Two years ago, a free visual novel was released on Steam that took the video game and visual novel communities by storm. A story that blew people’s mind and sent them on a trip that had people talking for weeks. It was a visual novel made by a small handful of people, the brainchild of a single man who wanted to address his relationship with anime.
That visual novel is what we are going to talk about today. Join me after the cut as we take a dive into the surprise hit of 2017: Doki Doki Literature Club
((Doki Doki Literature Club is something I cannot talk about fully without getting into the story itself. So full spoilers right up ahead.))
When I say the phrase “box trap” I don’t mean that as a jest. That is at heart what I believe Doki Doki Literature Club to be. It is a story that spends much of its first half pulling you into it’s web with its by the numbers harem story, and by the numbers cast of cute girls. There is nothing special about Sayori, Monika, Yuri and Natsuki that hasn’t been done a million times in a million other visual novels and anime. That is at heart what the story is trying to do: luring you in with a false sense of expectations and security, letting you believe that it really is just a game about four cute girls in a literature club. While there is some time spent talking about serious things like Natsuki’s potential abusive father, Sayori’s depression and Yuri’s tendency to cut herself. These again are all things covered in other visual novels and the medium in general. Serious yes, but it nothing people haven’t seen before.
But then the veneer is pulled off, the string is yanked and the box falls down on the viewer, and DDLC reveals what it really is: a game of psychological horror and existential dread. A visual novel not about four girls, their literature club and the cute boy they all fall for, but a story about one character, Monika becoming self aware and realizing that no matter what she does, nothing in this “world” is real, and that she is bound by the fact she is just a program forced to watch as the other “girls” fall in love with the player.
What Monika does to try and wrestle control away, to break free and experience individuality, and love is both unsettling and shocking. Her desire to be free causes the other three girls to teeter on the brink of madness, whether it is Sayori’s chilling suicide or Yuri’s self aware decent into obsession. By the time the second half of the story is well underway, you’d be forgiven if your feelings or torn between a driving curiosity to see what happens next, or a questioning of the creator’s sanity. By the time it is all over, the player is literally forced to go into the game’s files to try and bring everything to an end. It is a level of creativity that hasn’t been seen in games and visual novels since the original Metal Gear Solid.
Writer Dan Salvato, if not a master story-teller, is an exceptionally skilled one, and upon reaching the game’s twist, replaying the game will show you just how much foreshadowing and hints the game dropped to let you know that something was wrong. Salvato has been on record saying that he was inspired to create the game based on his love-hate relationship with anime, and the artform’s tropes and use (some may say over use) of “cute girls doing things.” That is no more clear in the way the story of DDLC plays out and how the ‘box trap’ of pulling the viewer in, then yanking the rug from their feet can represent our view that something as cute and cuddly as moe anime girls can still be deeply unsettling. I personally don’t believe DDLC to be a hater’s answer to the anime industry, but a piece of work in the same vein of ReZero and School Days, where it is more or a breakdown of well used ideas and tropes. While some may argue that other shows have done it better, Dan Salvato clearly was on to something as the characters of Monika, Yuri, Natsuki and Sayori have resonated both with anime and non anime fans for their cuteness, as well as their place in the game’s meta commentary.
Doki Doki Literature Club holds a special place in my heart. I experienced this story right as I was returning full force into the anime fandom, and while ReZero and High School DxD are the two shows I credit for the revival, my time with this visual novel is still part of me, even two years later. People more experienced with the genre may have different views on it, some may love what it is, or hate it for being a ‘gimmick’ that steals attention from other works, but I do believe that this little story is a work of true art, and to many, it is the gateway into the world of the visual novel. Regardless I believe that DDLC deserves every single piece of praise it gets and more, and I would even almost say it is a masterpiece of storytelling and deception. If this is what Dan Salvato is able to do with a shoe-string budget, then I can only begin to wonder what he might be able to create in a future.
Either way, I highly suggest you check this visual novel out, and see if you are as shocked, effected and unsettled as so many other people were. Also, the Game Grumps play through of this is absolutely hilarious.