A confession, tonstant weader, and feel free to stop reading at the end of this paragraph if you think me unqualified: I haven’t played this game. I have watched a bunch of videos, both playthroughs and the thoughts of others. Given the nature of “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus,” I think that’s a decent substitute. It’s a sorta sequel of a visual novel, except with even less game stuff this time around. All I would be doing if I bought the thing would be reading or watching someone else’s videos so I could find out how to unlock the secret stuff, so I’m just cutting out the middleman by watching videos of someone else reading it to me. I’ve also thought a bit about the original game, so I hope I have something worthwhile to say about this incarnation. With that out of the way…
It would be a bit senseless to relate the plot of “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” It is the same plot as the original, at least the main game is. There are side stories and a new flight of background info opportunities courtesy of an email/music player/kitchen sink desktop screen. This replaces the original game’s habit of forcing curious players to dive through game files to pick up narrative extras. It’s a notable change, and the general consensus is it was done to allow console users a way to navigate mechanics that were designed for a PC crowd. It’s also a move toward simplification, which hints at some of what lies ahead.
First the strengths, of which there are a few. The music is still good, perhaps even better, with a new composer brought in to flesh out the original soundtrack. The resulting tracks are lively but mindful of what came before. The art style is in tact, and while there’s not a lot of new art, what’s there is the same as the music: reflective, expansive and respectful.
The new material, the side stories, are well-written… for the most part. Whenever the girls are talking, everything’s great. Like the original, it is a lot of writing, but also like the original it’s appropriately complex, with language and actions informing psychologies both directly and subtly. For example, someone calls out always upbeat Sayori for trying to be everyone’s friend. The game is acknowledging Sayori’s overly chipper attitude in a mature way, and it’s hinting at her neurosis – some people with personality disorders come on strong, like they’re your best friend in the world, the second they meet you. Brilliant. Likewise, Monika mulls over her desire to step in and fix other people’s problems. Again, a mature handling of her alpha gal stereotype while also slyly hinting at her willingness to do bad things in different settings. It’s all very nice.
Unfortunately, it’s the narrator that cocks things up. There is no player character, so narration has to do a lot of heavy lifting. It’s fine when it’s taking care of stage direction, but when it creeps into characters’ heads, then it feels intrusive. That both adds text to an already text-heavy game and feels like hand holding. The characters themselves do a decent job of revealing their flaws and motivations with their own words. I don’t want a narrator – especially one who isn’t a character – to spell it out for me. It’s unnecessary.
Unfortunately, “unnecessary” is a word that could describe a lot of the game. There are some new music cuts and pieces of art, but those are mostly integrated into the side stories. The original game is just the original game, which has been kicking around online for free since 2017. The side stories are, again, mostly well-written, but they’re even less gamey than before. Without a player character, there is no one to write poems or choose between Doki girls, so there are no minigames or branching paths. It’s all just click to read. There aren’t any horror elements there either, no unsettling atmosphere, not even any goofy jump scares to spice things up. The side stories are squarely in the slice of life genre. I get that these decisions were made in the interest of the narrative, but it raises an interesting question.
Why does this game, this updated edition, exist? Is it an excuse for lore? Those who are interested can hunt down secret time-locked emails to uncover a story about simulated realities and trial-and-error multiverse theory. It’s satisfying enough, especially since this blog privately theorized that the original game might have been a kind of digital stress test that went wrong after running the same simulation too many times. That’s intellectually vindicating, I suppose, but it’s not as interesting as the psychological insight the original offered with its neatly crafted narrative outside of the ARG treasure hunting. I am not a fan of lore, Tonstant Weader, at least not when it distracts from the story.
Arguably, the lore in “Plus!” comes at the cost of character development and compelling gameplay-narrative structure. Look, I’ve seen the Game Theory videos. I know the hidden stuff is blocked off by clever puzzles and written in distinct voices. I admit it’s all smart and thoughtfully put together. But why did that intelligence have to be titled toward a digital scavenger hunt? Why couldn’t it have been titled toward a script and structure that considered something about human nature or the ethics of gaming or the structure of reality, even if parts of it had to be more conventionally presented?
Also, instead of making a literal meta-narrative in the form of behind-the-scenes puzzles, why not let the meta-narrative exist in the abstract, where it would reward thoughtful players who like pondering the psychologically dense character, and the nature of story and gaming? I know the conspiracy theories and incomplete breadcrumb trails in the first game got a lot of people hyped up about the secrets to be revealed this time around, but I’m already on the record for saying I didn’t care about that. I was much more invested in the psychological/philosophical “aha!” moments than the puzzle-y ones.
There’s another, much more cynical, reason this game could exist. It might be a cash grab. At (the price as of this writing, which is) about $30, it can certainly feel that way. A price tag like that might be enough to convince some people “Plus!” would be a grand sequel or sprawling with new content, instead of this rather conservative offering. A digital download that costs that much ought to have a lot of something. You would think.
I suppose we can console ourselves with the fact that money spent on “Plus!” will go toward developing the next game from Team Salvato. That’s fine. I still welcome it. But whatever it is, I’d like it to be more than breadcrumbs, both in terms of gameplay and narrative. I know this dev is capable of thoughtful, insightful storytelling, and I’d like that to married to at least slightly compelling gameplay.
That is the the allure of lore and the danger of relying on it too much. There are interesting ideas here, but they are poorly developed. The psychological impact of the new gameplay material is dulled by a style that lacks interaction and feels rushed. The philosophical pondering of the meta-narrative is left unexplored, no doubt to give it the necessary mystery for a game of narrative connect-the-dots.
Ultimately, “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” is a good story clumsily told. If it’s gathering resources for deeper games to come, so be it. But if it’s pointing the way toward the future of narrative gaming, then I want a refund.