Doki Doki Literature Club is a hidden horror game for the internet age

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We players like to be in charge of our games. We save before boss battles. We watch how our choices change the story flow. Many of us know how to access game data if needed. Most of all, we like knowing we’ve out-smarted the game. And there’s no easier style of game to out-smart than a dating sim. Right?

Japanese-style dating games often stick to an aesthetic and tone that’s all but synonymous with the genre: bouncy anime blended with air-headed girls, all clamouring to get the attention of the male protagonist. Doki Doki Literature Club slips into that style seamlessly. Only one thing sets it apart – the tagline. “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.” Beyond that there are no hints in the game trailer, no secrets in the description.

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This, the sense of something sinister hiding in plain sight, is the first aspect of its success that feels so very modern. It’s a not-so-secret secret begging to go viral, the warning practically demanding to be shared. Even titles that try to pretend they aren’t horror generally add a little nudge and an eyebrow waggle in the screen shots or trailer. They don’t trust their audience enough to dig deep enough or stick around for long enough to discover the game’s true nature for themselves. Doki Doki Literature Club commits to the ultimate trust-fall: that the wildfire-like nature of social media and Let’s Plays can carry a fantastic horror game like this into fame and notoriety. No hints required, apart from that tagline.

The game isn’t set up to try and trick you, though. Instead, it sets you up for the perfect fall – one that relies on you knowing you’re playing a horror game.

Inevitably, you start to get comfortable. The lilted music gets to be familiar. The game even pokes fun at classic Japanese romance game tropes. Boobs are grazed by accident, and failures in translation are pointed out. You start to learn that the girls you’re struggling to woo are akin to actual people. You start to like them. Just a little. Just enough.

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With a surgeon’s precision, the lightest of hints are dropped. Enough to remind you that this is a horror game, and it could pull the curtain back on the dating game facade whenever it wants to. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is almost as harrowing as the impact when it finally does.

The effectiveness of Doki Doki’s terror relies heavily on its manipulation of the game itself. Some niche titles have dabbled in this approach. Crashing the game and forcing you to restart the client. Secretly placing extra files on your desktop. The freshness has worn off of these tricks. Doki Doki Literature Club changes the angle; rather than adding, it takes away.

There’s a moment where one girl will cheerfully suggest you save your game before making big choices, almost giving a stereotypical wink at the player while doing it. Players know that we’ll load up that save if we’ve made a decision we regret. Once the horror kicks in, saves prove to be fallible. Doki Doki lures you in with the promise of control, then coldly pokes at the facade until it drops.

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To avoid spoilers, I won’t get too specific about the late-game surprises. They’re too good to ruin. But what I will say is that, to reach the end, you’re required to go digging through the files of the game itself. You can keep that folder open and watch as the files get changed around, reflecting what’s happening within the story. Few enough horror games rely on a player’s intelligence, but even rarer are those that demand that the player be tech savvy.

Doki Doki Literature Club needs the viral nature of the internet to exist. It needs the player to be intimate with gaming tropes, especially those of Japanese romance games. It needs the player to be aware that this is a horror game with a clever mask. It needs the player to be willing to get hands on with the game files themselves.

Most of all, it needs the player to think that they have control over the game. Doki Doki can only work its horror-magic if you think you’re in control, so you can watch in fear as it takes that control away.

Doki Doki Literature Club is available now via Steam and is free.

48 Comments

  1. Shazbut says:

    This game is very special. I’m glad RPS is covering it

    • NetharSpinos says:

      Me too! It’s nice to see it getting some coverage as I did enjoy my playthrough of it, as traumatising as it was. I would slyly recommend it to anyone wanting to play a quick game for Halloween!

  2. b00p says:

    it’s shockingly well made and has a lot of content for a free game. there’s a certain part where you can talk to someone for a long time and i spent over an hour and never got to a repeat in the dialogue (some really great gems of writing and actual ideas in that bit too.)

  3. Someoldguy says:

    You had me until “But what I will say is that, to reach the end, you’re required to go digging through the files of the game itself.”

    Personally, I don’t need that 4th wall crap. Give me all the puzzles and spooky stuff you like, but keep it inside your game. If I have to tab out then I’m more than likely to check on other things, spot an email that I ought to respond to, get sidetracked and the atmosphere is lost. If I find there are other things I must do and have to quit for the day, I may never come back.

    • Shazbut says:

      The 4th wall stuff is in keeping with the themes of the game though. I found the file digging in OneShot, a game I otherwise love, broke the atmosphere somewhat, but here it feels very appropriate and if you’re at all enjoying what’s going on, you’ll want to poke around in the files to further the game.

      Pass on it if you like, but if it’s for the reasons you state then I think you’re missing out.

      • Someoldguy says:

        You may be right, but I don’t find it plausible that there isn’t another way to do puzzles like these. Examining changing text in strange tomes in the library, for example. Or files on the PC in the teacher’s office inside the game. If you ask me to look at real files on my real PC, then my real email etc is going to beckon.

        • markmata says:

          It’s not a puzzle. The solution is literally thrown at you.

        • annoyingpotato says:

          If you ever decide to give the game a shot, you’ll understand how uninformed your opinion is.

          Plus, dude, just try it. It’s free. And you sound like some old guy.

        • Thants says:

          Ok? That sounds more like your own problem than the game’s.

        • beleester says:

          With as minimal spoilage as possible, the antagonist has been secretly modifying the game to make bad things happen, and you defeat them by deleting the antagonist from the game. Breaking the fourth wall is essential to the plot.

          However, it’s very well signposted when you have to take out-of-game actions. For instance, at one point the protagonist says “This isn’t a video game. I can’t just reload my last save and make a better choice” – which is your cue to do just that. Similarly, the antagonist explains how to modify the game when she explains her plan – “It was easy. I just went into Steam and…”

  4. spacein_vader says:

    How long is it? (Said the actress to the bishop.)

  5. Kurokawa says:

    Great little gem of a game, that can make quite an impact, even if you allready know something is coming.

    Also the reason for why I have to smile every time I take a look at the content of my day-to-day USB-stick…

  6. Michael Anson says:

    I can’t help but feel that this article gives away far, far too much. Honestly, anything other than a review of the first part and a promise that the warning at the beginning of the game will be paid off is too much.

    • Kurokawa says:

      Yeah, it’s difficult.

      You have to say something to compell people to play it, but anything you DO say is a bit too much allready…

    • Relenzo says:

      To be fair, the article isn’t giving away anything the Steam page doesn’t. You see that ‘contains disturbing content’ warning, plus others, a minimum of three times before you start playing the game, and it has the Horror tag on Steam. It’s almost misleading to call it a ‘hidden’ horror game. More like a horror game with the conceit of pretending to be something else.

      I mean maybe they wanted it to be hidden, but for safety reasons, didn’t–it seems like they were worried a depressed person might fire it up and get seriously scrambled.

      I’ve only played an hour, but I am having fun waiting for the other shoe to drop, fufufu~

  7. Drakedude says:

    Can’t get around the pedophilic art style.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Oh good, you’ve found a new way to be smug about not liking anime.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ghostbird says:

      You find it a bit creepy?

    • geldonyetich says:

      That’s not really pedophilia, it’s more ephebophilia. As far as nature is concerned, 15-18 is prime and ready for the baby making, basically straight up maidens. Thus, the libido thinks they’re great.

      All of Japan’s fixation is basically on maidens, they’re kind of the annoying nerd on the bus who won’t stop going on about how maidens are great, how about them maidens? Sometimes they go a little too far in their obsession, and that’s when where the lolicon comes from. At that point, they need a cold shower and some time in the mirror.

      As it turns out, while maidens might be nature’s cup of tea, 15-18 is well off the menu of acceptable sexual relationships because frankly 21st-century society isn’t really compatible with people getting good and teen-pregnant anymore. These kids need to be going to school and preparing for the future, not tackling parenthood or getting sexually addicted. While a lot of kids do end up in that boat, it’s uncommon for it to be without a lot of regret.

      So, as always, our more cognitive side is at loggerheads with nature’s triggers.

      • Zenicetus says:

        The problem isn’t “normal” biological attraction, the problem is that the art style has unrealistically large heads with big eyes on top of sexually mature bodies. It suggests an age much younger than 15, because we’re just as keyed for that “big head to body ratio = child” response as the one you’re talking about. That’s where the pedophilia comes in.

        • geldonyetich says:

          If you watch enough Japanese cartoons or read enough mangas, the big eyes are so common that you lose any association with them being indicative of baby faces. Instead, it’s just a culture’s stylistic choice to make the character appear more open and endearing, not an age indicator.

          • Kala says:

            You’re both right ;p

            That is, I agree with your points on the cultural art style – additionally the deliberate effect of contrasting less detail on the face (to emphasise emotive eyes/expression etc) contrasted to more detailed backgrounds (landscapes, cityscapes etc).

            But I agree with Zenicetus as well; in that you’re talking about essentially being ‘programmed’ (scuse the pun) to view 15-18 year olds as sexually viable, but we’re also essentially programmed to respond to large eyes with a protective instinct (i.e in our own young, or why we find puppies and kittens cute).

            …Though I think Doki Doki Literature Club in particular is very aware of the tropes it’s playing with in the art style.

  8. nattydee says:

    I played through this the other day and thought it was worth my time. I quickly found myself desperately hating all the characters, which made the payoff when weird stuff starts happening more satisfying.

    I’m not sure it’s as brilliant as some people make it out to be, but I really appreciated its thoughtfulness about the stories we tell and the persistence of character. I just finished playing OneShot a few days ago too which has SO many similarities to the themes of Doki Doki, while obviously being higher budget and less edgy.

    I’d recommend it!

  9. BooleanBob says:

    “Doki Doki Literature Club is a hidden horror game”

    Well, not any more, it isn’t…

    • annoyingpotato says:

      In their defense, how else would you talk about the game?

      They can’t just tell people to play this cute dating sim. 1: most people wouldn’t even touch it (prejudice and all) and 2: they’d risk getting piles of lawsuits from people who got triggered.

      The alternative would be to just not talk about the game, which wouldn’t help it find new players. Which would be a shame.

  10. gentlehosen says:

    Question for anyone who’s played the game: does it have any jumpscares?

    I’ll play slow-burn psychological horror for days and love every minute of it, but throw a jumpscare at me and I’ll be too scared to touch it again. Which makes searching for horror games I like a right pain.

    • DarkCoffeeFlare says:

      That is hard to talk about. I played this game overnight with six of my friends and there were very few ‘jump scares’. I really can’t talk about these because these parts where you are technically jump scared are crucial to the story. There is really only one legit jump scare but the other ones I cannot tell you about. I wouldn’t worry about it at all, they are more surprising than scary. But as a warning there are a few 1 in 40 and 1 in 400 chance jump scares thrown in there but you will feel super lucky if you get it. We got one of the 1 in 40 ones and it was awesome.
      I hope you have a good time getting your mind screwed up by- wait, can’t ruin it for you. It was so good!

      • gentlehosen says:

        Thanks for the explanation, that sounds good enough for me to handle. As long as it isn’t using them often and as it’s main method of spooks, I think I’ll give it a try.

        And I’m not sure I’d ever consider myself lucky to get a rare jumpscare, but hey, I guess I’ll just have to see.

    • Zelos says:

      There are some RNG jump scares, and one that only happens in a very specific scenario that you aren’t likely to run into.

      The main story contains exactly 0 reliable, happens every time, jump scares.

    • RoboMWM says:

      Yes it does have jumpscares. For some reason no review or tag mentioned this. I too thought it would just psychological mumbo-whatevero but the moment I hit the first jumpscare I was out.

      Tbh it seems most of the game is more “jumpscare”-like reading/listening to playthroughs regarding the horror than it is purely psychologically; I find the tag “psychological horror” misleading.

  11. racccoon says:

    The great thing about the Japanese is their lovely culture & their passion to draw such amazing manga & anime art.

    • hprice says:

      Yes because it is absolutely fine to like the art style: young girls with excessively short skirts, and large breasts. Of course it is. Ain’t nothing wrong with it at all guv … nothing wrong it at all. Nothing to see here, move along.
      (the 21st century is weird, man … weirddd)

      • hprice says:

        ps I’m no prude by they way. Just baffled why people like this juvenile kind of art style without seeing the obvious. I find it very, very strange …

        • April March says:

          I don’t think “young girls with excessively short skirts and large breasts” is an artstyle. Pretty sure you could draw that even in Impressionist art style if you wanted.

        • batraz says:

          Come to my neighborhood, you will find many old woman with long skirts if you are into that. Who am I to judge ?

  12. jusplathemus says:

    The idea and the execution were good, but I didn’t really like the art style and the writing. If it wasn’t this short, I’d have dropped it because of how subpar they both felt. And while this meta stuff wasn’t bad at all, it didn’t blow my mind either. (In fact, I’m still waiting for one to do it.)

    • Zakle says:

      I liked the choice of art style. It’s quite deceiving at first glance, which I suspect is the reason why they did so. The game actually reminds me of School-Live. Both weren’t what they appeared to be, both had the typical cutsy anime style that didn’t fit their ultimate tones. They’re basically, in my opinion, going against people’s expectations.

      The writing, on the other hand, I can understand your criticism on. It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen but it could have been better.

      • jusplathemus says:

        Yeah, I liked that aspect. I didn’t mind that it was cutesy (in fact, I really like School-Live!’s art style). It’s the details that I wasn’t fond of. The colours, the faces, the uniforms… Not sure how to describe it, but it just didn’t feel very good for me to look at.
        As for the writing, yes I’ve also met worse, but still, the beginning (before anything started happening) felt a chore to get through.

  13. batraz says:

    Not unlike the danganronpa series mood and psychological views… Judging it on the lightly erotic art style is misleading : there may be less evil here than in your casual and church-approved gta.

  14. ShadowNinjaZ123 says:

    Um… so basically i just ended up in the horror side of the game because i made a bad decision -_- anyone know how to get it back to normal? xD

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