Opinion: Doki Doki Literature Club, a cute dating simulator, is also a horror masterpiece

OPINION: In Doki Doki Literature Club, a Japanese-style dating simulator available for free on PC and now for a nominal fee on consoles, you only get one warning as to what you're in for.

"This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed."

You'll probably be perplexed at how anything with animated school girls this simpering could be scary and that impression will not change for quite a stretch of your first playthrough. 

Functionally, Doki Doki is a standard dating simulator/visual novel. If you've never played either, congratulations on cruising through high school and the healthy relationship you're probably in, but the formats are pretty simple.

You're an unambitious high school teen forced by your best friend into joining the school literature club, which is populated exclusively by beautiful girls who for some reason are madly attracted to you on sight.  

You spend your time making dialogue choices, completing basic poetry-themed mini games which determine who you grow closer to in the titular club and eventually romance.

Will you chase the artistic Yuri? The gregarious Natsuki, or perhaps see your old best friend Sayori in a new light? Maybe you'll go for queen bee Monika, seemingly always just out of reach but just flirtatious enough that you think you have a chance. 

I swear to god it gets scary.
I swear to god it gets scary. Photo credit: Team Salvato

Doki Doki works because it commits to this stilted format, to the extent players who've heard of it by word of mouth might be put off by the time spent creepily wooing sickly sweet school girls.

But this build up has a purpose: It lowers your defences and familiarises you with a set routine where your choices have clearly defined consequences.  

Then, something very, very confronting happens.

The best horror leverages its medium and Doki Doki could only ever be a video game. The frivolous choices offered in the first half start taking on awful new significance in the second. The barriers between your character, you the player and the game world start breaking down and nothing, not even exiting the game, makes you feel safe. 

Breaking the fourth wall can be a cheap trick and Doki Doki is certainly not the first game to try it but it manages to make the meta moments more than a gimmick, veering into territory I haven't seen mined for horror anywhere else.

What must games be like to the characters within them, and what hell must it be for those whose only function is to fall in love with players, eternally?

The meta nature of Doki Doki has extended to a vibrant community embracing the dating sim charade. Fans across social media make merch, adorable fan art and argue over which prospective girlfriend is the cutest. All with an unspoken rule - don't spoil the twists.  

Monika even has her own Twitter with nearly half a million followers where she posts typically angst-laden teen tweets about how much she loves her friends and hates bullying. 

I don't know if Monika's account is run by the game's creator, an enthusiastic fan, or even a group of people which all adds to the fun and gives fans the sense of being in on a very dark joke.

Doki Doki is all the more impressive considering it was a labour of love from one creator when it came to PC and now a very small team as it jumps to consoles in Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! 

However, some of the magic has been lost in translation as some of the more meta moments of horror don't necessarily land. This is an experience which was clearly built with the PC gaming in mind and I found some late game moments lost impact when shoehorned into the format of a console.

I would also advise any prospective new player to take the warning seriously. If you are sensitive to mental health issues, approach this game with caution. 

But for everyone else, the joy of Doki Doki is in the discovery, so I won't say anything more except if you're a fan of creative horror, it's an experience you owe yourself.

Doki Doki Literature Club is available for Playstation, Xbox and Switch and on Steam.

Finn Hogan is the host of Newshub's Free to Play podcast.