A review of Strange Telephone (PC)

I already hinted that I’d review this in a recent post, and here it is: Strange Telephone, a 2D exploration game created by solo developer yuta/HZ3 Software out of Japan.  Strange Telephone was first released in 2017, but it was recently updated and expanded with a few new features and endings.  This version 2.0.1 is my first experience with the game, and true to its title, it was a strange one.

Strange Telephone doesn’t bother explaining much to the player upfront; after a couple of instructional screens about the mechanics of the game it simply starts, with the protagonist Jill waking up in a weird void in front of a giant door that won’t open.  At first, Jill seems stuck here, but lucky for her she has a friend: a flying telephone named Graham who can transport Jill to various worlds that correspond to six-digit numbers.  Most of these worlds contain residents and objects that Jill can interact with, though a few of them pose serious dangers to her.  The object of the game is essentially to solve a bunch of puzzles using items you can find, receive, or create for the purpose of opening that giant door and getting back to your own world.

A friendly ghost gives Jill a very obvious clue to get her started on her quest

If this game seems familiar, that might be because it bears a strong resemblance to another game I reviewed some time back: Dreaming Sarah.  Both are 2D exploration games featuring a pony-tailed girl who is teleported through bizarre dream-like worlds.  They even start in exactly the same way, with Sarah/Jill waking up and finding herself in a strange place.  It’s no coincidence that they’re so similar, though: both developers outright say that they were inspired by Yume Nikki.  The Yume Nikki influence is just as obvious here as it was in Dreaming Sarah: many of the objects and characters Jill runs into during her travels through the extradimensional phone book look like they came out of a dream and occasionally out of a nightmare, and some of the puzzles involve just the kind of dream logic that Yume Nikki and its descendants like to use.

Tell me this fucking thing didn’t come from a nightmare

However, none of that’s to say that Strange Telephone is a copy of Yume Nikki.  Just like Dreaming Sarah, this game uses that inspiration to create something new.  The biggest difference between Strange Telephone and other games like it is how it implements its exploration element.  Instead of having several large worlds to explore, Jill has over a million small worlds that are only a couple of screens wide each.  Walking left or right off of the edge teleports her to the next world over, which will probably be completely different from the one she just left.

The in-game dialing pad

Of course, there aren’t really over a million worlds.  There are more like a dozen or so with a bunch of variations in their residents, objects, and backgrounds.  Fortunately, you can get a device early on that lets you see what sort of world you’re about to enter when you punch in a number but before you dial, saving you a lot of time trying out random numbers.  This is an absolute necessity, in fact, because the game expects you to figure out more or less on your own where to bring each item and how to use it when you get there to advance.  It drops subtle hints sometimes, but that’s about it.  So, for example, knowing how you can trigger the moon rabbit event and where to find the moon rabbit when he shows up is important, because it’s required to see every event and ending in the game.

He needs fuel to get home.  This is why you fill your tank all the way to F before a long trip

Jill’s explorations are complicated by the fact that as she explores the phone worlds, distortion in her connection increases (measured by the circle at the top left) and when it’s full, something happens that disrupts her journey.  So you constantly have to let Jill duck out of the phone worlds back into the central “core” area to start again.  This isn’t a huge problem, though; each world is small enough that you should have enough time to do what you have to do to get the plot moving along.  The game also gives you a book you can use to save specific numbers so you can return to interact with the characters/objects there without having to randomly punch in numbers to find them again.

And yeah, there really is a plot here, even if it’s not that obvious.  Strange Telephone takes the Yume Nikki approach in showing a lot but refusing to tell a damn thing, so you have to piece every bit of information the game gives you together on your own.  Part of that process is getting every ending and finding every secret in the game, which is basically what you’ll be doing anyway as you experiment with different item/character/object combinations in the phone worlds.

Okay Jill, just start throwing shit in the pot and see what happens

If I sound frustrated with that, though, I’m not, because it’s part of what made Strange Telephone interesting.  Jill doesn’t bother giving any exposition, Graham doesn’t talk at all, and most of the other characters you meet in the phone worlds are also mute, even the ones that interact with you.  But I like these games that don’t spell everything out for you and let you roam around and figure things out on your own.  I don’t mind the cryptic story, either, because it fits with the surreal atmosphere of the game.  Strange Telephone does have some sense to it, though it’s still up for debate what some of the endings mean for Jill.  I guess this is where fan theories come in to fill the gap.  Yume Nikki has a ton of them, so it would make sense for Strange Telephone to have some too.

That said, the surreal atmosphere can’t explain away every bit of weirdness in this game.  There are a few things you have to do to beat Strange Telephone that just don’t make any logical sense.  I hit a wall a few times in my explorations and ended up having to shove different objects into a few characters’ hands to see if they’d do anything with said objects to make a new object or to advance my progress somehow.  Most of the solutions to the puzzles in Strange Telephone can be worked out with logic, but a few feel a bit too bizarre and random to be satisfying.

New contractual demand: every game I play from now on must have at least one (1) hot demon girl in it

Still, on balance Strange Telephone was a good enough time for me to recommend it.  The character designs are imaginative, the atmosphere is nice and otherworldly, the background music fits and enhances that atmosphere, and the exploration and experimentation with items drew me in.  I like games that do something different and execute that something well, and Strange Telephone is just such a game.

Since I’m stuck with this dumb rating system I created, I’ll say Strange Telephone gets a 5, which has basically come to mean “it wasn’t amazing or life-changing, but I liked it.”  The two or three hours of Yume Nikki-esque surreal dream logic weirdness I got out of the experience was worth the five dollars I paid for it on Steam.  If you loved Yume Nikki, in other words, Strange Telephone is worth checking out.

Retrospective: Yume Nikki

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.

Madotsuki’s bedroom in the real world.

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.

The hub world.

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 vending machine is out of order.

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.

I like the posters.

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?

Why is it snowing in my house?

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 HouseBlank 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.*

What the hell is happening

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.