Doki Doki Literature Club is the debut project from Team Salvato. You play as a high school boy who has joined the newly formed literature club at your school and ends up getting close to/romancing one of the eligible girls in the club. Doki Doki initially has all of the typical features of an otome dating sim (including a tsundere with pink hair), but shockingly enough it’s deceptive in its genre as the game is not actually a dating sim; it’s a horror game.
Note: Doki Doki Literature Club is a new release and does not contain suitable material for children, or those easily disturbed.
While the game itself has little blood, or gore, in it, the unique factor in how they choose to scare the player is through the use of transformative text and even coding in physical changes to the actual game files. After discovering the death of one of the characters, the game pops up what looks like coding script and seemingly shuts down before restarting with one fairly noticeable change on the main screen. Typically with video games, most players will try to reload a previous save file to try and prevent an unwanted death, but the game literally stops you from loading saves.
Attempting to reload a save forces the player into a ‘new game’.
The game forces you to restart, saying that it can’t load any saves due to a file being missing, but this do-over is not the one the player expects. Instead, there’s no mention of the girl who died, they act like she had never existed in the first place and the player has to continue on as usual to progress the game, except this playthrough is much different from the original. Not only has a character seemingly been wiped out of the game, but the game itself will do very odd things as you play. Choice boxes will zoom in uncomfortably close, random pop ups asking for someone to help them, and the text aesthetics will drastically change every once in awhile to something that makes the game feel much more unhinged.
The way Team Salvato gains the upper hand in the strange and unsettling tension these ‘glitches’ create is due to the subversion of expected genre. By all rights, Doki Doki Literature Club initially looks, feels, and seems to even be marketed as a dating simulator, and while there can be dark aspects to those kinds of games, Doki Doki breaks trust in the player by undermining the correct genre that the game falls into. This causes an extreme amount of anxiety to the player as they then experience tactics used in psychological horror games without having time to mentally prepare themselves.
Instance of breaking the fourth wall
Additionally, another tactic used within the game to unsettle the player is to break the fourth wall. Traditionally, breaking the fourth wall doesn’t seem like it’d be used to scare anyone as it happens a frequent amount in mediums such as theatre, film, and television; but where games are meant to be close up and personal with the player interactively helping the story along, it’s not expected for the fourth wall to be broken. For all intents and purposes, you are the character you’re playing in that world, and any reference noticing things that the characters shouldn’t realize is very odd. For instance, the screenshot above of the squid joke not translating well, that shouldn’t be something that Monika knows. They are meant to be Japanese students in a Japanese high school who are speaking Japanese. The text is in another language (English in this case) for the player, but the characters in-game shouldn’t realize that at all. They should still believe they’re speaking in Japanese which is evident by the joke Natsuki is trying to make (The Japanese word for squid is いか [ika] and is pronounced like ē-ka, which is why Monika says that it doesn’t sound like her name and is poorly translated).
The end result of finishing the game
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the game is the fact that the game isn’t just saying that it’s deleting files, it honestly is getting rid of them. When it says a character file has been deleted, it’s very much possible to exit the game and open the file in your computer to find that the character file is missing. Doki Doki ultimately corrupts itself to the point where truly finishing the game will result in breaking it, forcing the player to delete the entire file and reinstall the game if they want to play it again.
Doki Doki Literature Club is absolutely not the experience it tries to sell you, but it is a very clever horror game that is unique in regards to how it scares the player. While a bloody monster chasing you might be more visually shocking at first glance, I’d take the monster any day over a computer game describing to me just how easy it is to delete files off my MacBook.