by Jed Pressgrove
Developer Dan Salvato wants to upend lighthearted cliches with Doki Doki Literature Club!, a visual novel in which you play as a boy who joins a high school lit club comprised of four girls. If you’re familiar with anime or manga, the character types, such as an overtly shy girl, will be instantly recognizable, but it doesn’t take much knowledge of Japanese cartoons to see through Salvato’s basic gimmick: get the player to grind through loads and loads of cutesy dialogue so that when things like suicide and profanity come into the picture, the player will be shocked.
Salvato’s failure as a writer is two-fold. First, he insists on rejecting anime/manga cliches with other cliches, the biggest of which is the idea that girls — or does Salvato think or say “females” in that male taxidermist way? — are crazy, dangerous bitches who can’t control their attraction to boys (for more sexist perspective, play Sam Barlow’s overrated Her Story). Regardless of whether you give the protagonist a male or female name, you see the events of the game unfold as a boy observing the insanity of the opposite sex. But Salvato doesn’t treat this standpoint as an aspect of immaturity or growing up. Instead, he presents his narrative as an adult story, with unexpected darkness designed to make hipster gamers go “Whoa,” and I’m being kind with the use of “unexpected”: the game literally tells you it’s disturbing before you even start playing, thus defeating its whole (admittedly shallow) purpose.
The second limitation of Salvato’s approach is a trendy reliance on meta nonsense, such as rewinds, save-file shenanigans, glitchy visuals, and more. Doki Doki Literature Club! features such things to amplify the uneasiness of the player, but indie trash like Pony Island and Undertale regularly utilizes the same or similar devices. Doki Doki Literature Club!’s fashionable trickery is especially unimpressive in light of Yoko Taro’s 2017 masterpiece Nier: Automata, which uses game-isms like new game plus and “buggy” static to illuminate the horror of two factions on the brink of genocide.
Video-game discourse often misses the fact that independent developers, despite being removed from a mass market that specializes in objectionable content, are just as capable as any of propagating longstanding prejudice. With Doki Doki Literature Club!, it might be tempting for some to dismiss this concern as heavy-handed; they might say Salvato is doing all of this in the name of horror. If that really is the case, I wonder how anyone could be scared of familiar, self-commenting filth.