Free-to-play dating sim Doki Doki Literature Club has gotten a lot of press in a very short time, and it’s not hard to see why. The art is lovely. The presentation is pleasant. The music is cute. And it’s free, so there’s nothing to lose.
Well, almost nothing.
There’s another reason everyone’s talking this new title up: it’s terrifying. And triggering, in the realest, least sarcastic sense of the word. Touching on suicide, self-harm, and abuse, it’s also a critique of anime and dating sim tropes in general.
Do you have the stomach to join Monika’s literature club?
The Only Way To Win Is Not To Play
Here’s the setup: you’re a guy, and you need to join a club. Sayori, your childhood friend, drags you to the literature club. There you meet the sharp but childish Natsuki, the dark but intelligent Yuri, and the beautiful club president Monika. As a bonding activity, you’re encouraged to go home and write poems to share with each other at the next meeting.
This is where you pick your girl. Except Monika. You can’t romance her. Sorry. Choose random words from a series of pages, based on what you think your girl of choice will like. Impress her, and you get scenes with her. And once you spend the weekend with one of them, prepping for the school festival, you get…
Well. That would be telling. But hey, if you get a Bad End, you can just start over, right?
This is where the reality of Doki Doki Literature Club really starts to set in. The Ren’py coded game never works quite the same again. And the longer you go, the further off the rails it goes, until the decision-based game leaves you with only one choice.
Programmed for You
By the time you reach the later part of the game, you’re confronted with some seriously distressing imagery. The warnings at the beginning aren’t playing around. Even if you consider yourself made of stern stuff, you may find yourself shaken.
But the whole thing — a functional dating sim, incidentally, that does briefly has three paths — does lay out a notable criticism of dating sims in general. Like totomo before it, it brings the genre into unpleasant focus. What is the upshot of creating characters whose only purpose is to love you? What realities go ignored when fictional characters wear watered-down mental illness as an accessory? What would actually happen if there were people so reliant on your love that it constituted their entire existence?
It’s not a pretty picture. But it’s a strangely enthralling experience.
Doki Doki Literature Club is Team Salvato’s first game, but fact fans delving into the game’s code have found references to Project Libitina — a future game, or an ARG in progress? We may find out soon. For now, you can download the game free on Steam if you dare.