Doki Doki Literature Club first released in 2017 on Steam, for free. Players were allowed to download the game and then pay what they thought it was worth. And it did not take long for Doki Doki to become a viral success. I’m sure many of the game’s initial downloads were from curious gamers looking for a new visual novel or dating sim, but Doki Doki’s fame grew way beyond that crowd thanks to fierce word of mouth.
I remember hearing the hype for Doki Doki in 2017; that it was one of the year’s best games, that it was one of the best narratives to ever have been told in a video game, that you need to play it to believe how good it was. But then I saw screenshots… and it was just four cute anime girls.
What confused me more were the YouTube clickbait titles of ‘This is the SCARIEST game of the year’. Doki Doki? A horror game? So, I downloaded it, I started it, I bounced off it quickly and never found the time to go back. Over the years I would still hear about Doki Doki and its wild tonal shift mid-way. And finally, after playing it in the form of Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!, I can state it was all true.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a wild, subversive, smart horror game masquerading as a cute dating sim. And it’s a story that can only be told in the format of a video game. It uses its medium to mess with the player and tell its story in a similar way to Nier: Automata or MGS2. It is definitely a narrative you would not be able to reproduce outside of gaming.
Let’s start with the set-up. You play as an average schoolboy who is into anime and video games and isn’t really interested in anything else. This character is really just supposed to be a stand-in for you. Your childhood friend, Sayori, pressures you into joining the newly formed Literature Club with three other girls. So, you reluctantly join and everything is pretty innocent.
There’s some unspoken tension at the arrival of a new member since it seems all the girls want some of your attention, but everything is presented in a light-hearted, friendly manner. The girls suggest writing poetry as a club activity and this leads to the one of the only forms of interactivity in the game.
The game gives you a selection of words and all players need to do is choose 20 of them to form a poem. Players can match these words to the personality of one of the club members in an attempt to romance them. For example, complex, moody or melancholy language will attract Yuri, who writes poems in that style; a massive book worm and pretty emo. But simple, clean and cute language is useful for romancing Natsuki who is loud, bubbly and cute.
Aside from making a few choices elsewhere in the game and solving one very light puzzle, most of your playtime consists of just pressing A to read through dialogue. This makes it hard for me to recommend Doki Doki to people that aren’t already fans of the genre, especially when the base game is free on Steam.
After a while things take a sinister turn and Doki Doki slowly descends down a hellish fever dream. The first half of Doki Doki had me raising an eyebrow at the game’s questionable depictions of serious mental health issues, as well as the voyeuristic representations of its four characters. However, by the end of the game I came to realise that Doki Doki was never intended to be a story about mental health. It uses disturbing subject matter around mental health and uncomfortable scenarios with the four girls to further its story. Both subjects are commented on by the end of Doki Doki’s plot. It also helps that the game is full of trigger warnings from the very beginning to warn players that may be sensitive to certain subject matters.
This brings me to what’s new in the Plus! edition of Doki Doki Literature Club. Plus adds six new story episodes set before the events of the base game. They are entirely separate and unlockable through pursuing different romance options in the main story.
These episodes mainly focus on the formation of the literature club before your entry, so there’ll be no interaction with the player and no poetry mini-games. The six episodes are also decidedly less sinister than the base game and present a purely wholesome narrative with the four Doki girls. While they’re all well-written, fun and heart-warming stories, they’re probably skippable if you were drawn to Doki Doki because of its horror roots. Regardless, these episodes do a good job of humanising these characters and for fans of Doki Doki since 2017, it’s nice to have new narrative content, four years later.
The new edition also brings new music tracks, unlockables and apparently visual enhancements, though I don’t know how much of a selling point that is for a game like Doki Doki.
Overall, if you are not a fan of visual novels, I’m conflicted about recommending Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!. On one hand, Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! delivers an unbelievably surprising, chilling and suspenseful story. On the other hand, it will be a slog for those who don’t enjoy sifting through dialogue for 3-4 hours. Regardless, this is a story every seasoned gamer should at least try to experience. I would suggest downloading the base game for free on Steam and if you’re hungry for more content after, or want to support the creative developers, you can always buy the Plus! edition on PC or consoles.
If you are a fan of visual novels, do not hesitate on picking up Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!
Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! brings the hit game to Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One – find it over on the Xbox Store