Yume Nikki (PC Review)
Yume Nikki means ‘dream diary’ in Japanese, and suitably enough replaying the game after its’ recent release on the Steam store, feels a little bit like stumbling across a long-forgotten and lost piece of writing—a little influential relic you vaguely remember being important. It’s a Japanese indie surrealist horror game now 14 years old and arguably one of the first walking simulators ever created. Its strength is in its weirdness, and boy, is it weird.
Yume Nikki first appeared in 2004 on the Japanese internet. A small project from developer Kikiyama made with RPG Maker—a cheap-ish piece of software that allows you to create RPG games in a similar aesthetic and style to early console RPGs such as Earthbound. It released to little fanfare but slowly snowballed as Kikiyama rolled out updates and patches until the game was fully polished. Word of mouth prevailed, leading Yume Nikki to becoming one of the most downloaded freeware games in Japan. Somebody even liked it enough to translate into English, opening up the West to this odd and special game. Thanks to it being playable on practically any system, combined with its oddness and widespread availability, it’s easy to see how it became a cult classic. The game’s cryptic nature lends itself to discussion and analysis, leaving a lot of the game to the individual player’s interpretation.
The game begins with our main character Madotsuki in her sparsely decorated room—bed, TV, desk, fancy rug and bookcase. Any attempt to leave the room is met with a shake of the head: our only option is to play videogames, wander out to the balcony or go to bed, which of course is where the game begins. Once again, you awaken in your bedroom but this time you can exit the door into a space filled with more doors in a circle. You’ve stepped into Madotsuki’s dreamscape and from this nexus, the player gets to explore the strange and eerie worlds behind each door.
The goal of the game is to collect the 24 ‘effects’ littered across the interconnecting worlds. Some unlock areas of the game, allowing you to advance further, some give slight bonuses and some are pretty much useless. For example, the bike lets you move faster, the knife lets you kill, indiscriminately unlocking some areas that are blocked off, and the towel which wraps around Madotsuki does… nothing. While some of the monsters in the game are aggressive, they never kill Madotsuki. Instead, they usually place her in an escapable room, forcing her to reawaken by pinching her cheek. Nothing changes in the real world however, and Madotsuki always refuses to leave her room, leaving the player no option but to return back to the dreamscape.
Yume Nikki has no real plot or signposting, therefore exploration and experimentation with the environment are the only ways to progress. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially considering some routes are can be very unintuitive and you may find yourself alt-tabbing to a guide quicker than you’d like to admit. Of course this might be part of the designed nature of the game; you are walking through a hellish dreamscape after all.
The games aesthetic creates a juxtaposition between our in-built warm nostalgia to an older gaming era and the downright unsettling design of Yume Nikki’s worlds and characters. An example is that Madotsuki walks along with a cute ‘squishy’ step effect which can stand in stark contrast to the misshapen eldritch horrors lurking in the background. The game’s soundtrack emphasizes this: large droning sounds and echoing noises all inherently old school RPG in nature but remade to chilling effect. A memorable part of the soundtrack recreates perfectly the noise of game crashing, forcing me to fight the impulse to pull out the cartridge and blow into it.
Each of the monsters and settings are unnerving, each hinting at any of the major themes you wish to gleam from your play through. There’s plenty to inspire your interpretations: stumbling across the body of a car crash victim on a lonely road in the forest; silent uterus-shaped monsters floating in the sky; a group of distorted people staring out across a cityscape from a mountaintop, uncaring of your presence. And even something can be drawn from the refusal of Madotsuki to leave her room unless in the dreamscape.
Surrealist horror is difficult to get right and Kikiyama nailed it with RPG Maker, 14 years ago.
That isn’t to say it’s definitely an experience for everyone. As you may have gathered, Yume Nikki is incredibly dense and you are left feeling like every little element you encounter has the ability to demand interpretation. It is very much a lights off, headphones on kind of game; a little dream to get lost in as you explore. If you are the kind of gamer that doesn’t enjoy artsy walking simulators, you’ll know within the first ten minutes if Yume Nikki isn’t for you.
If you feel like Yume Nikki is for you then I have some very good news—it has been out for 14 years. This cult classic has been analysed to death with still active fandoms found across the internet. If you are new to Yume Nikki or like me replaying for the first time in years there is so much discussion and interesting theories for you to engage and read, with interesting fan games and unofficial sequels to dig into.
Yume Nikki is a piece of gaming history, so go play it.
Editor’s Note: Once again we are fortunate enough to have the ever enthusiastic David Quinn contribute this piece to the site. You can find him on Twitter @JDSQuinn if you wish to know more about his thoughts on Yume Nikki or video games in general.