Doki Doki Literature Club!
|Doki Doki Literature Club!|
The cover art of Doki Doki Literature Club!, featuring the four main characters (from left to right) Sayori, Yuri, Monika and Natsuki.
Doki Doki Literature Club! is a 2017 American visual novel developed by Team Salvato for Microsoft Windows, macOS, and Linux. The game was initially distributed through itch.io, and later became available on Steam. The story follows a male high school student who joins the school's literature club and interacts with its four female members. The game features a mostly linear story, with some alternative scenes and endings depending on the choices the player makes. While the game appears at first glance to be a lighthearted dating simulator, it is in fact a metafictional psychological horror game that extensively breaks the fourth wall.
The game was developed in an estimated two-year period by a team led by Dan Salvato, known previously for his modding work for Super Smash Bros. Melee. According to Salvato, the inspiration for the game came from his mixed feelings toward anime, and a fascination for surreal and unsettling experiences. Upon its release, Doki Doki Literature Club! received positive critical attention for its successful use of horror elements and unconventional nature within the visual novel genre.
Doki Doki Literature Club! is a visual novel. As such, its gameplay has a low level of interactivity and consists of scenes with static two-dimensional images of characters in a first-person perspective. The narration and dialogue are presented in the form of accompanying text. The narration is provided by the game's protagonist, a member of the titular literature club, to which he was invited by his childhood friend Sayori. At certain points, the player will be prompted to make decisions that determine the course of subsequent events. Such decisions affect the development of the protagonist's relationships with the key female characters Sayori, Yuri, Natsuki, and Monika. The characters' interactions with the protagonist are also influenced by a minigame in which the player is required to compose a poem from a set of individual words. Each girl in the literature club has different word preferences, and will react positively when the player picks a word that they like. The characters' reactions are represented by chibi versions of the characters that are displayed at the bottom of the screen during the minigame. Depending on the results of these minigames, the player can enable additional scenes with the character to whom the poem was dedicated. The narrative is divided into three acts, between which the player must restart the game. At a certain point, the player must access the game's files in order to advance the narrative.
The protagonist is invited by his cheerful childhood sweetheart, Sayori, to join their high school's literature club as a remedy for his insular nature. The protagonist reluctantly agrees to her proposal and meets the other members of the club: the assertive Natsuki, the shy Yuri, and the bubbly club president Monika. The protagonist writes and shares poems with his new club-mates and deepens his relationships with them. As the club prepares for the school's upcoming cultural festival, Sayori reveals to the protagonist that she suffers from depression and confesses her love for him. The following day, Monika passively shows the protagonist an uncharacteristically morbid poem by Sayori that insistently orders someone to get out of her head. Realizing that something has happened to her, the protagonist rushes to Sayori's home, where he discovers that she has hanged herself, and the game abruptly ends.
The player is sent back to the main menu, with all previous save files erased. The narrative repeats upon the start of a new game, but Sayori is glaringly absent; her name and dialogue are rendered illegible, and the characters do not remember her existence. In addition, the character sprites appear corrupted from time to time. Monika takes Sayori's place in inviting the protagonist to the club. Aside from the game's frequent distortions, the normally calm and shy Yuri becomes gradually unstable, possessive and prone to self-harm. Yuri's decline in sanity culminates in the act of giving the protagonist a "poem" that is indecipherable and covered in blood and other bodily fluids. When Monika seems to be callously dismissing this anomalous behavior, Natsuki secretly passes the protagonist a message under the guise of a poem that begs him to seek help for Yuri, only to be immediately manipulated into telling the protagonist to disregard the message and devote his attention solely to Monika. After a heated quarrel over who the protagonist will help with the school festival, Yuri ejects Monika and Natsuki from the room and privately confesses her love for the protagonist. Whether or not the protagonist accepts Yuri's confession, she commits suicide by repeatedly stabbing herself. Due to the game's broken script, the protagonist is stuck motionless in the room with Yuri's decaying cadaver over the course of a weekend. Natsuki returns upon the weekend's conclusion, but is horrified and nauseated by the sight of Yuri's body and flees the scene. Monika appears and apologizes to the protagonist for the "boring" weekend he had spent, and begins a display of compensation by deleting Yuri and Natsuki's character files from the game and sending the player back to the main menu.
A new file is started automatically, and the protagonist is placed in a room with Monika seated across from him. Monika reveals that she is a self-aware video game character who has the ability to manipulate and delete other character files, which she used to alter the behavior of her club-mates in an unsuccessful bid to make them unlikable and prevent their confessions of love to the protagonist. She expresses her loneliness from being relegated to a fruitless supporting role within an empty world where her only company had been "autonomous personalities" designed only to fall in love with the protagonist, and she confesses her own love not to the protagonist character, but directly to the player. Monika will sit and talk to the player indefinitely about various topics until the player manually enters the game's directory and deletes Monika's character file. Monika initially lashes out at the player, but ultimately forgives them and remorsefully repents by restoring the game and the characters excluding herself.
Depending on the course of action taken by the player, the game can come to three possible conclusions. The standard ending sees Sayori introducing herself as the president of the literature club and thanking the player for getting rid of Monika. As she adopts Monika's possessive characteristics, Monika intervenes via text prompt and deletes Sayori to save the player. Monika deletes the game over the course of the credits, and the game concludes with a note from Monika, stating that she has disbanded the literature club because "no happiness can be found" in it.
A more positive ending occurs if the player has viewed all of the optional scenes in a single playthrough, which requires saving and loading at several points before witnessing Sayori's initial suicide. Sayori instead expresses her gratitude to the player for emotionally supporting all the club members, tearfully bids farewell and assures the player that all the club members love them before deleting the game herself. After the credits, the player is presented with a message from the game's developer, Dan Salvato.
If the player preemptively deletes Monika's file from the directory before starting the game, Sayori is made the default leader of the club. Upon realizing the true nature of the game and her role in it, Sayori panics and forcefully closes the game. Opening the game again will display an image of Sayori having hanged herself. If this image is left on screen for ten minutes, a line of text will appear next to Sayori's corpse reading: "Now everyone can be happy."
Development and release
Doki Doki Literature Club was developed by American programmer Dan Salvato over the course of approximately two years, and is his debut title in the video game industry. Prior to its release, Salvato was known for creating the FrankerFaceZ extension for Twitch.tv, his modding work in the Super Smash Bros scene, and for his custom Super Mario Maker levels. Salvato was inspired to create a visual novel by his "love-hate relationship" with anime, and emphasized the abundant use of clichés in the genre and the frequent plots centering around "cute girls doing cute things", which he saw as both an asset and a detriment to the viewer's enjoyment. Salvato sought to create a title that would attract the player's attention regardless of how they personally view anime.
Discussing the horror elements of the game, Salvato explained that he was inspired by "things that are scary because they make you uncomfortable, not because they shove scary-looking things in your face." To achieve this, Salvato developed the façade of a cute setting, which would break down over time along with the behavior of the characters, and eventually the role of one evil character who had seized control of the game from the player would be revealed. In creating the game's horror elements, Salvato drew inspiration from Yume Nikki and Eversion, and emphasized to his team that he wanted the market for visual novels to become much more daring and less reliant on the same plot concepts. The game's characters were based around standard anime archetypes and were given Japanese names to emphasize a psuedo-Japanese atmosphere characteristic of Western-produced visual novels. The sole exception to this format is Monika, who received an English name as a hint to her individual nature compared to the other characters.
Because Salvato lacked artistic skill, he used a free online anime-creation program to create the initial character designs and applied these designs in test versions of the game. Salvato recognized that a product of such quality would not satisfy potential players, so he made a request to his friend, a translator for Sekai Project, for sketches of school uniforms and hairstyles for the characters. Salvato then handed visual development over to Kagefumi, who created the final versions of the characters, their sprites, and the background images over the course of a few months. The sprites were created in several parts to give the poses more variety. The background images were originally created as three-dimensional models, and then processed by the artist VelinquenT.
Salvato also composed the game's score. The introductory composition, "Doki Doki Literature Club!", is primarily performed by piano and flute with accompaniment by string instruments. The composition "Okay, Everyone!" has five different versions, four of which are performed by different musical instruments that represent each of the four female characters. Monika's version emphasizes the piano, Yuri's version uses pizzicato and harps, Natsuki's version is played by xylophone and recorder, and Sayori's is played by ukulele. The game's score is generally calm and serene with the exception of two tracks, "Sayo-nara" and "Just Monika", which are ominous in tone. "Your Reality", a vocal song performed over the end credits, is sung by Jillian Ashcraft.
Doki Doki Literature Club! was first released on September 22, 2017 on itch.io, and was later also released on Steam. The game is available as freeware with an optional pay what you want model. Paying US$10 or more unlocks a bonus "Fan Pack" that includes desktop and mobile wallpapers, the game's official soundtrack, and a digital concept art booklet. The game's soundtrack was released on two compact discs respectively consisting of 15 and 10 tracks. The first CD contains all the main compositions of the game, while the second consists of remixes and alternative arrangements. The soundtrack saw another release on "crimson smoke" vinyl in the first quarter of 2019.
In its first three months of release, Doki Doki Literature Club! was downloaded over one million times, and exceeded two million downloads about a month later. The game was received positively by critics, and accumulated a score of 78/100 on Metacritic based on 7 reviews.
Steven T. Wright of PC Gamer described the game as "a post-modern love letter to the genre it represents", and compared its deconstructive quality to Undertale and Pony Island. Robert Fenner of RPGFan noted that traditionally, major visual novel developers such as Key and 5pb. produced lengthy day-by-day narratives of a standard anime protagonist's relationships with their supporting cast. According to Fenner, previous attempts to revise the format, such as Hatoful Boyfriend and Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, could not escape the conventions of their genre and fully reveal their dramatic potential. He then declared that Doki Doki Literature Club! had succeeded in this field by making unusual use of the Ren'Py engine and providing unexpected plot twists.
Reviewers emphasized that the game achieves its surprising impact on the player due to its outward resemblance to typical eroge games: it has a pronounced anime style in its character design, and the game's goal is to develop a relationship with one of the characters. In addition, the characters consist of anime stereotypes whose behavior is sparsely displayed through their sprites, and the game's musical accompaniment is light, bouncy, gentle and playful. According to critics, these aspects combined to create the impression of a standard visual novel that would prompt the player to become attached to the characters. VisualNovelist of Jeuxvideo.com positively compared the game's visual quality to Everlasting Summer, another independent visual novel with the appearance of a professional production. Reviewers pointed out that the game's horror was built on the destruction of a sense of control over what happens in the game and the feeling of helplessness that stems from the distortions in the game's world. Victoria Rose of Polygon stated that this approach was strikingly different from traditional horror games and films, where the viewer remains alienated from what is happening on the screen. Amy Josuweit of Rock, Paper, Shotgun noted that while earlier visual novels have broken the fourth wall by crashing the client or adding extra files, Doki Doki Literature Club! changed the angle by deliberately destroying files rather than adding them.
GQ's Tom Philip commented that at times the narrative felt like "a slog, clicking through endless amounts of inane, flirty conversation about poetry." Fenner opinied that the game did not pass the Bechdel test and positioned the protagonist as a seductive casanova. However, he emphasized that the plot is ultimately a "sharply aware polemic against harem anime/visual novels" in which "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." Fenner also felt that the game, like Katawa Shoujo before it, "appears to veer dangerously close to fetishization of very real issues". Nevertheless, reviewers recognized the game's plot focus as successful and relevant.
At IGN's Best of 2017 Awards, the game won the People's Choice Award each for "Best PC Game", "Best Adventure Game" (for which it was also a runner-up), "Best Story", and "Most Innovative". The game won the "Matthew Crump Cultural Innovation Award" and was nominated for "Trending Game of the Year" at the 2018 SXSW Gaming Awards. EGMNow ranked the game 16th in their list of the 25 Best Games of 2017.
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