I’ll start with non-spoilery stuff.
I saw some folks talking about Doki Doki Literature Club on the Blaugust Discord (raving about it, one might say), and I noticed it was free on Steam, so I downloaded it to try it out. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people talking favorably about it in the past as well, though I never understood why.
It’s a really, really slow burn, but I think it’s probably worth it in the end.
It reminded me of Portal in several ways. I really appreciate games that put as much or more effort into their end credits sequence as the game itself, and this one did.
For me, my lasting memory of this game will be that of an extended exercise in sight reading. I typically record most games that I play these days, so I ended up recording seven and a half hours of Doki Doki Literature Club, from start to finish. I read every word of it out loud.
You might be wondering why I would do such a thing. (It would have taken far less time to play if I hadn’t.) Well, the short version is I’ve always been fascinated and enthralled by people who can read words out loud in a way that sounds interesting. Storytellers, if you will. People who can read a book out loud to their children at bedtime and make the stories come to life. That kind of thing. Growing up, I always loved to listen to the “lay readers” who read the Bible passages every Sunday at church. It always felt like a magical talent that was far beyond even my wildest dreams. I’ve always felt like it was one of those things that every other person in the entire world could naturally and instinctively do, while I had no idea how to even start.
So when “game videos” became a thing, I realized it was the first time in my entire life I would have a chance to actually practice that kind of thing myself in a relatively safe way. Fast forward to today and it’s usually my favorite part of most games-the part where I record it and read all the stuff out loud. The game itself is whatever, but the reading out loud part is really fun!
Anyway Doki Doki Literature Club is 100% text, so yeah, I read for seven and a half hours over two days. I wasn’t really expecting it to take that long, or for there to be that much text. But once I started, I had to commit to it. I hate stopping a video series halfway through.
Just for reference, it’s not terribly easy to try to imitate the quirky mannerisms of four different and distinct anime girls for seven and half hours. In case anyone was wondering. It’s hard on the vocal cords.
By the end of it, I thought I was doing a passable job, but it was a struggle to get there.
Before I get to the game, just to give you even more of a chance to click away in case you don’t want to accidentally see any spoilers, I’ll talk a bit about what I learned about the language of visual novels and anime. This is the very first “visual novel” I’ve ever seen.
Firstly, a “confession” means something entirely different in the world of an anime visual novel. And it’s apparently so common that it’s assumed that you don’t need to say “romantic confession” instead of “confession.”
Secondly I have to mention the tilde character (~) and its use as a punctuation. I’ve never seen this before, but apparently it denotes a particular “cute” way of speaking. I imagine it somewhat like the exaggerated “bye-eeeeeee” that I hear a lot from younger folks.
Another marking that’s pretty common is the empty “…” panel. I interpret that as a blank stare, but it’s awfully hard to convey that in audio form. Sometimes there’s something like “!…!” which I suppose would be a look of alarm. I feel like this is pretty common in JRPGs as well, but I haven’t played very many of them either.
“Spacing out” is a very common thing that people do in visual novels as well. It’s apparently a pretty shameful thing to be caught doing. (For me, it’s pretty much my normal state, so I’m over here like, “Wait, you’re not supposed to do that?")
“Clubs” seem to be pretty common too. Joining a club, forming a club, belonging to a club, etc. I guess that would be the equivalent of what was known as “after school activities” in my day. The kind of thing I actively shunned, in other words. But it sounds like it’s a mandatory thing in the world of a visual novel. Perhaps a requirement of “belonging” or “fitting in” is an Asian tradition of some kind. That vaguely rings a bell.
There are no parents in a visual novel. All school-aged teenagers apparently live alone.
Okay now on to the game itself, where the spoilers may lie. And I suppose I should put the same content warning on this post that they put on the game itself, since I’ll be referencing the same topics that are in the game.
There’s one thing that I think needs to be spoiled, and that is that the game does not end where you first think it ends. The game does not in any way inform you that there is more to play, except by the subtlest of cues that would probably only interest people with far more curiosity than I have. I will also say that the game becomes about a thousand times more interesting after that false ending, too.
When you reach the false ending, it puts you back on the main menu. This moment for me was memorialized forever in the Blaugust discord.
I would have quit the game and uninstalled it, except I was curious how many different narrative paths there were, because I was pretty sure that there were more dark secrets to be revealed about the girls, which I assumed would have resulted in different endings depending on my choices, so I looked on Wikipedia and discovered much to my surprise that the ending I thought was the ending that resulted from my choices was not actually the ending at all, and in fact the same not-ending that everyone gets. So I loaded it up again and started a new game and that’s where things got really interesting.
There are really two different games here, or two different phases to the game, and my reaction was entirely different in the two phases.
In phase one, I kept expecting a deep, dark secret supernatural horror to be revealed that would shock and disgust me. (This game has about a thousand content warnings about how it’s not for children, etc.) That never happened, and it was a big disappointment. In reality the first phase was a fairly straightforward after-school special about the dangers and warning signs of depression and suicide, and the content warnings are for that. I have enough familiarity with signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety to have seen Sayori’s end coming a mile away. I was only surprised it took so long to happen.
You only see hints of the second phase of the game at the very end of the first phase. (The glitchy behavior.) I noticed it, I commented on it, but it never registered to me as anything that had any story significance. It was so far out of left field, I just thought it was an odd aesthetic game choice. The story was clearly over, and if I wanted a different story, I would have to start over and make different choices. I had no particular desire to go through the whole thing again to see different endings, so that’s when I went to a wiki. I had picked up on Yuri’s secret already, so I figured there would be another ending for her, and wondered if there was a different dire ending for each of the girls.
I didn’t read everything about the real endings on Wikipedia, but I quickly realized, “Oh crap, I need to stop reading this wiki immediately and get back to the game or I’ll regret it.” What I saw was something about there being three different endings, and skimming them, none of them were the ending I saw and they had nothing to do with anime girl secrets. Sayori’s end was actually the middle (and also, annoyingly, not a product of my narrative choices).
So back into the game I went for phase two.
The first phase of the game felt “heavy” and meaningful, as it dealt so much with depression, and the hiding of deep, dark secrets, and that kind of thing. There was one really poignant conversation with Sayori at her house that hit me right in the feels, so to speak, and was hard to read through. The first phase was a lot of work to get through, to be honest, because it was a weighty subject and it never felt like it was going anywhere. I questioned why anyone thought the game was noteworthy a lot during the first phase.
The second phase of the game felt entirely different to me. Suddenly the game turned into a more whimsical farce. The first phase was no longer real, the characters were no longer real, and it was all just a game again. I laughed a lot more in the second phase, and had a much more enjoyable time, despite the fact that Yuri met a rather terrible fate. But it was clearly meant to be played for laughs, and not to be taken seriously (which could possibly be considered a criticism of the game-the subject matter should have been taken seriously). The imagery took on an even more cartoonish tone. It had an Overly Attached Girlfriend vibe to it.
(It was only in the second phase that I learned about Natsuki’s secret, though it was never explored much narratively in my game. I don’t know if things might have turned out differently depending on my choices. But I was definitely making choices that I thought would pick Yuri over Natsuki, whether the game interpreted it that way or not I have no idea.)
I also have to mention this: There was one point where Monika admonished me for recording the game without her permission. I thought that was pretty hilarious. I wondered if they actually knew I was running OBS or if they just made a calculated assumption that a lot of people stream their games now.
My biggest complaint about the experience by far is that the “hook” for the game didn’t occur until about halfway through. If people hadn’t insisted that it was worth it, I would have surely given up before an hour had passed, but the hook didn’t occur for me until a good three hours into it. That’s taking a pretty big risk.