Nobody is more surprised than I am for completing Doki Doki Literature. I dislike horror games since I scare easily, and anything with jump scares, eerie music, and supernatural creatures will have me hiding under my desk. It’s a challenge to get through even the shortest of horror games, though I probably broke my own personal record by finishing three runs of Doki Doki Literature, each more terrifying than the last. Some people might be put off that you’ll need to play the game more than once, but every new game you play is entirely different than the last.
The game did a superb job of drawing me in, to the point where I couldn’t help but play it even when I knew I was going to be scared sh--less. My desire to find out the big why overwhelmed my fear.
Team Salvato has flipped the genre on its head and pulled the rug out from under everyone’s feet, creating something truly amazing under the guise of a romantic visual novel. Its overwhelmingly positive rating on Steam is no surprise to me. The game is also entirely free to play. But don’t take the lack of a price tag to mean that the game is mediocre, because it is anything but. Every aspect of it—the art, characters, music and story—is polished enough to put some paid games to shame.
Doki Doki Literature behaves like your regular, generic visual novel at first. There are cute girls fawning over you the moment you start the game, a staple in this genre, and you are roped into joining the literature club at your school. It frequently hints to something darker under its flowery, adorable exterior, but it’s easy to ignore since nothing actually happens. But soon, these moments begin to add up. The unsettling feeling in your gut grows heavy, until everything finally comes to a head at the end of your first playthrough. After that, anything that can go wrong, goes wrong.
I love how the game builds up suspense. It’s clever because it throws players off when the scares finally happen. This is what makes the horror aspect of Doki Doki Literature so potent, because of how it messes with the player. It’s terrifying how the game finds so many ways to disturb you, like suddenly taking control your mouse, having character sprites glitch, even utilizing fourth wall breaks to creep you out. By creating a dissonance with the player and their reality, it manages to achieve something normal horror games can’t.
In traditional horror games, the scares only happen while playing and escaping is a simple mouse click away. But with Doki Doki Literature, it can feel like you never left.
The game isn’t always about trying to scare you, however. There’s an amazing story to be had once you’ve waded through hell to get there. The dialogue is also a pleasure to read, and the game has meaningful advice to impart to the player. The ending is also one of the best I’ve ever encountered.
Doki Doki Literature is a strange experience that left me with a decent portion of mental scars, but I find myself inexplicably enamoured with it. It is one of those games that leave me truly speechless, invoking so many conflicting emotions I didn’t think was possible for a visual novel. It's one hell of a ride.