Heartbreak Horror: Doki Doki Literature Club

If you haven’t heard about the brilliant meme game Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC), consider yourself lucky. This is a game where playing blind is essential. If you have had some things spoiled for you, well this might be the time to experience it as much as you can. DDLC is waning in relevancy, despite its inherent brilliance, but this might give you a final opportunity at experiencing this game with as few spoilers as possible.

Doki Doki Literature Club is the epitome of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” When a friend introduced me to the game nothing about it looked inherently special. Sure, as a literature nerd, the literature club angle seemed interesting. I also find myself enjoying trashy visual novels, and the game was free. So I decided to look into it. So when I took a look at the tags on steam some things jumped out at me. Most specifically the tag “Psychological Horror.” While I’m not much of a horror fan, I do enjoy some good psychological drama. So I gave this game a shot.

And with this, the discussion of my experience ends. And that’s quite simply because two things: 1) The early part of the game is generic and flat to the point of feeling more like a comedy than a horror game, and 2) it’s best to play this game blind. It’s a free game too, so it’s really hard to go wrong.

With that being said, the rest of this article remains a heavy spoiler Zone. If you’d like to avoid that (and I suggest you do) I highly recommend at least giving this game a shot. However, pay heed to the warnings at the start of the game. They’re there for a reason. Once you’ve made it through the game come back and resume reading.

Finish the game? Did you at least make it to what I’ve dubbed “the point of no return?” (If you have to ask what that point is, you probably haven’t played enough). If your answer is yes, I’ll now dive into three of the factors that stand out for this game: Tone, Presentation, and Heart.

Tone

How this game handles tone borders on masterful. The game starts out with a generally lighthearted tone. Everyone is mostly happy and it plays off like a very standard Visual Novel. The characters rely largely on established archetypes, which help enhances this relatively carefree and generic tone. However, there are some hidden inklings of darkness hidden within this. Most of your interactions with the entire cast are done during the Literature Club, where every day it has become practice for everyone to write poems. The tones of the poems themselves are dark and foreshadow the depth to be discovered behind each of the cast that is otherwise a mishmash of tropes. And then comes the day before the festival. The tone drastically shifts into something much more depressing, but a good event afterward and an event looming on the horizon makes it seem like everything might still be salvageable. Then the next day comes. The music is gone, and everything seems eerily quiet. Then the game shows you one more poem, that foreshadows the point of no return. The lack of music, the foreboding dialogue, and the concern of the player character mix together it what was, for me at least, a heart-wrenching experience that is the “point of no return.” And from that point on, the game can never be the same again.

Presentation

The aforementioned tone is largely accomplished through a strong presentation. The game thrives on the fact that anyone going into it will expect just another generic dating simulator. Essentially what this game does is set up expectations and then flip those expectations on their head. At its core, the game functions as a classical deconstruction where it inverts the standard tropes of the game’s genre and creates an entirely new experience. This is somewhat similar to what Hatoful Boyfriend did, but Hatoful functioned more as a thematic parody instead of a true deconstruction. What really sells this though, is that the game sticks to the generic presentation just long enough to allow the player to think that the game might really be as generic as it seems. Then when it presents some more of the complex psychological themes (like depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm) it almost comes off as this moment of clarity that could explain the warning signs at the beginning of the game. Then comes the “point of no return” and what lies beyond it.

What lies beyond the “point of no return” is where the horror comes in. The game tries to push that same cheerful tone from before, but it’s distorted. The music reflects this, and the game begins to show its true colors and what lies underneath.

Heart

This point was originally me talking about the psychology of the characters and how this game approaches the topics of depression and suicide. However, the game doesn’t really approach them or say much about them outside of the fact that it’s not afraid to shove it in your face and say it’s there. And it also likes to drive home that, sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about it. But then, while I was playing the game to gather screenshots for this article, I accidentally stumbled across the “special” ending. I can only assume that it’s the True Ending by the message the developer leaves for you:

“To the special player who achieved this special ending.

“For years I have been enamored by the ability of visual novels — and games in general — to tell stories in ways not possible using traditional media. Doki Doki Literature Club is my love letter to that. Games are an interactive art. Some let you explore new worlds. Some challenge your mind in brand new ways. Some make you feel like a hero or a friend, even when life is hard on you. Some games are just plain fun —  and that’s okay, too.

“Everyone likes different kinds of games. People who enjoy dating sims may have a heightened empathy for fictional characters, or they might be experiencing feelings that life has not been kind enough to offer them. If they are enjoying themselves, then that’s all that matters. That goes for shooting games, casual games, sandbox games — anything. Preferences are preferences, and our differences are the reason we have a thriving video game industry.

“My own favorite games have always been ones that challenge the status quo. Even if not a masterpiece, any game that attempts something wildly different may earn a special place in my heart. Anything that further pushes the limitless bounds of interactive media.

“I extend my true gratitude to all those who have taken the time to achieve full completion. I hope you enjoyed playing it as much as I enjoyed making it.

“Thank you for being a part of my literature club!

“Love, Dan Salvato”

Maybe I’m just a sucker for sentiment, but this message at the end really meant something to me. After this game dragged me on a heart-wrenching adventure that went through several resets, modifying the game files, several saves and loads, and hours upon hours of scrolling through dialogue. It leads me to this moment. This is the moment that makes the game amazing for me. Having “heart” is maybe a cheesy way to praise a game, but I think it speaks to a core reason why we keep coming back to games. Games are fun entertainment, but they’re also a medium that can bring a unique experience to the player. And I think when you find a game that truly speaks to you, that you need to acknowledge that. When a game makes you feel something unique and special, that’s when you know it means something.

So I want to end this with my own message, one to Dan Salvato.

Dear Dan, 

You have crafted a game that is, quite honestly, not just a game. It is an experience. In the end, even through the horror and the disturbing moments that made me feel like my mind was going to break, I found something to love and admire in every minute of this game. I laughed, I cried, I screamed, and most of all I smiled. Thank you for, not just making this game, but for making it free for everyone to enjoy. It truly is a unique experience that pushes the mold.  

Thank You, Lyle Wayne 

Author: Lyle Jorgenson

Lyle Wayne, more commonly known as DozerZigashi, is a Podcaster, Writer, and Game Designer. He is the current host of The Boomburst Podcast. Additionally, he is one of the main designers for Guardian Enforcers, a Tactical Card Game currently in development.

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