It’s not every day that a visual novel has the chance to shock and awe the world like Doki Doki Literature Club did on PC back in 2017. The game proved to be a hit, but console gamers were left waiting for some way to experience the tale this anime dating sim tells. Flash forward to the present day and a new Plus version of the game is available on Switch and Nintendo fans are finally able to experience this twisted story for themselves. Having played through DDLC Plus in its entirety, we can say it truly is an experience we’ll never forget.
Somehow, after all these years we went in fairly free of spoilers for its major plot points and after seeing it through to the end we knew we had to chat with the creator and founder of Team Salvato, Dan Salvato, about all of it. From the new Side Story additions in the Plus version of the game, to the overall feelings and emotions conveyed throughout its plot, we were pleased to sit down with Dan to gain a better understanding of how all of this came to be.
Oh, and just like our review, this interview will be fairly spoiler free! So worry not if you’ve yet to give Doki Doki Literature Club Plus a go — we tread carefully, so you’re welcome to hang out as long as you like…
Nintendo Life: We noticed that a little while back Nintendo made a post promoting Doki Doki Literature Club Plus on Switch through their Twitter account. As a big Nintendo fan yourself, how did that feel to be sort of recognized by the Big N?
Dan Salvato, DDLC creator: Most of the communication with Nintendo was done by Serenity Forge, and so they’ve had a lot more experience with Nintendo than I have, although I’ve heard that they’ve worked with some people at Nintendo who are fans of the game. So just hearing that detail was pretty surreal in itself, I think largely because what I often experience with DDLC is that I’m caught by so much surprise by the breadth of reach the types of fans the game seems to bring in.
For instance, I got an email a couple of years ago from Jason Hayes, who was the composer of the World of Warcraft soundtrack, and he just emailed me to tell me he liked the game, and that’s like at the polar opposite end of the games industry! So these things come up, and it just wows me every time. There are these people that are so far removed from my own indie circle of the games industry.
On the one hand, it feels like DDLC has been around for so long at this point, or rather it’s been such a huge part of my life that it almost feels like just some entity out there.
On the one hand, it feels like DDLC has been around for so long at this point, or rather it’s been such a huge part of my life that it almost feels like just some entity out there. So sometimes when I sit down and remind myself of what this is, the fact that I made it and it has this visibility like Nintendo for example tweeting about it—once I sit down with a moment of mindfulness, that’s when I really feel the emotions surrounding it, and I can tell myself how amazing it is that I’ve made it to this point.
I’ve never wanted to find an “I’ve made it” moment, because that’s so dependent on everyone’s individual definition for success. What matters to me are the personal experiences that have meaning to me, and being a lifelong Nintendo fan and seeing my game get that sort of recognition was easily one of the most meaningful things to happen so far in my gaming career.
One of the big new features in DDLC Plus is the Side Stories that delve deeper into the club member’s lives outside of the main game. What led you to want to tell more of their tales, rather than just leave it as is in the main game?
DDLC is largely a game that explores the player’s relationship with fictional characters and fictional media in general. As part of that, the characters have very relatable human traits that a lot of players can empathize with and feel a connection with those characters, but that component is somewhat divergent from the plot being driven by the psychological horror genre, I suppose. I think as time passed after this game was released, it almost felt like the characters matured at the same rate as the player base in the sense that the characters became the focus of emotional investment for fans after they’ve played and enjoyed the game.
The plot happens once, and you have your memories of that, but the characters stick with you because they feel like friends in your mind, and I understand how valuable that can be to people—to find these characters in fictional media who have these relatable traits that you can look up to and can learn from. It’s something that’s always been really important to me as someone who enjoys fictional narratives and what they enable. I was able to understand through communication with DDLC fans, and hearing all the hundreds of experiences of the game that were shared with me, that this is so incredibly important to so many people.
The characters mean a lot personally to me as well, because a lot of the traits and experiences the characters have are based on things that I’ve either directly experienced or observed through close friends that just don’t get talked about in the media or amongst individuals. So with those two aspects combined, I think it was very natural to give the characters the chance to explore their interpersonal relationships, and help players feel closer to the characters in the same way that the characters feel closer to each other, to then overcome these challenges together.
It seems like you’re really trying to give us characters that we can learn from and not just keep them two dimensional.
Fiction seems to have this magical power of transmitting a feeling and an experience from the creator to the audience and I think that’s what I love so much about it.
I like to say that fiction is communication, and it’s the opportunity for me to communicate my own experiences and emotions with other people. Fiction seems to have this magical power of transmitting a feeling and an experience from the creator to the audience and I think that’s what I love so much about it.
My whole life, whenever I’ve had an incredibly powerful emotional experience of some kind, my thought was always that I’ve wanted other people to feel and think the same things that these experiences are making me feel. Creating this sort of narrative fiction is an incredible way of being able to do that. One thing that I’ve really noticed is that even if people don’t see themselves in these characters, they might see other people close to them in them. If you have a friend or co-worker getting defensive in the same ways or sharing similar insecurities, then spending time with the club members—listening to their thoughts and feelings—could give us the opportunity to learn in real life about other people’s experiences beyond our own.
Was there ever a point where DDLC wasn’t going to be as graphic of an experience?
I think that I made what I wanted to make. There weren’t that many plans that changed halfway through development. A lot of the main story beats and the scenes were thought up ahead of time and it was a matter of using limited resources to make those into the reality that was possible. I was never interested in shock value—I don’t often like it in horror unless that is the point of the work—but I think that it’s easy to accidentally misuse shock value as a way that supposedly enhances the scariness. The design of DDLC in every sense was largely guided by how I wanted to make the person feel, and there are certain graphic scenes that are designed to make the player feel very uncomfortable. Not just because the scene is graphic, but because of the full context surrounding the scene. When coming up with some of the more graphic scenes, I always had the full picture and the context in mind, not just the idea that, “This thing is scary by human nature so I’ll add it in because it’s scary.”
Was there ever a point where you looked at DDLC during development and asked yourself “Should I do this?”
One way in which my ADHD symptoms manifest is that I’m oftentimes fueled by an unstoppable excitement and impulse to do certain things. That can lead to the phenomenon known as hyperfocus, where that becomes the only thing that I want to do and think about for an extended period of time. That is probably what drove a lot of DDLC’s early development—that pure excitement, passion and desire to see my vision come together.
DDLC was a side project, so I never had to ask myself, “Do I want this to be my career?” because at the time it wasn’t; it was basically just a hobby, and it was fun, and I felt passionate about it. So I never really questioned it in the sense that you’re asking, because from the start it was always just something that was fun and was a cool idea that I wanted to make.
You bring up a great point, Dan — how could you ever have known DDLC was going to blow up in the way that it did? We noticed Spencer’s had a pair of Monika socks on the shelf the other day and that really caught us off guard!
Yeah, that in itself came with its own set of challenges because the game almost decided my career path for me. That’s something I wasn’t prepared for at the time, with both the direction and the velocity of what was happening. I call myself a tinkerer, I guess, where I just come up with cool ideas and try to make them. Most of my stuff up until this point has been mostly solo, so then all of a sudden I have to worry about all of these different business responsibilities, partnerships and legal stuff. Working with so many different people on so many different things were responsibilities and skills I had not yet developed, and they all happened at once. It was a very overwhelming and difficult time for me, but I think it allowed me to get a much better understanding of myself and what I need in order to be happy, to learn what success means to me.
The bigger picture is that of course the popularity of DDLC opened so many incredible doors, and it’s been the most amazing experience of my life. But I also don’t want to disregard all of the challenges that it came with. I’ve always hoped that I could help people understand this sort of position of being a well-known public figure, whether it’s a content creator, popular developer, or artist you look up to that you only have visibility of the absolute best parts of the position. There are a million really difficult challenges hiding beneath the surface as well, and I like keeping things in a realistic perspective like that. I’ve always wanted to come off as a normal person to people and be as genuine as possible about how I feel and the challenges I’m going through.
It should be obvious at this point, but there are a lot of theories surrounding your next project, and lots of people seem to think DDLC will be tied to it. Are there any breadcrumbs waiting to be found in the Plus version of the game on Switch, or is there anything else you can tell us about what we can expect next?
Whether it’s an easter egg, some hidden feature or a nuance in the writing or the visual design that you just notice one day. These are things that feel really gratifying to discover and I think make you feel closer to the piece of artwork.
The discovery of things beneath the surface is a really gratifying experience in games and media. Whether it’s an easter egg, some hidden feature or a nuance in the writing or the visual design that you just notice one day. These are things that feel really gratifying to discover and I think make you feel closer to the piece of artwork. That is once again a feeling I’ve experienced myself and felt invested in giving other people that same feeling.
Everybody has their own unique and personal experience with DDLC—and most other media as well—and people love sharing those experiences with others and watching them unfold for others. The post-story content—whether it’s hidden content, finding unlockables and/or replaying it and paying attention to new details—are all a part of the overall experience that people feel attached to. So that’s something that’s really fun and gratifying for us to deliver as well.
So is it safe to assume your future projects will always carry some sort of easter eggs?
It doesn’t even have to be easter eggs or hidden content that you sneak in. I think just by nature, certain types of media are really well-suited to have more nuanced details about them that add even more to the experience after the experience has technically finished. That’s something that I’ve internalized, and I love that feeling, and because of that, it will find ways of manifesting itself in my future work as well. I can’t say or don’t even know how that will manifest, but it’s a part of me, and so it’s going to manifest.
You’re telling us you haven’t learned to time travel at this point?
No, I wrote DDLC, not Steins;Gate.
Fair point! So how does it feel to see your character Monika getting made into an official Good Smile Nendoroid? Now Monika and the Steins;Gate cast can stand together!
It’s nuts! I have Good Smile figures on my shelf here in my office. It feels pretty similar to the Nintendo involvement where it’s amazing to see the characters have this sort of visibility and to see other companies excited to do something with the characters or game in some way. It almost feels like imposter syndrome. In many ways I still feel like the basement weeb I’ve always felt like, and then I’m talking to these really important people who are interested in my work. It’s so bizarre and amusing and also really heartwarming.
Have you considered adapting DDLC into any other shapes or forms? It feels like it could be tough to make the experience work in another format, but the idea of a choose your own adventure manga sounds enticing!
DDLC was literally created under the premise that video games and interactive media are what enable the story to be told. That’s what I feel most passionate about, I think—the utilization of this specific, yet magical art form to tell stories that otherwise can’t be told. It would be cheap and disappointing to try and take the DDLC story and gameplay experience as it exists and plop into some other form of media that wouldn’t work.
I’ve been asked about it a lot and talked with people in the industry about it, but the fact is that if I’m making something for a specific piece of media that has a specific user experience, then I want to come up with fundamental ideas that work really well with that experience. So I suppose what I’m saying is that I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the distant future I do something that is not a game. But I first want to have an idea that I really want to make happen.
If you were to venture forth into a new format, would you consider using it to tell more stories of the characters in DDLC, or is Plus the last time we’ll see them around?
We currently don’t have plans for new DDLC story content, but I think whether it’s DDLC or something else, if I get a cool idea that I really believe in and really think will be meaningful to other people, then I will always consider making it happen. But that’s just theoretical, based on our team’s values and my understanding of myself.
As someone who has potentially witnessed everything there is to see in DDLC Plus, is it possible we’ll ever get answers to some of the questions that lie within the characters and other elements. To be subtle, will we ever learn the true meaning of all of this?
One of my favorite things is that due to the nature of this being a multi-layer game, the player has the ability to invest themselves in whichever layer they want. That can be the original DDLC experience as a self-contained game, it can include new story content that was included in DDLC Plus, etc… So many people ask me and ask each other which character traits are reality and which are a manifestation of the psychological horror components of the game.
I think the fact is that whatever new stuff we do in the future will certainly answer some questions that people have and it will raise new questions, and I think it will never fully converge into a singular truth.
The real answer is that there are multiple realities, and that the characters themselves aren’t real. Treating the characters as though they are real, singular people means we are buying into a singular reality, and we have control over the reality we want to invest ourselves into. It’s very strange and interesting to think about it that way, because so many people love the idea of there being a shared canon among everybody, a one reality. By nature, from the very beginning, DDLC was not that. I think the fact is that whatever new stuff we do in the future will certainly answer some questions that people have and it will raise new questions, and I think it will never fully converge into a singular truth.
If you could take any Nintendo IP’s and make a game with your spin or craft it into whatever you’d want it to be, what franchise would you pick?
I can think of so many answers, but it’s hard to pick one. The thing that fascinates me about so many Nintendo IPs is that they’re exploding with charm and personality. I’m thinking about the WarioWare and Splatoon games, but these are also games that are very focused on the specific concept that they’re designed around. Splatoon doesn’t have a DDLC-style cast of nuanced characters with development and a storyline. That’s not the point of the game, and that was never a focus. There are really interesting characters that are, again, just radiating charm and personality, and that comes through in their dialogue, but oftentimes it can stop there. You don’t have the opportunity to become close friends with them in the same sense as a narrative based game such as DDLC, but sometimes you want to, you know?
I think that idea is what would inspire my choice. The WarioWare, Splatoon and Advance Wars series are already full of so many incredible characters that are brimming with personality, and I’d want to design something that enables me and everybody else who is a fan of those IPs and characters to become closer friends with them.