Doki Doki Literature Club! opens with an intense content warning. Please take it seriously. This review will not dig into the game’s story, nor will it address any of the material in question. This review is safe, but Doki Doki Literature Club is not for everyone. ❤

Horror is manipulative.

It’s the reason written Horror is scarier than movies, and movies often scarier than games: the more carefully the storyteller can control the parameters, the more precise the dosage, the scarier the story. You can turn away from a movie, or pause it and come back later at half-volume with the lights on. The Horror film will carry on to its conclusion, whether you’re paying attention or not. It has no control over its audience. Video games are all about agency, so they’re even more straightforward: when the player has control, they have access to power. Even in a game like Amnesia: The Dark Descent – which is feel-sick-run-away scary – once you learn to sneak around enemies and solve the puzzles, the fear recedes. You fight back and, sometimes, you win. Empowerment and agency are the enemies of fear: when you control the parameters, you control the scare. And for good reason.

Horror stories don’t give us that luxury.

Horror stories live inside their audience. Where films are projected onto screens, horror fiction is projected into the reader. Whatever occurs, occurs in the reader’s mind: they’re the stage, cast and curtain. There’s no waiting for the credits or skimming past enemies on the way to a final boss. In order to experience a horror story, each word must be absorbed in sequence, first to last. So there’s nothing passive about reading, but neither is there any agency. The story happens to you, but at the same time you’re doing it to yourself.

Who could ask for a more tightly controlled set of parameters than that?

Visual novels occupy a space between all three. Like books, they’re soaked in prose. Like movies, they tell a linear, visual story, and like games, they require player input to proceed. While visual novels are literally videogames, there’s another important thing they share with traditional novels: the progression is on the reader’s side. There’s rarely any leveling-up in a visual novel, nor an inventory or conventional ‘gameplay’ of any kind. Instead, you drive the plot by progressing your relationships to the characters on screen. While the choices you’re making are your own, the protagonist is often a proxy for the players themselves. In romantic Visual Novels, which are enormously common, the feelings the protagonist (and reader) develop for these characters can feel, well, real.

Like a conventional novel, the most important parts of the story occur exclusively in the reader’s head. And just like a real book, it has a way of getting under your skin.

Here’s where the manipulation thing comes back in.

Doki Doki Literature Club! is a romantic visual novel, too. It builds relationships with its characters, moment by moment, in a way that feels organic – if a bit hammy. By the one-hour mark you’ll know all about its four-girl cast. You’ll care about them, and they about you. You’ll remember those friendships long after the game ends because they feel real.

Doki Doki Literature Club! sets its hooks so early that by the time it finally becomes a Horror game, your own investment in these relationships becomes a weapon to be used against you. Does it ever.

Because Doki Doki Literature Club! is playing you back, the entire time.

And, uh, it looks like this:

I like to take notes whenever I’m playing something I know I’ll be writing on later. It helps me organize my thoughts. I write down little side notes, or observations, or potential topics for future writeups.

My notepad for Doki Doki Literature Club! is 3,013 words long.

That article is for another time. I’ll keep this one short.

Doki Doki Literature Club! works because it has a mastery of its audience, its form and its subject matter. It isn’t just a romance novel – it’s a romance novel that turns on the reader and devours them. But it isn’t just that either, it’s a love story, an art-piece, and a satire of the romance novel as a form. It’s also an extended metaphor for loneliness and desperation, and a scathing critique of the emotional manipulation that sits at the core of so much romance-oriented material in the first place. It doesn’t just want to freak you out, it wants to make you think, and more importantly, to feel.

It’s honest. Maybe that’s why it’s so scary.

Part of the ‘joke’ with Doki Doki is to ignore the fact that it’s a Horror game in the first place. If you visit the game’s subreddit (not before you play!) or merch shop (ditto, spoilers!) you’ll find post after post about the game’s four characters and their misadventures. You’ll find discussions over who’s the game’s ‘best girl’, or what folks think their daily lives look like. You’ll find cosplay and fanfiction the same way you would with any other game with a passionate, anime-obsessed fandom.

Except this game stops being that game an hour in. In so many ways, the fandom has become the kind of culture the game was meant to critique in the first place. Past a certain point, it’s almost certainly no longer a joke. So why the fervor?

Perhaps it’s because Doki Doki is honest. While its scares are tremendous, and the suffering of its cast very real, these incredibly flat characters feel genuine by virtue of their writing. You will come to care about them, one way or another, and the depth of that care is a testament to the power of interactive fiction. Doki Doki isn’t a joke or a shallow vessel for scares: it’s an honest-to-god romance game.

And then, a corrupted, perverse inversion of one.

And then, something high-concept and incredibly bizarre.

Then, finally, it’s a romance novel again.

Doki Doki shines because of its commitment to every part of itself: as novel, as romance game and as meta-horror shocker. It is, at every turn, completely earnest, and utterly unique. If it can’t scare you, it’s going to make sure you feel something, one way or another.

Or maybe that’s just monika the manipulation talking.

Doki Doki Literature Club! might be the most powerful, unique Horror game I’ve ever played. Two years later, I can remember its twists and turns perfectly. I remember its cast like friends I made along the way. If you’ve never played a Visual Novel before, especially a romantic one, DDLC is going to be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. It might well go down as a Horror classic. I’m sure a generation of imitators is right around the corner.

Maybe the best girl was hiding inside you, all along.

Go check it out, if you’ve got the heart for it. Doki Doki Literature Club is free.