Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is not what it appears to be.
On its face, this game looks like a typically sweet anime “dating simulator” filled with bright, sparkling color paired with cute cartoon teen girls sporting stereotypically appealing anime personas. But dig a bit deeper, and Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! is a game that twists its cute concepts into the stuff of horror.
In fact, this game is ultimately dark. Very dark. But you don’t see that at first.
Gamers begin play from the first-person perspective of a faceless high schooler who is coerced into joining a small, after-school Literature Club that’s just getting started. Our guy really has very little interest in literature or clubs, but he goes along for the sake of his slightly absentminded childhood female friend, Sayori. Of course, his attitude changes once he gets to the club and discovers that it’s populated by nothing but super-cute girls.
There’s his sweet and exuberant bud, Sayori; the incredibly shy but intelligent and appealing Yuri; the tiny but caustically assertive girl Natsuki; and the club’s bubbly president, an overachieving honor student named Monika.
The music early on here is lighthearted and whimsical as the characters converse via a pink text box. Players get to know each girl through flirty text conversations and then write poems that they think might appeal to one girl or the other, based on that individual’s personal likes and dislikes. Then, as they get to know one another, the club eventually starts planning for, and working toward, an upcoming cultural festival that will hopefully draw in new members.
And the game suggest that our guy might just end up with a bright and adorable girlfriend to boot!
On the plus side, this game is very good at drawing players in with all its colorful and sweet aspects. But …
As I mentioned above, something very unsettling lurks beneath the surface of this story, as well as all of the anime girls in the club. Each character, though angelically drawn, is struggling with some form of severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or other tragic mental issue.
The game and the girls spiral out of control as situations get darker and darker. Those stereotypically upbeat anime characters crumble. Actions shift from moments of reading sweet creative poetry, to dialogue that indicates some difficult emotional problems, to eventual breakdowns that involve horrible, bloody violence, grisly teen cutting and grotesque suicide.
The game prompts you to play through multiple times and invites you to make changes in your choices and interactions. But you soon learn that there is an outside force that is purposely shaping the experience with each girl and imposing every monstrous outcome.
Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! not only delivers some disturbing commentary on the appeal of anime—and the fact that even the genre’s most sweetly drawn cartoon characters can hide harsher realities—but it also plays rough with serious real-world mental health issues. Some gamers could well find the experience triggering and very problematic.
The game opens with a disclaimer that it is not suitable for children or people easily disturbed. And though that warning is completely appropriate, it’s easy to skip over, especially in light of the initial look and cheerier parts of the game.
The original Doki Doki Literature Club! was first released for PC as a free visual novel in 2017. And it has now been upgraded to a higher visual resolution and expanded with extra levels of content for the latest-gen gaming consoles.
But though seemingly innocuous and even appealing to look at in the beginning, parents and players should know that this game holds some very nasty, purposely focused, grim content.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.