For some reason, indie horror games seem to be really good at catching the internet’s attention. Look at the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise, which is still going strong after a decade since the initial game’s release. Indie games, horror games or otherwise, tend to make a big impact both in the indie market and on social media when they subvert expectations with their approach to storytelling, gameplay etc. And few games exemplify this better than Team Salvato’s visual novel dating sim Doki Doki Literature Club, or DDLC for short. Today I would like to talk about this game and the things it did to earn it the incredible amount of attention it received.
(WARNING: Major spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club ahead, you have been warned!)
(ALSO WARNING: This blog post will talk about scenes of graphic violence and suicide, reader discretion is advised)
Writing Poems and Making Friends
Immediately upon starting the game you are greeted with a warning telling you the game is not suitable for children or “those who are easily disturbed”. A weird warning, considering it’s followed by the title screen show below. Surely it can’t be that bad, right?
The game starts and you are dropped into a cutesy anime-style visual novel, where you go to your high school’s literature club after school to enjoy time with your clubmates. There’s the bubbly Sayori, the bashful Natsuki, the quiet bookworm Yuri, and the charismatic club president Monika. You talk with the girls, write poems with them, and get to know them as you bond. Through the course of the game, you learn about the different characters’ lives and their problems. All is well, it’s just a cute dating sim after all! At least it is, until all of a sudden, Sayori doesn’t show up to go with you to the club. You go into her house to look for her, only to find out she hung herself in her room.
Just like that, the whole mood of the game takes a drastic 180-degree turn. As you watch Sayori’s body, the game glitches out and crashes. Upon restarting the game, something seems off. Sayori is nowhere to be found. Even if you open the source files of the game, she is nowhere to be found. No amount of saving or loading will bring her back either. If you choose to start a new game again, the game starts seemingly as normal. You quickly discover, however, that the game has been completely derailed. Natsuki is suddenly outright aggressive, and Yuri has become murderously obsessed with you. Through more and more psychological horror and jump scares, eventually, you get a moment alone with Yuri. She loses it and stabs herself to death. After a very uncomfortably long shot of her body up close, Monika comes on screen and reveals the reason all the characters have been going crazy and dying is that she messed with their character files on your PC, and they became corrupted. She then deletes Yuri and Natsuki’s character files from your PC and resets the game. And now it’s just Monika. Just Monika. J̸̛̻͔͙͖̫̹͉̘̻̻̗͓͐̃̄̅͝͝ų̷̛͔̹̳̮̱̟̠̬͚͚̹̮̣̫́̂̇̆́̂̃̒͊̎̕͝s̴̞̹̣͉͔͋͐ͅt̷̮̬̖̀̔̍̀͂̕͜͠ ̵̠̰̤͚̽͋͘M̶̬̻͊͊̋̈́̃̇͠͝ͅo̵̦̗̫͎̜̥̘̖̪̯͓̼͌̄̅̆͗͜n̸̤̻͎͚̫̭̏́̍̐̃ï̵̧̡̻̦͈̙̠̤͚͇͓̹̲̼͛͐̀̏̓̉̈́͗͋͜k̵̨̛͈̳͙͋̽̏̆͊̓̓̌a̶̛̜̭̰̖̦̼̲̞͍̐̑̿͊́̔͠͠.
DDLC’s Intelligent Horror and Hidden Lore
There’s no denying Doki Doki Literature Club made quite a splash when it came out. Every big name YouTuber, Twitch streamer and their mother played the game. But why did the game end up getting as much attention as it did? First of all, the storytelling. The horrifying tale I just described up there is just the surface of the horror that the game presents. Its shocking twists and effective ways of getting under your skin make it an incredibly scary experience.
But the game isn’t just scary, the game is also smart. As I mentioned, the game constantly screws with the actual files on your computer (only those pertaining to the game, don’t worry). It will delete files, add .txt files with cries for help or disturbing messages and more. Not only that, you yourself are expected to mess with the game’s source files as well in order to beat the game. Furthermore, as many Twitch streamers discovered during their playthrough, the game tracks software like OBS, meaning the game knows it is being recorded or streamed and will punish you with extra scares when you do (like Monika directing herself to the audience and giving them a jumpscare).
And lastly, the game has a lot of hidden lore. A few weeks ago I talked about Oxenfree’s ARG, and this game has something very similar. Hidden messages, QR codes encoded as audio files, binary codes hidden in images. Together all of these create a massive hidden story and a hidden teaser for a sequel that Team Salvato has been developing (which sadly seems to have been delayed). If you’re interested, I invite you to look into the game and try to solve the puzzles yourself, they are some of the most interesting ARG puzzles I have seen to date.
I hope I haven’t ruined your sleep with this blog post. Thank you for reading, stay safe, and Have a Nice Weekend!