Yume Nikki ("Dream Diary") is a 2004 adventure game created by an anonymous Japanese developer known as Kikiyama, who originally distributed the game through Japanese internet forums as free software for the Windows platform. Today, it is available in Japanese on Kikiyama’s homepage, as well as in English on an extensive fan website. Created using the RPG Maker 2003 software by Enterbrain, Yume Nikki’s simplistic appearance hearkens back to Japanese role-playing titles from the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Unlike several of those titles, however, it does not feature a grand storyline with immersive role-playing elements; in fact, it does not appear to contain any coherent plot whatsoever, as Yume Nikki does not contain any written words apart from menus, and a few short instructions detailing the gameplay mechanics. For this reason, an understanding of the Japanese language is not crucial; the existing English version solely translates the Windows installation files, option menus, and the previously mentioned instructions.
In Yume Nikki, the player takes control of a girl known simply as Madotsuki, who lives in a small apartment with a balcony looking over a still city night. Madotsuki has the appearance and characteristics of a hikikomori – a term used to describe withdrawn youth in Japan; that is to say, she never leaves her room and avoids social contact. If the player attempts to leave the room, Madotsuki simply shakes her head, refusing to leave. Her room is plainly decorated, with only a dusty bed, desk, night lamp, book shelf, and red carpet to provide a sense of color in her otherwise bleak habitat. The floor is littered with tissues and pillows. Her only form of entertainment is a Famicom-like game console containing a single game titled “Nasu” (eggplant). Written in Japanese on Nasu’s main menu are the words “Family Game.” The game itself is about a character who must catch eggplants falling from the sky. What is most intriguing about Yume Nikki is its reliance on its lack of structure and unwillingness to guide the player to suit the game’s thematic elements. Madotsuki can only play Nasu, write in her diary, or most importantly, sleep. In her sleep, she explores the worlds of her dreams, which is where she spends the majority of her time. Entering her dreams, Madotsuki finds herself in a room resembling her own, except in this world, she is able to leave her room, which leads to an otherworldly plane containing twelve doors, each leading to a separate world. These worlds in turn connect to several other indirectly accessed spaces which interweave and attach, forming a web of mazes and uniquely surreal areas; each of which may be interpreted to represent a dimension of Madotsuki’s subconscious.
The objective of the game is to collect 24 “effects” from Madotsuki’s dreams. Each effect provides Madotsuki with an ability that may allow her to interact with other dream creatures or serve no apparent purpose. The tone of each world varies wildly and helps to establish the unpredictable nature of the unconscious mind – scenery ranges from a light-hearted winter-land, to the scene of a deadly traffic accident, and a world of severed limbs, mutilated bodies, and phallic imagery. The audio design is just as diverse; areas may be wreathed in an ominous sonic ambience, or brightened by a playful lullaby.
The overly ambiguous and bizarre nature of Yume Nikki’s subject matter translates into its presentation to the player. The objective of the game is not made clear: players are not notified of the 24 effects or expected to follow linear narrative; instead, they are to wander aimlessly within Madotsuki’s subconscious and construe meanings or patterns from its imagery and noises. This approach compels the player to yield to the basic instinct of finding meaning in symbols; its setting and context creates a sort of simulated lucid dreaming, invoking the Freudian theory of finding symbolic significance within a dream specific to the dreamer. This format, however, can be frustrating – and frankly, confusing – if not genuinely haunting for its sincere depiction of the undefined, and somehow truthful significance of dreams.
While Kikiyama has not provided any explanation for the story behind Yume Nikki, a few concepts remain prevalent through observation of certain scenes within Madotsuki’s dreams. Of these, the following are most notable: the extended use of imagery containing elongated hands; a scene in which Madotsuki encounters an unassumingly happy, phallic-looking creature rubbing a railing; and a corrupted depiction of a threatening face that slowly rises in intensity with distorted static. Through these events, Kikiyama suggests that Madotsuki was victim to rape and has suppressed these memories which now reside in her subconscious.
In the fourth screenshot below, Madotsuki encounters an emaciated red figure hidden at the end of a pier. Its appearance and animation give the impression of a creature consuming or weeping; interacting with the figure gives Madotsuki the “Fat” effect, representing her body-image concerns and the possibility of her bullying.
Further allusions to rape are found in the screenshot to the right, which depicts Madotsuki entering what appears to be the reception area for a therapist. The posters on the wall depict a deformed and tearful face with a long, seemingly phallic object stuck in its mouth. The adjacent poster is of a frowning and drooling mouth. Furthermore, Madotsuki obtains the “Flute” effect upon entering the office of the therapist, which may symbolize that this forceful act of oral sex was committed by an authoritative figure; or, that Madotsuki uses the mental image of therapy as a means to “store” her mental scarring.
Further imagery and context suggests that Madotsuki suffers from body-image concerns, low self-esteem, bullying, rejection, and conflicted relationships; all perhaps relating to her trauma, and culminating into her ultimate decision to commit suicide upon waking from her final dream. After collecting the 24 effects, the player may walk outside to the balcony, where a ramp has been lined up against the railing. If the player walks to this ramp, Madotsuki will jump and fall to her death. On viewing the ramp, the natural inclination of the player is to approach it as means of progressing, given the context of a modern video game. Yet, is not required that player approach the ramp; as Madotsuki, the player is free to return to her life of isolation and dreams. The ramp, however, will always remain as another means of escape to Madotsuki and her audience.
Yume Nikki’s absence of linearity or context clues in addition to the use of abstract imagery helps portray the ambiguous yet complex nature of dreaming while also creating a hypnotically disturbing atmosphere. By giving the player an open-ended dream world to explore, Kikiyama creates a convincingly immersive simulation of dreams and the symbolism that they may carry. Nothing in Yume Nikki is self-evident, and knowing very well that any guidance or linearity would damage the psychological effect it has on the player, Kikiyama chooses to forgo these game conventions. For the sole reason that it has an objective – albeit an ambiguous one – can Yume Nikki be classified as a game. Otherwise, it is a unique, lingering experience tinged with horror and melancholy enhanced by the interactivity that only its medium can provide.
Kevin Fiol was a student of Dr. Lisa Swanstrom for a course in Literary Theory taught at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring term of 2014.