From the pastel portraits of its doe-eyed schoolgirls to the gentle melodies of its playful soundtrack, every aspect of Team Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club! draws you into the world of the ultra-traditional dating sim, where cuteness lurks around every corner and true love is almost impossible to avoid.
There’s a substantial fanbase for conventional Japanese date-’em-ups like Clannad, but this game’s true lure lies in the horrors that lurk just behind its soft-focus facade—a facade that drains away slowly, like water through a sieve.
But what a charming facade it is. It’s a classic anime premise: you play a nondescript high school guy in Anyplace, Japan, whose childhood friend Sayori has convinced you to join her Literature Club. Said club just happens to be populated with beautiful girls for you to fawn over. Soon enough, you find yourself writing poems to share with your newfound friends, with your choice of words in a minigame determining which girl you spend the majority of your time with.
Literary adjectives push you towards the brooding, demure Yuri, who prefers books to people, while others might put you in the orbit of the manga-obsessed "tsundere" Natsuki, or the happy-go-lucky Sayori. Eventually, you’ll find that one of these girls is hopelessly falling for you—and that’s when things get really interesting.
Doki Doki Literature Club! is one of the few games I’ve ever played that begins with a content warning, and it certainly earns it. Though the first hour or so lulled me into the pleasant rhythms of endless conversations—conversations that might cause a non-VN fan to feel like dozing off—once the terror train gets rolling, it becomes pretty clear that there are some dark dealings going on beneath the endlessly smiling faces of your companions.
While the shock value certainly adds to the experience, it rarely comes off as crass or exploitative. Doki Doki takes great care to treat issues like depression and anxiety with more tact and delicacy than its apparent inspirations, like the infamous School Days.
The dark side that makes up the main hook of the game doesn’t simply come out of nowhere, though. As I cycled through the game’s events again and again (a classic conceit of the VN genre) I began to realize just how well Team Salvato had sown the seeds for all the bleakness that followed.
While it’s true that many of the people who play Doki Doki will spend a fair bit of time waiting for The Big Twist to happen, the game’s ability to reward careful observation gives even its more languid sections a sort of muted intrigue that helps hold it all together.
Once the big twist does finally reveal itself in the game’s third act, however, for better or worse, Doki Doki becomes that twist, a glitching nightmare of broken dolls whose prior cuteness makes the horror that follows even starker.
It doesn’t just recontextualize the rest of the game—it strips it away entirely.
On one hand, this is exactly the sort of thing that those who prize mindfuckery above all else will appreciate as it takes them down yet another rabbit hole. As a fan of dating sims, however, I found myself sad to see the charming set dressing burn up in the process. After all, I liked writing poems for Yuri.
It contrasts strongly with something like Frog Fractions—as Frog Fractions folded back on itself and rocketed off into sheer absurdity, I didn’t mind too much, because all it left behind was a silly math game. By comparison, Doki Doki leaves bloody bodies in its wake, and it’s all the more potent for it.
Though Steam reviews and word-of-mouth alike might give you the impression that Doki Doki is the sort of game that hinges irrevocably on a number of Dark Turns that if spoiled will Ruin the Experience, the truth is that it’s far more clever than that.
It certainly shares elements with other horror visual novels like Zero Escape—particularly in the way its story peels back layer by layer, slowly dissolving the painting and then the frame itself—but it ultimately has more in common with genre-benders like Undertale and Pony Island than its Japanese counterparts.
Like Undertale before it, Doki Doki Literature Club! is a post-modern love letter to the genre it represents, and it waves goodbye to all its constituent tropes as it smashes their very foundation into tiny pieces. Don’t let its apparent cutesiness fool you: this is one of the most surprising games of the year, and you should play it—provided you can stand the ugliness that remains when all those layers of pastel wash away.