2018 update: I went on to make a podcast series about Yume Nikki, which is currently ongoing. Find it at the Dream Diary website or by searching Dream Diary on iTunes.
UnderstandingYume 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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