This has been true of the Christine Love games, which remain some of my all-time favorites, and is true as well for Doki Doki Literature Club, a free Steam game that has exploded in popularity, through... hm, I wanted to say "word of mouth", but everyone is very hesitant to go into much detail about it. The Love Conquers All games play with the genre's form, subverting it and critiquing it, but ultimately embrace it. DDLC, on the other hand, sometimes seems to be out to destroy the genre: cutting right to the heart of gaming in general, but visual novels in particular, exposing some serious problems with the structure and content of such games and, ultimately, kind of calling for action.
So: Visual novels can be about anything, can be told in any sort of voice, can have a variety of gameplay elements or no gameplay at all. However, from what I can tell, the most popular forms of visual novels (at least in the US) are "dating simulators". In its most stereotypical form, you play as a first-person (never seen) male protagonist, moving through a story that sort of doubles as a harem of eligible women, selecting dialogue and action that will prompt one (or more) of them to fall in love with you: you generally "win" by having a mate at the end of the game.
At first glance, DDLC is a note-perfect addition to this turnkey formula. It's set in a school. You are a somewhat aimless student. Your childhood friend invites you to join the literature club, which you quickly learn is full of "four incredibly cute girls!" Each has their own distinctive personality quirk, easily-recognizable interest, and is very motivated to get to know you better.
The actual gameplay feels rather light. You almost never get dialogue options, and can't influence your player character's personality or story: you love manga, don't read many books, are slightly shy, and want to get along with everyone. The insertion of gameplay is one early unique element in the game: at the end of each night, you write a poem. You do this by selecting from a series of words. Chibi versions of the love interests appear on the screen and will react as you select them: between this and the in-game dialogue, you can get a sense for what type of content each person prefers, and can write a poem that will appeal to them.
As a side note: I opted to impress Yuri, mostly because she's the least child-like character. The dialogue focuses on the idea that she prefers poems that have a lot of imagery and symbolism, but from what I can tell, she actually prefers scientific words (universe, infinity, etc.) and complex multi-syllabic words. Actual imagery and symbolism (rainbow, flower, etc.) count as "cute" words and will appeal to Natsuki instead.
Anyways: For the first half or so of the game, the gameplay mostly consists of doing one of these poem-writing exercises, then just "click to continue" for 20+ minutes of dialogue for the next day, then repeating with a new poem. You do get some opportunities to decide in what order you will show your poem to the others, which slightly affects dialogue but doesn't count as a major choice. I think there's just one proper in-scene choice, where you choose who to side with during an argument.
This segment of the game is long and played very straight. I'd avoided any detailed spoilers, but, well, just the opening screen of the game gives a hint that something is coming, and my radar was activated for any signs of incoming strangeness. There are just a handful of lines over the first couple of hours that indicate everything is not what it seems: occasionally someone will say something slightly odd, or do something without any explanation. This is mostly addressed in-game through your character's own reactions. Later on in the week, some of your classmates' poems grow increasingly unsettling, but "you" respond by going "That's kinda weird, but hey, I don't know much about literature."
As I was playing, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept waiting for a really long time. I'm uncertain whether this long wind-up is necessary... I kinda felt like the pattern was established after the first day or two, and it honestly got a little painful to sit through the longish, stereotypically drawn-out-but-inconclusive scenes with Yuri.
In retrospect, though, the long time spent in the first act pays strong dividends in the later ones. By setting so much content in place, the eventual turn feels much more meaningful and less gimmicky than it would with a shorter story. The sheer amount of material almost wears grooves in your mind while playing, its very repetition establishing "this is how things are", and so once that material changes, the difference feels profound.
This is most obvious in the text and disturbing art, but what I'm thinking of now is actually the music: that happy ditty theme-song constantly plays for hours as you play, long past the point where you stop paying attention to it, where it becomes purely ignorable background music. So it is DEEPLY unsettling when just a few notes in that song change to a minor key. This slight diabolical chord instantly sends shivers down your spine: even absent any other signifiers, you are alerted that something is wrong, the center is decaying.
It's around this time that I decided to continue playing the game during a well-lit weekend afternoon. I can enjoy horror, but those early elements were already freaking me out enough that I knew I didn't want to go to bed in the middle of it.
So: The game takes an abrupt out-of-tone turn, coming to a shockingly sad end. And that's where the weirdness really starts to kick in. You're taken back to the main title screen, but it's different now: letters in the menu have been corrupted, as have some character images. And you'll quickly find that your save game files have all been deleted!
Pressing on, you start a new game, but it's... different from before. Nonsense text appears on the screen at random intervals. After a false start, and then another, it starts again, but a bit differently: the overall plot and thrust of the game is the same, but the details are different. A sense of malaise hovers at the edge of the dialogue. Visuals glitch. The music grows ever more unsettling, like a nightmare calliope.
The limited gameplay now feels like a tight constriction: before I might have aesthetically preferred more freedom to express myself, but now it's like I'm tied into a straitjacket, loaded onto a crash-test car, hurtling forward towards something awful, with no opportunity to escape.
There's a compelling sense of mystery at this stage of the game: it's obvious that Things Are Not Okay, but who is behind it? And why? My suspicions were directed towards Monika from early on, but as time goes on and everyone's behavior grows more erratic, it became increasingly difficult to discount Yuri as being the architect of whatever was going on. Still, I tend to be stubborn in my gameplay, so even as it seemed like a worse and worse idea, I continued along the Yuri track.
Around this time, the game starts actively fighting you, in some really fun and surprising ways. When prompted to choose who you will spend time with, you come to find that you're fighting the mouse cursor, which keeps gradually shoving over towards "Monika" while you try to move it elsewhere. Soon after, it blocks you from saving the game, telling you there's no point any more.
After yet another horrific "ending", the game further degrades, with you seemingly stuck inside a loop in a macabre scene as corrupted text spews out. After spending ages clicking through, I tried reloading earlier saved games or exiting and restarting, but no matter what you do you're immediately taken back to that sad scene. At last stuff gets cleaned up, the fourth wall gets torn down, and the plot is explained.
The game gets awesome here - I don't even want to talk about it in the Mega Spoilers, but it simultaneously gets less mysterious and more chilling. It evokes one of the best bits of Analogue: A Hate Story, but with even better ludonarrative harmony. I figured out pretty early on how to proceed, but the dialogue (or, okay, monologue) around this point is so good that I let it play out for another cycle before proceeding. (It's great to see that the game is so explicit about what you need to do: people who already know can feel like they're one step ahead of the game, while everyone else can get unblocked, and learn something new in the process.)
The final coda is refreshing, then surprising. I was actually down to explore the Sayori arc a bit more - as long as she isn't actively murdering people, it doesn't seem like it's necessarily that bad - but the "Shut it all down!" ending is super-satisfying, both in-game and in real life.
Anyways: I've kind of recapped the plot without getting into any of the themes, which is at least as memorable as the formal trickery. The story focuses on something that I've been worrying about for years, in my own games as well as those I play: non-player character agency in video games. I wrote about it at some length in my Shadowrun devlog, and DDLC tackles it head-on.
So: Ultimately, characters aren't real people. They're created by writers and developers to fulfill certain roles. This is also true in fictional novels and comic books and all sorts of media. In video games, though, this can seem especially pernicious, because the player interacts with these "people", and they respond to him or her.
First up, there's this ambiguity of identity between the player and the player character. To what extent are these purely fictional relationships being forged between the in-game avatar and the other NPCs, and to what extent is a relationship being created between the real-life player and those same characters (or, I would argue, the creator of those characters)? If you've ever done something nice in a game, and had an NPC say "Thank you for helping me, CHARNAME! You are a good person!", you might have gotten a small, warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach. "That's right," you might have said. "I am a good person!" We create identification between our real selves and our fictional virtual selves, and derive pleasure from the achievements of the latter.
That pleasure generally increases as characters grow more believable and complex. But, as players grow more focused and invested in the game, they can start to ascribe too much meaning and importance to these fundamentally artificial and unrealistic relationships. It's a step beyond, say, reading romance novels: you aren't just admiring or aspiring to something, but sort of onanistically identifying with your avatar.
That same believability gets particularly insidious in the context of video-game romance. It's one of those things that outsiders to the form can see a whole lot more clearly than those of us who play a lot of games: it is weird to have a lot of people throwing themselves at you and professing their undying love because you clicked a couple of buttons. They have no choice - they are just characters programmed to do so - but it can be tempting to think of this as an earned "conquest". The big risk, of course, is those sentiments bleeding over into the real world: believing that love is a game, that if you choose someone and select the right things that they will give you their affection, and if they don't then something is defective.
DDLC seems to take aim at the central conceit of having characters programmed to love you and blows it up. I think there are other potential solutions, though. While I've complained about this in the past, I increasingly like BioWare's approach to romance: not just restricted romance, where some characters have certain preferences which may exclude the player character, but also characters like Aveline and Harding, for whom you can express affection but who will not reciprocate. At the very least, this pops the illusion that everyone in the world has the hots for the player and that their lives revolve around him or her. In my own work, I've tried to double down on tension between the player character and the NPC to create the impression that they have free will: ultimately, of course, a fictional character doesn't have agency, but allowing them to veer off in other directions, express disapproval, or second-guess their choices can at least make this an illusion that love is something which is given, not won.
I'm still kind of mulling over what DDLC was saying. It feels like a somewhat nihilistic message, turning away from something artificial in our entertainment, as opposed to the Christine Love games, which are more about finding something valuable in our games and then bringing that back with us to the real world. But both get a lot of well-earned and well-crafted mileage by skating along the line between reality and fiction, between player and avatar, and leave you with plenty to think about.
I have a hard time recommending Doki Doki Literature Club. The subject matter will be offputting to a lot of people, and even people who really enjoy one aspect of it may end up disliking the other. But I do think it's one of the most well-crafted games I've played recently. It does very specific things to create tension, to heighten reactions, to draw out your emotions and induce whiplash. I've already found myself thinking about how techniques in this game might be adapted to hypothetical future projects of my own. DDLC can be a hard game to enjoy, but it's a very easy game to admire, and I think it has a ton to offer anyone who wants to provoke emotional responses in other people, as well as players who are interested in peering behind the curtain and exploring how experiences like this can work.