To understand why the legion fanbase of “Doki Doki Literature Club!” — a free visual novel that was released on PC in 2017 — are ecstatic about the game’s new $15 special edition, it’s easiest to begin by discussing what made the original game resonate so strongly with its audience. “Doki Doki” is a subversive narrative experience, a clever commentary on video gaming, anime, and the people who consume those things, as well as a contemplative look at serious mental health issues. It’s also a game that is best experienced by going in with as little information as possible; if you’re a newcomer, in short, the game is phenomenal. Stop reading, and go play it.
For the uninitiated who have only peeked at the game’s cover art or various screenshots, that’s all probably a bit confusing. The original “Doki Doki Literature Club” marketed itself as a stereotypical cutesy anime dating simulator; you play as a faceless high school otaku who is coerced by his bubbly childhood friend into joining the school’s small Literature Club. Your character doesn’t have an interest in literature, but he does want a girlfriend, and the Literature Club is populated by a quartet of cute anime women who take an inexplicable liking to the protagonist. The music is lighthearted and whimsical and the dialogue is played out in a pink polka dotted text box. The Literature Club members are presented as a collection of anime tropes — Yuri is the shy but intellectual dandere, Natsuki is the blunt and confrontational tsundere, and so on — and much of the game’s first half is dominated by incessantly flirty conversations about poetry and friendship.
It’s not much of a spoiler to note that there’s something darker lurking beneath the surface. The “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” trailer states that the game is a “psychological horror experience,” and it and the actual game opens with a warning that this isn’t for children or the easily disturbed. It takes time for the reasoning behind that disclaimer to become apparent, but the slow burn of “Doki Doki” eventually gives way to a payoff that is equal parts terrifying and emotionally gripping. This is a sad, bleak game with moments of grotesque violence and tragic dialogue, the latter of which may require players to complete the game multiple times to fully appreciate. (It’s worth noting that “Plus” gives players the option to receive content warnings before the game’s grislier scenes, which may appeal to horror-averse players or those who are uncomfortable with the mental health issues that the game addresses.)
The jarring tonal shift in “Doki Doki” is not just horror for horror’s sake. As the game spirals ever-increasingly out of control, both the scares and the ongoing narrative are used to deconstruct the stereotypical elements that comprise much of its initial dating simulator veneer. The game raises sharp questions about the entertainment mediums it is a part of and offers strikingly relatable musings on a number of broader topics. Some of these come in the form of cheeky asides: Why does the game assume that the player is a man? Why do you, the player, presumably think that this game takes place in Japan when everything is Americanized and in English? Other points are more closely woven into the game’s overarching plot and often serve as gut punches when players connect their significance to seemingly-innocuous lines of dialogue in the cheerier parts of the game.
The mix of a fan-service anime aesthetic and smart writing probably helped “Doki Doki” find quick success, but part of the reason that the game’s popularity has endured is likely due to its innovative use of horror. The scares in “Doki Doki” are not as frequent or as visually extreme as those in some of its genre contemporaries, in gaming or otherwise, but it achieves much of its horror in ways only possible in a video game — and in ways that horror video games rarely do.
Most big-budget games in the genre feature grisly and graphically-impressive scenes of action and tension that aim to coalesce into something like an interactive horror movie. Many of those titles are great in their own right, but how many of them feel like they would only work as a video game, as opposed to a film or a television show? Visceral interactivity doesn’t have to override narrative power, and that’s not an issue here: There’s not much “gameplay” in “Doki Doki” — nearly the entire game consists of clicking through dialogue boxes and occasionally doing a simple word association minigame to court one of the Literature Club members — but it screws with your sense of control and things you’d take for granted in video games in a handful of creative and unnerving ways. These factors supplement the more traditional horror elements in “Doki Doki” and make its commentary on the medium all the more effective.
So, “Doki Doki” was an excellent game when it released in 2017 and would’ve been worth spending money on even if it wasn’t free. But what about “Plus?” The $15 special edition of the game is unarguably the best way for newcomers to experience “Doki Doki” (and the only way for console players to do so, though the original game is still free on PC and will run on basically any computer), but for returning fans, the value proposition is a bit nebulous.
Let’s start with the good: The visuals have been updated to 1080p HD and the difference is noticeable; it’s a much prettier game now. There’s also a large quantity of images to unlock, such as concept sketches and wallpapers, as well as 26 music tracks if you wanted to keep the game on to listen to its soundtrack for whatever reason. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but the additions help make “Plus” feel like a more feature-rich package than the original and gives dedicated players an additional incentive to scour through every corner of the game to unlock everything.
The biggest draw of “Plus” is the addition of several new side stories which take place before the events of the main story and center on the game’s women before the player character from the main game joined their Literature Club. The side stories lack any player input or horror elements; they are, in a word, sweet. This departure from the main story’s unsettling themes — though serious issues are still addressed, the overall tone is much lighter — may divide the “Doki Doki” fanbase, but there’s a strong argument to be made that they’re the perfect supplement to the rest of the game.
“Doki Doki” offers a satisfying horror tale that does not require expansion, but the “Plus” stories give much-appreciated depth to characters that have become minor gaming icons in their own right over the last few years. The original game did not pass the Bechdel test — which makes sense in the overall scope of its narrative — but the additional content in “Plus” goes to great lengths to flesh out the women in the Literature Club and their relationships with one another. There’s no interactivity in any of these stories, but the writing is as strong as it was in the main game, and there’s enough of it to make the additions feels substantive, even though they don’t directly tie in to the main “Doki Doki” narrative. It’s a bit of wholesome fan service, but all things considered, is that such a bad thing?
Whether that’s enough of a selling point for fans of the original game is debatable. The original “Doki Doki” required players to play through large chunks of the game multiple times to unlock the “good” ending, which holds true in the special edition. Replaying sections of the main narrative is also required to unlock all of the side stories in “Plus,” which can be tedious even with the option to skip through dialogue you’ve seen before. All of the side stories in “Plus” are enjoyable, but if you’ve previously completed the original game, it might be frustrating to play through “Plus” multiple times to unlock all of the new content, given that the core game is completely unchanged.
“Plus” also boasts one understandable, but nonetheless disappointing, change from the original game. There was a particularly brilliant moment in the 2017 game that required players to modify the game’s files on their PC’s directory to progress and those files also included a handful of Easter eggs, both of which greatly added to the game’s metaphysical horror and showcased the unique potential of PC gaming. As “Plus” needs to work on video game consoles, which do not allow such in-depth file manipulation, those files are instead placed within the game itself, which detracts a bit from the fourth-wall breaking experience.
These are minor complaints, however, and should matter even less to those who haven’t already played the original game. “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” is a brilliant horror game in its own right and the rare kind of title that celebrates the potential of video gaming as a unique artistic medium while offering a smart critique of its more regressive tropes and the stereotypes about the people who consume them. It’s really good. Avoid it at your peril.
“Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam and Epic Games Store. This review was based off of a Steam code provided by Team Salvato.