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Review: Doki Doki Literature Club – Beyond the Visual Novel

CW: Suicide, self-harm, abuse, and themes of depression. Full spoilers ahead! 

Hello there, I’m Sunny, and welcome to my first article for Fuwanovel. Today, I’m honored to have the opportunity to share my thoughts on Doki Doki Literature Club!, a visual novel I consider to be one of my personal favorites. Six years after its release this game continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many for its well-crafted characters, the ingenious use of poetry to drive its haunting narrative forward, and its creative use of breaking the fourth wall to evoke fear in its players.

Doki Doki Literature Club! is a Visual Novel of the Dating Sim genre released on September 22nd 2017 with a simple description: “The Literature Club is full of cute girls! Will you write the way into their heart? This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.” With four girls front and center, for you to capture the hearts of through writing poems and spending quality time with whomever has your interest.

Seems innocent enough but by now it’s not difficult to assume a majority of you readers are more than well aware of what hides behind those precious faces and pastel colors.

So, let us delve into what makes Doki Doki Literature Club! such a remarkable game and discuss how it has left a lasting impact on many of its players, resulting in massive fanfare surrounding it.

The Graphics Are Drop Dead Gorgeous!

The art in Doki Doki Literature Club! is vibrant and striking, with cute and charming character designs that contribute to the game’s overall aesthetic. The adorable and equally disturbing sprites of the club members were drawn by Satchely, who did such a phenomenal job. Meanwhile, all the immersive background art was made by freelance illustrator Velinquent. Together they give the game a recognizable flair that still looks extremely charming with every new playthrough.

However… these bright visuals are interrupted by distortions of the girl’s appearance, static, and the framing is slightly tilted–creating this uncanny haunting to the viewer. While that could take one out of the experience, I believe that it helps us get further immersed into the mystery beneath the surface.

Write The Way Into Her Heart Through Gameplay!

As with every dating sim, to unlock the route of the girl you wish to pursue you need to make certain choices throughout your playthrough, such as choosing who you’re gonna pair up with for the festival preparations, or the mini-game at the end of every day where you select words to write a poem. This, to me, is one of my favorite parts of the game, it’s a charming change of pace. Seeing the chibi characters bounce to their corresponding words being selected is so precious as well! 

Unsurprisingly the words that appeal to the girls describe their interests and personalities. And of course, as the game’s themes become darker, so do the words in this mini-game. 

However, the main aspect of Doki Doki Literature Club! that gave it so much attention is the various fourth wall breaks mostly orchestrated by club president Monika. She can force your cursor down so you can only choose her when given options between her and others, remind you to save, and even communicate through the game’s code. Which in itself has so much disturbing information just waiting to be deciphered, adding creepy layers to the already creepy narrative. 

For a game that takes roughly around four hours to finish there’s truly a lot to discover so there’s never a dull moment!

The Story, Where The Only Cute Thing About It Is Natsuki’s Cupcakes!

The player takes on the role of a male high school student who joins a literature club filled with female characters, each of whom has a unique personality and motivations. 

At the start of the game you’re first introduced to your childhood friend, the bubbly Sayori, who then convinces you to begrudgingly visit the Literature Club where she is the vice president! 

When you enter the club room, Monika is the only familiar face as the protagonist recalls her from a past shared class. Then you meet the others, the timid Yuri and the stubborn Natsuki. 

Yuri is a bit shy but soon eager to share her favorite forms of literature with the newcomer while the assertive Natsuki is more stand-offish to the idea of someone joining the group without her having a heads up, leading her to be easily annoyed and distant towards you. However you can bond with her over the best form of literature of all: manga! 

The adorable girls and cupcakes are enough to convince our poor main character to become the fifth member of the literature club. At the end of the week you and the club will be participating in the school’s festival. You have to help each other prepare for it and along the way live out a love story with the member of your choice… or so it seems. 

Regardless of whom you choose during the first act, by the end of it you receive your first confession from Sayori, who tearfully proclaims her love for you after admitting to her struggles with depression. 

This is something you can pick up through her poems—the storytelling done within the shared poetry during the game is also a praiseworthy element for sure. 

However, regardless of how you respond to her confession, the morning of the festival you find Monika acting suspicious–but more importantly, Sayori hanged in her room. The protagonist has a meltdown and soon everything around you starts to quite literally collapse. The game files start to be mangled, leading everything to restart itself without Sayori, forcing the player to restart as if she never existed. On top her sprite in the menu screen is now replaced with a glitchy amalgamation of the remaining members combined into one. 

You go through the game again without your childhood friend to accompany you. This time Monika comes to recruit you to the club herself, convincing you to join using the dilemma that they cannot become an official club without four members in total. 

However, as the days go by things get uglier and tensions quickly arise between Yuri and Natsuki, with Monika occasionally getting in the mix. Goes to show how Sayori was the glue of the group, but the heightened emotions are no doubt the work of the mastermind behind this whole twisting of reality— Monika. 

Both girls become increasingly distrusting towards Monika and her behavior whilst also growing more attached to you, the player. Monika heightens their less-than-favorable traits to steer you away from them, but to no avail. 

Monika, aware that this is all a game, does anything to prevent either of them getting close to pursuing a romance with you. She is bitter she’s the only one who cannot have her route and is doomed to watch idly as her friends can experience all these beautiful moments with you. Jealousy is truly a disease but she doesn’t get over it…

It doesn’t take long for both Natsuki and Yuri to suffer the same fate as Sayori, each dying in a brutal way. Yuri stabs herself after a passionate confession; your answer once again failing to change the outcome, showing you free will is being practically nonexistent under the influence of Monika. While Natsuki doesn’t have a conclusive death even during her route she’ll fall into corruption either way, so only Monika remains.

That eases us into the sinister third act where Monika reveals she knew from the beginning this was all a game. Various fourth wall breaks ensue and it’s just the two of you looking into each other’s eyes in a vacant classroom. If you choose to do so, you can stay with Monika like this until you give her a taste of her own medicine after she performs the oldest trick in the book, revealing how she went about her evil plan out loud: messing with the game files and deleting them! 

Once you delete Monika’s file she panics and starts yelling at the player, feeling betrayed by the one she had fallen for. Yet she soon comes to terms with her fate, admitting to truly loving her friends even though she put them through hell, and how the literature club was just doomed to turn out hell for everything involved. She laments but let’s go at last, leaving the game to once again restart. But this time, Monika is nowhere to be found. 

On the bright side, Sayori is back! But oh no, the self-awareness once belonging to Monika is now passed onto her with her now having the position of club president. But no worries, before Sayori can go down the same spiral Monika interferes to end this madness once and for all. 

Before it all comes to an end however, we hear Monika’s voice calling to the player while singing them a song she’d written for them. As she’d mentioned briefly before, she had been practicing piano, so with the credits rolling, Monika performs the ever so iconic “Your Reality” to you. 

Your name will appear alongside hers as a special thanks in the credits. What follows is a heartfelt letter addressed to the club from Monika. It’s a goodbye letter as she talks about the bonds she created, how she just wanted to share her passion but soon it all spiraled out of control and how she wouldn’t let her friends suffer the same fate she did. Once you finish reading the letter the game displays an error message and forcefully kicks you out upon the official disbandment of the literature club. 

That is the main ending of course, but with slight changes to your gameplay you can get different results; for example an alternative ending of the final act with a self-aware Sayori or even getting hit instantly with a bad ending if you dare delete all the characters from the start. 

Regardless of the small changes, the ending is always the same, you can’t save the club. It’s bittersweet but perfectly shows the lack of control over your ending despite all your efforts… leaving us with a heavy heart. 

The Characters Are To Die For!

When discussing with others about what drew them to Doki Doki Literature Club and why it stayed in their memory the answer was always the characters. Mainly how each had their relatable qualities and struggles to them. 

For example, Sayori’s tendency to hide her true feelings in fear of worrying those around her; Natsuki’s abusive home life is the reason why she’s so protective of the space she has in the club, and Yuri’s overwhelming emotions and struggles with composing them leading her to self-harm. Even Monika’s possessiveness towards the player out of fear of losing connection to the one thing that makes her feel alive and real, is a hurtful yet relatable aspect many have felt or experienced by another in the past. 

Though the middle chunk of the game mostly consists of the girls getting into petty arguments with each other at the end of the day they do care for one another (when Monika isn’t pulling any strings that is).

Even small details like the girls having their unique handwriting in the poetry and signature writing styles give them a level of depth I will praise through and through.

Tunes With A Dose Of Terror, As A Treat!

The soundtrack of the game was also done by Dan Salvato, which is no easy feat considering how it carries the unnerving elements on its back. Seriously, it ties the entire game together, pretty much telling a story of its own. For starters, Monika is implied to be the one responsible for every time you hear a piano in the tracks that play, a way to show how she’s following the player. 

If you listen carefully you can hear each instrument you find commonly used in the soundtracks representing a character. The piano of course is Monika, Natsuki is the triangle, the recorder is Sayori, and the strings are Yuri. A fun way this is implied in is within the main menu theme; which is often interrupted by Monika’s piano up until the very end where it is the only instrument remaining. Such a unique way of foreshadowing future events! 

Aside from the groovy tunes, I would be a fool not to mention the disturbing sound design. After the first act, the tracks start becoming distorted and occasionally replaced by static noise or sounds similar to that of flesh. It truly is uncomfortable in the most entertaining way possible, always keeping you on your toes. 

A small instance of the sound design I appreciate is during a conversation with Monika where you’re pulled out of the club room; the usual theme played during your activities is now muffled— Giving the impression that you’re quite literally being taken aside from the game by Monika, a subtle but neat detail I couldn’t help but share. 

What Inspired This Nightmare In Broad Daylight?

Dan Salvato claimed his inspirations for the game were non-VN games such as Yume Nikki and Eversion. But he is a fan of various popular titles such as Tsukihime, Fate/stay night, Steins;Gate, Clannad, and Umineko which you can draw sprinkles of similarities to whether it’s the characters or themes in the storyline. For the game’s first anniversary, Dan Salvato also live-streamed himself playing his creation where he mentions the dialogue of the game was based on badly translated visual novels he had played in the past. He found the slightly off-putting sentence structures added to the experience and tried adding a similar flare to Doki Doki Literature Club!‘s dialogue.

Aside from video games, Dan Salvato based the club members around various character archetypes and tropes commonly found in anime. My favorite example of this is Sayori being inspired by Yui Hirasawa from K-On! 

I Love It, But What About The Rest Of The World?

Since its release Doki Doki Literature Club! has garnered a large internet presence, finding its place among indie horror games or mascot horror games — rather than amongst other visual novels like itself. So why is that the case? Of course, seeing a game that executes unique storytelling elements gaining tons of traction is always thrilling to see, especially if it’s the development team’s first-ever project. In retrospect, it seems “Let’s Play” channels on YouTube picking it up, cosplay of the girls on various platforms such as TikTok, and the games’ free-to-play availability helped it launch itself into the public consciousness more than others in the medium. Especially with its horrific twists and turns making it a name to innocently spread around to get others scared of the fearful events that await any new player. 

However Doki Doki Literature Club! has gained its fair share of criticism from those familiar with Visual Novels as well— some viewing it as a satire, even a mockery of the genre due to Dan Salvato claiming one of his reasons for creating the game was “His mixed feelings towards anime.” but fail to mention it also stemming from his fascination towards surreal and unsettling experiences. 

That aside, Doki Doki Literature Club! if anything is a love letter to the medium clearly made with both newcomers and fans in mind. It caused the creation of a truly creative community full of original fan-songs, animatics, cosplays and various mods portraying alternative endings to the story. 

To Wrap Things Up…

Regardless of your enjoyment, rating, or preference for the game, it cannot be denied that Doki Doki Literature Club! was a game made with nothing but love. It has stuck with many for damn good reasons and will no doubt continue to do so, with an expansion pack released in 2021 and a sequel hinted to be developed through various secrets sprinkled in the games source codes. 

It will always be a visual novel I cannot recommend enough, my dear reader. If you’ve already played it I implore you to do so again! Each play-through you find something new to pick up on or you can even encounter one of the rare occurrences hidden throughout different gameplays. If anything, you could find something new to appreciate in the poetry presented to you and be inspired to write your own like I was. 

However if you want to play something new after playing Doki Doki Literature Club! over and over like I have: I recommend You and Me and Her developed by Nitro+ and available on Steam

Thank you for reading, it is deeply appreciated! 

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my name is sunny, i’ve been a big visual novel and animanga fan for more than half of my life now. i want to make a visual novel of my own someday, and hopefully get more people into the medium. my passion is cute girls doing cute things!

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