Several years ago, at some point during the complete mental haze of my life that was my early 20s, I played Yume Nikki. I’ve made a few references to it on this site, and I’ve reviewed at least one game that was directly inspired by it, but I haven’t really taken a good look at the game itself until now. Yume Nikki (trans. Dream Diary) had humble origins. It was first released as a free RPG Maker game in 2004 on 2channel, but after a fan put out an English patch the game spread around the internet by way of video game and anime imageboards and textboards (the much-maligned 4chan played a big part in this process, as did one particular event from the game that produced a meme popular around the boards.) As a result, Yume Nikki ended up a cult classic among some of the obsessive weirdo subcultures of the internet, so much so that it acted as an influence on several other popular games in the horror, exploration, and RPG genres, including the critically acclaimed Undertale.
I get the feeling that Kikiyama, the creator of Yume Nikki, didn’t set out to do any of this when he (or she? Nobody knows) put the game together, because it is a very simple game at its core. After a brief three-screen tutorial, the player starts the game controlling Madotsuki, the above-pictured pigtailed girl, in what seems to be her bedroom. There’s no prompt at this point – no text box, no inner monologue, no mother or older sibling character banging on the door telling Madotsuki to wake up and get ready for school. The sliding door at the bottom of the screen leads to a balcony, and Madotsuki shakes her head when you try to guide her through the door at the top to explore the rest of the apartment she presumably lives in. Madotsuki’s TV turns on, but the cable is out. There are only really three things for Madotsuki to do in her room: play the one game she owns on her game console (a playable game-within-a-game called Nasu that’s pretty damn boring and repetitive), write in her diary that functions as a save file, and go to bed.
Almost all the action in Yume Nikki takes place in Madotsuki’s dreams, because it’s only in her dreams that Madotsuki is willing to open her bedroom door, which now leads to a chamber containing 12 more doors. Each of these doors leads to a separate dream world ready for Madotsuki to explore, worlds that contain passages to still more worlds that loop in on each other in bizarre ways. While none of these dreamscapes are really terrifying (well, almost none, anyway) most of them aren’t exactly inviting either. Madotsuki’s dream worlds all exist in her head, but they don’t seem to exist for her own amusement. Just like dreams in our world, Madotsuki’s dreams are filled with vague shapes, strange characters, and a whole lot of seemingly meaningless symbols and structures. None of these things can hurt Madotsuki – she’s only dreaming, after all – and if she gets stuck in an unpleasant situation or a dead end during her explorations, she can wake herself up by pinching her cheek (i.e. by pressing 9.)
The closest thing Yume Nikki has to an objective is the collection of “effects”, items that Madotsuki can acquire in her dream worlds that let her transform in various ways. Some of these effects let Madotsuki mess with the inhabitants of her dream worlds: for example, getting the Traffic Light effect and turning into a red light freezes them in their tracks, while using the Cat effect pulls them towards her (because, I don’t know, people like cats?) Others allow Madotsuki to travel more quickly (the Bicycle effect, which is a must to get early on, because walking through all the worlds of Yume Nikki takes a really god damn long time.) Some effects don’t have much of an actual effect aside from changing Madotsuki’s appearance.
Yume Nikki doesn’t feature an apparent plot or any dialogue beyond a few bits of garbled text in one of the dream worlds that doesn’t make sense. The few human and humanoid characters to be found other than Madotsuki live in her dreams, so it’s impossible to say whether they’re based on people she knows in the real world or whether they’re just pure creations of her mind. These figures often don’t acknowledge Madotsuki’s presence, and even when they do, their interactions with her don’t make sense.
So how did such a weird game with a silent protagonist and blank slate for a story gain such popularity? And more importantly, why should you play it?
Yume Nikki is all about exploration. It doesn’t make any demands of the player. It doesn’t feature any real puzzles or objectives other than the collection of effects, and even that’s presented by the game in a sort of offhand way. While I can’t really call Yume Nikki relaxing – there’s a little too much bizarre and unsettling imagery in it for that – it’s definitely not taxing in the way some later RPG Maker horror games can be (see Witch’s House, Blank Dream, and Ib.) I think it’s the fact that Yume Nikki is such a blank slate that made it popular. The player can read pretty much whatever he wants into Madotsuki and her surroundings. Most descriptions of the game say Madotsuki is a hikkikomori – a sort of shut-in with extreme social anxiety – but the game never actually tells the player why she won’t leave her bedroom. Maybe there’s been a massive war or a supervirus outbreak and that’s why she’s holed up in her apartment.
There are a ton of other fan theories out there about Madotsuki, her dream world, and the characters in it, some of them pretty damn dark. The beauty of it is that there aren’t really any right or wrong answers. People can argue over competing theories when it comes to most other games, but Yume Nikki? Who knows what any of it means, or whether any of it means anything at all. But that seems to be the whole point.*
If you’re going to take one recommendation from me, make it this one: play Yume Nikki. It’s now on Steam, true to its origins still free to play, and you can also download and play the old version (it’s pretty much the same) if you have the right version of Game Maker installed. If you’ve played Undertale, or Dreaming Sarah, or any of the RPG Maker games I mentioned above, you owe it to yourself to experience the game that did so much to inspire those. Not just for “historical” purposes, either, because Yume Nikki is a legitimately fascinating game to play.
* Here I should note there are light novel and manga adaptations of Yume Nikki that I haven’t read. Maybe they provide explanations about Madotsuki and her world that the game doesn’t. Taking the game in itself, though, there aren’t any answers to these questions that I’m aware of.