Doki Doki is a Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of a heart beating, especially when falling in love. A game, titled “Doki Doki Literature Club” (DDLC), fits almost perfectly with that definition…  almost. It is free to play and is developed by Dan Salvato under Team Salvato.

I have never, in my 20-plus years of playing video games, seen a game like this before. The game is supposed to be a dating simulator, which is common and popular in Japanese culture. You play as a faceless and nameless protagonist vying to have one of four girls (or possibly all of them) fall in love with you.

Before playing the game, however, there is a warning that it isn’t suitable for children or “those who are easily disturbed.” The game is classified as a visual novel, but is first classified as a psychological horror. Many, including myself, read that warning and brushed it off like we did other warnings from other games. I give that same warning to you now before you read any further. I won’t be graphic, but it touches on the topic of mental health in a lot of ways, which is what I’m hoping to prepare you for.

I’ve played plenty of horror games before, but this one is in a league of its own. The fact that it is free to play and download is a positive, but alludes to the possibility of this game being more of a pre-game to hype up another game coming out. You need more context, though.

This game starts off with you, a student, needing to join a club at school. Your neighbor and longtime friend, Sayori, talks you into joining the literature club she’s vice-president for. There, you meet three other girls.

There’s Natsuki, who is on the petite side with a spunky attitude, yet loves everything cute (she even has pink hair) and enjoys reading manga (something she feels other club members don’t appreciate). Then there is Yuri, who seems to be a stark contrast to Natsuki; more reserved, lost in her own head, but knows a lot about writing and literature.

Lastly, there is Monika. She’s the club president. I wish I could tell you more, but the game doesn’t have us interact with her as much as you would think. The game also has three acts to it, but we’ll get there.

You are tasked with writing a poem, selecting 20 words to do so. Each word you select favors one of three girls, leaving Monika out of the pool of choices. For example, if you choose a word that Sayori approves of, it can cause a reaction from the other two girls (or just one of them, or no reaction at all). You’ll have a chance to share that poem with all girls, however. The point is to win one of their hearts over.

The first act is supposed to make you feel safe, secure, and falling in love. There’s nothing wrong here … at first glance. When you share your poem, you also have to read each girl’s poems. The developer really knew his stuff because these poems are designed with the art in mind. Regardless of their styles, short or long, cryptic or straight-forward, there is symbolism behind every word and their collective meaning.

You learn that Sayori has issues with depression, Natsuki’s father is abusive (and she’s likely malnourished, causing her petite figure), and Yuri … well, she can be obsessive. As for Monika? She holds Pandora’s Box, metaphorically speaking.

So the first act is supposed to make you feel safe and in love. Towards the end of the act, you have to make a choice. Sayori confesses her love for you after years of friendship. Do you reciprocate that love, or do you friendzone her? Unlike every other choice you’ve made, your choice here doesn’t affect the ending.

Sayori leaves after the scene and you’re flashed to the next morning. Sayori isn’t at school and nobody else seems to know where she is. You, as the main character, assume she just overslept again. You knock on her bedroom door at her home, telling her something like, “You better not have overslept again, you dummy,” with a playful and familiar tone.

You open the door slowly to find something extremely shocking, also because of the developers’ penchant for visual design which intensifies this feeling. Sayori, a video game character, committed suicide (I won’t go into detail). It’s either because she can’t handle the change of your confessed love or because you didn’t accept her love and stayed friends, the ending to this act is always the same.

There is MUCH more to explain, though I don’t have near as much space for my columns as before, so (as much as I hate to do this to you), I hope you’ll stick around for the rest of my explanation.