Ombra Reviews: Doki Doki Literature Club!
Team Salvato’s free-to-play Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC!) is a dating sim that has reached massive success since its release in September of 2017. Joining your school’s literature club at the behest of your childhood friend, you find yourself surrounded by cute girls! Which one will you choose?
Sounds cute, right?
It is...at least for a while. And that’s the success behind DDLC!; it’s a horror game that hides behind the veneer of kawaii girls and dating sim tropes and leaves you feeling unsettled, angry, and sad all at once in the end. Right off the bat, the game gives a warning that this is not meant for children or those who suffer with anxiety, depression or are easily disturbed. And those warnings are not just there for show.
I played this on the recommendation of a few friends. Purposefully staying away from any potential spoilers, I did a blind play-through, and I’m very happy I chose to do so, since it would have ruined the experience. The horror of this game doesn’t rely on jump scares (to an extent) or monsters. Instead, it forcefully relinquishes the player of their control over the game. It will rewrite itself, erasing character data and save files to manipulate the player to its ultimate goal. One of the things about dating sims is the ability to reload saves at your leisure in order to get as many endings as possible - and DDLC! straight up ruins that. After your first “playthrough” (I use quotes because it really takes three playthroughs to experience the entire game), you can't reload any saves, since all of your old game data goes missing.
One of the main characters (and your best friend), Sayori, has a pretty tragic ending. And the worst part is that you can’t change this, no matter what you do: every time, you will be forced to witness her death and it’s absolutely heart-wrenching. Afterwards, she is literally erased from the game, and anytime she is mentioned, strange text will be shown instead. It only just gets worse from there; characters will glitch and their personalities will change drastically, warping them from the cute girls you know to beings much more sinister.
This is the first game that I've experienced where it actively encourages the player to mess with the game's files. In the "bad ending" where the player is trapped with Monika, the Literature Club’s president, she reveals her plan and tells you where she manipulated the game files and how to find them. As she was babbling, I looked into the character file and saw the only one there was hers. Seeing as how angry I was that she put the other three girls through such torture, I deleted her in retaliation. It felt like justice had been enacted; the game restarted and everything was normal...until I realized it actually wasn't and was forced to erase my game data to start ALL OVER.
All that said, DDLC! does tip its hand fairly early, letting you know that there is more going on behind the scenes than what's on the surface. Monika breaks the fourth wall on the second day by talking about how important it is to “save your game”. If you choose to confess to Sayori, the player comments that he made the wrong choice and he can’t go back and change it. DDLC! is great to try, even if you're not particularly interested in dating sims (especially since romancing the girls isn't even the actual point of the game). This experience subverted my expectations and kept me interested, albeit creeped out, the entire time. You can finish the game in a single day if you dedicate the hours to it - and if you enjoy gripping, though slightly off-putting stories in your video games - I highly recommend giving it a shot!