I have the fortune of knowing Dan Salvato, the American developer who created, wrote, and directed the anime-inspired game, from my own high school years. We both attended the John Hopkins Center For Talented Youth summer camp. Dan was kind enough to set aside some time for me for an exclusive interview!
***There are plenty of Doki Doki Literature Club SPOILERS floating around here. Readers, you have been warned!****
Otter Lee (AsianCrush): How did you first dream up the concept of Doki Doki Literature Club?
Dan Salvato: I came up with the idea over a year before I started actually developing the game. I’ve always been a fan of content that is disturbing or defies expectations. I was hanging out with my friend and told him that it would be cool to make a visual novel that appeared as a high school dating sim, but the game was slowly destroyed over time as one of the girls tried to get closer to you, the player. He loved the idea, so it always stuck with me.
What sorts of anime and video games have excited you in the past? Were there any direct inspirations for Doki Doki Literature Club?
Dan Salvato: I took more inspiration from video games than from anime. Although I’ve watched a fair amount of anime, it mostly served as inspiration for the game’s innocuous setting and cookie-cutter character personalities. But I drew inspiration from games that took a risk and strove to do things really differently. My best examples are Yume Nikki, Eversion, and Irisu Syndrome. They all helped inspire DDLC’s unsettling atmosphere.
How long did it take you to come up with the plot and write the game’s script?
Dan Salvato: The overall plot of Doki Doki Literature Club is very simple, and I was able to figure out most of the details early on. But writing the script was a huge portion of development. I think the game script is about 70,000 words total, which is small for a visual novel but monumental for me.
Were any of the characters’ designs or personalities inspired by people you actually know or were you merely hoping to play with slice of life anime stock characters?
Dan Salvato: I realized as I was writing the characters that I was seeing more “reality” in them than I had initially planned. In concept, they were generic anime characters, yes. But I think I really wanted to connect with them as a writer, so they started expressing insecurities and realistic personality traits behind their stock archetypes – ones I see around me in real life. The strongest example is Sayori, whose personality is directly inspired by people close to me who suffer from depression. But you see it in Natsuki and Yuri as well.
Doki Doki Literature Club’s Sayori, Natsuki, Yuri
Were there any character archetypes or anime tropes that you weren’t able to put in the finished version of the game?
Dan Salvato: I think I included everything I wanted to. I didn’t really scrap anything from early in development.
What was the most difficult portion or sequence within the game to complete? Which would you say you are most proud of as creator?
Dan Salvato: I’m most proud of the game’s overall presentation, more so than any singular event. I didn’t trust myself to design something “professional” feeling, but I tried extremely hard to take things just one step above what we usually see in indie visual novels. The way the characters animate in and out, and come into focus, was a big effort for me. And after I designed the game’s title screen, I definitely felt like, “I can’t believe I actually managed to do this.”
Over the past few months, the game’s following has grown explosively. When did you realize that you had created something of a phenomenon?
Dan Salvato: I can’t say that there was a singular moment where it hit me. It was more like, every week when there was a new article about it or a new popular person playing it, I said to myself “wow, it looks like the game is at its peak popularity now.” But that just kept on happening, and it was kind of overwhelming for me. Before release, a lot of my friends were telling me “this game will seriously blow up”, and I was trying to stay as realistic as possible. I think my unrealistic, best-case scenario prediction has now been surpassed by a factor of 15.
What were your high school years like?
Dan Salvato: Abysmal. I was lonely, self-centered, arrogant, and didn’t understand how to truly consider the feelings of others around me. I finally started to turn around a bit my senior year, but it took me a good few years after that to just chill out and learn to respect and appreciate everyone. I am extremely glad those years are so far behind me now. But I met my best friend of 11 years who is now my roommate, so I’m very thankful for that.
How did you balance the horror elements of the game with staying sensitive to issues of mental health? I was pleasantly surprised to see the game’s many, helpful trigger warnings throughout. Did you consult any sort of professionals for those portions of the game?
Dan Salvato: I had to clarify the content warnings a bit at the beginning of the game a few weeks after release because I realized they weren’t specific enough. But I think the game content is so unexpected that despite the warnings, it catches people off-guard. They know something will happen, but it’s hard to predict exactly what. I at least feel that the warnings are now specific enough that those who are worried about their mental health have good reason to turn away from the game, especially with the optional, spoilery warning page you can visit.
Were there any player or fan reactions that surprised or shocked you: either positively or negatively?
Dan Salvato: I never expected Monika to be so popular. While she is technically a kind and caring person, her epiphany about her own universe had turned her into a total sociopath who laughed at the misery of her former friends. Is that behavior justified? Does her eventual remorse and sacrifice redeem her by the end? It seems that a lot of people feel that way.
Have there been any critiques or feedback that you agree with or that strongly resonated with you?
Dan Salvato: Most of the critiques have been things that I agree with. It’s funny, because a lot of non-VN players find the first hour of the game a drag and wish it was shorter – but a lot of VN enthusiasts said they wanted more time to connect with the characters before the game started to derail. They’re both correct. Different players have different preferences, and the best I could do was to make the length what I felt was good for the type of game that it is. Any shorter and the characters wouldn’t hold enough weight, but any longer and it would be really hard to captivate non-VN players.
There are some delicious moments of self-critique in the game, including call-outs to the player’s gender being limited to male within the game as well as the paradoxical existence of a Japanese high school created by Americans who speak English. Were these concerns that you had throughout the process of creating and developing the game?
Dan Salvato: The game was partially designed to appeal to players who enjoy making fun of anime and have never taken visual novels seriously. I wanted to invite them to make fun of the game so that they could later experience the elements I feel VNs are best at, which is connecting the player to the characters in strong and unique ways. If the slice of life and romance was the point of the VN, then I would have designed that stuff very differently.
Dan Salvato: Do you have a favorite girl within the Doki Doki Literature Club?
I think the fan community would riot no matter who I picked as a favorite, so I’ll pass on that.
If someone were writing a poem for you, what sort of key words would appeal to you?
Dan Salvato: What kind of anime fantasy world am I living in where girls are writing poems for me? I’ll take literally anything, thanks.