31 Days of Horror, Day 15: Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!
What's a month long listicle without a few surprises and deep cuts? Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is a little unassuming. At first glance it's a dating sim/visual novel with anime style. But what lies beneath is a whole lot of horror. And not just jump scares (though there are definitely some moments) We mean existential dread, actually triggering, really, really scary stuff.
It's memorable because the dread sticks with you. This game brings the kind of horror that really gets in your head and makes you need to step away from the entire thing for a while. I do recommend it, but with a few caveats, including a CW for suicide, self harm and violence in general.
Go into it knowing this is more real life horror and less monsters in the closet and you'll do fine - just give yourself an out if you need to take a mental break.
It’s fair to say I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I was offered Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! for review. Despite its popularity when it released back in 2017, I hadn’t really heard a thing about it. I saw part of a trailer during a games presentation earlier this year, and therefore knew that it had some “horror” elements but I expected…I’m not sure. Suffice it to say whatever I expected, it wasn’t Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!. And maybe, just maybe, I’m lucky to have not known, since I get to experience the expanded version with all its new unlockables, side stories and extras packed right in. I love a good narrative, and I enjoy visual novels, so I jumped on in, and well after the end credits rolled, I’m still thinking about it. For better or worse.
Different people have all different feelings on trigger warnings, and some folks may even respect them but not tend to take them seriously for themselves. I want to vehemently advise against blowing off the game’s content warnings and to consider carefully, if going forward, enabling the setting in the game that warns you if you are about to see something that won’t sit well. Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!, as most had figured out long before I did, is not at all for children, despite its sort of kawaii, let’s go on dates and giggle surface. It’s not “Boo!” scary either. It is turn the lights on, hug a pet, check in with yourself psychological horror. And I would not recommend it if you are not feeling okay–even if you’re highly anticipating this expanded release. It’s not about jump scares and it’s not even about scary images. Instead, it gets under your skin. When Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! says it’s disturbing, don’t take it as a challenge.
In Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!, you’ll play as yourself–or a version of yourself. You sort of enter the story with a predetermined background and personality–which is something I don’t typically like. You’re shoehorned into the world, a slightly curmudgeonly but goodnatured guy who, like many teen boys, is a little bit girl crazy. Not particularly weird, right? Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! starts off in true visual novel fashion, with gameplay consisting of advancing walls of text, making some dialog decisions and writing poems. It is a literature club after all, and…is that what literature clubs do? I don’t know, but for the purposes of this review, let’s say it is. The poems are very important to the gameplay, and where some strategy comes in. You’re there to spend time with a bunch of beautiful girls after all, and you’re going to have to decide who to flirt with. The “poem” you write is actually a mini game in which you select different words to try to appeal to the different personalities of the girls you’re interested in. There’s Yuri, a shy, secretive type who’s eloquent and intellectual, Natsuki, the sort of super cute but tough type, Sayori, your best friend as long as you can remember who dragged you into this ordeal, and Monika, the extremely popular, athletic, beautiful–well, you can probably fill in the rest.
Most of the action takes place inside the school where you’re attending literature club, with a few other outside scenes, and most of the action takes place in conversations, in a cheery background with upbeat music accompanying it. Though much of what happens happens in text, Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! does a great job with visual and auditory cues and compliments. When tensions rise, the music changes. When you say something a little awkward or weird, you’ll get actual raised eyebrows. When you’re flirting…well, it’s gonna get steamy, potentially. Honestly, the sort of romantic visual novel thing never really appealed to me, oftentimes because it made me uncomfortable. I knew I was supposed to be flirting and trying to attract someone but it didn’t feel good or right. Surprisingly, though your character says and does some questionable things, there’s a lot of surprisingly good insights they make, and just in general, at least at first, it seems that there’s a lot more to everyone than meets the eye, and that though these four are different people, they really aim to understand and accept each other.
At first. Another thing that Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is so good at is nuance. Each little element is there for a reason. This is the beginning of the genius, I think, of the game. Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is fantastically, deliciously, insidiously subtle. Things shift, but not seismically. People say things that seem a little weird, something in the background is odd, or there’s a quick flash of something just at the edges. Characters sometimes break the fourth wall, and sometimes speak in what seem like nonsequiturs–but not so much that the game becomes absurd or over the top. Pacing is fantastic, and you won’t be able to dwell on minutiae for long. There are lots of decisions to be made, after all, and second-guessed, since it’s never 100 percent clear if you’re doing the right thing or not.
That’s the case in almost every narrative game I’ve played recently, but it’s glaring here. No matter what you think you’re doing right, the next moment will have you questioning it all. Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is, put most simply, a mindfuck. It has you on your toes, it lulls you into a false sense of safety, it tears you out of that, then it completely changes again. I don’t want to spoil the story at all, so all I can say is, you won’t see it coming. No matter what. Time and time again Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! subverts expectations. To me, that’s one of the signs of great art, and something that’s hard earned. No matter what the genre–comedy, romance, horror, etc…we all feel like we’ve seen it all. Not only have we seen it all, but we’ve seen it all flipped on its head, and we’ve seen those big twists coming a mile away, too. Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is one of the very few games, movies, books…that really, really keeps you guessing. No matter what I thought would happen next, no matter how much i thought I’d outsmarted the narrative, it kept surprising me. And scaring me.
Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is some of the best horror I’ve encountered in film, literature or games period. I was unsettled almost immediately, but before long, turning the lights on and mocking myself for doing it. It’s slow burn horror, too, not achieved with cheap jump scares or gore, and not at all predictable in its timing. It’s more a feeling that something’s wrong, or that underlying feeling of being ill-at-ease than it is a hiding under your desk feeling, and it keeps you staring into the face of it because you can’t look away. It’s a horror that creeps, and gets inside you, and makes you wonder why you won’t just put the game down and walk away sometimes.
Surprisingly, though too, it can be affirming, and almost therapeutic. There were some times that Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! legitimately horrified me, and at least one or two times where it also made me shed some tears out of a legitimate feeling of release. I’m not sure I even wanted to like Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!, but I ended up loving it, despite having realized after finishing it up for this review it may not have been the best time for me to play it. Even so, I persisted, and found myself trolling the game for unlockables and different endings well beyond what I had to for the review.
Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! has the subtle hand of a master chef in Dan Salvato. It messes with everything, but not at random and not maliciously. It doesn’t come in mocking the genre, nor does it become masturbatory to it. It’s intentional and careful not to be insensitive at the same time. It gets into your head, in a way that’s interesting and unsettling, and leaves you wanting more. And though I still stress paying heed to the warnings, I also heartily recommend this to anyone looking for something interesting, unsettling and different.
Whether you’re a fan of it from back in 2017 or not, you’ll find lots to love in this iteration. Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! features extra cutscenes, a 13 track soundtrack, a ton of unlockable images and even some behind the scenes things that can provide even more insight into the game’s creation, and makes this release well worth the price of admission.
This review was originally published on June 30, 2021 at this location.