Warning – if you haven’t played Doki Doki Literature Club yet there will be spoilers ahead.
If you had told me at the beginning of 2017 – a year which saw the release of new Zelda, Mario, Resident Evil and Life is Strange titles – that a visual novel would be my defining gaming experience of the year, I would have locked you in an industrial fridge for five days with a feral cat (Well, I’d probably do that anyway if you said literally anything to me at the beginning of last year). 2017 was a year that saw me pull away from gaming, focusing instead on things that seemed more important at the time – oh, how wrong I was. I’m still combing through the resulting backlog now.
An extended holiday period, one too many shandies, and a questionable habit of falling asleep to episodes of Game Grumps lead me, reluctantly curious, to Doki Doki Literature Club. “What is this weeby nonsense”, I muttered to myself as the game downloaded. “Will I ever be happy again” I asked myself as the credits rolled one final, decisive time, rocking myself to sleep, furious about the fact that I couldn’t purchase a Yuri huggable pillow yet on eBay. A solid six hours of my life splurged in one go on anime tropes being upended in horrifying, fascinating ways. It offers you choices at every turn – all of them ultimately meaningless. The harem of adorable, squabbling schoolgirls, subverting your expectations of them beyond any semblance of reason – happy-go-lucky Sayori succumbing to clinical depression, introverted, intelligent Yuri doing questionable things with stolen pens, diminutive Natsuki having the strength to cope with extreme parental abuse. And then there’s Monika, who starts out as one of the school’s most popular students and easily becomes a tragic villain with more similarities to Portal’s GladOs than anything else.
It really is a master-class in psychological horror, and this is down to just how well it builds itself in the opening hours as a typical dating simulator – if I hadn’t gotten ahead of the Game Grumps series and spoiled the game for myself I legitimately would have had no idea that it turns on its head as drastically as it does. The cute girl next door, your childhood friend, confesses that she is seriously depressed and has been in love with you for a long time, and you can reciprocate Sayori’s feelings or firmly friendzone her with an assurance of being there to help her throughout her problems. One day, Sayori won’t turn up to school, and you’ll run into her bedroom to find her hanging from the ceiling. At which point the game ends and shoves you back out onto the menu screen without even the tiniest bit of lube for the intense mindfuck you’ve just received. Reload the game and it just begins again, but all instances of Sayori are removed. Her character sprite is either nonexistent or replaced by broken fragments of the other girls. And that’s when the madness really begins.
I’m not going to recount the entire game – it’s free on Steam, after all, and does a much better job of telling its story than I would – but what’s weird is the anomalous fanbase the game has garnered (myself included). A good 60% (if not more) of the community is made up of people who’d never given anime, let alone visual novels, a second glance before. People who would have once derided these games as otaku fodder are now, for some reason, becoming the very audience Doki Doki Literature Club was poking at in the first place. I know from more than a few hours spent involved in the game’s subreddit that I am not alone in venturing further into anime and visual novels after doing everything I could to get a DDLC ending that was at least a little wholesome. I found myself enamoured with clearing a couple of routes on Katawa Shoujo, and felt genuine emotion like games had not managed to claw out of me since the end of Telltale’s first season of The Walking Dead.
Where Doki Doki uses the illusion of choice to terrify (and take certain precious pen-loving girls away), Katawa Shoujo subtly writhes and splits into branches depending on what you say and where you decide to go at certain junctions. It’s a great exercise in storytelling that hits all the right heart-wrenching and comedic notes. Even that was not enough, though, and I found myself wanting more of the tropes I’d just seen dissected with vicious efficiency – I’ve come to the conclusion it’s down to one of two reasons. Either I’ve actually loved this stuff my entire life but thanks to some distant traumatic event my brain locked it all away until DDLC triggered a serious regression, or Dan Salvato’s dating sim via Takashi Miike has left a gaping void in my heart that I’m desperately attempting to fill with anything remotely resembling it. I’m leaning towards the latter, having gotten unreasonably excited when a character that was more or less Natsuki appeared in a trashy but good-hearted series about magical schools and impractical outfits.
Initial misgivings aside, I’m genuinely glad that Doki Doki Literature Club has opened this door for me – even if that wasn’t the point. Because of this curious experiment I’ve watched Attack on Titan, which I honestly believe stands apart from the anime subculture as one of the best animated series there is, and sunk over 100 hours into Persona 5, which has rapidly become one of my favourite games of all time. I would not have given either of those things a fair shot if Doki Doki hadn’t gently sodomised my prejudices and dumped me back into reality as a 27 year old man who’d just discovered he had a waifu and more self-loathing than previously expected. So basically I guess what I’m saying is it all worked out eventually and you should go play Doki Doki Literature Club if you haven’t already – all jokes aside, it’s a bloody marvellous bit of psychological horror, and free to boot.
You’ll be fine. Honestly.
By NilGames. You can download Doki Doki Literature Club free on Steam. Katawa Shoujo is also freely downloadable from their website here. Please note that FULLSYNC is unable to take responsiblity for any mid-life crisises, inexplicable attractions to character concepts, or horrible realisations you may experience.