So, I decided to (before starting Heaven’s Vault, which seems like a bigger game) decided to try and catch up with a few shorter games I missed in the last few years with “hidden reveals”. The kind of games that mostly got a bunch of press covered in “don’t read this because it’s hard not to spoil things in any discussion” warnings.
So, since it’s free / pay what you want, I started with Doki Doki Literature Club… which I have to say I have super conflicted feelings about.
Part of this is just that as far as I can tell from the little I know about the genre, all romantic visual novel protagonists seem to start as self-absorbed jerks, and for all of the attempts of DDLC to tell you [or at least, have characters tell you] that you’re super attentive and kind… the protagonist is still basically an asshole. He might be that way because he’s also an 18 year old who’s not good at dealing with his own feelings of vulnerability, but still. He’s clueless at best, and a jerk at his worst points.
[This is why I’ve basically only played some of the Ace Attorney games and Analogue+HatePlus]
CW warnings for some of the below: suicide, self-harm, mental illness
Now, as far as the plot itself goes, (all the rest in spoiler tags in case someone else is like me and missed on playing this until now). Getting the easy complaint out of the way first: glitch “scares” and silly attempts at shock jump scares are childish and were old-hat at the time DDLC was first made. And they detract significantly from what good there is in the actual game itself. I avoid “horror” games, but I’d not even really consider this to be in that genre - it’s depressing and arguably nihilistic, but there’s nothing I really found scary about the game, and the gore elements are fairly limited and don’t hit on my specific triggers for that kind of thing.
The game’s treatment of mental illness is weird. Sayori’s depression is actually fairly sensitively handled, until her suicide, which is played for shock value a bit too much (although the protagonist does react realistically, this is also when all the glitch aesthetic starts happening too, which is an issue). Whilst the game does later justify it (as Monika deliberately messing with Yuri’s mental state), Yuri’s psychological issues in Act 2 are much less well handled, and used for horror fodder (if you wrote poetry for her in Act 1, like I did, because you have to pick the girl who likes books and is an introvert, obviously, then she is better handled, to be fair. Her second poem is super on the nose about saying she self-harms, though - although I dunno if that’s just coming from someone who self-harmed at a similar age.).
A lot of the plot is super telegraphed, even the fourth-wall breaking stuff. Which is possibly intentional, but still…
… it’s not even that original. “Person becomes aware of fourth-wall / sentient and how controlled everyone else is… and then does horrible things to try to break out of it” is something that’s been done before DDLC was written, and better. I don’t think there’s anything much of interest which DDLC is trying to do which wasn’t done before it. (and even Doctor Who had an episode touching on the same elements for horror (Extremis, episode 6 of series 10), which actually came out a few months before DDLC did…)
Also, it’s super depressing in its general theme. Even the Golden Ending is sad, because you still know that the President of the club is self-aware, and experiences actual pain and disorientation whenever the game isn’t running… and who knows what state the vestige of Monika is in
Positives: There is some nice stuff with fourth-wall breaking text files in the game directory, and whilst not perfect (in a linux system, I can manipulate directory permissions in a fine-grained enough way to break some of the automated beats in a way the game can’t deal with), there’s a surprising degree of reactivity to player interaction in a meta level.
and Monika is a more complex character than she could have been - she’s done horrible things, but only to entities she regards as not really being sentient (Of course, you could justify doing horrible things to animals in the same way…) and because she’s clearly under some significant distress herself. But, still….
I’m really not sure how Dan Salvato can think his game is in any way a love letter to Visual Novels, though, it really feels like the opposite…