Focused exploration in LanVodis and Yume Nikki

This article is written by Quail, you can find them at @quailsprout.

LanVodis is a game by Sraëka-Lillian. It can be downloaded for Windows here. Yume Nikki, by kikiyama, is available on Steam. This article contains spoilers for both games.

1. Wandering

Being made with the default RPG Maker 2000 sprite and tileset assets, LanVodis provides players with the nostalgic feeling of walking around the overworld of an older JRPG. However, LanVodis is not an RPG by any broad definition of the genre. The game’s description page characterizes the gameplay as being about “treasure-hunting and overworld navigation.” LanVodis can be said to be a game about exploration, but at its core, it’s really a game that is about two separate but related things: being lost, and then being found.

In my blind playthrough of the game, I found that the exploration took on a certain quality that I can only describe as a “narrowing-of”. The world of LanVodis almost feels as though it becomes smaller as the player’s knowledge of it becomes greater. I attribute this shifting perception to the deepening focus that I applied as I spent more and more time in the game being lost (with varying amounts of frustration).
Here is how it goes at first:

The game begins without any ceremony or fanfare, and I am spawned into the world in the unexplained but endearing form of a chicken. A town is visible from my starting position, and stands out from the otherwise generally unremarkable terrain. I immediately decide to go there, and though I am both curious about and unnerved by the shifting black tiles around me, I make reaching the town my priority, perhaps motivated by its association with safety in RPGs.

The aim of the game, as explained by a helpful resident of Twai (or so it feels; there is no visible NPC sprite, nor even a name, but the portrait does give me the sense that I am speaking to an individual), is to obtain, respectively, six Maps (I use “Map” with a capital “M” to distinguish these from other uses of the word “map”) from six shrines, and to use these to find six treasures called Georbs.

Rather than being left entirely to my own devices, I am also given the suggestion to visit towns to gather information on the whereabouts of shrines. I’m also informed of the relative location of just such a town, Quruqqa, which is said to lie to the northwest.

It turns out that I don’t find Quruqqa until well over thirty minutes later.

The most apparent feature of LanVodis, visually and mechanically, is the way the black tiles shift to obscure the player’s view. The rules for this become evident quickly as you travel; depending on the tile type, your radius of vision changes, and in some cases becomes so small that the tile you are standing on is the only one that can be seen. Throughout the game, the radius is never more than a few tiles in distance, so that even in the best of cases you can only see a tiny slice of the world at a time.

This limited vision is the main challenge that LanVodis tasks its players with surmounting. The learning curve is not significant, though navigation doesn’t necessarily become easier over time. The fact that the player is immediately dropped into the thick of things, as well as the closeness of the nearest shrines and towns, facilitates a great deal of the most basic form of exploration: wandering.

In my view, wandering is exploration just for the sake of seeing what there is to discover. Although I set out with the intention of finding Quruqqa, I lost track of where I was (relative to the starting town) so quickly that it seemed the only way forward now was to pick any way forward and see where it would take me. Shortly, hoping to aid my progression through the game, I would begin taking notes on where I thought I might be, which would in turn lead me to create a hand-drawn map of the world. This was laborious but ultimately very rewarding, and also contributed a great deal to the narrowing-of process.

Before I discuss my mapmaking endeavor, I felt it would be worth mentioning the elements of focused exploration when just playing the game “normally,” that is, without note-taking and data gathering. However, since I couldn’t replay LanVodis so soon after finishing it and still expect to have forgotten enough to make the experience feel anything close to fresh again, I instead decided to replay another exploration game, which I have not revisited in years: the rather infamous Yume Nikki.

2. Making connections

Yume Nikki has been described as a surreal/horror exploration game. The original version, which I discuss here, was made in RPG Maker 2003. In this game, the player travels through the bizarre and disturbing dreamscapes of the main character, scattered throughout which are 24 collectibles called effects. The game ends after finding all the effects, but the journey in getting there is what makes the game experience special to many players.

Like LanVodis, Yume Nikki is a world unto itself, and is very clearly designed for the player to get lost in. In my first playthrough almost a decade ago, I eventually gave up on looking for the collectibles alone and used an online walkthrough to complete the game. In my replay of the game, having genuinely forgotten the locations of most of them, I decided I would go at it without help for as long as I could. I wound up finding 21 effects in about four hours, far exceeding my own expectations, as in my memories I had been hopelessly lost for at least that long without finding more than ten. Satisfied, I finally asked my friend, whom I streamed the whole game for, to look up and guide me to the locations of the remaining three. (I think he might have been relieved.)

In part because I was still thinking about how to make sense of my experience playing LanVodis, and in part because I was now thankfully numb to the creepy parts of Yume Nikki, I approached my playthrough almost entirely from the perspective of trying to make sense of the connections between areas. Notably, while LanVodis takes place on one RPG Maker map, Yume Nikki consists of many. However, in my view, despite the differences in scale and theme, the sort of focused exploration that can arise in both games is comparable.

Here are some of the aspects that I found myself engaging with in similar ways.

I. Paying close attention to unique tile formations

In LanVodis, each Map depicts a truly unique tile formation somewhere in the world. This game mechanic makes it unambiguous where the player must go. The world of LanVodis is split into several distinct biomes, so one clue the player can use to try to deduce where a Map leads is in examining the types of tiles visible in it.

The above screenshot shows the player character interacting with a Georb. The sand tiles shown have a unique appearance, recognizable even in the sepia tone of the Map, and also only appear in the desert biome. With this information, if the player has visited the desert before, they may have an idea of where to search. 

Another clue is in the arrangement of tiles. Players must keep an eye out for the particular geographical formations seen in a Map. In the above example, the patch of water directly above a cluster of mountains stands out, but due to the limited vision, the water is not visible unless the player is standing in a particular spot. The entirety of the area depicted in the Map can never be seen from any one position, so circling around to confirm the arrangement is necessary. Notably, there are also a few red herrings involving very similar-looking areas save for one or two tiles.

In Yume Nikki, I found that unique patterns of tiles often played a key role as visual markers, around which the player can attempt to reorient themselves. Some of these are incredibly subtle. The best – or perhaps worst – example of this is the blue teleportation puzzle, which features a sequence of very similar-looking but actually distinct tile formations. The player must remember which teleportation tile leads to which screen in order to move through this area, an incredibly frustrating challenge for those with poor memories (such as myself). If I had been playing alone, I would have definitely taken notes, but as luck would have it, between my friend and I, we were able to recognize and remember enough of the puzzle that we could make it to the end.

A related feature in Yume Nikki is that the player is often tasked with noticing the “odd one out” in an area. These are unique characters (I mean this in the RPG Maker sense and not the storytelling sense; they are interactable and often found walking around) with appearances that differ from the ubiquitous others found in their surroundings. 

The above shows the area aptly dubbed “Neon World”. Yume Nikki is a game with a lot of odd looking creatures or objects, whom I refer to just as “guys”, because they are endearing to me (when streaming the game I would often say things like “Oh… look at this guy!”). Neon World, in particular, is absolutely full of guys: there are a few types, including the squiggly fellow at the bottom and what looks to be a living arcade machine near the upper left. In this entire menagerie, however, there is only one guy who is visually unique, and who will grant the player an effect upon interacting with them. The full map is quite large, but can feel crowded with all the guys moving around, so this collectible can be easy to miss.

In both games, the player is thus only rewarded for paying very close attention to their surroundings.

II. Orienteering in lines

Because the world of Yume Nikki is far larger than that of LanVodis, and has many wide open spaces, using a particular visual feature as a signpost for orienteering is often necessary.

The above shows the full map of the area known as “Candle World”. The player enters this area from the door at the top left. Note that the map wraps around itself in both directions, so that for example, by traveling up and to the left or right, the player would arrive at the bed (the little square) at the bottom of the map. The seemingly frustrating part of the design is that the rest of the space is just an indistinct void, except for a scattering of candles (as well as some candle-like guys who walk around). However, while this area absolutely sucks to wander around in, as there is little to look at or do, it can easily be comprehensively searched. The way I accomplished this was by traveling in straight lines and moving one visible screen over at a time once I noticed I had traveled a full loop. The candles here were my only guide; since the same candle arrangement (there are three variations) generally does not appear twice in the same line of tiles, I could determine when I had looped back to my starting point by watching for that same candle to appear in the same strip. This was a little tedious, but helped me determine straightforward routes to the bed and the pyramid, the two important features in this area.

In LanVodis, due to the small size of the map, the player cannot travel very far in a straight line before encountering an impassable object. However, I did find one particularly good use of this which was sailing back and forth in the water to determine which areas were at the same longitude or latitude. This helped me tremendously in creating my map of the world. I discuss this method and more details of my mapmaking process later in the article.

III. Mazes and claustrophobia

One way to up the difficulty of exploration is to throw in a maze, the bane of all wanderers. LanVodis, although small in scale, contains a few areas which might be called mazes: the marshlands, for example, where the “walls” are made up of long strips of water and the player must determine which sequence of bridges to cross in order to pass through.

The vision obstruction mechanic in LanVodis also lends a claustrophobic flavor to some of its areas which are not strictly mazes, but are similarly extra frustrating to navigate. One example of this is the dense forest west of To’ngov. This forest contains a few broken pathways within it, but none connect the surrounding areas fully, thus requiring the player to tread into the woods. Upon stepping onto a forest tile, the player’s vision becomes restricted to that tile only, making finding another path essentially a matter of stumbling around in the dark and hoping for the best. The combination of these is found in the winding road to Elevev, where the player is both physically blocked in by the mountain tiles, and also cannot see very far the entire time.

The whole of Yume Nikki could be said to be a collection of mazes, but in particular the short maze in the “Static Room” stands out to me as being eerily claustrophobic. 

The maze, pictured above, is a room with invisible walls. Here, the player is basically reduced to randomly mashing the arrow keys to try and figure out where the available paths are. To add insult to injury, one of the false paths comes just a few blocks short of the exit, while the true path is a long and circuitous one. In the above screenshot, the player character is standing at the dead end of a false path.

The mechanical difference between this maze and those in LanVodis is of course that although the player is unable to see their path in the Static Room maze, they are at least able to see where they are headed.

IV. Frustration and delight in sightseeing.

Although the goal of both games is essentially to just get all the collectibles, with the most visually conspicuous aspects designed to facilitate this, both Yume Nikki and LanVodis also feature areas or things that are simply meant to be looked at. Encountering one of these areas or objects caused me to feel both disappointment and amusement— the former because I would have preferred to find a collectible, and the latter because admittedly, they were actually pretty neat. In Yume Nikki, there are many landmarks which are visually strange just for the sake of being strange. My first playthrough of the game involved a lot of sightseeing, and in this way I was almost like a tourist rather than a player: I would look up online how to find a particular guy or how to trigger a particular event, and then walk my character straight there to check it out. Even in my replay, however, I went out of my way to find a few iconic guys, despite knowing full well that this wouldn’t contribute to the completion of the game. Part of this simply occurred as I explored the areas and discovered paths to places so memorable that they had not been forgotten, but part of it was out of a genuine but inexplicable desire to see these familiar areas and characters once more.

This screenshot is of an area where a unique event is triggered only 1 out of 64 times the player interacts with the light switch. The simultaneous compulsion and dread I felt here! It took maybe ten minutes to get it to happen, and I had already seen it before.

I don’t imagine that it’s uncommon for some conception of satisfaction, when it comes to game completion, to involve the scenes experienced in addition to the mechanical completion of goals. It might be said that there is not much sightseeing to do in LanVodis, which is a much more compact game and made with the default RPG Maker visual assets. However, visiting the towns, although useful for the progression of the game due to the hints provided, is not actually necessary to complete the game. In fact, neither is visiting the shrines; if the player knows ahead of time the exact tiles where all the Georbs are located, they can complete the game simply by traveling to those squares alone. Nonetheless, at Georb Palace, the player is told how many of the towns and shrines they have visited so far. 

Perhaps this constitutes a more defined goal, since it is explicitly measured, but ultimately, it is for the player to decide what level of sightseeing they want to include in their completion.

While Yume Nikki and LanVodis are both single-player games, I also want to mention that I think they are particularly well-suited to playing together. Whether this means streaming for friends or playing with someone sitting next to you, I think that being lost together is a very enjoyable way to experience these games. The friend that I streamed Yume Nikki for also aided me tremendously in my navigation: they helped me directly by spotting things, such as in the teleportation puzzle, but also indirectly, by being a patient sounding board as I spoke aloud my ideas on where I suspected I needed to go.

I also streamed LanVodis when I first played it for Sraëka and a mutual friend of ours. Playing for people to watch was a large factor in my motivation to play to the best of my ability. Part of this desire stemmed from my own expectations about Sraëka’s games: having played Ocean OI and Atom OI, which I have seen described aptly as highly crafted games, I felt that the more seriously I engaged with LanVodis, the more rewarding the experience would be.

And so, while remaining alert in my travels would have likely been enough to come to a solid understanding of the world map, it was not even five minutes in that I decided to take notes and try to create my own map instead.

3. Recordings and revisions

I finished my first playthrough of LanVodis with two separate maps. The first arose organically from my notes and scribblings on a pile of sticky notes:

The problem with this map was that although the relative positions of the towns and shrines were actually more or less correct, it was not functional. I couldn’t use what I had written down to help me get from one place to another because I had failed to make note of the paths I took.

Around 50 minutes in, with five Georbs collected, I realized I had no idea as to the location of the sixth. I had not seen the sixth shrine at all, and didn’t know where to begin to look for it.

In retrospect, my decision to make a better map to find the final shrine was also due to my failure to make good use of the hints given at towns. Each hint usually contained a direction (“north”, “west”, etc.) and a geographic description (e.g., “highlands”, “cape”, “forest”). However, all of the shrines I found were discovered by chance, sometimes before encountering the corresponding hint. In some cases, I tried to connect the shrines I found to hints I had been given, but this invited uncertainty, mostly because the limitations of the tile-based pixel art made translating between geographical terms and visual features somewhat ambiguous.

Plus, although I had been recording the relative positions of towns and shrines, I hardly wrote down any of the hints provided at towns. As can be seen on the sticky note on my pad in the photograph, I eventually started revisiting towns to check and jot down their descriptions, but by that time I had already traveled all over the map, and I couldn’t help but regret not having made better notes.

The structure of LanVodis is such that it is expected to do a lot of backtracking. However, perhaps because I had intended for my notes to save me from just such a task, the more I backtracked, the more I despaired in having lacked the foresight to record these vital pieces of information earlier, and the more irritated I became. Being lost was suddenly not cool or exciting anymore; it was a chore. I would walk into the same dead end forests multiple times. I would lose track of paths I had found before and spend time circling around areas, growing more and more impatient.

In deciding to simply forget about all that and instead create another map, I was immediately relieved of my mental burden and frustration. It also definitely helped that Sraëka was thrilled with the idea. I soon became so absorbed (or lost, if you will) in this process that I didn’t stop to consider how time-efficient (or inefficient) it might be, and I suspect our third friend in the stream might have gotten a little impatient with me taking my sweet time… but it was tremendously fun and I regret nothing. Below, I describe some of the thoughts I had while creating this second map.

First, mentally and on my sticky notes, I had placed Twai in the center of the map, as this was the starting location. However, to draw a map on a single sheet of paper, knowing that it would have to wrap around at the edges, I decided to make a different feature my center point. This was the ice island. The advantage of choosing this as the center was that I could very easily figure out the shape of the continental coast surrounding the island.

My goal was thus to draw the ocean in the center of my map, and fill out all the details of the continent at its sides. I sailed following the coastline, drawing the shape of it as accurately as I could, marking down towns and shrines, as well as some mountain ranges that I felt were notable because they blocked certain spaces from becoming viable routes for travel. My focus was not only on determining the relative distances between towns and shrines, but also the ways I could travel from place to place. I didn’t have the patience or desire to mark down every single feature, but I did wind up also adding in a few bridges, paths, and other landmarks.

It was during this that I figured out I could check the spatial relationships between places by traveling in straight up and down lines. I was unwilling to count tiles, as I felt it would be too tedious, so I couldn’t tell precisely how wide or tall the ocean was, but I could check if the places I had marked down were at least reasonably accurate in terms of longitude and latitude.

I erased and redrew the shape of the coast multiple times as I sailed back and forth. When I was satisfied with its depiction, I started to sail up rivers, drawing winding paths that I hoped would capture their characteristics well enough to recognize them later. With that finished, I began the more difficult task of exploring on land; vision on water is much better than on land, so this was particularly time consuming, and I limited myself by focusing only on the paths between towns and shrines rather than try to include every patch of forest or mountain range. Finally, rather than drawing hard boundaries at the edges of the world, I drew in duplicate landmarks and structures where the map looped, which also helped to improve my intuition about the relationships between areas. 

I ended up spending over an hour and a half creating this second map. In the process, I eventually did find the last shrine, simply by visiting all the places I had not yet filled in on my map. Here is what it looked like by the time I had completed the game:

However, although I had successfully collected all the Georbs, I was not yet finished with the game. At Georb Palace, the final place where all six Georbs must be brought to finish the game, the player can also find out how long they have spent in the game so far, not counting menu time. There is also a special reward for completing the game in under 30 minutes. At my first visit, I learned that I had found five shrines and five Georbs in 50 minutes. My final game completion time was around 150 minutes, but I was very excited to use the map I had made to beat the game a second time. My second playthrough time was just shy of 15 minutes, and even though I hadn’t taken the ideal paths, at any given moment, I felt comfortable and confident in where I was going.

This mastery of the game’s spatial relationships can perhaps be said to be the ultimate goal of focused exploration. The narrowing-of felt complete to me, when the world, once large and seemingly boundless, bame known as a collection of familiar paths between spaces.

I was already very satisfied with being able to navigate and complete the game again in just a tenth of my original time. However, the special reward in the ending of LanVodis offers the player something even better: validation.

4. Knowing what is yet unknown

Before I touch on the bonus ending of LanVodis, I feel that I should say a few words about the ending of Yume Nikki, which is undoubtedly one of the things the game is infamous for (content warning for suicide). 

Without getting too bogged down in the details of the mechanics, essentially, when all 24 effects have been collected, a new option to end the game becomes available. This entails having the player character jump off the balcony of her apartment.

It’s outside of the scope of what I am discussing here to talk about the psychological themes in Yume Nikki. In the context of exploration, however, the ending of Yume Nikki says this to me: you’ve gotten everything there is to get, so we’re done here. The player can choose to continue to explore the dream areas instead of triggering the ending scene, but there is no other mechanic or gameplay event that could be taken to represent a definitive ending.

The meaning of this, is again, heavily dependent on the lens through which the player experiences the game. The ending struck me very differently ten years ago, but today, and in relation to the themes in this article, the endless journey offered at the cost of closure is a neutral option. It makes no guarantee of satisfaction or dissatisfaction; it’s entirely what you make of it. When the first guides were being written, I’m sure players collectively spent hundreds if not thousands of hours scouring the maps for every hidden little thing. However, I can’t say I’m particularly interested in reinventing the wheel. Once I had collected everything, I truly was done, and so I suspect it might be for the majority of players.

It is in this context that I find the ending of LanVodis to be remarkably uplifting, both literally and figuratively. By completing the game under 30 minutes, the player is rewarded an airship. Boarding the airship removes all the black tiles from the screen, as well as the UI frame, to increase the field of view to the size of the entire game window. The airship is also able to fly over any sort of terrain, giving the player total freedom to explore the world at their leisure.

Being given access to the map of the world is a fun bonus. There is a palpable sense of relief that the claustrophobic nightmare of vision restriction is finally over. It was also fascinating to be able to fly all over and see how close together any two places truly were, and despite feeling confident in my knowledge, I still found myself surprised. The map was absolutely tiny! It was baffling how large it had previously seemed. This was the true narrowing-of, the final version of the world, now portrayed as it really is.

Additionally, there is a subtler sort of reward. I feel that LanVodis actually does something particularly kind in its ending: it agrees with the player’s self-belief.

I think it is safe to say that the majority of players would spend over 30 minutes on their first playthrough of the game; thus, to finish the game a second time asks the player to demonstrate how easily they can repeat this. I should note that 30 minutes is a very generous window for this. In my particular experience with LanVodis, having created my own map to refer to, and having successfully used it to earn the game’s true map, I felt distinctly like I’d been given closure that I hadn’t even known I was seeking in the first place.

Receiving the airship, to me, says this: first you were lost, and then you were found.

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