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“Doki doki” is a Japanese onomatopoeia for a heart beating quickly, usually with anticipation or excitement. Doki Doki Literature Club is a visual novel where anticipation and the different forms it takes. It’s a game that does this by constantly playing with your expectations — even before you start playing.
If you were to take a quick glance at Doki Doki Literature Club’s description, its trailer, or the screenshots on its storefront, you’d see a game that looks like every other cutesy dating sim about a high school boy pursuing multiple attractive girls.
The game seems to promise a lighthearted visual experience, with the notable exception of the warning that appears when you start the game or watch the trailer, is this:
“This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.”
What is that about, exactly? It’s a question sticks with you as you start playing. Your romantic adventures play out just as you’d usually expect — at first — but you’re left with the sense that at some point, something is going to go wrong.
And it will. But along the way, this lurking dread causes you to read too much into seemingly throwaway lines, looking for hints as to why that warning was there. But when the game finally reveals itself as the horror game it told you it was right up front, it isn’t what you expect or how you expected it.
There are ostensibly two parts to the game. During the first part, you head to your literature club every day, where you and the other members discuss the poems you wrote the night before. You can influence your character’s poem by choosing different thematic words from a list, which will make your verse more appealing to some girls than others. This matters, because character you have the best standing with is the one you spend the most time with. It’s a structure that feels familiar and safe, and you get to spend enough time with the characters to connect with them, and even like some of them.
But when you reach the second stage, you’re constantly off balance; Doki Doki Literature Club never lets you find your footing again. For example, many players will probably save their games before making big decisions that can make the plot diverge so that they can go back later and take a different route. After the cataclysmic shift in the game, however, this becomes impossible; in this and other ways, it takes these very familiar aspects of this genre of game and makes them feel very alien and dangerous. You have no idea what to expect anymore, but you keep going because you want to know what happens next.
This is the genius of Doki Doki Literature Club. While it doesn’t do anything profoundly new in terms of narrative or game design, the way it fits all these elements together is clever in a way that turns the dating sim upside down. This game isn’t going to be for everyone; it goes to some very dark places in some very dark ways. While the warning at the start is meant to mess with your expectations, it’s also serious — but it’s up to you to decide if you should heed it, and risk making your heart go “doki doki.”
Doki Doki Literature Club was created by Team Salvato. You can get it on Steam for free (Windows and Mac OS,) or on itch.io for pay what you want (Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.) It takes about 5 or 6 hours to finish.