie at the end of her killing spree. The Player rejects handing over said cookie and begins using the game’s mechanics to fight her: pointing to some sort of moral center that, at the very least, doesn’t want to reward wicked behavior. However, it comes with being pushed into a wall and, again, not just closing the game and forgetting all this crazy BS.
So why doesn’t The Player close the game? In fact, going back to a previous question, why does The Player keep playing after Sayuri’s death? We get a big hint of why in one of the cheats of the game. If you use a save to spend time with all available romantic options, then you can get a secret ending that technically functions as the best potential ending of the game. But, let’s back that up and give that some context, because the best ending of DDLC is tied to The Player shooting for a harem right out of the gate.
This is an important note because with the abject lack of any tangible plot, we must consider its theme of media consumption as its biggest narrative thread. This conversation takes up most of the first act of the game as the girls write their poetry then defend what they enjoy as equally valid to any other form of fiction. That feeds into The Player’s in-game motivation to keep playing the game, even though there is no incentive for them to do so, because The Player wants their harem…and that’s the best potential answer I can give you on the subject. To achieve that, The Player must push forward to undercut Monika; which is exactly what happens. Also, the Harem ending is purposefully aligned with the best possible ending of the game: validating The Player’s motives and justifying how they played the game and why.
Believe it or not, I don’t think this is a bad idea. In fact, this idea could have been very good if explored, but it isn’t. Instead, it takes the back seat in favor of what we’ll be getting into shortly: the presentation and technical aspects of the game. Ultimately, Doki Doki Literature Club is a shallow narrative experience that draws you in to scare you, not to tell a story. Tropes are subverted by worse tropes, the villain’s motivation is an outright joke and the attempt to include some metafictional elements into the proceedings just creates inconsistencies that keeps DDLC around the Saw level of horror writing.
So, why do people like it so much? Well, that has more to do with how it looks and plays than anything.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
While DDLC is far from the best looking or designed game made in 2017, it is possibly the best directed: using all its elements to create one of the best atmospheres in the VN sphere. The Presentation goes a long way in that regard by being unnerving to look at well before you get into any of the horror elements. The color scheme has a plastic quality to it and using colors at their brightest possible variant for both the sprites and the backgrounds. It makes it feel like you’re looking into a hospital room and a children’s one at that and the effect is immediate.
The sprites themselves are off-putting thanks to a clever design that I will give the art team kudos for: the sprites don’t have noticeable noses. If you consider the face on an artistic level, the central point to draw in the viewer’s focus isn’t the eyes; it’s the nose which gives everything else proportion. Without it, the faces of DDLC’s girls look, for lack of better words; alien. Between both the color scheme and this singular design choice, the game feels offsetting from the start. And that’s where the direction takes over for better and worse.
There are two ways to handle horror. One way is the creeping, uncomfortable horror that drags you into its darkness and keeps you there until it reveals the source of your inner dread. If you’ve ever read a Junji Ito comic, you know what I mean. Then there is the more current way of going about it: throw something disturbing on the screen and illicit a reaction from the audience AKA jump scares. If you have seen 90% of the current generation of horror films, you’ve seen this in action as well.
Team Salvato tries to marry both attempts and, to be fair, it works sometimes: such as with the suicide in Act 1. The problem is that it isn’t consistent and what was needed is that sense of building horror to keep its atmosphere and world logic together until Monika finally breaks it. So, when one of those sudden scares happen, like the suicide in Act 1, the tension created up to that point needs to be recreated for future scares to have the same impact. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
Yuri stabs herself to death with manic glee over her face to bookend Act 2 and it comes off so cartoonishly over-the-top that I laughed playing that scene. And yes, it was done in that way on purpose to cap off the game glitching in and out during the Act. But, even if it wanted to be taken seriously it couldn’t be because by the so much insanity was happening that there was no dramatic tension leading into her death. That all went into kicking you in the balls with Sayuri’s suicide.
So why is it there? Because beeeeeee disturbed: that’s why.
As for the Technical aspects of the game, it’s undoubtedly the keystone of the entire experience and it is overall a brilliant use of Ren’py. Team Salvato effectively manipulates the program in ways it hasn’t been done to date: allowing the game to be able to tell when the game is being streamed and unlock certain scenes that way, using the file itself as an internal story event that can be manipulated by the code within the game and requiring the player to do some minor programming themselves to combat Monika.
Unlike the narrative metafiction, the technical metafiction works extremely well and hopefully we can see it studied and utilized moving forward by other developer.
Doki Doki Literature Club is free and the key question to its value depends solely on why you’re playing the game in the first place. If you are a part of the game’s intended audience, the larger streaming community, then chances are you will either play or watch the game being replayed many times over. However, if you are playing the game alone, you can knock out most of what it wants in six or seven hours or so: probably sooner if you figure out how it wants you to play seeing as there are only two overall routes.
Ultimately, with the experience being so subjective I cannot give a solid answer one way or another on its exact replay value. But do not be surprised if you find yourself listless after a second run of the entire experience.
So yeah, this was a little different.
I wish I could come to you and give Doki Doki Literature Club the same praise as my contemporaries: I really do. I do not hate this game at all and find some of its ideas fascinating. However, outside of its artistic and technical direction, I spent most of my playing experience reflecting on the reality that I’ve been here before and have seen it done so much better.
These type of fourth-wall breaking tales have been done across every entertainment medium from Grant Morrison’s Animal Man to most of Yoko Taro’s work. The EVN medium itself is replete with titles that lean on or outright smash the fourth wall such as Hate Plus, Cave Cave Deus Videt, Emily is Away, Save the Date, and Who Is Mike to name a few. Hell, even the narrative ideas I gleamed from it here was done better last year with Katy133’s [redacted]Life. Nothing presented here is a new concept, just a new gimmick. And once you remove the gimmick, DDLC must be judged on its own merits…and once you’ve done that, there is little left.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a spectacle of a game and, in reaching that goal, is created to appeal to two groups that run in the same circles: the streaming and Let’s Play creators as well as people who see visual novels less as a gaming medium and more as a gaming sideshow. Please do not take this as an insult, because the game is fully self-aware. And, for me, it’s that self-awareness that provides the most interesting experience One level beyond providing its audience with cheap thrills, DDLC is a game curious with its own existence and spends most of Act 1 contemplating how it’ll will be perceived outside of its intended audience.
There is one line I keep coming back to that happened during Act 1, when The Player is talking to Yuri. It’s probably one of the most clear moments when a writer is talking directly to their audience. The line in question?
If the game had focused on that idea instead of spectacle, this review would be a lot different. For now, it’s at peace with its standing and so I am. Doki Doki Literature Club is an okay game with some interesting ideas and a lot of hype behind it. If you enjoyed it, I believe I understand why. For me? Hopefully next time, Team Salvato will deliver a little more steak and a little less sizzle, to coin a phrase.
And with that, I’m getting off this ride.