First off: Spoiler alert.
TL;DR: This FREE meta-game that plays the player is not only an innovative manipulation of genre tropes and a punchy satire, but is also one of the most empathy-inducing games I’ve played to date, combining psychological horror and tearful poignancy in equal measure. HIGHLY recommended. In all. Freakin’. Caps.
This game’s a visual novel, so almost every single thing I could/will say is a spoiler. If you haven’t played it, do so now, and come back when you’re ready.
That said, Doki Doki Literature Club! might be, hands down, one of the best games I’ve played in recent years.
Granted, its art style was average, the dialogue predictable, and the characters fairly generic archetypes, but this game succeeds for two reasons: its plot and the fact that it plays the player.
If you’ve done as I told you earlier and played it, you’ll know how predictable it is that Sayori commits suicide. It’s written in every line. From the opening scene, where she runs up having overslept again, my brain went to severe clinical depression (at least, I hope it’s predictable, or that means I’ve known a strangely high amount of very unwell people). Yuri’s subsequent suicide is equally predictable. However, these moments are predictable on purpose, playing Monika becoming self-aware against her inability to do anything about it. The moments have to be obvious, because she can’t actually change her world, just exacerbate its existing qualities, like Sayori’s depression.
Monika’s self-awareness is one of the more subtle parts of the game. The meta-plot of this game–the game itself falling to pieces as the script gets destroyed and rewritten–becomes increasingly tense and horrifying. Visuals glitch, music distorts, the screen zooms in odd ways, and images flicker so quick they border on a subliminal assault on the player’s senses. Then she ‘stops’ time (or, simply draws attention to the fact that time doesn’t exist in her world), which eventually leads to you deleting her. She realizes how much it sucks to get deleted, so she restores everyone else.
Here’s why Doki Doki Literature Club! might be one of the most important games of the past year. When the game resumes and the club continues under the resurrected Sayori’s leadership, she knows everything, just as Monika did. But, if you spent as much time as possible with every available character, Monika doesn’t take over and ‘delete’ the game itself, like usual.
Sayori thanks the player for having tried to help everyone by listening to their problems and bringing them happiness. She appreciates the effort you’ve gone through by saving and loading to experience every path in one run, and says, even if you didn’t get to fall in love with someone, that’s okay.
“We all love you.”
…I can’t recall the last time any game awarded the player for empathy. These last words, full of platonic, appreciative love, aren’t about who you tried to ‘romance’ throughout the game. They’re expressing gratitude that you were a true friend to each possible person.
I’ve played a lot of disturbing games. I grew up on Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, where mutilated bodies were common–where suicide is not a possibility, but an expectation. I’ve played horror, adventure, action, shooters, and RPGs, but even games with morality systems, even the most in-depth games like Legend of Zelda, never held up to this.
Most games that encourage you to do the right thing offer rewards. In Legend of Zelda games, being a hero results in new weapons, heart containers, unlocked areas, and other rewards. Silent Hill games that offered moments to be good to others did so more to inflict horror at your failures rather than pride in your successes. The Fallout games treat morality more as a matter of convenience, as evidenced by perks that reset karma to zero so you can pretend you’ve always been a good person.
Doki Doki Literature Club! is the first time I’ve ever played a game and simply felt glad to have done the right thing. No reward involved, no drastically changed ending, just the characters saying, “Thank you.”
Perhaps its the fourth-wall breaking theme of the characters wondering about their own significance, and if they matter to anyone because they’re a game character with automated friends, but their gratitude at the end makes for a very heartwarming ending.
There aren’t a lot of games out there that encourage empathy these days. There are fewer that do it well. So, more than simply saying I enjoyed DDLC, I respect it, too. It’s a feat of gaming the player at its finest, but those who sift through the files and put in the time to treat each character well are sure to be glad they did.