This week, Yahtzee reviews Doki Doki Literature Club!.
All right, laugh it up, you bastards; you wore me down, you and the January release schedule. "Okay, a little background," as my masseur said when they found clods of earth between my shoulder blades: a while back, I wanted to make the point that there seemed to be an awful lot of anime dating sims sprouting up on Steam the way looters show up on a ruined battlefield, and I illustrated this point with a screenshot of the first one I saw on the listing, which happened to be Doki Doki Literature Club!, and the response in the comments was like I'd accidentally rested my beer on the gravestone of an abuse victim. "Hohohohoho! If only you knew what you'd done!" sang my correspondence. What? What have I done? "Ooh, we can't tell you. You have to play it for yours--" Parody game, got it, don't care, now get off my fucking lawn.
Then I started noticing a couple of words floating around the Steam tags and the reviews, words like "Psychological Horror" and "Disturbing", and I was like, "Oh, right; one of those Five Nights at Freddy's arrangements, a game designed not to be played and enjoyed, but to be reacted to on a stream or hilarious YouTube video, 'cos God knows it's hard to amuse 500 baboons at once without investing in a banana truck." But no one could stop banging on about it, so eventually, I thought, "Fuck it; it's free", and having played through it, I can now confidently state that free was the perfect price for it. I don't intend that as the kick in the miniskirt it sounds like; it's just that it feels more like a concept game than a complete product. And besides, it goes out of its way to not drop the façade of being a bog-standard anime dating sim all over the store page, so if they actually charged money for this clever prank, they risk first, the class-action lawsuit from a platoon of the world's most depressing men, and second, the cost of having the courtroom fumigated.
So I played it, but with the understanding that the moment it played the jump-scare card, I was fucking out; that was the main concern I had, because I love horror, but cheap jump-scares are the used tampons in my sherry trifle. So if it's a concern you share, rest assured, Doki Doki Literature Club!'s on a much slower boil than that; it descends gradually into madness, and you can see most of it coming, like wading slowly into a cold sea and knowing that there's going to be a bit of a lurch at the moment the water reaches bollock-height.
Most reviews that I've read say, at this point, something like, "Ooh, I'm not going to spoil what happens; you've got to see it for yourself, waggle waggle eyebrows!" But fuck that; I've got points to make, so from now on, there be spoilers. Just play it if you give a shit. You might as well; it's free. Yeah, there's a time investment, but let's face it; you weren't going to use the time to compose the anthem of a generation.
So if you're still here, Doki Doki Upskirt Club! begins as a bog-standard anime dating sim and keeps the act going for a surprisingly long time. You are Faceless Generic Japanese High School Boy-Man Creature, and through some contrived circumstances, meet a small group of anime girls - I believe the collective noun is a "jailbait" of anime girls - covering all the common fetish bases, who all instantly fall in love with you at first glance, or possibly from the sound of your footsteps coming down the hall, and you must make branching decisions to court one of the girls in the hope of helping her overcome her inevitable massive sexual repression and get some lovely kisses and/or plow her up and down the garden path, depending on what specific kind of visual novel we're dealing with. And you do have to enjoy visual novels to some extent to get the best effect from the game; it's like the Spec Ops: The Line thing: you have to like war shooters so that you can play the war shooter long enough to get to the bit where it punches you in the face for liking war shooters.
So it's doing the visual novel thing: you have extra scenes with the girls you're actively pursuing, you could accidentally lean on the "Skip" button for fifty lines and not miss shit because the dialogue is 90% flustered reactions to sexual arousal. But then, some odd details start popping up: the one girl off-handedly mentions she's manically depressed, another turns out to collect knives and secretly cuts herself, and you think, "Okay, all these girls have serious mental health issues, but hell, still no worse than characters in other visual novels I've played! You've got to be a little fucked in the head to enjoy guzzling cum that much. Hey, if you're surprised by fucked-up things happening in visual novels, then you probably haven't played very many."
The real turning point comes when the depressed girl commits suicide; that's the definite point of bollock descent into icy water. Although, her depression had been portrayed with a slightly uncomfortable authenticity, so it wasn't creepy in an enjoyable psychological horror kind of way; it was just really fucking sad. It happens regardless of what choices you pick, which, in itself, might be an effective premise for a game about depression: constantly reliving the same few days trying to save her and failing every time because her problems are too deep-seated to be fixed just because you accidentally felt her up on day three. Anyway, after that, the game restarts, except this time, the dead character is mysteriously absent, no one remembers them, and your old saves don't work, and I guess that sounds pretty creepy in a "walking into a familiar bathroom with all the mirrors covered up" kind of way.
But I might as well give away now, I think the game's already peaked by this point; it's already thrown its skirt up and flashed you its knickers with "Subversion of Dating Sim" written on them, and the game has been given away, so all it can do now is try to psych you out by drifting into the faintly lame territory of the video game creepypasta. So of course, graphics start fucking up and characters start bleeding from the eyes and doing that thing where their pupils go really small and they smile a bit too widely, which is, of course, anime shorthand for someone being two gratuitous panty shots short of a Sailor Moon episode. And if anything, this all made me less creeped-out. "Phew, I'm glad you started bleeding from the eyes, 'cos things were getting a bit harrowing back there for a while with all that slightly-too-real depression and suicide business." And then there was all that anticipation leading up to it, playing the happy-clappy standard dating sim shit, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but now I can relax, because I see we've entered Silly Horror Town. Yeah, you go ahead and stab yourself, missy; couldn't hurt, could it?
We also take a leaf out of the Undertale playbook by fiddling about with the save files and the way the game works; it even has essentially the same, open-quotes, "final boss" thing where the villain hacks the game so you have to face them whenever you start up, except instead of trying to kill you, they just want to make moody eyes at you all day. In Undertale, I was invested in the world and the story enough to want to foil them, and in this case, there doesn't seem to be much of a world left to be invested in. Plus, I was free to quit at any time, so I didn't exactly feel in danger of anything worse than losing a staring contest. To finally end the game, you need to go into the actual game folder and delete her file, which sounds like a clever subversive puzzle, but the game seems terrified of leaving anyone behind. "Boy!" says the character. "Sure hope you don't right-click the game in the Steam list, click 'Properties', click 'Browse Local Files', and then delete 'pleasedeletethis.txt'! That'd be a pisser, and no mistake!", which rather took me out of the whole experience once and for all.
So in summary, Doki Doki Literature Club! is a nice little idea with a memorable moment or two, but doesn't really have anywhere to go once the rabbit's out of the hat. It's not wise to stick around for too long after the big punchy moment; I learned that in a pub in Bratton Fleming.
- The lady killer: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- What I want to know is where all these girls' parents are while they're going around flirting with suspect boys and hanging themselves
- Tee hee sempai noticed my bleeding eye sockets