Doki Doki Literature Club is the Cabin in the Woods of dating sims

This is a game that hates you for playing it.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a product of love—for the very genre it derides. It's too good—too thought-out and clever—to have been written by an outsider. Only a fan could be this cruel.

It's a dating sim, first and foremost. You roleplay as a male high school student, who reluctantly joins an after-school poetry club at the behest of his hyper, happy friend Sayori. When he arrives at the club with Sayori, he meets Monika, the leader of the club; Yuri, the artsy, shy girl; and Natsuki, the cutesy, spunky girl. Aside from Monika, who moderates the club and occasionally gives you advice, the other three girls are potential love interests. And you'll get to decide who to woo and who to impress.

Over the next several days, you write poems for these girls by choosing arbitrary words from a massive word bank. You tailor the poem for whichever girl you fancy most. An inward girl like Yuri, for example, will love your poem if you choose words like 'ambient,' 'effulgent,' and 'melancholy.' A childish girl like Natsuki, on the other hand, will love your poem if you choose words like 'bunny,' 'bouncy,' and 'giggle.'

The following day, you share your poem, 1-on-1, with the girls. And the girls, in turn, share their poems with you. While not the second coming of "Dover Beach," their writing is surprisingly well-crafted; Yuri's poems are steeped in heavy-handed metaphors and natural imagery:

"One can only build a sand castle where the sand is wet.
But where the sand is wet, the tide comes.
Will it gently lick at your foundations until you give in?
Or will a sudden wave send you crashing down in the blink of an eye?
Either way the outcome is the same.
Yet we still build sand castles."

Meanwhile, Natsuki's poems are literal and somewhat wry:

"Monkeys can climb
Crickets can leap
Horses can race
Owls can seek
Cheetahs can run
Eagles can fly
People can try
But that's about it"

Consider, for a moment, that Team Salvato released Doki Doki Literature Club for free; any preconceived notion of quality is inherently low. But when you read these poems, you revise those preconceptions. It's a clever bait-and-switch—of engineering one expectation before giving the audience a different one.

Content warning: The following contains discussion of depression, suicide, and major plot spoilers.

Doki Doki Literature Club does this, expertly, throughout its 4-hour play time. The game constantly provokes you, first lulling you into a false sense of security, and then upending that comfort with something subversive or shocking. This is a disturbing, adult game, but you would never know that by visiting the game's website, which is covered with in pink decor and childish fonts.

Most game developers would provide more foreshadowing to tell players, "This is not what you think it is." But Team Salvato makes every effort not to tip its hand. And for the first 30 minutes of its playthrough, Doki Doki Literature Club is sweetly sincere.

But over time, the girls' poetry turns melancholy. One of the girls turns cold and distant. And by the time the spectre of suicide rears its ugly head, you're in too deep. You can see the train wreck in the distance. But it's way past the point where you can do anything to stop it.

On the day of the school festival, you go check on Sayori, who's been isolating herself recently. The game suddenly smash cuts to a graphic image of Sayori, hanging dead from a noose in her bedroom. Your protagonist blames himself for not preventing her death. And the screen cuts to black, with the word "END" printed in plain white font.

A more conventional game would end on this tragic note. And it's possible that many players simply close out the game window once they see "END." But wait awhile for the title screen to reload, and it now looks like this.

Sayori 's image has been pixelated and replaced by Monika. The New Game option is replaced with a random string of symbols and characters. And if you start a new game, things get weird. Any time that Sayori previously appeared in the story, the game either replaces her with a different character or glitches out.

The characters begin acting as the extremes of their archetypes, particularly Yuri. What was once simmering beneath the surface is now explicit, perverse, and obsessive. You learn dark secrets about the girls, revealed in asides and exposition. You see evidence of self-inflicted harm and trauma. There's more gore. And this can go even deeper; if you begin a third playthrough after the second playthrough, the scenarios get even worse.

You get the impression, over time, that the game itself is sentient. Monika drops small hints early on, but pretty soon, she's telling you how to delete computer files (you can actually go to the game's App folder, outside of the game window, and follow her directions), and she apologizes for the game's poor scripting. And that's where this game becomes something special­.

Visual novels are no strangers to breaking the fourth wall. In Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story (2012), you can use information gained from prior playthroughs to access a hidden “harem” ending, where your character ends up with both competing love interests. It’s a clever poke at the narrative limitations of the genre, and it’s also a commentary on the player, who’s seeking a win-win scenario. The same approach is true of Doki Doki Literature Club; it's gone beyond a satire or parody of dating sims; it's a next-level deconstruction of dating sims themselves.

Hollywood has also started trending toward self-aware takes of its own genres; its once effective tropes have become cliches, and filmmakers have begun critiquing and subverting them. The washed-up Hollywood starlet was satirized in Sunset Boulevard (1950), but it was fully exposed in Mulholland Drive (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006)—the characters knew they were in a film, hitting their marks and saying their lines, and wanted to be more than what they were. Similarly, Scream (1996) was a satire of horror films; its characters were wise to horror tropes, but even so, they still abided by those tropes. The Cabin in the Woods (2012), on the other hand, took this one step further. Once the characters realized they were in a horror film, they attempted to kill the filmmakers rather than play by the rules.

Doki Doki Literature Club is the Cabin in the Woods of dating sims—it's a game that refuses to be played. It acknowledges its flaws and complicity in reducing human interaction to a game and reducing girls to aesthetic objects to be 'won.' It hates itself for this. And it tries to escape those tropes by commandeering your computer and killing its own characters, with creepy, disturbing results.

It reminds me a great deal of Undertale (2015) in its approach to self-aware design. Like Doki Doki Literature Club, Undertale doesn’t forget the past. If you elect to kill every monster you come across, that decision will affect subsequent ‘new game’ playthroughs. You’ll never be able to fully absolve yourself, even if you become a total pacifist; blood stains are hard to get out.

But at least in Undertale, you have a choice. Your decisions are your own, and their consequences are your own. Doki Doki Literature, by comparison, is horrifying because of how helpless you’re made to feel. Any attempt to circumvent tragedy is rebuffed and anticipated by the game—your choices become narrow and lose-lose. You feel manipulated—forced down narrative paths not by poor game design, but by the malevolence of the game itself. And that’s the point.

What an exciting time for games—that developers continue to explore this strange, metacognitive space. And Team Salvato should be applauded for pushing their art into uncomfortable territory instead of abiding by what's familiar and comfortable.

Doki Doki Literature Club is available (for free!) on Steam, and there are many other goodies available on the official website.