The allure of lore: A critical review of “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” (2021)

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.

How to join a cult: A critical analysis of cult classic media (and some “Doki Doki Literature Club!”)

In news at the top of the year–before news about freeware horror games became obviously less important–it was announced that “Doki Doki Literature Club!” was getting an update. Media outlets labeled the game a “cult classic.” Unlike in the waking world, “cult” isn’t necessarily a dirty word in media reviews. Cult classic bestows a badge of honor upon niche works like “Doki Doki.”

Is it a fair moniker though? In fact, in an age of rapidly moving media and mainstream fandom, what actually qualifies as a cult classic? Coming from a religious studies background–and being a rabid fan of pseudo-intellectual horror–it seems like no one would be better suited to answer these questions than me. My answer to the first question is: I don’t know. Maybe? My answer to the second question is: We’ll get to that. Probably.

In order to decide if “Doki Doki” is a cult classic–or if anything is a cult classic–we’ll have to start by laying some ground rules. The term can be, and should be, narrowly defined. What constitutes a cult classic?

First off, it doesn’t just mean weird. For example, the 2013 movie “Borgman” is weird. It’s well-made-weird, with clean photography, solid acting, unusual characters and an intriguing script. It’s also likely to be categorized as a horror film–it’s structured like a thriller and appears supernatural at points–which is a genre that comes with a built-in audience. I watched it and liked it. I’ve also never watched it again. I’ve never watched a video essay deconstructing it, never read a fan fiction based on it, never seen a sexy Jan Bijvoet cosplay. “Borgman” is weird, but it doesn’t have a cult.

A “cult” in the contemporary sense is a group that has a particular devotion or fascination with a ritual, object or person. There are another couple of factors at play: scope and societal acceptance. Speaking religiously, a cult is a religious group that is smaller, newer and more isolated from the rest of society.

To a degree, those factors can be gauged with familiarity and visibility. The more open a church’s philosophy is or the more numerous its congregants are, the less likely it is to be labeled a cult. That’s why Catholicism is called church but People’s Temple is called a cult (I spent an inordinate amount of time researching the sermons of Jim Jones, so I should know this). Even location is a factor. Mormonism might be considered a routine Christian church in the American Southwest but approached with cult-like caution in the Northeast.

To get really meta, it can be hard to tell where distrust of the outside world by a cult, and distrust of a cult by the outside world, begin and end. From a psychological perspective, they would appear to feed each other. Whether that’s fair or not is a question for a brainier character than the operator of a blog that philosophizes about thrillers.

Now that you have a crash course in cult studies, we can cut to cult media. By the 1970s or 80s, the term appears to have been applied to cinema in largely the same way. A cult movie has a small but devoted following. Since certain genres of media tend to attract certain followings, the label refers as much to the media as to its fandom. For example, Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is arguably a cult film, since both so-bad-its-good sci fi is a niche market and the film’s fans tend to be very loyal. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain” is arguably a cult film as well. It is vastly different from “Plan 9” in concept and quality, but it also has a devoted niche audience: film snobs.

Does “Doki Doki Literature Club” have the earmarks of a cult classic? I am biased toward the game, but I believe so. It is perfectly made for a niche market, since it juxtaposes harem anime with psychological horror. Neither of those genres screams mainstream, but they both tend to attract devoted fandoms.

Indeed, “Doki Doki’s” fandom appears to still be fairly devoted, even three years after the game’s release (three years is an eon in game development time). The “Dok Doki” subreddit remains pretty active, and while YouTube streamers will pop on mods to play, this blog is more interested in the fact that mods are still being made for the game. Most of them lean toward the game’s dating sim side rather than its psychological horror side, but there are still a few interesting examples, including “Rain Clouds,” a retelling of the game’s first level from Sayori’s perspective that retains the psychological twists of the original game, and “Never Doki Lone,” a mashup of mystery and horror featuring Monika as an investigative school reporter.

Outside of the world of streaming, the game still sees meme and animations. YouTube channels like A Few Seconds to Live, woutmees and The Bike continue to create diverse content out of the original game’s assets. The singer OR3O has dropped most of her “Doki Doki” dressings, but she initially achieved fame by singing covers in vocal Monika cosplay (she still creates original content based on indie horror games like “Bendy and the Ink Machine” and “Helltaker”).

Arguably, perhaps even this blog has been keeping the “Doki Doki” fire lit, but I’ve already admitted a bias. When I say the fandom can be clingy, I’m not excluding myself.

Finally, “Doki Doki” has one more thing going for it: a touch of controversy to keep it out of the fully mainstream. Its squirmy subject matter made sure that contemporary mainstream discussion of the game was largely about how weird and niche it was (and note that, even then, it was being labeled “cult”).

Basically, it’s fair to say that “Doki Doki” has a cult. But is it a classic? Here is where I am less certain. Defining a “cult” is easy, since all you need is years of religious studies classes. Defining a classic is harder. That’s something only time can do.

Cute anime girls and jump scares can take you so far, but a game needs more than novelty to be a classic, just like it needs more than weirdness to attract a cult. This blog believes that “Doki Doki’s” themes–its thoughtful and layered explorations of AI, agency, purpose and communication–suggest it has the signs of becoming a classic. Some of us are still talking about it three years out. If we’re still talking about it three years from now, I’ll have a better answer for you, and I’ll have an even better answer if we’re talking about it three years after that. Only time will tell.

Here is where things get truly interesting. If a cult classic requires both a devoted cult and the time to become a classic, is it easier or harder to become one these days? This blog hates to sound like an angry old man–unless it secretly thrives off sounding like an angry old man–but in an era of instant communication, memes of the week and mainstream nerdiness, the problem isn’t for a work to find its fandom. It’s that the work has to compete in an ever expanding marketplace of media and memes about media, and the truly popular runs the risk of either getting forgotten in a week or ascending out of cult status into established church. Almost anything can amass a fandom on social media, but that doesn’t mean it’ll stay active. Cults might become more common, but classics won’t necessarily follow.

“Can you hear me?”: A critical analysis of “Doki Doki Literature Club” (2017)

It goes without saying that language is important in “Doki Doki Literature Club!” The game is a visual novel, which means that a lot of the game requires players to click–and click and click–through boxes of written text. One prominent gameplay mechanic involves players selecting individual words, presumably prepping to write avant-garde poetry. It’s even in the title; the game is set in a literature club.

Poetry, literature, text and words. Language is the foundation of both “Doki Doki’s” story and gameplay. But the game is doing more with language than using it as a building block. It also makes a statement about language, about its purpose and value in defining us as human, and it does so with the character of Monika.

A quick exploration of “Doki Doki” fandom online reveals that Monika is one of the most popular club members. Perhaps this is unsurprising because, once you get past the memes and conspiracy theories, Monika is by far the most personable character–well, personable aside from acts of wanton digicide, but she had her reasons.

This has everything to do with the way the club members are all characterized. In the cases of Sayori, Yuri and Natsuki, the game uses stock visual novel character tropes to reveal depth and help us sympathize with them. Sayori is an overly cheerful optimist whose bright exterior hides a depressed interior; Yuri is initially aloof and chilly, but she grows passionate and intense; Natsuki’s blunt and harsh attitude guards her sensitive nature.

Combined with their cute anime designs, the characters’ personalities encourage players to get to know them, understand them and possibly help “fix” them–except one only has to watch Sayori’s story unfold to see that this isn’t that kind of game.

“Doki Doki” encourages us to sympathize with Monika in a much different way. For the first two acts, she never neatly conforms to a character type like the other club members, and she is largely a referee in the background while the game happens in the foreground.

But in the distinctive third act she winds up sitting across from the character. What does she do with her newfound focus? She talks. And talks. And talks. If you leave her “alive” long enough, Monika will talk indefinitely about a wide array of topics, as well as reflect on the present, have a concept of the future and perhaps reveal feelings of guilt about the past.

While this suggests that Monika is–or has been programmed to be–a deep thinker, it also indicates that she has been starving for someone to talk to. After all, before the player came along, who else was there? Not one of the other club members. They were never meant to think outside or be aware of a world beyond their personality types, and they don’t characterize themselves through meandering conversation. Monika has been waiting for someone like herself–someone informed and speculative–to come along.

This desire might go back to the purposes of language itself. Language has the practical benefits of helping us communicate and identifying us as members of a particular tribe. Language also has a psychological benefit; by naming objects or events, we gain a sense of understanding or control over them. Combine these benefits and another more existential or ontological benefit emerges. Language helps us affirm our humanity to others, and we use it to gauge the humanity of others as well.

We use language to determine other people’s knowledge and trustworthiness; to determine their identity, from what part of the world they come to individual quirks that identify a specific person; to determine their intelligence, since well spoken people are, for better or worse, generally thought to be smarter.

This is partly based on how our language is a representation of our intelligence and identity, both to ourselves and to others. We can’t help living inside our heads, and we observe and interpret reality through those heads. Language provides a way to catalog that reality for ourselves, as we can use language to categorize experiences, memories and information.

When we translate that inner dialogue to others, we can use spoken or written language. This is why writing is so personal. It’s not just words. It’s an expression of how smart we are, how much we have learned and how we see the world. It is also an expression of shared humanity–this is how I see the world, and I know I’m human, so if you’re human too, you probably see things in a somewhat similar way (ever notice how we often assume that people we like hold similar beliefs to us?).

Recognizing a fellow English speaker is an expression of a shared culture; recognizing a particular memory is an expression of a shared experience. In these cases, language provides a structure that bridges the gap between individuals. Any time we point language toward another human being in a reflective way, we are acknowledging their shared humanity while attempting to prove our own. That’s perhaps why the Turing Test relies on language–essentially the ability for a machine to use language in such a way that it appears to be human–to test machine intelligence.

The phrase “Can you hear me?” is used multiple times by Monika. She says it in text box to get the attention of the player rather than the player character; it’s the name of a .txt file, presumably written by Monika, that appears in the game’s directory in the second act; and it introduces the song that plays over the closing credits, the only truly spoken dialogue in the game. It is not enough that Monika can speak. She wants to be heard, she wants you to do the hearing, and what she wants you to hear is that she is basically human–unlike those other club members who were clearly not.

There is debate about whether there is something special about Monika’s character, but she is the only club member who seems to have some of the attributes we use to determine humanity: complexity of character, intelligence, a sense of destiny and agency. It’s one reason why it’s possible to reconsider Monika’s character and her horror movie actions. After all, if you suddenly found yourself the only truly human being in a world where you were surrounded by philosophical zombies–pesky beings whose humanity you could not verify and did not trust–what would you do to get close to the only other apparent human being and have a real conversation?

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.