Those who decry the graphic whoredom of modern gaming often take refuge in retro classics; their simple yet rich gameplay unhindered by the garish bloom and lens flares that appeal to the unwashed masses. However, sometimes I feel that I’m not going far enough in my elitist-gamer snobbery. Is it not possible to reject both graphics and gameplay? Naturally, this makes for a limited library to choose from, but thankfully there are freeware quasi-games like Yume Nikki to satisfy my perverse cravings.
Built from scratch using cutting-edge development technology (RPG Maker), Yume Nikki was originally released in 2005 and translated into English in 2007. Free from the corrupting touch of the corporate-gaming complex, the entire game—graphics, music, all five lines of text—was crafted by a single individual known as Kikiyama. Uncompromising in his/her/its artistic vision, Kikiyama treats gameplay like the passing fad it is, stripping away pointless gimmicks like enemies, puzzles, and coherent meaningful goals. In fact, the game remains at version 0.10 to this day, boldly elevating the alpha phase from an underappreciated step in a process, to an art form in its own right.
As a visual artist, Kikiyama’s style falls into that school known as “faux-retro,” with the lineage of such fine works as EarthBound readily apparent in the squat forms and use of—aaaaand I think my “Contemporary Art Bullshit Commentary Gauge” just hit empty. To the point: Yume Nikki is a game which actively seeks cult status rather than widespread recognition; sort of like that kid from grade school who said he wanted to grow up to be a robot-ninja-dinosaur, and then, rather than becoming a comic artist or a science-fiction author, he actually became a robot-ninja-dinosaur.
So just what do you do in Yume Nikki? The main character is Madotsuki, a young girl who sleeps away her days, preferring to live in a world of dreams rather than face reality. Think of it as being like Little Nemo: The Dream Master; except, whereas little boys dream about battling whimsical foes in a magical forest, little girls apparently dream about walking alone down dark streets while giant uterus-shaped monsters watch from above.
And that’s pretty much the whole game: you wander through the moderately unsettling Freudian imagery of the dream worlds, gradually penetrating deeper into Madotsuki’s subconscious (please note intentional use of the word “penetrating”). The eeriness builds with each new area you uncover, until you finally freak the hell out and go back to something with comfortably non-representational visuals, like Tetris or Rise of the Robots.
Scattered throughout the dreams are objects that grant Madotsuki powers. A select few of these have practical uses: the bicycle increases movement speed, the lantern lights up dark places, and the knife can be used to kill NPCs for failing in their duty to endlessly repeat a single line of dialogue. The rest of the powers do little more than change her appearance: long hair, blonde hair, the ever stylish poop hair; or more unusual forms like frog, witch, and severed head. The nominal goal of the game is to collect all of these powers, but you’re never really told why and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever find them all without the aid of an FAQ. Therefore, it’s best to treat Yume Nikki less like an actual game and more like a tour through a semi-interactive surreal art museum, preferably on a Tuesday, when they have free admission.
“Wow!” you’re probably saying right now, “That sounds totally boring!” Admittedly, the pacing of Yume Nikki probably deserves a score of “N/A.” But the game deserves credit for the atmosphere it manages to create with such a simple tool-set. I’m not a huge fan of the “endless-droning-hum” genre of music, but it works perfectly here, and the retro-styled pixel art manages to be appealing, cute, and disturbing all at the same time. It would be interesting to see just what Kikiyama had in mind for the completed product, but Yume Nikki is a unique and worthwhile experience—perhaps entirely on accident—even in its meandering unfinished state.
For those who actually like pretentious artistic interpretation, there’s plenty to be had amongst the Yume Nikki fan community. A few groups have also been working on unofficial sequels, the most notable of which, Yume 2kki, is nearing completion.