A casual romance with horror: A critical review of “Doki Doki Literature Club!”

We’ve been on something of an anime kick at Idols and Realities this summer, but we’ve always got it in the back of our pointy little heads that this was supposed to be the “year of the video game review.” Which is perhaps why, when I found myself playing “Doki Doki Literature Club!” (that’s the game’s exclamation mark, not mine), I thought that it would be a good subject for review–it also doesn’t hurt that we just ran up against the game’s one year anniversary.

To be honest, I never thought I’d be reviewing a visual novel or dating sim, let alone playing one, but “Doki Doki Literature Club!” is something I had been meaning to look at for a while. It is always presented as something that you can’t talk about without spoiling, and that’s true…to a certain extent. It’s not possible to discuss the game at any length without spoiling it conceptually, but it’s very possible to discuss the game without getting into its specifics.

Still, it is hard for potential players not to spoil the game conceptually for themselves, at least a little bit. There is this thing called the Internet. One of the main draws of the game is its mashup of high school romance and psychological horror, and it doesn’t take too much digging to learn that there is a metafictional component to it as well. That said, I spoiled the crap out of the game before I played it for myself, and while in one way I wish I hadn’t, in another way I’m glad I did. Of course, your mileage may vary, as they say.

“Doki Doki” puts you in the shoes of a faceless high school student who has joined the titular literature club not so much for its bookish charm as for its all female membership, including childhood crush Sayori, reserved Yuri, excitable Natsuki and alpha gal Monika. You talk to the girls and compose bad poetry in an effort at getting closer to one of them, but time will prove that none of them are quite who–or even what–they seem to be.

“Doki Doki” is a clever game before it’s a good game, but it’s not a bad game. It has nice art, a pleasant soundtrack and a relatively smart script, one which certainly provides grounds for discussion. Although it was seemingly designed to be considered from a media savvy or cultural angle, it’s possible to look at it from the vantage point of existentialism, determinism, feminism or probably a couple of other isms I’m not even thinking about.

The question I do not see addressed as often is whether or not “Doki Doki” is a horror game. Most people take it for granted that it is, but I say, not so fast. I said that in a way I wish I hadn’t utterly spoiled “Doki Doki” for myself, and that’s because it would have been fun to really approach it from a fairly fresh perspective. But I am still glad I did because I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have played it if I hadn’t. I have never finished a visual novel-esque game before in my life, and, had I not entered “Doki Doki” knowing what it was all about, it would not have been the first.

It is hard not to think of “Doki Doki” as a romantic visual novel or a dating sim (there is debate about how those should be divided, but I ain’t wading into those waters–besides, I don’t think it makes a different when discussing this). It uses those types of game’s mechanics. It takes a few hours to play, and you have to click through a lot of text boxes over those hours.

“Doki Doki” does examine genres like visual novels and dating sims through a psychological horror lens, and there is a lot of messed up stuff in those types of games to examine without having to toss in distorted audio and random gore effects. But that means that, while it’s observing the horrific elements in those genres, it has to start from a base of those genres. Perhaps that’s why the horror itself is somewhat clumsily done. It’s a surprisingly slow burn up to the first genuine shock, but after that, the game feels like it has to make up for lost time, and it starts chucking scary gameplay quirks at you like clockwork, which can result in a lopsided, almost cartoonish, experience.

Oddly enough, if you were to remove the game’s more garish efforts, you would probably be left with something more in line with psychological horror because its pacing would be improved and it would lean more heavily on existential dread than jump scares. Most of “Doki Doki’s” best moments are related to said existential dread, and I was actually quite drawn into the erstwhile antagonist and meta-narrative by the game’s climax. In a way, it reminded me of my encounter with Andrew Ryan in “Bioshock.” In both cases, although I knew I had to kill a character to continue, I found myself wishing there was another way.

I’m happy I played “Doki Doki,” and I’m still thinking about its themes long after finishing the game. However, while I will happily recommend the game to anyone interested–it is free, by the way–I personally feel no rush to replay it.

Keep in mind, I don’t make that “Bioshock” comparison lightly. Both games bring horror elements into another genre of video gaming–romance games and first person shooters, and hopefully I don’t have to point out which is which–and both games wind up becoming philosophical commentary on gaming itself, if not reality as a whole. I just happen to be a bigger fan of shooters.

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