There is a lot to love about the current video game scene. Games that we couldn’t have begun to imagine in the 90s are coming out left and right with crazy premises that would never have gotten the greenlight from major publishers. And this is because modern gaming has made space for indie developers. On the flip side, the ease with which small developers can release their own games means there is a lot of fodder out there. For every indie gem, there are twenty poorly programmed or otherwise uninspired titles.
Then there are games like Yume Nikki.
I played the original iteration of Yume Nikki a few years ago on Steam. I had little idea of what I was getting into. I knew it was a game — or an “experience” — designed by one person, a mysterious figure known only as Kikiyama. In it, you control a shut-in by the name of Madotsuki, experiencing her lucid dreams and nightmares while piecing together… well, not really the story, because there isn’t too much of one there. Still, despite lacking a strong narrative to pull players along, Yume Nikki is captivating.
Players begin the game in Madotsuki’s room, and any attempts to leave by way of the door are met with the girl merely shaking her head. She doesn’t want to go outside. You can interact with your “yume nikki,” or dream diary, to save your game, and you can play the Famicom connected to her small TV (it’s a silly little mini-game, worth spending a couple of minutes on at best). The only other thing of note to do is climb into bed and dream.
In the dream, Madotsuki leaves her room and finds herself in a void with twelve doors, each leading to a different dreamscape. There is no semblance of logic to be found in these dreams. You’ll move from sewers to oceans of neon lights. Characters you encounter aren’t really helpful, though some safeguard things you need. The “goal” of the game is to collect all of the different “effects” from the dreamscapes. These cause different things to happen, like turning Madotsuki into a frog or a cat or giving her an umbrella and making it rain. Finding the effects and leaving them in the central hub, then waking, is the only way to see the “proper” ending of the game.
I never got remotely close to gathering all twenty-four effects in the original release. As much as I enjoyed the creepy atmosphere and Earthbound-like aesthetic, since I’m not a big PC gamer, I found it hard to make the time to sit in front of my computer to play. But I stand a much better chance of finishing the remake, out now for Steam as well as the Nintendo Switch.
Called Yume Nikki: Dream Diary, it’s a complete, three-dimensional reworking of the original game. It was done with the help and support of the mysterious Kikiyama, which means it’s legit. The improved graphical fidelity makes the dream worlds even more detailed than ever, and they allow for some additional strangeness to settle over the whole affair. Walking down a city street and seeing something bizarre in an alleyway is even more effective in three dimensions.
The objective seems to be the same, but the whole endeavor feels a bit more doable with this more modern retelling.
Yume Nikki has spawned a huge wave of supplemental materials and cash-in products, like a novelization (you can buy it digitally on Amazon), a manga, a music album, and more. Part of the appeal is the game itself, but I think a portion of it must be the mystique of the creator. Was Yume Nikki a deeply autobiographical account by Kikiyama of their struggles? What are they trying to say about society and the way we cut ourselves off from human interaction? We might never know, and that’s kind of cool.
Only today could a game like Yume Nikki thrive. The indie space has made it, if not super profitable, then at least possible for creativity to trump the bottom line. It won’t satisfy trigger-happy gamers looking for a lot of action, and even JRPG enthusiasts looking for a strong story won’t have a lot to hold onto. But for those who are open to the sorts of experiences that truly good indie games can deliver, check out Yume Nikki: Dream Diary.