It’s been a hard year. I saw exactly one film in theaters, my favorite albums weren’t as phenomenal as my favorites in years past, and I can’t leave my phone in my pocket for one hour without the discourse shifting to the President’s tweets, another beloved celebrity being exposed as a sexual assailant, or some other Hell. So over the next twelve days, I’ll be counting down twelve pieces of entertainment that kept me sane in 2017.
12. Doki Doki Literature Club (PC, OSX, Linux), by Dan Salvato
Though many of my favorite games are slight masterpieces in minimalism for iOS – I’m still playing Threes! on a daily basis – I was unable to find one that truly stuck with me. But the one non-blockbuster game that stuck with me this year is one that I haven’t even played.
Available for any operating system through itch.io and Steam, Doki Doki Literature Club is a natural consequence of the years-old prevailing culture on YouTube of watching other people play video games in addition to – or in more and more cases rather than – playing them yourself.
A visual novel, much of the game plays little different than the way one might flip through a book. Faced with the prospect of inhabiting an after-school literature club with four young girls, players will take responsibility to voice all four: Yuri, Monika, Sayori, and Natsuki. That might all sound soul-crushingly ordinary, but the true viewing experience escalates in seeing players experience the games many twists and turns as the game quietly abandons the pretense that it’s an ordinary dating sim.
(Note: Only watch the below video if you have no intention of experiencing the game in its entirety.)
Those twists and turns I won’t get too into here, because the way the game makes them land is pretty important to the whole experience, but it veers between gradually easing or alarmingly rushing into really heavy stuff: depression, self-harm, child abuse, and suicide.
In many ways, it reminds me of Toby Fox’s tour de force Undertale, not just for its singular vision (executed here by Dan Salvato, previously only known for working on mods for Super Smash Bros. games, including development of the popular mod Project M) or its outrageous moments, but for its uses of save files in the game’s diegesis. Anyone who found Undertale compelling should take a short tumble with Doki Doki Literature Club, particularly for its replayability: much is to be gained from poring over the girls’ poems and seeking alternate endings.
My personal favorite watch is the socially awkward Super Smash Bros. champion, Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman, playing through it. He’d later get his sister, his producer, and fellow Smash champion Justin “Plup” McGrath to join him in voicing the characters on another playthrough, but his reactions his first time around are a pleasure.
(Note: If you’re impatient, the fun stuff starts happening around three hours and forty-five minutes in, with it kicking into high gear around fifteen minutes later.)
Watching other people play video games, outside of competitive gaming, has become far more pronounced a routine for me this past year, and Doki Doki Literature Club spoke to all of the best parts of that habit.
Just watch out when you play it.