Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Like A Heartbeat

How did I end up playing Doki Doki Literature Club? Not only is it not an MMO but, on the face of it at least, it's not even the kind of game I'd normally be aware of. I must be aboout as far from the target market for a cute Japanese teen dating game - or even a visual novel about one - as it's possible to get. I've read the odd blog post, where someone I followed was playing one, so I was vaguely aware they existed, but I've never played one myself or thought about it.

It all started when I was on YouTube, watching a video I've already forgotten about some game more in my wheelhouse. Something in the suggested viewing down the side caught my attention for reasons I can't recall - maybe it was the word "Literature" or maybe I thought "Doki Doki" sounded funny. Maybe I even meant to click on something else entirely. Wouldn't be the first time.

However it happened, a few minutes later I was intrigued enough by what I'd seen to pause the video before I spoiled things for myself. I read a few of the comments. They piqued my curiosity even more but then I had to stop that too.

I've been a complete sucker for post-modern irony since the late 1980s. It can't get too meta for me. I love things that turn out not to be what I thought they were and even more than that I love being lost, at sea, struggling to work out what's happening. I love self-aware, self-referential, playful art and entertainment that takes no prisoners when it comes to explaining itself. This looked like it might be any or all of that.

If I sound vague it's because this is something that deserves not to be spoiled and honestly, even saying that is a spoiler. I imagine the best possible experience would be to have downloaded the game thinking it was exactly what it appears to be. Or maybe that would be the worst possible experience. DDLC is not to be taken lightly.

Since we've come this far, though, I'll try to open things out just a little. I guess it's obvious that, like Dr. Langeskov, DDLC is not a straightforward proposition. Oh, boy, is it not...

I downloaded it via Steam a few days ago. It's free. I played for about an hour, my first session. Nothing much happened. The characters were well-drawn. The writing was decent. It definitely seemed to be more of a visual novel than a game. There wasn't a lot to do other than click and read.

Next evening I played again. By then I was kind of hooked on the characters. I wanted to see what would happen next. Something was off, though. Behind the haribo-bright surface, little anomalies and oddnesses were starting to appear, a queasy, off-kilter feeling beginning to build.

Around the end of the second hour I hit a major decision point. I made a choice that had implications that unsettled me. I stopped to let it filter and went to bed.

This morning our internet went down. The estimate was at least three hours. I did some housework but then I wanted to play something. I have very, very few offline games to call on but I wondered if DDLC could work without Steam being able to connect. It could.

It took me another two hours to reach what is apparently known as the "best" ending, which I seem to have hit upon entirely by chance on my first playthrough. Geeez. If that's the best one I dread to think what the rest are like.

I fired up FRAPs at the start, knowing I might blog about it and I have some really excellent screenshots... none of which I can use because from the first five minutes everything went straight to hell. Any of those shots will give away more than I would have thanked anyone for telling me before I started so I'll have to keep them to myself.

Even with some idea of what to expect there were a couple of occasions where I swore out loud and a couple more where I just leaned back in my seat and stared. Having finished I feel a strong desire to play the whole thing through again right away to see where else it can go. And then again after that.

Or I might just watch some playthroughs on YouTube. It would be appropriate, given that's where it all started. Anyway, it was an experience. An intense experience. If this is typical of the standard of visual novels I need to try some more.

As must be obvious, I highly recommend joining the Doki Doki Literature Club but be aware of the potential risks. The game opens with an onscreen warning : "This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed" and they aren't kidding. The full warning contains spoilers but might be worth checking before you play, if you have any concerns.


  1. Great game! This consumed many hours for me, and I don't regret it. Strangely, I like watching some of the Streamers' reactions to key moments in the game on YouTube -- there are several compilation videos out there. I couldn't bring myself to play through it a second time, so I watched alternate stuff on YouTube as well.

    1. It really was a new experience for me. Chestnut was kind enough to send me a $15 Steam voucher for winning IntPiPoMO and I think I might try to find one or two more sort of like this. I was thinking of Life Is Strange or What Remains of Edith Finch, both of which i have read b loggers eulogizing about. Any other suggestions?

  2. Hah! This is totally the sort of game that would never hove into my field of view, except for the fact that it was the subject of the weekly Zero Punctuation video over at The Escapist a few weeks back. The review contains spoilers, but since you've played the game you should go take a look to see if it lines up with your experience.

    1. Thanks for that - just watched it. He's spot on about the whole thing peaking in the middle, at exactly the point he says. That is the gut punch you don't see coming. I'm quite glad I watched his review and learned that what happens is inevitable and can't be avoided by different choices because, yes, my immediate reaction was to go back and try to fix it. Now I won't. Probably.

      It is indeed somewhat anticlamctic after that but I think the second half is better than he suggests. That's the perennial problem professional critics have - they see everything in their field so many times more than the average punter that they are often unimpressed by things that a more in experienced viewer will find fresh and thrilling. For example, the things he refers to as having been done better elsewhere were done in a game that I have heard of but know nothing more about than the name, so it was all new to me and correspondingly more surprising and unsettling than it could be for him.

      I also think he overplays the sexual element, which is certainly present but quite muted. It's a fairly innocent game in that respect or maybe I just missed something - I can't actually remember a single instance of innuendo and I only played the game a few hours ago. Visually, the splash screen I used as an illustration is about as racy as it gets. I get that it's feeding off a whole raft of very dubious expectations and assumptions but it steers well clear of pandering to them, in my opinion, choosing instead to subvert and question them, and quite successfully.

      He has made me somewaht wary of trying other "visual novels" though - is it a euphemism? I was kind of hoping I'd missed a whole branch of moderately serious literature...

  3. You said a lot without saying anything. I'm sold, downloading now!

    1. Heh! That's what I was aiming for. Hope you get something out of it!

  4. I liked watching streamer reactions on Doki Doki Literature Club, mostly because I don’t think I could react that strongly myself. I found the premise of the game a tiny bit gimmicky, but I think it’s a well done variant of its actual genre - not visual novels, but the genre that covers the more ‘meta’ aspect of its gameplay, arguably either metafiction or creepypasta or both - whereas the visual novel portion is just the initial presentation.

    I think it heavily depends on how much exposure one has had to the genre. While I’m nowhere close to resembling a connoisseur, I’ve read a few written short stories/“let’s plays” in that vein and seen a couple games prior.

    Eversion was my first game exposure, and “the twist” really made an impact on me - highly recommended if one has ever played a Super Mario lookalike before. I’ve seen other people play Pony Island, which does a semi similar thing for arcade games.

    1. I watched Magikarp's reaction video last night. As several of the comments observe, it's very well edited. He manages to boil everything down from a 4-5 playing time to fifteen minutes that pretty accurately represent the emotional journey. It was very interesting to see the degree to which he moved from total cynicism to helpless empathic involvement to overwhelmed confusion, finally settling on a kind of stunned acceptance. That, approximately, was my own journey.

      There's a whole post, not to say a thesis, to be written on the degree to which prior experience, foreknowledge, expectation and understanding affect both emotional and intellectual appreciation of and engagement with art. I personally feel there's a sweet spot around knowing enough to get the references while not knowing enough to get the cliches. That's where you can get hit the hardest. It's also interesting that you and XzzySqrl both see this as primarily a genre twist event whereas I definitely see the genre twist as just the set-up. It was the horror elements and the characters that worked most strongly for me, along with the self-coscious metatextuality, which as I said, I'm a sucker for. Apparently the develope is working on a horror game with the same characters and this is basically a promotional gimmick for that. Could be very interesting.

  5. Honestly, this isn't very ... there are a few visual novels that do this sort of thing. Most of them play it very straight.
    I tend to prefer a little more emotional honesty and a little less horror in mine.
    Pony Island is a very valid comparison though. I did enjoy that.

    1. As I said to Jeromai, I did find the twist part to be more the set-up than the pay-off. It was as much where it went once the twist was revealed that worked for me. That does depend on whether you see the Big Event that comes around the middle of the game as the reveal, though. It's certainly the emotional peak. I thought we already knew roughly where we were before that but maybe only because I came in knowing too much already.


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