Video games can be cute; there’s no question about that. Rarely, however, is game noble, but that’s the case with the Doki Doki Universe. Developer HumaNature Studios has created a game with not only noble causes, but also self-reflection and human motivation. This game has burrowed into my psyche in a good way, and has not only been a fun experience, but also one of realization.
The plot of Doki Doki Universe is wholly unique. Robot QT3 is going to have his entire model line scrapped if he cannot show some humanity. Thus, he begins his journey across the titular universe, visiting planets and the residents – including other players over PSN – that live on them. His quest for humanity is packed with humor and empathy; I found myself alternately feeling sorry for and laughing at characters on each planet, as each has his own personality and preferences.
This is the crux of Doki Doki Universe. Every character has a love-and-hate meter, and it’s up to you to get on their good or bad side, whichever your current goal requires. You can accomplish this with greetings and flinging them through the air (no, really), but your main tools are “summonables.” The best comparison I can make for these is with Scribblenauts: in that game, you write the names of objects and people, and each has an effect on your current efforts. Here, you have a list of objects that can be “poofed” into the world to a character’s delight or disappointment. As you learn a character’s likes and dislikes, you can figure out how best to get onto their good or bad side.
Doki Doki Universe has over 200 of these summonables to acquire, which is both good and bad. They run an enormous gamut, from planets to robots to insects to superheroes to toilets with faces. Unfortunately, searching through them for the appropriate summon for the occasion is a pain. They don’t appear in a list, and they aren’t grouped by category. You can only cycle through a random handful of them, or pick one and see similar choices. Finding one that might make a character happy, or finding the particular one you know is best can be an irritating game of scanning the screen, swapping, and scanning again. Characters rarely ask for something so specific, but the organization is still poor.
This summoning is gift-giving at its core, and you’ll feel great making friends happy across the game’s universe. Unfortunately, this soon becomes rote. After a while, you stop caring about actually brightening or dampening a character’s day and start simply gunning for prizes; ulterior motives and simply wanting to finish the game supersede a desire to actually help. Maybe Doki Doki Universe is trying to teach players a lesson in human nature and motivation, but it comes across as repetition. The summonables are a great game mechanic that soon wears thin.
Helping others in Doki Doki Universe loses its magic, but one part of the game never gets old – learning about yourself. It might sound conceited – perhaps another lesson the developers are trying to teach? – to say so, but the game can be entirely about you. In addition to traveling to planets across the galaxy, you can stop at meteors to take quizzes. These seemingly innocent questions are some of the most powerful gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Questions are as simple as an illustration with the caption “Which chicken are you?” Choose one, and the next question may ask you to pick what an animated boot is saying to shoe. Pick its dialogue, and keep answering. After a few questions, the game hits you with revelatory statements like “You are a people person” and “You are adventurous.” And you know what? It’s scarily accurate – think newspaper horoscopes. I don’t know what psychology is used in these quizzes, but after just few questionnaires, the in-game therapist had a complete rundown of statistics like my left/right brain preferences, my flirting philosophies, and my social skills.
This game has done something no other has done for me before: told me who I am. Looking past the game’s fantastic art style and simple humor, I am astounded by a game’s ability to distill its player’s psyche. Unfortunately, this epiphany is not enough to carry Doki Doki Universe. Gameplay does become repetitive within a few hours, and your desire to help will quickly lose to a desire to win prizes and complete quests. It’s a thought provoking game, but only at points.