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.
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.
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.
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.