The spirit of Halloween is alive this month in the video gaming industry. Not from a long-running franchise. Not from a gore-y, Silent Hill-esque nightmare. Rather, you can experience true horror from a Japanese dating simulator: Doki Doki Literary Club.
Let me set this straight: THIS IS A HORROR GAME. Everybody except Kotaku has covered this as a dating sim, as if to prank or to not spoil the experience for the audience, speaking in a code that the game is not quite what it seems, if at all mentioning the disturbing content. Warnings now appear at the beginning of every video game, so it’s natural to ignore them, yet these warnings are serious business. Monster Hunter warns you not to play the game for too long; this game warns you about HEAVILY DISTURBING THEMES for less than 5 seconds. It’s not nearly enough warning, so your warning’s right here. I’m all for spooking people with a Halloween prank, but if it gives them panic attacks, maybe we should also be real for a second or five.
Dating sims were originally created in Japan, addressing the need to feel like you’re in a relationship even though you’re not devoting the time necessary for this amazing feat. Eventually, these attributes and needs floated to the nerd culture, as the socially awkward are sometimes more interested in dating than Star Wars, however rare that phenomenon is. Pervy, strange, and more of a book than an actual game, dating sims already have a mixed reputation without additional horror elements. As a dating sim with no nudity, Literary Club provides several indie game twists, in this case a twist similar to twisting a knife in the very core of your intestines.
Literature Club follows suit to other indie games, specifically Undertale, that have broken the standard that a game needs to be limited to one genre. Literature Club also follows Undertale‘s train of thought that you don’t need to uphold the fourth wall, or that you can animate using hyper-realistic body parts for a “worst acid trip of my life, please make it stop” vibe. Who knew bastardizations of Picasso could haunt my dreams for a week?
As for the actual gameplay, it starts out as a typical dating sim. You get what you signed up for; you choose a girl and say “she’s cute, let’s pursue her.” Play a cute mini-game and try to do your best to seduce this cartoon high school girl. There are a few moments where you go “oh, maybe these girls aren’t mentally healthy” or “wow, that’s a strange thing to say. Did they just address me, the player?” By the time you feel something going wrong, there’s a heavy feeling deep in the pit of your stomach. You know something twisted is on its way, but you instantly realize it was always there to begin with, which is ever more terrifying. Once it arrives it’s too late. There’s nowhere to run, everything is a progressively snowballing nightmare constricted only by your imagination, or, as the game has convinced you, lack-thereof.
It’s similar to a car crash: the more you look away, the more you want to see. There is a pull that makes the game frightening, not solely because of anything you can see, but because of the atmosphere produced by dialogue and sudden, shocking visual terrors. The Shining comes to mind when describing this game, as does Alfred Hitchcock. It progresses slowly, yet that speed is the sole ingredient that makes you want to scream. Your realization of impending doom leaves you with no means of solving the problem, yet you must endure the situation like one might tolerate Chinese water torture. Am I saying this game applies the same level of historic genius from Hitchcock’s choreographers, actors, and writers? You tell me, Einstein. All I’m saying is that anxiety and atmosphere amplify a horrifying plot.
Normally, a dating sim with no nudes is inexcusable to horny nerds, yet in this scenario, everything becomes that much worse, which is all the better for a psychological horror game. As I have stated before, I am a tiny boy who screams at the sight of the cheapest Halloween costumes at Party City. I am not the best judge of spooky, not by a long shot, yet it will most certainly shake you. Free on steam, Doki Doki Literature Club is the romantic visual novel of your dreams, more specifically your nightmares.