Doki Doki Literature Club

"Team Salvato have clear affection for the medium they've chosen to lampoon, otherwise Doki Doki Literature Club would not succeed with the aplomb it does."

Commercial visual novels are a very insular and self-referential medium. Major developers such as Key Visual Arts and 5pb trade on their reputation for producing lengthy narratives that posit the reader in a typical "day in the life" of a standard anime protagonist. These stories often have a fantastical hook, whether it be time travel, nuclear catastrophes, or something else entirely, though these core plotlines are often ancillary to narratives that concentrate on the budding relationships between the protagonist and the supporting cast.

As such, it's a format ripe for subversion. Hatoful Boyfriend provides a stunning critique through the lens of absurdist comedy and inspired a wave of imitators, yet subversion through drama remains relatively untapped. The Higurashi When They Cry series supposedly attempted this, but ultimately couldn't break free of genre conventions, instead burying its grotesque mystery under dozens of hours of high school hijinx — not unlike like the narratives it proposed to overturn.

Doki Doki Literature Club, the debut from indie developer Team Salvato, is a title that attempts subversion through drama. And it succeeds. In fact, it's so successful that I almost feel that to review it in the traditional sense is to do it a great disservice: although I have many feelings about it, this is a visual novel that is best approached knowing as little as possible about it. As it's both short and free (fans who wish to show their support can purchase the reasonably priced Fan Pack that contains the soundtrack and a digital artbook), I'd encourage you to sit down and play through it before reading anything about it, but I'll try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible.

The story opens with you, the nondescript, player-named protagonist, on your way to school. Our hero is the usual VN audience stand-in: a somewhat socially awkward, young otaku who prefers anime and games to socialising. On the way, you bump into your childhood friend, the bubbly, perpetually late girl-next-door Sayori. She's got a clear crush on our hero, and saddened by how insular he is, she encourages him to join the Literature Club, of which she is a member. Reluctantly, he allows her to drag him along to the club room after school, where he meets short-tempered member Natsuki, moody vice president Yuri, and the mysterious club president Monika. Surrounded by four beautiful girls, what follows is a lighthearted romantic romp as our hero becomes a fully fledged member of the Literature Club.

Except it isn't. Boy howdy, it isn't.

I almost wish Doki Doki Literature Club didn't preface itself with a content warning (although the nature of its content makes this a responsible and essential inclusion), as everything about its presentation is authentic to the point of being indistinguishable from the visual novels that it relentlessly skewers. The cast adhere to the anime design philosophy of each character having her own distinguishable silhouette, and they're illustrated in a proficient-yet-derivative style not unlike those of Key Visual Arts' back catalogue. The backgrounds are on point, and the music is appropriately light and bouncy. Team Salvato have clear affection for the medium they've chosen to lampoon, otherwise Doki Doki Literature Club would not succeed with the aplomb it does.

And much like its contemporaries, Doki Doki Literature Club tasks you with following the individual storyline of the club member of your choice. This is articulated through the game's poetry system. At the end of each day, the protagonist is tasked with writing a poem to present at the next Literature Club. Poetry here takes the shape of a simplistic mini-game in which players choose twenty disjointed words from a rotating list to form their poem. Chibi representations of the girls stand at the bottom of the screen, and each girl has an affinity for different words — childish Natsuki likes cutesy words, while brooding Yuri's favorites are slightly darker in tone. Selecting a girl's favored word sees her chibi avatar jump for joy, and it's identifying and choosing these words that raises a girl's affection level. You never do get to read the protagonist's nonsensical word salad poem, but the girls do react with interest, boredom, or aversion depending on how in tune your poem is with their tastes. You do then read each girl's poem, and reading between the lines to get to know them is a real...highlight.

As you get closer to your girl of choice, you soon start to see that not all is well; each suffers from a different issue related to their mental health. This is where Doki Doki Literature Club, like Katawa Shōjo before it, appears to veer dangerously close to fetishization of very real issues, and I'm of two minds about how delicately it handles this. The depictions of mental health issues as they manifest within the narrative are surprisingly thoughtfully written and realistically portrayed, which I appreciated. Seeing the way the cast perpetuates a self-destructive cycle in order to win the protagonist's love initially set off my Bechdel alarm, yet when I took some time to think about it in hindsight, I realized that this too was a statement: dating sims by their very design posit the player as an omnipotent casanova/temptress, able to bend any love interest to their will. It's pure fantasy, and any transposition of it to the real world would require a hefty dosage of unhealthy obsession. In that sense, the lengths the ladies go to are not wholly because of the protagonist, but rather he can be read as a symptom — an easy outlet. Thus, Doki Doki Literature Club is not a horror story built off the back of clumsy ruminations on defining "sanity;" rather, it is a sharply aware polemic against harem anime/visual novels. It's particularly telling that the true horror in Doki Doki Literature Club is derived from something else entirely; something far more delightfully insidious than anything I've mentioned here.

I've said a lot about Doki Doki Literature Club already, but there's a lot more for you to find for yourself. The story goes to some very surprising places once you're allowed a peek behind the curtain, and the game itself makes excellent use of its platform in ways I absolutely adored — ways which I won't spoil here as they deserve to be experienced (and played with) firsthand. So, what are you waiting for? Join the Literature Club today!

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