A sentiment that pops up every so often these days is the feeling that, unless microtransactions and loot boxes are your jam, there are no new things under the sun. A couple of recent games, however, compel the argument that maybe we ought to look for limit-defying experiences in the under-explored depths of unlikely genres.
An essential disclaimer: I have not actually played either Mystic Messenger or Doki Doki Literature Club! Everything I know about them comes secondhand. My girlfriend was a dedicated Mystic Messenger player a couple of years ago, and during that time, she showed me and discussed the game with me frequently. DDLC, on the other hand, was experienced by the both of us watching others’ playthroughs of the game. It is my hope that this nonetheless ought to be enough to talk about them substantively with sufficient accuracy.
Additionally, due to the core nature of the game, any meaningful discussion of Doki Doki Literature Club! is inherently going to enter spoiler territory. This post is no exception, so proceed with caution accordingly.
If you were to ask me ten years ago, as a teenager, what types of games I thought the unlikeliest of all for innovations, dating sims—that specific breed of the wider visual novel genre focused on romancing the games’ casts—would have been one of my first answers. Fast forward to today, however, and past me has no choice but to eat his words.
Thing is, though, I can’t really blame past me for seeing things that way; today’s gaming and anime landscape is a whole lot different from what it was back then. In tandem with the only-recent influx of niche Japanese games getting released to the wider world, visual novels have only finally gotten significant mainstream awareness and acceptance over here in the West in the past several years.
In comparison, visual novels got far less attention back in the 2000's. Thus, I had next to no clue about them. Sure, I knew about Fate/stay night the anime being based on a visual novel, as well as Steins;Gate, Higurashi, and even eternal old shame Sister Princess, but those were exceptions: Games of which I only became aware, first and foremost, on account of their anime. Otherwise, most of the games which seemed to get any amount of attention were the schlocky X-rated dating sims where getting laid was the reward, and in those cases it was to laugh at the ridiculousness or balk at them being so weird and messed up.
Update 2/12/2018 9:20 pm EST—Elaborated on what was meant by “exceptions,” as the lack of clarity could understandably lead to misconceptions
Which is, I suppose, a fancy way of saying that the majority of my knowledge back then came from SomethingAwful’s (NSFW) Awful Anime section. I didn’t really know any better, to put it simply. That began to change approximately around the moment when Danganrompa became a phenomenon. Now, I can even make sense of buzz words like Zero Escape and Long Live The Queen despite not having played a moment of either series.
However, that still left the specific likes of dating sims in the weird-Japan ghetto. Even something like Hatoful Boyfriend, one of the few dating sims that got major Western attention upon its release, accomplished that by playing off of already existing perceptions of genre ridiculousness in order to pass itself off as an absurdist farce; you’re trying to date BIRDS, fer cryin out loud!!!
Then, in 2016, Mystic Messenger was released, rocking Tumblr to its core and sprouting itself an enthusiastic fandom. Just a single year later, Doki Doki Literature Club! came out with the impact of a sledgehammer. Things are significantly different now.
These days, for example, something like “dad dating simulator” Dream Daddy can come along and be discussed totally seriously. I would also be remiss to not bring up the enthusiastic reception for Butterfly Soup. Dating sims have taken up space in a more mainstream sect of gamers’ minds to a degree that would have been unimaginable just a few years before, and I believe that the current environment has lots of help from the aforementioned couple of games above.
In terms of analyzing why they became popular, a couple of things stand out about both Mystic Messenger and Doki Doki Literature Club!, despite how different they are. The first thing is more narrative-centric; both games are characterized by strong writing that leads to good stories and characters worth witnessing. The second thing is more tied to mechanics; both games also happen to push the envelope of what it means to be a dating simulator. That makes them stand out from everything else out there, and going even farther, the ways in which they break protocol end up adding to the overall experience.
Take Mystic Messenger, for starters. Narratively speaking, outside of being a reverse harem with female players as its clearly intended main audience, it is in large part a conventional dating sim. Meet and get to know the cute and good-looking guys plus one girl, tailor your actions and words to catch the romantic interest of a specific character, and do what you can to hopefully get the good end you desire. After your first conquest, play through the game more times to complete the routes for all of the other people. Even as the story eventually plumbs more nefarious, thriller-heavy depths, your ultimate goal—collecting dem boys/Jaehee—fundamentally remains the same.
The way MysMe executes it all, however, is unlike almost all other dating sims, stemming from a brilliant conceit befitting a smartphone game: Making the phone the framing device for the majority of the action. Everything starts because you, the main character, were somehow able to download and access a highly secretive and exclusive messenger app, and this freak occurrence is how you rudely enter the lives of everyone you will eventually woo. It’s a pretty meta setup, one with the benefit of quickly immersing players into the game’s setting.
Everything that can be done, in turn, gets filtered through the context of doing a bunch of typical phone stuff. Many of the typical dating sim/visual novel dialogue scenes, in lieu of happening in person, take place in chat rooms. The game, in a triumph of tying mechanics to narrative, even gets clever about using messenger program features—differing font choices, image attachments, GIFs, etc.—to enhance the characterization of Zen, 707, and company.
Even wilder, MysMe goes all in with the smartphone app conceit to the point where chat sessions open up, notifications and all, at specific times of the day, rather than being an experience that could be finished in a single session. Other important game tasks get done through responding to text messages and writing out email replies. The particularly special moments, the game’s equivalent of CGs, are phone calls with the characters, complete with voice acting.
With the techniques above, which translate many of the dating sim mainstays to fit the smartphone framing, MysMe’s efforts at immersion are impressive. The game would lose part of its impact were it played on literally anything other than a phone.
This all does not even go into how MysMe has also taken advantage of its stature as a smartphone game to do things that go beyond more conventional dating sims. There is a more cynical angle to it, for sure; it’s a free-to-play game that finds ways to monetize certain features, like having to purchase “calling cards” for hitting up characters anytime you want. That said, my girlfriend also did not personally find these things to be all that intrusive, and she was also more than glad to financially support the makers of a game she greatly enjoyed.
However, there is an even more exciting layer to the game’s model which is practically the visual novel equivalent of a next-gen feature: MysMe has been, and still is, constantly updated by the developers. That manifested at first as special seasonal side stories for the likes of Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Since then, the ambitions have aimed even higher. Completely new routes for previously un-romanceable characters are, to this day, being released—a new route based around a fan favorite came out just recently, in fact—and taking those opportunities to flesh out the world from entirely new angles. It’s mind-blowing stuff, and a big reason why the game still inspires so much enthusiasm.
Then there is the far more recent Doki Doki Literature Club!, which was potent enough to hold a spot on Best Games of 2017 lists such as Kotaku’s. And I believe it has justifiably earned such high regard, because holy shit, this game is something else. Unlike Mystic Messenger, the proceedings of DDLC are batshit bonkers, completely obliterating any preconceptions or assumptions about what kinds of stories a dating simulator could tell.
Its initial draw for a lot of people was the shocking, jarring reveal of what initially starts as a seemingly by-the-numbers dating sim actually turning out to be something far more twisted...and then seeing the reactions of prominent YouTubers and streamers to it all. For my girlfriend and I, for example, those were The Game Theorists’ streams and the Game Grumps’ let’s play video series.
Go a bit deeper, however, and DDLC reveals itself to be worth far more than just as a shock value provider. For one, the characters are well fleshed out and incredibly endearing. Everything fucked up that happens cuts so much deeper because everyone is worth caring about.
Going even farther (revisiting some prior TAY Advent Calendar thoughts), the game transcends the potential cheapness of lol-so-meta-lol-what-fourth-wall shenanigans by coalescing into a story centered around the philosophical computer science-derived “Our universe is a computer simulation” theory. Just to further sweeten the deal, the unsettling moments and the abilities causing them somehow even touch upon issues in mental illness effectively and sympathetically. The writing in DDLC is seriously impressive; few games in my whole lifetime have affected me on a narrative level to the degree this game has.
The way in which the story gets conveyed, however, matters just as much as the story itself. In that sense, DDLC is arguably less novel than Mystic Messenger with what it does in this regard—virtually all of it boils down to a whole bunch of dating sim interface screw, a technique going as far back as Metal Gear Solid—but still chillingly effective in what it’s trying to convey.
Events like visual novel interface features that glitch out with progressively greater regularity, text that goes screwy, and disturbing character poses at the uneasiest moments do much to establish the tone and setting for the messed up things that are happening. Oh, also, a significant portion of the action happens outside of the game, by way of DDLC’s game files constantly changing as things get added and removed. The signpost pointing towards the true nature of the game, in fact, rests on a programming exception being thrown which references a traceback text file. It’s some creepy shit.
All of this paints a picture of no mere dating sim, but rather that of a dating sim falling apart at the seams. All of it due to a self-aware character meddling with the coding and scripting in order to hack their way to a romantic ending. This isn’t just straightforward horror; it’s the type of insidiously unsettling horror that creepypastas would be written about.
You know what, screw it, of all the ways to describe this game, I’d say the best one is this: Doki Doki Literature Club! is the visual novel analogue to Pokémon Black. Except that this tale is actually playable.
Hell, not just a tale that is playable, but one which I am pretty sure would be literally impossible to sufficiently convey in any medium outside of the dating sim framework. If anyone ever needs an example of a story that could only be told in a video game, Doki Doki Literature Club is a strong candidate. It’s only fitting that a big chunk of the “fan fic” for the game comes from mods that transform the game itself.
The likes of Mystic Messenger and Doki Doki Literature Club! may not be the “cutting edge in gaming” that would first come to anyone’s mind, but it nonetheless cannot be denied that some of the most exciting developments in recent memory have come from this corner of the gaming sphere. Perhaps the rest of us should be taking notes?