I’ve always had a penchant for console games. I grew up playing them, starting with my dads NES and on to my own PlayStation’s and Xboxes, never really anticipating that I would ever branch into PC gaming until I was introduced to Steam, in my early years of university. It was cheaper, easier to access and the ability to mod games astounded me… the issue was I had only a seven-year-old ThinkPad, and nowhere near enough funds to purchase a computer capable of running any of the games available to me.
What then, is a starving student supposed to do? Play RPG Maker games, of course.
A friend of mine, equally poor but more resourceful than myself, introduced me to a facet of independently made video games that were popular in the early 2000’s. Developed using RPG Maker software, a lot of these games were simplistic with an almost cult-like fan following, thanks in part to their popularity on 4chan and other imageboards. They were easy to install, took almost nothing to run, and were surprisingly captivating.
Starting with games like Ib and Corpse Party, I took any recommendation thrown at me, eventually landing on a Yume Nikki, a game that had garnered its fantastical reputation not only through its out-of-the-box game play, but through the mystery surrounding its creator. It was a 32-Bit freeware game created by Kikiyama, a solo game designer, developed using RPG Maker 2003. Initially released on June 26, 2004, the game was continuously updated until October 1, 2007, when Kikiyama (who was distant from their fan-base even at their most active) suddenly disappeared from the web.
Originally a little-known game, even less can be said about it’s eponymous developer due to the scarcity of information regarding their identity and location. Since the final October update, almost a decade of crickets ensued until very recently, when Yume Nikki was released on Steam in January 2018 by new publisher Playism. Kikiyama’s website was also updated recently (on February 6th, 2018), with the addition of a “Yume Nikki – Dream Diary” logo, seemingly advertising a 3D reboot by Kadokawa Games, to be released on Steam February 23rd, 2018.
Due to Kikiyama’s radio silence, and despite Yume Nikki’s gaining popularity, fans never received an explanation as to what it meant or its purpose. Without any concrete answers, the story emerged through the fandom itself, who were free to theorize with a zeal I have not seen since the early years of Silent Hill 2. Thanks to the mystery surrounding Kikiyama, it’s abstract functionality, and the surrealist tableaus of the games dream-world, Yume Nikki emereged as an example of the artistic merit of pixel art games in the pursuit of abstract storytelling, helping to inspire a new genre of games, from fan-made sequels to original adaptations of exploration horror.
In game, players take control of a young hikikomori (shut-in) Madotsuki, who refuses to leave her apartment. The game begins, and takes place in its entirety, within that single room, where the only items to interact with are a desk (where you can save your progress), a Famicom (where you can play the worlds most nihilistic game, Nasu), a bed and a door. It is possible to interact with the door, but Madotsuki refused to leave her apartment, vehemently shaking her head if you try to force her. The only real thing to do is sleep.
When Madotsuki sleeps, she dreams. In her dreams she can leave her room and explore various worlds through a nexus of doors, each leading to new, abstract locations: a neon maze, a world of candles, pink sea, and many others. These worlds are all interconnected, without any rhyme or reason dictating how they fit, and together they culminate into a large, expansive universe that the player can explore.
There is no traditional gameplay. These worlds are mostly just sets of looping boards that the player must comb through ad nauseum in order to accomplish the single, concrete goal of the game: collect all 24 “effects” and deposit them into the nexus. Each effect changes Madotsuki’s appearance and will sometimes allow her to perform certain actions, though attempting to use them to interact with the creatures in Madotsuki’s dreams will leave you disappointed. While few effects may illicit a kind of response, they are largely indifferent to Madotsuki unless she is threatening them with violence, or actively seducing them.
There is no game over, either. You can be trapped in an inescapable area by the skinny, beaked Toriningen (the closest thing to an “enemy” Madotsuki encounters in her dreams), but even when they capture you and place you in an inescapable map, there are no stakes. Madotsuki can pinch her cheek at any time to wake up. There is no way to lose in this game.
It’s winding and confusing, and while there is a definitive end, it only brings up more questions then answers. Fans have run rampant since it’s inception, working themselves into a frenzy for close to ten years trying to figure out what it means. Because it has to mean something, right?
In reality, the question we all should be asking is what do dreams mean? Because that’s what this is: the whole story (or what little there is to be found) can only be uncovered through Madotsuki’s dreams. You can spend your time in the waking world, playing the monotonous Nasu or turning her TV on and off, but you wouldn’t be playing the game at all. To discover the story behind our silent protagonist, you must thoroughly explore her dreams.
Yume Nikki is best described as just that: a dream exploration simulator. It’s something the game does exceedingly well, and which I am hard pressed to find any other example of that meets or exceeds its caliber. Certainly, there are many walking-simulator style games that attempt to emulate what it’s like to dream, but none of them succeed in marrying functionality with emergent storytelling as fluently and unobtrusively as this one, and it owes that success to its style and platform.
Break down unconscious awareness, and you have Yume Nikki. The landscapes loop endlessly, and you can easily find yourself in a new place with no idea how you got there, nor even the faintest idea of where you were ten seconds before. The characters you find are deeply unsettling, but we accept them at face value, and the situations Madotsuki finds herself in, while fantastical, never seem to be completely disconnected from reality. Pieced of it spring from the realm of our understanding, with surrealist fantasy flung over top of it, so we never forget that it is a person’s subconscious we are exploring: Madotsuki’s subconscious, wherein she has a penchant for Nazca artwork, neon lights and a morbid obsession with the human body.
The effects provide a reason for the player to leave Madotsuki’s dream room and explore, but they do nothing to clarify why Madotsuki’s dreams are so fantastical, or why we’ve been invited to comb through them. There’s a reason speculative fan-theory is such a prevalent part of Yume Nikki’s cult following, and its because the game gives you very little from which to create a baseline of normalacy. All you have is Madotsuki’s refusal to speak or go outside, accompanied by the strange landscapes, scenarios and creatures you see in her dreams, to help you formulate some kind of a plot.
There are multiple theories explaining away Madotsuki’s behaviour, ranging from her being bullied, abused, quarantined or a violent psychopath, and every fan has one they cling to with steadfast determination. The pixel art design and reliance on surrealist sprites adds to this, foisting the creation of a story onto player interpretation. It doesn’t matter what Kikiyama meant; a story has no meaning outside of the mind of its reader, and a video game functions exactly the same.
However, a fundamentally abstract style of game almost begets this kind of creative interaction with its players on basis of its character alone. Human beings are masters of pattern-recognition, and we have an innate need to group seemingly unrelated things into boxes so we can make sense of them, be they stories or objects that relate to our life experiences. This is seen over and over again in pixel art games, exemplified through something as simple as an octorock from the original Legend of Zelda. Millions of people looked at that grouping of little coloured blocks and decided that was an octopus that spat rocks out of its mouth, because our brains are fascinating.
In this way, we’re doing the work. The developer is putting something purposefully vague in front of us, and the idea of what it is and what it means becomes something for us to fill in on our own. We all have different experiences that inform what we take away from it, but in the end, we live relatively similar lives: we all have childhoods, parents and friends. We are all born, we all grow, we work and then we die. Similarities in our decision of what the game means is due to shared experience, persuasive arguments and confirmation bias, and the success of this kind of story-telling is owed, in part, to the medium upon which it was created.
While 3D games tend to have an innate desire to emulate reality, a game like Yume Nikki does not face the same restrictions. Even games like Banjo Kazooie, where there is clear suspension of disbelief, there are certain rules of realism that cannot be broken. Grass and trees still have to resemble their real-life counterparts in order for us to understand them, and for them not to come off as buffoonish or silly (beyond a reasonable limit).
An RPG Maker game has more freedom in its simplicity. Anthropocentrism will always prevail in a game that mirrors our world, or in situations that are focused on drama, character and conflict. But pixel art is closer to visual literature than an actual drama or story, deviating from rationality and realism, forcing us to quantify and assign its meaning. This makes it the perfect format for a game like Yume Nikki, which relies on the adaptation and use of fantasy and imagination, rather than fundamental realism. This isn’t to say that a realistic game, set in a world that mirrors our own (ala Silent Hill 2) can’t achieve the same level of speculation and mystery. It just does so in a different way, one that doesn’t rely on purposeful ambiguity and a natural reliance on the abstract.
Yume Nikki, despite its simplicity, redefined what psychological horror could be and gave birth to a whole new genre of games, most of which are simplistic in design but no less impactful. It took a style of game that was most often assumed to be older and dated (in the era of 3D gaming) and revitalized it, by demonstrating how to differently adapt and give it new life. To butcher and paraphrase Tolkien, something is “not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard other like events,” and by taking a non-existent plot and attaching it to a no-stakes, exploration game developed in a simplistic, pixelated art style, Kikiyama created something completely fresh and new.
“Yume Nikki – Dream Diary” is set to go live February 23rd on Steam, and I will admit I have my reservations. As a 3D restyling of a game that, in its original iteration, owed much of its charm and success on the trappings of being a 2D, pixelated RPG Maker game, I am unsure of how well it will be received. However, while I am not convinced that the reboot will be able to hold on to the allure of the original, I am ecstatic that by benefit of its development, it will revitalize a game that might have otherwise continued to fade into obscurity, and will help Yume Nikki to reach a new generation of gamers and a greater audience.