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Understanding Yumme Nikki

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Understanding Yume Nikki really involves knowing what happens at the end. It’s almost impossible to talk about with any authority without this knowledge, and without making numerous references to the finale. Writing about it, then, is going to involve a pretty severe spoiler, and if you’re completely ademant that you’re going to see this incredibly strange adventure through to its conclusion, you should almost certainly do so before reading another sentence of this analysis. Not even this one.

The thing is, it’s a game that doesn’t really lend itself to any meaningful discussion until you start to analyse its central character, and gaining that insight is only possible when you view Yume Nikki back to front. Otherwise, all you have is a series of explorable dreams, which make little or no sense out of the context of Madotsuki’s mind. It’s all very abstract and psychedelic, and some may be turned on by that alone, but it’s not really poignant in any way until you realise that this is the story of a deeply troubled young lady who ultimately goes on to commit suicide.

It’s a brave decision to end a game with the primary character’s demise. It’s often an approach that leads to complete frustration, something that serves to remove you entirely from the experience. If there’s nothing you could have done to prevent such a tragedy, why were you even playing the game in the first place? But here, the sense of hopelessness carries with it an extreme weight. If someone like Madotsuki is so unhappy, so isolated and so alone, is there anything anyone could have done?

This bleak inevitibility struck a particular chord with me. Yume Nikki is incredibly sad, an emotion I’d really like to see games incorporate with more frequency. We’re all guilty, to some extent, of assuming games should be played for fun. Feeling decidedly upset is not fun. But it can also be an invigorating experience, one we can learn a lot from. As the medium matures, perhaps we’ll see more developers – not just the tiny independents – taking risks in this area. There’s a huge field to explore.

So, knowing this unsettling truth about Madotsuki, we can begin to take a more educated look at the preceding game. We start in a bedroom. There’s a bookshelf, a broken television, a games console, a desk, a bed and two doors. One door leads out onto a desolate balcony. The other door leads out of the apartment. If we try to open the latter door, Madotsuki shakes her head. She’ll write at her desk, she’ll sit on the balcony, she’ll play games, or she’ll sleep. She will not venture outdoors.

Immediately, the outlook is thoroughly depressing. A person without friends, without any usual healthy activities. That her only real hobby is playing games makes a pretty big statement about the medium itself, particularly when it’s a statement made in a game.

So she spends much of her time sleeping. And it’s while asleep that we experience Madotsuki’s dreams: warped, disturbing nonsense visions that completely defy logical explanation. They’re aesthetically hallucinagenic – not typical sixties acid culture, but more in line with shamanic ritual; colours and shapes, but organic, patterned meaning. They sprawl endlessly, agorophobically, looping back round on themselves. There are items to collect, which grant new abilities – the game part of Yume Nikki, basically – and while these initially seem unrelated, they do give us a certain insight into Madotsuki’s mindset. At one point, she collects a bicycle, allowing her to ride at speed around the nightmarish landscapes – representative, perhaps, of a yearning for the freedom she’s so afraid of in waking life? It’s certainly striking how open these dream worlds are, when her own reality is constricted by such a suffocating, self-imposed closure.

Despite these collectables, there’s a real, tangible aimlessness to Madotsuki’s sleep-wanderings. The areas are so vast that it’s often impossible to search for anything in particular – especially when there’s never any instruction as to what you should be searching for. So, instead, you find yourself getting lost in the glorious technicolour. Initially, the environments are frustratingly arbitrary considering their scale, but as you try to piece everything together with that knowledge, you can start to make some warped sense of it.

Because there’s plenty of allusion in Yume Nikki. Occasionally, characters called the Toriningen will approach Madotsuki, trapping her and constricting her in her dreams. At one point, a colourful, smiling phallus strokes a metal pole, before a terrifying Aztec face flashes up on the screen, causing your avatar to wake with panic. As you progress through Madotsuki’s dreams, you begin to wonder: just what made her this way? Why does she dream of such things? What caused her deep, psychological torment? What happened before?

These questions are ultimately endless and yield no concrete answers. But they do go some way to providing some insight into a tragically tormented mind. In a way, the story of Madotsuki’s life is irrelevant: she’s a poster-girl for the world’s tortured souls. There’s nothing aspirational about her, because she doesn’t aspire to anything. Any goals and ambitions she may have once had have completely evaporated, and all that’s left to do is to sleep, to dream, and to eventually give up.

Yume Nikki is a genuinely upsetting game. It’s never any fun, it’s painfully slow, and your efforts only amount to the biggest tragedy of Madotsuki’s life. And once you realise that in itself is the overriding artistic statement, there’s an eternity of psychological perusing to be done. It’s the tale of a life that was never to be – but there’s more to her existence than almost any other videogame character you’ll ever meet.

***
As a further thought, since I initially scrawled all this down, I’ve found a fansite for the game. Browsing it, I come across a section entitled “What this game is about.” The body reads: “…Really now. This is a pointless question. Its so random and meant to spook you out it HAS NO POINT!” – which I found quite upsetting in itself. There can’t be many people who are enthusiastic enough to set up a fansite for the game, and the ones who are haven’t even realised what it’s trying to say.

***
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13 responses »

  1. A late reply to an old message.

    This game is very important as you said, it shows an artistic message. I think the biggest point of this game is not fully noticed, it is a game with such a powerful statement. No other game I know of has such a powerful reaction from something this simple… but this isn’t really simple in the end eh?

    Reply
  2. (Late reply)

    Yume nikki is a awesome game with very many questionable events. Though, the uniquness of the game is so addicting it makes you want to figure everything out, explore the dream worlds more to find any kinds of hints or clues as to what happened to the main character that was so horific that she commited suicide? It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it haha.

    Reply
  3. oh hey also late reply look at me

    God.

    Yume Nikki is one of the best games I have ever played, but for very different reasons from any other.

    I wouldn’t say that the experience isn’t fun, to be honest, though. Though the majority of the game is enjoyable in an unfun way (there is a sense of unchecked melancholic awe you get traversing the environments in general) there are definitely points, I think, where there are “fun” parts; Kikiyama has intentional moments of refrain strewed throughout. Some of them- most of them, actually- are bizarre, even frightening, in the surrealistic way that the game embodies. But there are a few- very few, but still some- where there is a sudden interjection of hope in the mix. The sequence with the witch, the Toringen party, the “Mother” bit; (with the happiest music in the game) all of these establish that behind the dread that builds there is a sense of possibility behind it, that perhaps not everything about her world is wrong.

    These contribute to the feeling of aloneness throughout the rest of the game even further. There is a way to fix everything, but it’s just out of reach.

    I think the single most notable example of that is the Poniko sequence. On the surface, it’s a surprisingly happy refrain, but every 64th time, there is a slip.

    I’ve read a few theories about the plot and what actually happened in the first place, and several suggest that the ending isn’t bad at all; she escaped from her confines, or perhaps into her endless dream world permanently; she was dreaming when it happened, and is still alive – after all, where did those stairs come from?; she has finished her purgatory, etcetera.

    Then again, I’ve also read theories that put forth that it’s possible Madotsuki was a killer at age 5 who is on the run from the law.

    In the end, what matters is the immeasurable impact this game has had. The only other game that comes close is Braid, and the reason that fails to grasp this level is that it’s too much of a game.

    Or is Yume Nikki not enough of one?

    Maybe Yume Nikki shouldn’t be considered a video game at all.

    Yume Nikki is a non-game, perhaps. Or a half-game. It strains the line between passive and interactive experience, somewhere between reading and playing.

    Yume Nikki is art.

    -RJ

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  4. Pingback: Yume Nikki « The earth is dying and we do not notice it.

  5. We’re all just late to the party here, aren’t we?

    Anyhow, the only thing I really have disagree with here is the idea that the game isn’t fun. If that were true, why would anyone bother playing to the end? And why would several groups of fans be making sequals that are really more of the same? Even knowing the ending, it’s still entertaining to run around in her open, creepy, surreal dreams and experiment with the effects and random events. There’s the potential for one to see something new and different every time you turn it on.
    While the concept of ‘fun’ is different for everyone, I personally find the game enjoyable both for its content and for its thought-provaking nature.

    Reply
  6. I have a mac so i can’t play it but I’m enjoying just watching other people play to see the story unfold.

    Interesting read Lewis

    Reply
  7. it’s implied through (very, VERY subtle) discontinuity in the ending sequence that Madotsuki’s suicide takes place inside of yet another dream.

    1.) The stepladder she uses to leap from her balcony at the end of the game didn’t exist previously
    2.) The money obtained in the dream world stays with the player even upon “waking up”. This leads me to believe that the apartment you start off in is not Madotsuki’s reality, but infact another nexus room of sorts inside of a dream.
    3.) I think the acquisition of “effects” in this game as Madotsuki conquering various aspects of her own psyche, (possibly troubled) past, and insecurities, and her “death” at the end as finally breaking free of the hikikomori lifestyle. The jellyfish sprites from the dream world appear in the ending, and coincidentally look like lotus flowers (oft associated with divinity, spiritual awakening, etc.)

    I thought this game was rather grim the first time i played it, but only upon realizing how many different ways it can be interpreted did i realize how brilliant and artistic it is.

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  8. Although I really love the game, I find it very sad, but I also think that it’s necessary for the game to have a full effect. It use to be that movies HAD to have a happy ending, now almost all movies have at least one irreversible negative thing happen. We’re not there with video games yet. In our current culture, it is “right” for a video game to have a happy ending, or at least the option for that (depending on what you do in the game). But this game helps push that boundary.

    Although there are modded versions of the game where she doesn’t die, I simply won’t play those because they’re basically fakes. They’re “feel-good” versions. For an artist (and I have to consider this game’s creator both a programmer and an artist, because I don’t think anyone else could come up with such imagery. In fact sometimes I think he might have had mild schizophrenia, which actually isn’t that uncommon), the piece of art they create is THEIRS. They decide EVERYTHING about it, irrefutably. If the maker of this game wanted her to die, then she died, and that’s what happened, end-of-story. Luckily, there are a lot of subtle hints that she DIDN’T actually die, but I bet these are just wishful thinking.

    This game felt weird for me, because normally I can handle anything, and I mean ANYTHING, no matter how violent, depressing, or disturbing (and sometimes I even have a morbid fascination with it for some reason). But this game was different, and it made me feel genuinely bad for Madotsuki. I think it was a combination of the overall theme of absolute helplessness and depression (I use to be quite depressed), plus the (implied) past sexual (?) trauma, plus the heavy use of schizophrenic imagery, that made the final scene of an-heroism (;_;) so depressing.

    Another reason this game might have struck me so hard was because, when I was younger, I had a huge fascination with schizophrenic imagery and ideas, especially art made by such people (which has similar, albeit much more abstract, art, often with similarly depressing themes). This game might have just got through me especially because of that.

    Sometimes I like to think of this video game as one big bad acid trip for Madotsuki, and serves as a lesson as to why you shouldn’t do acid, at least not in an apartment on a high story building. ;)

    @DSFA
    You don’t need a PC to play it. I run Linux and I played it through Wine. I’m pretty sure Wine is for Macintosh as well.

    Reply
  9. I think that madotsuki’s death was what she wanted, because she clearly lived a sad, sad life. she could escape from reality, like she did when she went to sleep, without nightmares or reminders of what caused her to have those dreams in the first place.

    Reply
  10. I believe that Monoko is a friend of hers who got into a traffic accident (Madotsuki uses stoplight ofc, it has to be a traffic accident) and that Monoe is Monoko’s sister. Monoe is found in the deoths of a dark place may symbolize despair out of the loss of her sister and her smile is the external facade she forces to maintain on the society.

    There’s a lot of interpretations you could make out of this one but… I’m getting lazy :(

    Reply
  11. I’ve been meaning to talk about this interactive dream for some time now. I’ve gone through it a few times, and seen all that I could. I found my first time through very rewarding with its surreal and meandering mode of exploration. Yume Nikki is a form of abstract storytelling to be sure. Unlike a more straightforward narration where the audience is given a series of characters, scenes, and setting; in Yume Nikki we are given distortions and fragments of what could be real or imagined. This is where the issue of interpretation can muddle rather than clarify what we’ve observed in the dream world. Which is taken from reality, from a lone history, and which is from angst, from nightmares? Many pieces I’ve read from fans seem more like projections of what they wish it to mean, rather than what it really means. Much of the fan art depicts Madotsuki as attractive, even sexualized, which seems at odds with what we see in Yume Nikki itself. Some of the art pieces show her emoting such things as sorrow or love, and yet we never see any of this in her dreams. Then there are the countless theories. Did Madotsuki murder someone? We have no way of knowing, and just because there is a knife that can be used in a dream does not make a murderer. Perfectly sane people can have bad dreams in which they murder or do worse, but that doesn’t mean they have done or will do such terrible deeds. There are elements throughout the dream world that do seem to carry a sense of loneliness, and of body image issues. But again how true are these? I disagree that it is about someone wanting to change their sex. The blood, the vaginal and phallic images could be nothing more than sexual and menstrual angst. I do think there is a general connection to the floor rug seen in her bedroom, and later pops up in other ways throughout the dream world. If one was a shut-in then there would be moments of just staring at the floor, the walls, and the furniture. But in the end it is revealed that the bedroom was but another dream. Is anything concrete at all?

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  12. Yume Nikki, to me, is an art, and a game with many meanings. Not many people I know really considered much of it. I have some theories myself, and some I collected from sources.

    1. Madotsuki was a murderer, and those dreams are reminding her of her past murders, and her dreams do that to her because she knew it was wrong but did it anyway.

    2. When Madotsuki jumped off the building, the jellyfish were there because they were part of her mind, and her mind tortured her into thinking they were there before she died, so she’ll never escape her dreams.

    3. Madotsuki had 2 sisters, Monoe, and Monoko, and she lost both of them from a traffic accident, and her dreams are just a way to say “survivor guilt”.

    4. Madotsuki caused the traffic accident, (don’t know how, just a possible theory I thought of), and she became guilty because she didn’t know what she was doing because she was at a young age, (I thought of this theory because of the midget effect, small and annoying, well, annoying it seems because you can kill them off).

    5. (My personal favorite). Madotsuki got killed in the traffic accident, and refused to pass onto the afterlife because she died living a meaningless life, (or so she thought). She was stuck in a sort of limbo, between reality and her dreams. So all the effects remind her of something in her life. (So all the effects have special meanings). Madotsuki also hated life, and she viewed the world full of imperfect people, (all the creatures in her dreams). People that weren’t hostile represented how she wanted life to be. People like Poniko, represents how people can be turned into an imperfect person Madotsuki disliked. When she commits suicide, she just wants the suffering to end. It turns out she just escaped a layer of her dreams, and the jellyfish are there to represent that Madotsuki will never escape her dreams, or her mistake of crossing over into the afterlife, no matter how many times she triesto escape.

    Reply
  13. I can really relate to this game… I’ve been going through some hard times, without anyone to turn to. Everyday I draw farther within myself, seeking tonescape this world. When I
    sleep, I always dream. Long, vivid, surreal dreams. The confuse things, yet at the same time help me to understand. When I played Yume Nikki, I was taken aback by how similar and utterly dream like it felt. The expansive worlds, constantly transitioning from one plain to the next, seeing things that made so little sense but carried such profound weight and meanin. Each thing a little part of herself, her memories, her fears. My world and hers feel ouch the same. Someday, perhaps I should make my own somthing so that my story can be known as well.
    Sorry I couldn’t contribute much, but I’m tired.
    I completely agree that Yume Nikii more a work of art than a game, and verry enjoyable to play, in it’s own way. It sounds weird, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy something sad, or at least admire it.

    Reply

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