Please note that the best way to experience this game is completely blind, and the following review will contain massive spoilers
Okay, so, here we go (deep breath)
By now you’ve probably heard of Doki Doki Literature Club, in particular that its appearance of a cutesy dating sim visual novel is a facade for something far darker. The game opens with content warnings about children and those who are “easily disturbed”, as well as a one-off, specific one about people suffering from depression and anxiety. Despite being one of those people I paid it little heed, though I did consider it weirdly specific. It’s there for a damn good reason, as it turns out, because Doki Doki Literature Club is a frankly brutal psychological horror game with an uncomfortably intimate view of depression, obsessive behaviour, self-harm, anxiety and suicide. I know, a game with *that* visual style and a name like Doki Doki Literature Club doesn’t sound like the most harrowing game I’ve played in some time, but it is. As someone with the mental illnesses depicted in the game, as well as a tendency to get attached to videogame characters, this one wasn’t a fun time for me, but it served its purpose admirably and I can’t deny it’s an effective experience. I realise as I write this that this is sounding less like a review and more like me just venting, but it is mental health awareness week, and I need to talk about this game.
The framing device is you, a player-named, male high school student joining the titular Literature Club, made up of four other members: your childhood friend and neighbour Sayori, a feisty younger girl called Natsuki, a more reserved, eloquent girl called Yuri, and Monika, the club’s president. There’s a lot of conversing, the occasional choice and, once per in-game day, you write a poem; selecting twenty words you think will most appeal to either Sayori, Natsuki or Yuri. It actually starts fairly innocuously, only taking a turn when Sayori reveals her severe depression to the player, he clearly has no idea how to properly deal with it and after either becoming a couple or staying close friends, she hangs herself, something I still haven’t fully gotten over hours later. Fun aside: that was the second time I thought to myself “Don’t be dead, don’t be dead, don’t be dead” during the game. First time the game showed mercy. Second time it punched me in the gut. Anyway it’s at that point that the game violently shifts, and reveals its true nature as a sort of Undertale-esque, fourth wall breaking nightmare, in which a self-aware Monika puts the other girls through the wringer, dialling up their issues in order to make them seem less desirable and thus open the way for her to romance the player, something the game won’t allow in its normal state. It’s grim, horrible psychological horror, with a lot of fake-glitching interface screw and generally running amok with expectation and how the player actually interacts with the game: the section dedicated to poor Yuri is a particular stand-out. The only problem really is that unlike the other girls Natsuki has only fleeting moments in the spotlight, and while the game makes the most of those small bursts, I would have liked to see her get more of a look-in. Instead she’s more of a supporting character, key to everything else that’s going on but never at the forefront. Although, given what happened to the other girls it’s probably for the best. Two out of three is bad enough.
Look I’m not going to lie, this was a rough one. This wasn’t much of a review, but I had to write something about it, just to get it out of my system. As a horror game it’s fantastic, harrowing and genuinely horrible, its meta fourth wall breaking is used effectively and doesn’t get out of hand, and its approach to mental illness is good, even going so far as to offer actual advice about how to interact with depressed friends. It’s brutal, smart, original, upsetting and I’m glad I played it. I’m just not sure if I ever want to play it again.
By James Lambert