Spoiler Notes: This contains minor spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club. Granted, if you wanted to get into it without expectations, you really wouldn’t be reading a review, right? But I’m just going with the spirit of things. After all…
It opens with a warning: “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.”
Which happens to be imposed on a bubblegum pink textbox laid over a drawing of four cute high-school heroines. And as the equally bubbly theme music comes on, disturbing isn’t quite the word that comes to mind. Thus, in the span of a minute and without any gameplay, Doki Doki Literature Club establishes the unsettling mix of moe and morbid that seeps into every moment of the game, right up to the ending credits. While it may appear, at a glance, to be your typical bishoujo visual novel, this facade is just a part of a masterful manipulation of tropes that push the genre’s limits.
The premise is cookie-cutter simple. You control a self-insert protagonist who attends high school in a vaguely Japanese setting. An expository monologue reminds you that this version of you is content to glide through live with average grades and no involvement in any clubs—at least until your childhood friend, Sayori, convinces you to give her literature club a chance.
But when he gets to the club, the protagonist is pleasantly surprised to find it filled with cute girls.
Each of them incarnates a typical VN trope. Sayori, as mentioned, fills the role of childhood friend, but also club vice president; next is the timid, but intellectually and emotionally intense Yuri; then there’s Natsuki, the petite tsundere freshman; and finally there’s Monika, your classmate from the previous year who’s way beyond your league—but apparently remembers you well enough.
Despite having no interest in literature, the protagonist pulls a, well, dick move and agrees to join the Literature Club with the ulterior motive of getting close to one of the girls. The game handles this with a clever poem-making minigame, which has you choosing words from a list that you think your heroine of choice will like. Miniature avatars of the girls jump when you choose ones they like, so you have a good idea of how you’re doing and can reload the minigame if you end up off track. Pick enough of the right words and the girls will spend more time with you; fail to pick words they like and they won’t dignify your doggerel with their attention.
The story branches according to which heroine like your poems best.
Progressing in your relationship with a particular one gives you access to special scenes, full-screen CG illustrations and, because it’s about literature, poems. It’s worth noting here that the game is very well polished in its aesthetics (especially considering it’s free-to-play). The sprites are beautifully rendered, with a range of poses and facial expressions. The music sets the tone wonderfully and manages to blend in without being forgettable. But appropriately enough, it’s in the words that the game truly shines.
Each of the game’s poems succeed in capturing the quality of adolescent poetry—tenuous, but intense—as well as the character of each of the young poets. Sometimes they’re better than expected; at other times they’re thinly-veiled reflections of events and emotions within the story. But at all times, they say a little bit more about their authors than a single glance can reveal. Get close enough to particular girl and they’ll even confess to you in verse.
Looming over all this is the warning from the game’s beginning. Ostensibly a utilitarian trigger warning, it conditions the player to expect the worse at every turn of the game. Rather than settling comfortably into the charming school romance, the player remains constantly ill at ease. As the player’s relationship deepens, it’s not just the intimacy that mounts; it’s the fear too. The warning becomes a promise of pain—but just how will it unravel the dream?
It’s early into the game when the cracks begin to show. For instance, some characters will favor strangely dark words in the poem minigame; at other times, they might behave strangely or drop ominous, ambiguous lines into their writing or speech. Every scene switch and sudden silence is imbued with fear; every phrase invites the most wary interpretation. Eventually, the ambiguity stops and each route reveals the darker side of the heroines, the club, and the story altogether. The saccharine surface cracks and the horror hatches.
And it’s not just the plot that twists. As the game perverts the player’s mounting emotional investment into a steadily-rising terror, it also subverts their familiarity with the game’s form to further unbalance them. The game breaks the standard expectations of do-overs, replays, and checkpoints—fundamental elements of non-linear narratives—to introduce new twists and turns in the plot. The conflict thus exceeds the world of the narrative, effectively arching across save files, routes, and restarts.
If the game never lets players ease into the early-game idylls, neither does it fully plunge them into despair. Even at its darkest moments, there is a certain fondness that emanates from the game, often in places where you wouldn’t think to find it—like advice for writing, nurturing friendships, and, yes, love. It may be delivered in a cheeky manner—and often straight through the fourth wall—but the advice is sound, earnest, and clearly directed at people who fit the typical VN-player profile: varying degrees of awkward, outcast, hurt, and hopelessly romantic.
For all that it messes with and subverts tropes, breaking the genre in both subject and form, Doki Doki Literature Club is far from parody or satire. It is the kind of inversion that relies on knowing and respecting the material it works with. In this game, that respect extends to the fandom. Avid visual novel players will find their expectations and hopes working against them at the start, but will also find their familiarity with these an asset. The highs soar higher, the lows plummet lower, warming, wrenching, wreaking havoc on the heart.
Have you tried the game? Let us know in the comments!