(cw: mentions of suicide and sexual assault)
I was at a loss on what to write about this week. I could have played another thing from the Queer Games Bundle. Then my mood was destroyed because America is America, so I thought about playing something nice and violent , like maybe finally checking out ULTRAKILL. But then I saw something that I was passionate about on my timeline, so I became Normal and chose to write about that instead.
On June 26th, the cult classic game Yume Nikki celebrated its 18th anniversary. Created by a mysterious creator only going by Kikiyama, Yume Nikki (or, Dream Diary) released in 2004 and had steady updates until 2007’s final version 0.10 update.
I don’t remember exactly when I personally learned about Yume Nikki, but I initially learned about it through, of all things, the Mario Fan Game Galaxy forum. I was really into looking at Mario fangames when I was in middle school and I lurked on the forums a bunch. If I remember correctly, I learned about it from some art thread, where somebody posted fanart of the game that really grabbed my attention. Though, unfortunately, it seems that the forums reset at some point, so I can’t really find this specific moment.
I remember properly playing it though when I got on tumblr in the early 2010s. Cult classic horror games made in RPG Maker were starting to get big and this was the era where big Youtubers actually played these things. Yume Nikki was easily a game that slid into the mold, though I personally don’t consider it a flat-out horror game.
So, what is Yume Nikki?
In Yume Nikki, you play as a girl named Madotsuki, a shut-in that refuses to leave her apartment for unknown reasons. She has a game console, but the only thing she has is a dripless, futile arcade game about catching eggplants. For the most part, all she can do is curl up in her bed and dream, only waking up to write in her titular dream diary as a save mechanic.
After falling asleep, Madotsuki finds herself in a dream version of her apartment, which she can step out of. Going outside, she finds herself in a Nexus, full of doors that lead to different dream areas that all interconnect. In my honest assessment, Yume Nikki is more of a walking simulator with some horror elements than a proper horror game.
Yume Nikki reflects a wide spectrum of dreams. There’s plenty of ominous voids with a floating parallax background covered in noise making tiles that’s the epitome of abstract dreams. Going deeper in the dream world, you find more concrete places like a lonely desert town, which carries the feeling of half-remembered dreams. Then there’s places that are just hell like the giant red maze, reflecting the aimless sort of dreams. And then there’s the few more interactive bits that break up the monotonous exploration, the kind of occasional dream that you want to write or tweet about.
If I had to comment on the game’s general mood, I’d say that it’s more… lonely than scary. No words are ever spoken in Yume Nikki (outside of menu text) and any NPC that Madotsuki interacts with provides an impersonal cutscene at most… assuming that there’s even NPCs around. The NPCs that have the strongest interactions with Madotsuki are the Toriningen, bird ladies who teleport Madotsuki to an isolated place, enforcing the lonely mood and forcing her to wake up or use a power to escape.
And speaking of power, there is something to collect in the world: Effects. A lot of the more noteworthy NPCs grant Effects, which Madotsuki can use to change her appearance. Most of them are cosmetic, though some have interactions with the world that opens up interesting mysteries, like a girl that sprouts new broken limbs when under the light of the Stoplight effect. Most importantly: there’s a bicycle that increases your speed. You’ll be using that a lot.
Collecting all the Effects is the goal of the game. From there, Madotsuki must deposit them in the Nexus where they take the form of eggs for unknown reasons. Wake up and…
…there is now a staircase that leads Madotsuki over the railing of her balcony. It’s a long way down and Madotsuki will jump.
It’s a striking moment that acts as the only piece of explicit plot in Yume Nikki… assuming that what happens is even real. The ending acts as a centerpiece to most people’s analysis of the game and people start looking into her dream world to understand why she kills herself. Why does collecting all the Effects lead her to her suicide? Why do the Effects take the form of eggs? Further questions sprout from there. Why does this particular NPC give this Effect? Why does this NPC react to this Effect in this way? Is this an NPC that Madotsuki knew in real life or is it just a dream abstraction? What are the Toriningen to Madotsuki? Who is Madotsuki?
Yume Nikki is a game that’s been subject to a lot of interpretation. There’s plenty of reads that view Madotsuki as a survivor of sexual assault with regards to certain bits of imagery found around the dream world. There’s a fair amount of theories that read Madotsuki as a trans woman; a good collection of those theories can be seen in Madotsuki’s Closet, a fangame about somebody jumping from these theories to realize she’s trans herself.
And speaking of fangames, Yume Nikki has an extremely vibrant fangame culture. In fact, it’s still rather active. A few years ago, I looked at a bunch of games from the Dream Diary Jam – a game jam dedicated to making Yume Nikki fangames back when I had the time to sit down and focus on playing a bunch of stuff. As it happens, the tradition is still ongoing!
It’s not hard to see why Yume Nikki has a strong fangame scene. The structure of the game itself is simple, so it’s easy to replicate it and take it into a new direction or build upon it. There are old favorites like lolrust’s .flow, a story with a more explicit narrative of a girl with illness. Then there’s newer stuff like Sooz and unity’s Yume Wheeky, which is a more lighthearted fangame variant exploring the dreams of a guinea pig.
The most noteworthy of these fangames to me is Yume 2kki, an utterly massive fangame. It’s a collaborative effort, with many users designing maps and submitting content. Of course, this means that it’s hard to find a central idea – if there even is a central idea at all – and quality may vary from area to area because of the collaborative nature, but it’s generally a good time. Besides collecting Effects, there’s a massive collectathon element added on with many alternative menu skins, alternate wallpapers for the computer the main character saves at, and different skins for the side puzzle minigame to get through accomplishing various feats and seeing things in the dream world.
Though, the most nuts thing to me is that it’s still consistently updating today. Truly a game that will never die.
Yume Nikki has had multiple forms of licensed media over the years, though they can mainly be seen as reimaginings than a true interpretation of what Yume Nikki is. There’s a light novel, there’s a short manga series, and notably, there’s Dream Diary – Yume Nikki –, a game developed by Kadokawa with supposed oversight from Kikiyama which… is kinda divisive. It’s a game that abandons the walking simulator vibes of the original game to instead be something like Little Nightmares. Regardless of its actual quality as a game, a general feeling I’ve seen is that it doesn’t capture what originally attracted people to Yume Nikki.
And in all honesty, it doesn’t help that there are a lot of things that better capture that spirit – debatably even surpassing Yume Nikki in some circumstances. There are a lot of surreal 3D dream exploration games that better nail what people wanted out of Kadokawa’s Dream Diary, like #21: The World and Hypnagogia. Some people may see a lot of fangames to surpass the original, on account of better fleshing out the Yume Nikki experience. Hell, with the genre of walking simulators becoming more ubiquitous, Yume Nikki may not seem as impressive today.
But really, it’s a testament to how unique Yume Nikki was when it was originally released, because it can be seen as ahead of its time. And even if it’s not as unique of an experience nowadays, Yume Nikki is still iconic. People still draw Yume Nikki fanart, and whenever people draw a collection of indie game characters, there’s a fair chance of Madotsuki being among them. From my own personal experience, the latter’s had a large uptick with the release of OMORI, a game with its own Yume Nikki inspirations.
If you’re now interested in checking out Yume Nikki and haven’t before, you may be wondering, “how do I play it?” Well, on one hand, you can check out the official Steam download provided by PLAYISM.
But that’s nerd shit. Yume Nikki (and early RPG Maker culture in general) was built off of people sharing around links built on an unofficial translation. So, there’s actually a fan created version of Yume Nikki you can check out directly in the browser through a fan-made initiative. Besides letting people play the game in a more accessible way, it also bizarrely adds online multiplayer, so if you want to check a game out with a friend, you can do that. And besides the original Yume Nikki, you can also play various approved fangames through this method, and as somebody that tore my hair out trying to access some of these games, I’m really grateful for this fan initiative.
The fact that this initiative started just around 2021 only further highlights how much Yume Nikki has stayed in the public consciousness over the years. While it’s certainly smaller than a lot of indie game darlings, Yume Nikki undeniably has a cultural impact, and out of the RPG Maker sphere, is easily the most culturally significant RPG Maker game.