How Doki Doki Literature Club’s subversive satire explores the power of visual novels

What if your favorite game got removed from Steam, but nobody seemed to notice? That’s what happened to Muv-Luv Alternative, a nigh-hundred-hour visual novel from Japanese developers Age that some have called the magnum opus of the genre. It’s currently the highest-rated title on the Visual Novel Database, barely eclipsing the better-known Steins;Gate. But in January, the censored non-18+ version of the game disappeared from the Steam storefront without explanation, with members of the development team apparently scrambling to get it back up, using the discussion board to document their progress, or lack thereof. Very few sites reported the news, and understandably so: according to SteamSpy, this hyper-niche game with its adoring fanbase has sold just shy of 10,000 copies on Steam, roughly half of its predecessor.

Meanwhile, a newcomer to the genre, that broke many of the rules that epics like Muv-Luv follow, was reaching millions of people. This is the story of Doki Doki Literature Club.

Muv-Luv’s sales reflect a commercial reality on Steam and in the West: though many gamers know what visual novel are, the market for most of them remains extremely slim, especially for the exotica brought over from Japan. For many VN aficionados, there’s a single game that sucked them into the strange, static world of text boxes and sun-dappled imagery, but the journey past entry-level fare like Phoenix Wright and Danganronpa can be rather harrowing, especially due to the prevalence of extreme eroge in the space.

You probably haven’t heard of Muv-Luv but chances are you’re at least vaguely aware of Doki Doki. It received coverage from sites that wouldn’t normally spare a second thought for a visual novel, and became one of 2017’s talking points.

That’s precisely because of the rules that it breaks. Doki Doki is a brief excursion into a twisted version of the typical school-set romance and since its release last October, it has been downloaded more than 2.5 million times. It’s a success story on a level far beyond what followers of the VN scene expect even from break-away hits, and its success has been a surprise to VN developers and to creator Dan Salvato himself.

In short, Doki Doki is a self-effacing satire of treacly dating sims, and the fantasy fulfillment that they traffic in. You play as a nondescript Japanese high-schooler – a.k.a. the protagonist of 95% of all slice-of-life anime – who joins a literature club populated by four doe-eyed anime archetypes, each primed to swoon at your leisure. Once you pick your favorite through a charming “pick-the-word” minigame, the cogs of romance begin to turn swiftly, before suddenly delving into a nightmare world of trauma and horror which eventually – in classic VN fashion – leaks out and bursts the seams of the fourth-wall itself.

To hear Salvato tell it, the project that became DDLC came out of his growing frustration with what he views as the self-imposed limitations of visual novels, and a desire to share the form with the world. “I’m a fan of them, but not a fanatic,” he says. “There are other VN readers who have read five times as many as me. To me, what makes VNs really powerful is their ability to create empathy in the reader. My goal was to take that to a wider audience. But the response has been twenty times what I thought the best-case scenario could possibly be.”

To that end, Salvato decided to indulge in some design decisions that he knew would be anathema to the hardcore VN-reading audience in the West. Foremost among them was the length of the game. Most of the visual novels that Salvato affectionately refers to as the “top-tier” are at least twenty hours long – Doki Doki is tiny, in comparison.

Then there was the tone. While there are certainly exceptions, VNs tend to be mellower and more laidback in their pacing than audiences unfamiliar with them might expect. They’re content to saunter where others might sprint.

“I knew I wanted about an hour before the gimmick of the game reveals itself,” says Salvato. “If I tried to please the VN audience there, by giving them more time to get to know the characters, I would’ve lost the general audience. And [winning over that audience] was my overall goal.”

While certain design elements of Doki Doki have stoked ire within the VN community, a debate still rages on as to whether or not the game qualifies as a satire of the genre it has come to represent in the minds of so many first-time VN players. At first, Salvato takes great pains to paint the exaggerated pastel universe of Doki Doki as altogether normal, just like the ultra-generic games that inspired him. Even as that world breaks down around you, whirling through a morass of self-reference and meta-commentary, the game never turns its many knives against you, the player – rather, it’s the characters and the world itself that take the punishment, cracking open to reveal nothing but artifice. The game doesn’t tell you that its entire construction is empty wish-fulfillment, at least not directly – in his own words, Salvato wants you to determine that for yourself.

“People make fun of anime because it’s easy to make fun of these tropes,” he says. “I can’t accuse any culture of being more reliant than another when it comes to fanservice, or fantasy fulfillment. Western games have plenty of both. I think the reason people consider DDLC to be satire is that in anime, it’s the delicious, generic fantasy fulfillment that has become the meme. The game makes fun of these tropes, but it doesn’t condemn you for indulging in them. I didn’t have to try too hard to express the satire while I was making the game. Simply the fact that the game presents itself in a generic fashion makes it satirical to the community. To me, that’s what makes it satire.”

Though the VN community remains decidedly mixed on the subject of Salvato’s game, other visual novel developers regard DDLC’s massive success as a positive development for the genre. “Anything that can increase the number of players interested in the genre will help both new and veteran developers sell their games,” says Christopher “kiririn51” Ortiz, artist and designer of 2016’s cyberpunk VN hit Va-11 Hall-A, which itself served as an entry-point into the genre for many. “There might need to be a shake-up in the community. There’s an overall supportive environment, but there are some purists that are against innovation. Something as small as including a shooting scene in [Hideo Kojima’s cult classic] Policenauts is enough for them to dismiss a game as ‘not a VN.’ They have an idea of what a visual novel should be.”

For Salvato, though, the takeaway from DDLC is simple: he wanted to bring visual novels to a wide audience, and he undoubtedly succeeded. “I want people to understand the power than an interactive narrative can have, through connecting you to the characters. A lot of first-time VN readers got those elements out of DDLC, at least based on what I’ve heard through feedback. It’s not the exemplary 50-hour epic that avid VN readers want people to read. But, hopefully, through DDLC, more people will go out and commit to the larger VNs. I think it helps both developers and readers realize that there are other stories that do what DDLC has done, both inside the genre and not, maybe even better. And that’s what it’s all about, really.”

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


  1. satan says:

    2.5 million downloads for a visual novel is impressive, even if it is free.

  2. kalirion says:

    Muv Luv is a $40 sequel to a $40 game. Doki Doki is free. What’s the point of comparing the number of players?

  3. davebo says:

    I played it only because of the RPS article, and I’ll admit after almost an hour I was about to give up on it until things got real interesting real quickly. Glad I played through it although it certainly didn’t get me interested in the genre. I e-mailed the author’s website to ask if they took donations but never got a reply. It’s the kind of game I’d never pay to download, but after playing it would be happy to pay a few bucks.

  4. Kitsunin says:

    But, are there other stories which do it as well? Well, to answer my own question, there are, but they sure aren’t in the mainstream. I’ve tried a lot of VNs, and Clannad, Muv-luv, and more similar well-renowned games just grate and are boring as hell. The only big Japanese VN I’ve actually enjoyed is Fate/Stay Night which is still packed to the gills with flaws (even excluding the so-so fan-translation as a big one).

    On the other hand, outside of Japan, Lucy – The Eternity She Wished For is fantastic, and for something even more archetypal, I loved Katawa Shoujou. I would recommend both without reservations unlike anything from Japan. If there are other, similarly good VNs I’d love to hear of them, but I haven’t managed to find them myself. It’s disappointing because these good ones are such triumphs, but they’re few, far between, and VN fans often recommend super boring stuff just as highly.

    • Shazbut says:

      YUNO, a VN from the mid 90s, is the best I’ve played and I’ve finished Ever 17, Steins Gate, Fata Morgana and quite a few others. It has you skipping around multiple timelines looking for things while manipulating the routes and clever save/load system. The story is truly epic and goes places you’ll never expect.

  5. mcatis says:

    Two big problems I have with this article. First, the idea of painting Muv-Luv as something common, or even slightly representative of what most Visual Novels do, is ridiculous. Are you seriously suggesting that the Visual Novel which has an entire 15 hour semi-parody prequel game of setup to get you attached to the characters and world, before throwing an enormous and shocking genre shift at you isn’t breaking rules? It’s easy to look back at Muv-Luv now as just a cool mecha VN, without seeing that as the huge twist it really is. It really comes across as if you didn’t actually research Muv-Luv at all before throwing it under the bus as “the VN that VN weebs like.”

    Second, and this is more of a problem with the fanbase of DDLC in general, is the fact that DDLC didn’t even do its shocking twist first. Its ideas, themes, and twists are taken almost completely from a VN from 2013, called “Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi”, which IMO handled them much better. Now to be fair, “Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi” was never translated, is much longer than DDLC, and isn’t free, so I don’t at all expect newcomers to VNs to be familiar with it. But as a longtime VN fan, I really do resent the suggestion from a lot of newcomers that DDLC was the first VN to attempt anything like this, or even be the first VN to attempt to break away from genre conventions. There’s a whole fascinating world of VNs out there beyond slice of life dating sims.

    There, weeb rant over.

    • EthZee says:

      I just want you to know I appreciate your weeb rant.

    • Kitsunin says:

      “I don’t at all expect newcomers to VNs to be familiar with it.”

      I mean, it hasn’t even been fan-translated, so unless you can read Japanese you haven’t heard of it (well, I’ve heard of it, but only because of the comparisons with DDLC). In that sense, and considering it’s highly unlikely Dan Salvato drew inspiration from that game, arguing Doki didn’t do it first is pretty much semantics.

      • mcatis says:

        I don’t know if he took inspiration from it or not. It’s easy enough to find a plot description online, and the similarities are strong enough that I doubt he had never heard of it, but you never know. But my point wasn’t that because another VN did those things first, that DDLC is terrible or just an imitation; my point is that DDLC isn’t the first VN to play with the player’s expectations and genre conventions. I feel like the success of DDLC has led a lot of people to the incorrect conclusion that visual novels are all these generic moe garbage dating simulators, and DDLC is the one thing to break away from that. I just want to make it clear as a fan of the medium that that is not the case.

    • MisterFurious says:

      Hell hath no fury like an angry nerd.

  6. gmx0 says:

    I play VNs when I have the time, I just don’t usually. More action-oriented and strategy-oriented games take up the time, or for emotional rollercoasters, watching anime like Your Lie In April fills that niche for me. However, DDLC is a favorite, and playing through Fate/Stay Night right now (even though I already watched the anime of it). What I did notice though is I tend to remember VNs that add to the gameplay, even if a little bit. The poem mechanic in DDLC is that. The strategy game component in Sunrider is that. The bartending in VA-11 Hall-A is that.

    • Hypocee says:

      Right on. DDLC wouldn’t have been nearly as good if the choice mechanic had been multiple choice ‘write for [CHARACTER]’ rather than miming writing and making you look at the words.

  7. Hypocee says:

    Only 99%+, #NotAllVNs. No, I do get what you’re trying to say. It’s really frustrating to like something that’s drowned out by a sea of sludge in the same genre or medium or whatever. See also, Steam and Apple stores, games in general…at any level, anything that involves lots of other humans, which means lots of garbage humans. VNs just have about one extra order of magnitude on a universal “problem”

    But on the gripping hand, you’re calling out Wright for tarring the whole medium with one brush and Salvato for grabbing a laurel as the brave iconoclast, when the article is mostly about those very frustrations of VN fans trying to dig out and show the diamonds and Salvato’s claim is that he was trying to evangelise the medium, not break it, with a technique he diminutively labels a ‘gimmick’.

    The idea of horror or conflict with the author (or reader) from a character who’s resentful of their powerlessness or their work’s genre has kind of been around. I suspect it was first published a week after the invention of publishing. It’s drearily commonplace in plays, I know that much. I’m not literarily educated enough to point people to real stuff that uses the trope, but as it happens IMO genre fiction’s rigid bones let it pull the trick off without collapsing into its own navel as often. DDLC most makes me think of Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, which ends with a series of stupidly impossible events necessary to wrap up the disintegrating story and the protagonist cursing Heinlein for (creating and) killing an innocent kitten for his pay. TCWWTW is itself a sequel to, well, technically just about everything of Heinlein’s but mostly to The Number of the Beast, which revolves around a device like a time machine but dedicated to jumping up and down levels of fiction. Beyond that, I mean, Planetary by Ellis. Bloom County. Various Marvel heroes’ visits to the Marvel offices. Sluggy Freelance frequently. Sinfest almost constantly. The Librarians. Pro wrestling. Harold and the Frickin’ Purple Crayon. And in turn it’s just a subtrope of being someone else’s creation and under their control so Isaac Asimov says hi.

    The above’s all collegial, mild and academic debate about a minor article on a website about videogames, and that mild disagreement is the reason I posted. However, orthogonally, I also have my back up a bit about innuendo, doublespeak and bullshit in Frankfurt’s sense:

    I don’t know if [DDLC’s ideas, themes, and twists are taken almost completely from a VN from 2013] or not. It’s easy enough to find a plot description online, and the similarities are strong enough that I doubt he had never heard of it, but you never know.

    You sure knew nine hours previous. I do not respect this tactic.

    • Hypocee says:

      Oh, and the other major theme reminds me most of Tsunami Channel’s conspicuously nameless ‘Onii-chan’ and his ‘Love Sim Syndrome’ which causes any girl who interacts in a potential meet-cute to fall instantly in love with him, to the annoyance of all.

  8. Cederic says:

    Bitsy, .io games and visual novels just aren’t my thing. The three articles to which we’ve been treated this week have however been interesting to read and nice to find on here.

    thank you.