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About the Story
Hi, Monika here!
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[Content warning: depicted violence, suicide.]
In Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC), you’re invited to join your neighbour’s tiny after school club, the literature club. Even though your only exposure to literature is reading manga, the club members themselves are each compelling in their own way.
Much has been written about this game, by people who are much more familiar with visual novels than I am, so I won’t feign familiarity with the conventions of the visual novel genre. But judging from this game alone, it seems that visual novels, like parser games, are good at signalling inevitability. Unlike parser games, they can do this with long stretches of dialogue-heavy storytelling without any choices. DDLC uses this to its advantage, using its episodic format to set patterns and break them.
This game is deliberately vague in its advertising about its content warnings, since those are spoilers in themselves. These are big heavy subjects that the game mentions, though, and it’s mostly used as plot point rather than being discussed.
Some gripes, then. Some of the story elements didn’t feel gelled together. In particular the poetry-writing felt like a flimsy justification for the premise. Additionally, the way this story handles mental illness is pretty superficial - more plot point than anything else. This attitude is endemic in horror fiction in general. We can do better.
DDLC is probably more worth playing for seeing how the visual novel format can be subverted than for its actual storyline, and for its questioning of the divide between player-character and player. It displays some clever tricks, but tends to use violence and mental illness as a shock tactic. Lynnea Glasser’s Creatures Such as We also explores such metatextual issues, but far more thoughtfully.
I was lucky enough to be one of the comparatively few people who played Doki Doki Literature Club before its gimmick became common knowledge. "Ugh," I thought when I first saw it, "another English visual novel set in a Japanese high school, and with gratuitous Japanese in the title, too."
I guess DDLC technically exceeded my expectations, but not by much. While it sets itself up as a “standard” moege (the type of visual novel, almost always set in a Japanese high school, that serves solely as an excuse to look at and date cute girls), it eventually reveals itself to be something entirely different—though only slightly better.
The main problem I have with DDLC is that it's a "subversion" of visual novels by someone who's clearly only familiar with the medium on a surface level. Unfortunately, DDLC's fame has given rise to a wave of people for whom it was their first visual novel—which in itself wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the fact that many of those people, and many people who played DDLC but chose not to seek out other visual novels, now have a distorted idea of what visual novels are and what types of visual novels exist. While their reputation as shallow excuses for porn and fluffy high school romances isn’t totally undeserved, there have been developers doing great and interesting things with visual novels since years before DDLC.
The truth is, nearly everything DDLC does, other visual novels did before it—usually better. (The VN the true diehards will point to is Nitroplus' 2013 visual novel Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi. ("The Love Between You, Her, and Her."), which supposedly hits many of the same beats that DDLC does, but over a longer playtime and with more porn. Given that it's only available in Japanese, though—an English localization was announced in 2018 but has yet to be released—it's unlikely that the similarities are anything more than coincidental.) I can point to ebi-hime’s Once on a Windswept Night and Katy133’s [redacted] Life for visual novels which play with the relationship between protagonist and player, and to NomnomNami’s Her Tears Were My Light as a game that uses a non-chronological progression (coincidentally, all of these are from 2016, the year before DDLC’s release).
Even the lack of originality isn’t necessarily a problem, but story-wise, DDLC doesn’t really do anything particularly well. It’s pretty, and the technical effects are nice, but it doesn’t commit to anything. Its handling of mental illness starts off on a promising note, but the nuances it sets up are almost immediately discarded in favor of shock value. Writing-wise, it seems to imitate a mediocre translation from Japanese (complete with a direct reference to a pun that doesn’t make sense in English), with the effect that...well, it reads like a mediocre translation from Japanese. Just because it’s intentional doesn’t make it a compelling experience.
While there are plenty of visual novels I can recommend even to people who think they don’t like the medium, it's hard to recommend DDLC itself other than to know what all the fuss is about (and maybe as a Ren'Py tech demo—the technical effects are the most interesting part of the VN, and the primary reason why this isn’t a two-star review).
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