I launched Game Theory in August of 2012 with an article called The Beginner’s Guide to The Void. It was an in-depth critical examination of a little known and poorly understood independent game that even I hadn’t actually played. In that sense, you could say I started as I meant to go on. Today I’m turning my attention towards Yume Nikki, a little known and poorly understood independent game that even I haven’t actually played.
Yume Nikki (“Dream Journal”) is an independently developed freeware game created in RPG Maker 2003, originally released in June of 2004. The most recent, but still technically “unfinished,” version of the game is ver. 0.10, which was released in October of 2007. Yume Nikki is, as far as anybody knows, the only title created by homebrew developer KIKIYAMA, whose identity (including real name, age, and even gender) is totally unknown. KIKIYAMA has promised that an update to Yume Nikki is in the pipe, but the developer’s official website has remained untouched since some time in 2008.
In Yume Nikki the player takes control of Madotsuki (“Window,”) a girl of indeterminate age who is speculated to be in her teens. Madotsuki is what is known as a Hikikomori- a type of wilfully socially withdrawn shut-in specific to Japanese culture. Madotsuki is incapable of leaving her apartment while awake. The majority of the game, then, takes place within her dreams. Madotsuki’s dream world is a massive, sprawling labyrinth populated with unusual, sometimes frightening characters, surreal landscapes, and items of varying degrees of usefulness. The vast majority of play involves exploring Madotsuki’s dream world, collecting items called Effects that can be used in various ways, interacting with NPCs, and learning about what sort of person Madotsuki might be. The game itself, despite being created in RPG Maker, has only superficial elements in common with RPGs. In fact, the game would not comfortably fit into any game genre. The game has NPCs, but no dialogue. It has multiple locations, but no story. It has a weapon, and the weapon can be used, but the game features no combat. There is no lose state, but you can be put in a position that makes progress temporarily impossible. Yume Nikki has an “ending” of sorts, but getting to the “end” of the game is not exactly the goal of play, and certainly would not be considered “winning.” In other words, the “point” of the game is not to start at the beginning, overcome the game’s challenges, and reach the end, thereby achieving victory. The point of the game is to experience it, meditate on it, theorize about it.
It’s these theories I’d like to talk about today. The purpose of this article is to provide a basic overview of the game’s text and subtext, to analyze some of the game’s running themes and the various fan theories that they support, without necessarily supporting any one over the others. The point here is not to determine what Yume Nikki is “really” about, or who Madotsuki “really” is, but to examine the various ideas that are commonly accepted or proposed as interpretations of the game’s many symbols.
Before we can go probing around for the game’s subtext, though, we’re going to have a crash course on the game’s text. Not for nothing is this called the Beginner’s Guide to Yume Nikki. As I mentioned above, I haven’t actually played the game myself, so most of the information provided below was collected from two sources. The first was the Yume Nikki Wiki, which, tragically, missed the chance to call itself the Yume Wiki. This site was extremely helpful for providing examples of the most prominent theories discussed here today. Most importantly, the Yume Nikki Wiki makes an effort to standardize the naming conventions of many of the game’s locations and characters, all of whom besides Madotsuki remain nameless in the game itself. From here on, whenever I refer to a location or character from the game, I’ll be using the agreed-upon but technically unofficial names used by the Yume Nikki Wiki.The second primary source I used was ohmRICE’s comprehensive Let’s Play from the Let’s Play Archive. Note that ohmRICE’s LP can no longer be streamed, but for whatever reason, the individual episodes can still be downloaded. If you’re interested in the game but are unable (or unwilling) to play it yourself, ohmRICE’s LP is highly recommended. It’s comprehensive and focuses on exploring the entirety of the game, and its use of subtitles rather than spoken commentary helps preserve the tone of the game. This LP is what got me interested in this game in the first place, and was a big source of information and inspiration for this article.
Also, as usual with my articles, this is as comprehensive a look at the game as I am capable of writing. Although the game is not narrative driven, this article will definitely discuss information that could be considered “spoilers,” up to and including open discussion of the game’s ending. For those of you who would rather experience the game for yourselves first, I recommend doing that before reading ahead.
One final thing before we continue, though. This game is a melancholic character study of a depressive shut-in, and many of the game’s theories almost necessarily go to some very dark places. From this point on, this article will discuss topics such as sexual assault and violence, depression, self-harm, and suicide without warning. I understand some viewers could conceivably find such topics traumatizing to stumble upon unannounced, so I’m telling you now. If you want to avoid reading about such topics, I recommend turning back here.
Right then, now that I’m done trying to convince people not to continue reading, for those of you who are still here, let’s get down to it.
Take a minute to catch your breath. The above effort is by no means a completely comprehensive introduction to Yume Nikki, but it will serve as a more than sufficient introduction for the purposes of this article. I’ve made an attempt to define or describe any of the specific references you will need to understand this article without having played the game, but anywhere in the body of the work that I’ve made a reference to something not explained above I’ve attempted to provide a link or a brief explanation. Hopefully I haven’t neglected to mention anything a genuine outsider would need to properly understand and engage with the following analyses, but if there are any specific references that leave you particularly confused and that seem like the sort of thing that ought to be better explained, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll make an effort to provide a more thorough explanation. With the nuts and bolts of the surface level game covered, let’s begin examining some of the game’s thematic through lines.
A huge monstrous lifeform hangs in mid-air, groping with four hands at plump, breastlike hills in the distance. The player character, a young woman, is forced to wade waist-deep in a thick, white ooze from which there is no escape except to wake up. A multicoloured, phallic bodied creature with a thousand yard stare and a dopey grin meaningfully strokes the handrail of a staircase. Disembodied eyes leer at the teenaged main character from the bushes as she walks through darkened woods, never blinking but following her every move. Every corner of Madotsuki’s world features some sort of hint: a row of disheveled beds, a hand that is literally wandering, a pool of indeterminate and intermingled fluids, a meandering mouth that sucks at the air.
I’ve made this joke once before already, but who can resist: now that I have your attention, let’s talk about sex. Sex absolutely permeates Yume Nikki. I would say the vast majority of the game’s recurring imagery could be interpreted through the lens of Madotsuki’s relationship to sex. Most of the popular and widely accepted theories on this game hang on the attempted discovery of a specific sexual trauma in Madotsuki’s past, although the specific nature and the severity of the proposed incident is not always agreed upon. Each of the literature’s proposed theories tends to hang on a few pieces of specific evidence which can really be only supportive of that particular theory, and then proceeds to interpret the game’s more general sexual imagery through the lens of that theory. A hand that walks on its own, for example, could be the invasive talon of an abuser, it could be the uncoordinated but welcome hand of a lover, or it could represent Madotsuki’s groping explorations of her own body. For our purposes here we’ll be looking at the most reputable interpretations of the game’s recurring sexual symbols, starting with the evidence specific to those theories and then moving on to how the general evidence can be shaped to support them.
We’ll begin with an examination of the game’s most popular proposed theory: that Madotsuki is a sexual assault survivor. The evidence in Yume Nikki that I believe best expresses the idea of a sexual assault is found in Number World, and involves some of the game’s most iconic characters and scenes. It concerns an area called “KyuuKyuu-kun’s Staircase” in Number World. Accessing KyuuKyuu-kun’s staircase involves forcibly carving open one of Number World’s zippered walls, one with an atypically “sad” expression, which reacts with the standard shriek sound effect and reveals afterwards a bloody portal to the newly unlocked area. Everything about this method of entry- the zipper imagery, the “sad” face of the wall, the use of the Knife Effect to gain forcible entry, the scream, and the blood- seem to almost certainly symbolize a rape. KyuuKyuu-kun himself is one of the game’s most obvious phallic images, and his rhythmic stroking of the handrail of the staircase has masturbatory undertones. Beyond KyuuKyuu-kun is the famous FACE event, in which opening a door (identical to the door in Madotsuki’s room that cannot be opened while awake but leads to the Nexus while asleep) reveals an abstract, symmetrical, highly frightening image that cannot be dismissed at first and wakes Madotsuki from her dream after it is witnessed. Interpretations of what the FACE graphic is depicting are extremely diverse, but the fact that it wakes Madotsuki supports theories that the vision is of something deeply traumatizing for her. The image’s symmetry gives it a pareidoliac effect, causing some people to see it as a face (hence the name, although in Japan the event is referred to as the “Red King.”) Other people claim to see the head of a penis, or a set of labial lips being forcibly held open.
For those who support the theory that Madotsuki is a sexual assault survivor, then, the game’s various sexual images are considered sinister in nature. The game’s recurring body parts, particularly its hands, eyes, legs, and mouths, become symbols or memories of sexual aggressors. Literally wandering hands and and the groping hands that inform the landscape of Monochrome World (especially the Bloody Touching Monster in Uboa’s Trap) become coded references to specific sexual traumas. The game’s various eyes, particularly those that “wander” and those that follow Madotsuki (like those that appear in the Dense Woods) become symbols of stalkers, of Madotsuki’s abusers tracking and following her, or perhaps of the abusive act itself being witnessed. Pools of seemingly sourceless blood become Madotsuki’s blood, spilled during or after her assault, and the thick white gruel in Uboa’s Trap can only be interpreted as seminal fluid. Most importantly, the game’s phallic symbols are interpreted as being reminders of or coded references to a specific instance of sexual assault.
Besides sexual assault, there are a number of other, less universally agreed upon interpretations of the game’s recurring sexual imagery. For a start, there is evidence to suggest that Madotsuki has had traumatizing (and possibly non-consensual) experiences with oral sex. The game’s various disembodied mouths, particularly those that grant the various Hair Effects and those that wander the Eyeball World, could be interpreted as evidence that Madotsuki has an oral fixation. Some portals between locations take the form of mouths, with at least one location- Windmill World- only being accessible by entering the mouth of a character referred to as “Big Red.” The dungeon of the Famicom World features a repeating background element reminiscent of a character with something entering his or her mouth. Most tellingly, though, is the “doctor’s office” area of the Mall. This area features two portraits hanging on the wall of the “waiting room.” One of them depicts a character either throwing up or having a white tube forced into his mouth while he cries, and the other depicts what looks like a drooling mouth that is missing many teeth, possibly as a result of some kind of forcible or violent behaviour. In the very next room Madotsuki collects the Flute Effect, which in context is tempting to interpret as a visual stand-in for oral sex.
Some people believe that Madotsuki is pregnant, or is particularly anxious about becoming pregnant. A specific recurring monster design, “Henkei Shita,” features a swollen stomach, like that of a pregnant woman. Graffiti World’s scrolling background features massive, mutated embryonic figure that appears to be contained within a huge womb. The Infinite Road in the Dense Woods features background creatures called “Floyag” that are visually reminiscent of the female reproductive system, featuring clearly delineated ovaries and a uterus. The game also features various images of creatures vomiting (remember the portrait from the Waiting Room, which we’ve interpreted above as symbolic of oral sex, but could here instead depict a figure throwing up,) which through this lens could be interpreted as images of morning sickness. The game’s various Effects, if dropped in the Nexus by pressing the ‘5’ key, take the form of eggs. Those who believe that Madotsuki actually carried a pregnancy to term point to Takofuusen, who some believe resembles the birth defect TRAP Syndrome. It’s also worth mentioning that according to some theorists, eggplants- which feature prominently in Yume Nikki’s NASU minigame- are considered symbols of fertility in Japan.
Finally, although “Madotsuki the trauma survivor” is far and away the most popular interpretation of the game’s sexual imagery, there are some who insist that the character’s relationship to sexuality is much more benign or even healthy. These people argue that Madotsuki is a young woman who is naturally going to be inquisitive about her own body and the bodies of others, and that the game’s recurring sexual imagery is simply an expression of this completely ordinary curiosity. For these people, the recurring blood imagery in the game is interpreted not as evidence of violence or coercion, but as a reference to menstruation. KyuuKyuu-kun is popularly interpreted as being a phallic image, but some players interpret him less as an image of another person’s penis and more as a colourful sex toy. In this light, his euphemistic stroking of the handrail takes on a much less sinister connotation, and his entire presence becomes a symbol of normal, healthy masturbation. Even the game’s near omnipresent disembodied hands and eyes don’t necessarily have to be representative of invasive forces, and can simply be symbols of Madotsuki’s visual and physical exploration of her own changing body. It’s even possible that Madotsuki has had relatively innocuous sexual experiences already, and her dreamscape is depicting her memories (or insecurities) about those experiences. In this light the game’s various phalluses and groping hands are still interpreted as belonging to outside forces, but the experiences they are connected to are reinterpreted as innocent and consensual sexual exploration.
Pools of blood lie in no discernible pattern along the floors of various worlds. Limbs and eyes- wholly disembodied? forcibly removed?- wander the worlds by themselves. A corpse, unambiguously human, lies in a pool of blood in the middle of the road in a forest. A massive field full of aggro Toriningen is dotted with functioning guillotines, which when interacted with provide Madotsuki with the Severed Head Effect. Hiding Madotsuki in a certain otherwise featureless shack spawns ghostly decapitated human heads which float across the screen- a man’s and a woman’s- visible to the player but always unseen by the character. Most tellingly, there is a knife. The Kitchen Knife Effect provides Madotsuki’s only method of meaningfully interacting with the game’s various NPCs: killing them.
Just like in, oh say for example, real life, most of the things in Yume Nikki not related to sex are somehow related to violence. Generally speaking, interpretations of the game that focus on the violent rather than sexual content fall into one of two camps: Madotsuki as a perpetrator of violence, and Madotsuki as a victim of violence. Each one of these camps treats their own theories with various degrees of specificity, most of which can be neither wholly proven nor disproven. Those who believe Madotsuki is a perpetrator of violence sometimes go so far as to say that she is a remorseless sociopath, a budding serial killer, or has already committed an act of murder. They hypothesize that Madotsuki is shut up in her room to keep her out of the general population, that she has been given a de facto institutionalization. Opinion is split on whether she has shut herself up in her room out of remorse, or if she has been forcibly detained by her parents or another authority figure out of fear she will reoffend. Those who believe that Madotsuki is a victim of violence have theories equally as diverse and specific. Perhaps she is being bullied at school, or abused at home, or maybe she has been self harming. Believers in most of these theories tend to posit that Madotsuki refuses to leave her room out of fear of being revictimized. There are even those who believe that the apartment in which she’s staying is not her own- that she’s been kidnapped and is being held against her will.
Like the game’s sexual imagery, most of the game’s violent imagery is just general enough to support any number of specific theories, and literature surrounding the game tends to project particular meaning on to relatively neutral images. The game’s more general violent symbols- a pool of blood, a lifelike human carcass, disembodied limbs- can be read as supportive of either theory, so how they are interpreted by each of the two camps will be dealt with separately. As with our discussion of the game’s sexual symbols, we’ll be beginning with analyses of the evidence exclusively supportive of one theory or the other, before inviting the game’s more neutral images into the conversation.
The most compelling piece of evidence that I know of that supports the theory that Madotsuki is a perpetrator of acts of violence is the presence of the Knife Effect. In Yume Nikki there are various ways to manipulate the behaviour of the game’s NPCs through Effects: the Cat Effect can draw them closer to you, the Stoplight causes them to stop in their tracks, and both of these frequently cause graphical changes in enemy sprites. The only way to truly interact with the game’s otherwise unknowable NPCs, though, is to use the Knife Effect to attack them. Most of the game’s NPCs, when attacked, will die rather spectacularly. It has an undeniably chilling effect to witness a cartoonish NPC’s life suddenly ended with a humanlike scream and an eruption of lifelike red blood. The combination of the “gaminess” of the character and the realism of the violence creates the sensation that only some of the act is being completely dreamed, and that some of it is instead being remembered. The use of the Knife is also not always optional. There are areas of the game that can only be accessed by using the Knife- two of which are accessed by stabbing inanimate objects (one of which has to be stabbed an unbelievable thirty times before teleporting Madotsuki) and two of which are accessed by killing a specific NPC in the Monochrome World. Also worth noting here is the so-called ‘Stabbing Room’ in Number World, which is so thick with NPCs that the only way to progress is by slaughtering yourself a path. Progressing all the way to the back of the room reveals nothing but an ambiguous decoration on the floor- some see a large mask, others a landscape model- certainly not ‘worth’ the murder of dozens of NPCs, but potentially a telling insight into the priorities of Madotsuki.
For theorists who propose that Madotsuki is a perpetrator of violence, the game’s violent imagery tends to be associated with her memories of her victims. The game’s walking body parts are popularly interpreted as evidence that Madotsuki dismembered her victims, suggesting she is psychopathic or a repeat offender. The portraits in the Sewer World are also sometimes held up as evidence that Madotsuki tortured or mutilated her victims, and the sheer number of grotesque portraits in the Sewer could suggest that she was particularly prolific as a killer. In the Dense Woods it is possible to run into Shitai-san, who is a bloody corpse in the middle of the road, and one of the dream world’s few inhabitants to clearly be human. The specificity of the image of Shitai-san lying in the road suggests to some that he is being remembered by Madotsuki, rather than just dreamt up. To my mind, though, Shitai-san appears to have died accidentally. He’s in the middle of the road and gives up the Stoplight Effect when interacted with, suggesting he was hit by a car. Even if Madotsuki is the one who killed him, it seems to have been an accident rather than a deliberate murder, which could potentially push back against the “Madotsuki is a psychopath” theory. Speaking of NPCs, the dream world contains several ghosts who haunt Madotsuki, possibly those of her alleged victims.
Evidence that exclusively supports the theory of Madotsuki being the victim of violence is little bit thinner on the ground. The Midget Effect, which turns Madotsuki into a miniature version of herself so she can access certain areas, has a peculiar second function: it can be used to create mini copies of Madotsuki. As many as six miniaturized Madotsukis can wander around the map at the same time. The Midget Effect’s tertiary function, though, is to violently kill off the Madotsuki clones one at a time. Rather than simply vanishing, each clone explodes into a shower of gore and emits the game’s standard agonized yawp. The above mentioned Severed Head Effect, similar in function to Midget but aesthetically different, gives the player control over Madotsuki’s decapitated head. Also worth mentioning is the Triangle Kerchief Effect, which equips Madotsuki with a piece of headgear traditionally associated with Japanese ghosts, potentially feeding into the theory that Madotsuki perceives herself as marked for death. The greatest evidence that Yume Nikki is concerned with Madotsuki’s history as a victim of violence, though, is of course the game’s ending, in which Madotsuki commits the ultimate act of violence against herself.
Supporters of the theory that Madotsuki is a victim rather than a perpetrator of violence interpret the game’s general violent imagery as being associated with Madotsuki herself. The game’s seemingly sourceless pools of blood become memories of Madotsuki’s own spilt blood, rather than the blood of any of her so-called victims. The game’s meandering body parts could be considered either Madotsuki’s disassociation with her injured body parts, or they could be the instruments of her aggressors- a leg representing her bullies kicking her, an open hand becomes a living slap or shove or punch, teeth become her tormenters’ verbal abuse, or maybe even their bites depending on their level of aggression. The Toriningen are worth considering in this category. The Toriningen are monstrous and birdlike, but are fundamentally humanoid and appear to be girls around Madotsuki’s age. They are also the only NPCs who behave aggressively towards her. Together, they create the impression that Madotsuki’s bullies are her own classmates or peers.
A sewer is lined with grotesque portraits of barely human or outright inhuman monsters. The whole world is populated with creatures that are sometimes humanlike, sometimes unlike anything that exists in nature, and sometimes barely resemble lifeforms at all. Some of the dream world’s ghastly inhabitants are so huge as to be practically features of the landscape, and each one is anointed with an appropriately hideous fan nickname- the Bloody Touching Monster, Takofuusen the “Octopus Ballon,” the Thing with the Quivering Jaw. Body parts walk around on their own, emancipated from their hosts. Horrible, forcible transformations are commonplace, and the image of an ordinary young girl being warped into a monster recurs: Madotsuki is physically warped by the use of her Effects, Monoko sprouts three extra arms and appears to go insane, and most emblematic of all, Poniko is transformed into Uboa, Yume Nikki’s de facto mascot.
The theme of body horror does not often factor into many specific fan theories surrounding Yume Nikki or Madotsuki. Most often when the topics of body image and dysmorphia come up in fan hypotheses they are used to bolster existing theories, suggesting that, for example, Madotsuki’s history of sexual abuse has given her body image issues, or that the game’s gallery of mutations are depictions of Madotsuki’s mutilated victims. As a running theme, rather than a key to unlocking specific theories about Madotsuki, though, body horror permeates the entirety of Yume Nikki.
The most benign interpretation of the game’s recurring body horror imagery is that Madotsuki is a young woman in the middle of puberty, and that her body really is transforming in uncomfortable and frightening ways. In her dreams, these natural changes take the form of terrifying and monstrous abominations. In this category, the Sewer World portraits deserve particular attention. Each of these images depicts a humanlike creature that has been the victim of some kind of inhuman mutation. Although they are superficially monstrous, we can recognize their deformities as being hyperbolic visions of natural bodily changes. The creatures have limbs disproportionate to their bodies and to each other, which mirrors the rapid and occasionally uneven growth spurts the body undergoes during puberty. Several of the monsters have pronounced or unusual hair, which could be representative of an increased self-consciousness with regards to personal grooming, or could be symbolic of the growth of pubic and body hair. Several of the animals are dripping or oozing with indistinct fluids, which could be representations of any number of bodily fluids, particularly menstrual blood or sweat.
Madotsuki’s concerns about her body changing are also expressed in her transformations when using Effects. Although there are several Effects from the game which Madotsuki can use normally, like the Umbrella or the Knife, many of the game’s Effects cause her body to warp in some way. Interpreted as symbolic of Madotsuki’s journey through puberty, many of the more esoteric transformations make a little bit more sense. The Frog, Devil, and Poop Hair Effects can be seen as Madotsuki’s increased insecurity about her looks. The Neon Effect goes hand in hand with them, being representative of her feeling increasingly noticed or scrutinized for her appearance. The Triangle Kerchief Effect, however, creates the opposite effect, being emblematic of Madotsuki’s increasing sense of invisibility. The Midget Effect can be read as Madotsuki’s insecurity about her height, while the Buyo Buyo and Fat Effects are, through this lens, clearly symbolic of her insecurities about her weight. I’m going to be covering the Effects and their various possible meanings in another article, but for now you get the point: the sometimes comical, sometimes grotesque transformations Madotsuki undergoes as a result of using the Effects are hyperbolic expressions of her fears and criticisms of her changing body.
The thematic throughline of dysmorphia does support a couple of relatively minor and not universally agreed upon specific theories, though. The first and best supported of these is that Madotsuki has hypertropia, a condition in which the eyes are not in alignment with each other, with one resting higher than the other. There are a number of different NPCs and environmental details that have eyes facing in different directions: the Goppa creatures from the Footprint Passage in Eyeball World are wall-eyed, Seccom Masada-sensei has pronounced googly eyes, Monoko’s eyes point in two different directions during her full-screen event, and there are several landscape details (especially in the Monochrome World) that depict eyes facing away from each other. Even the game’s most famous character, Uboa, has “eyes” that are not synchronized with each other, and when Poniko transforms into him even the inanimate objects in her room warp so as to appear cross-eyed. This theory also adds another layer of thematic importance to the game’s various disembodied eyes, particularly those that roll around in the Eyeball World. This theory overall suggests that the reason Madotsuki never opens her eyes, in reality or the dream world, is because she is self-conscious about this condition.
The second theory that revolves around the theme of dysmorphia is that Madotsuki has gender dysphoria or is transgender. There is not much textual evidence that exclusively supports this interpretation of the game, with those who subscribe to this belief mostly interpreting symbols from throughout the game in their own way based on this reading. The best specific evidence from the game that supports the theory that Madotsuki is questioning her gender identity is that the dream world contains two washrooms- a men’s room in Block World and a ladies’ room in Grafitti World- both of which can be entered and used, suggesting that Madotsuki’s gender identity is either fluid or unknown, maybe even to her. Besides this, believers in this theory tend to interpret the game’s recurring phallic imagery in various ways. Those who believe that Madotsuki is a trans woman interpret the game’s phalluses as constant reminders that she has not yet fully transitioned, or cannot pass as a woman, or perhaps as memories of her penis from before her transition. Those that believe Madotsuki was assigned female at birth but identifies as male interpret the game’s penis imagery, like KyuuKyuu-kun, Mars-san, and the Flute Effect, as penis envy, or as being in some way aspirational or comforting.
A teenager lives alone in a bachelor apartment from which she does not or cannot ever leave. Inside of the girl’s dreams is a similar girl who lives by herself in a one room house, refusing to acknowledge the player character in any meaningful way. An uncharacteristically lively party is being thrown in the desert, close enough to be watched and heard, but too far away to be joined. The most humanlike NPCs wander pointlessly in nightmarish facsimiles of real world locations, and the only NPCs who can be spoken to communicate in meaningless strings of numbers. Almost every world, particularly the Original Locations, are defined by their hollowness, their infinite size, their emptiness, and the crushing blackness of the void- the emptiness in all directions emphasizing the loneliness of the main character’s predicament.
The atmosphere of Yume Nikki is indescribably, inescapably, oppressively isolating, to the degree that the game could almost be accurately described as a loneliness simulator. Most of the critical literature written about this game is content to allow the pervasive sense of isolation stand by itself as simply being the tone of the game, rather than attempting to hang specific theories on it. There is, however, one particular theory with some traction that is based in some of the game’s more specific expressions of isolation: that Madotsuki is a foreigner, or ex-pat. I think that theory is a particular interpretation of the game’s more general language of isolation, though. For our purposes as examiners of the game’s running themes generally, we will recognize that the symbols of isolation in Yume Nikki can be broadly split into two categories: personal isolation and cultural isolation.
Personal isolation, in Yume Nikki, means any element from the game that depicts Madotsuki as deliberately excluded from social situations, or otherwise being depicted as singled out or lonely. The most obvious expression of this theme would be Madotsuki’s apparent self-segregation: she lives alone in an apartment with a single room, and refuses to leave. Her dreams reinforce the idea that she is an unwilling victim of deliberate social alienation. Throughout the game it is possible to encounter two “visions” of Madotsuki other than the avatar controlled by the player. The first one, “Madotsuki’s Ghost,” is a monochromatic, non-corporeal, semi-transparent image of Madotsuki who stands at Hell’s Crossroads, who will stare at the player as they pass through her to continue their journey. The second is a well hidden sprite that can only be viewed by jumping through certain unintuitive hoops: you need to use the Midget or Severed Head Effect to investigate a wardrobe in the sequestered area of the Tile Passage that is accessible from Number World. Doing this will cause the wardrobe doors to open, revealing an image of Madotsuki hugging her legs in an act of self-comfort inside the wardrobe.
The NPCs in the game are famous for being antisocial, which reinforces the theme of Madotsuki being personally isolated. Most cannot be spoken to, only manipulated through the use of certain Effects. The Toriningen are capable of becoming aggressive, and if an aggro Toriningen catches Madotsuki she will be teleported to an area that can only be escaped with the Medamaude Effect or by waking up. Combined with the image of Madotsuki in the wardrobe mentioned above, it creates a sense of Madotsuki being shoved in a locker by her peers. The Toriningen Party in the Wilderness is particularly worth mentioning here, since it depicts a normal looking social function, complete with unusually upbeat music, that can be watched by the player but never interacted with, since Madotsuki is blocked by impassible foliage. The NPCs in Famicom World break the pattern of NPCs being unsociable by actually speaking to Madotsuki, but they communicate only in numbers. They play into the theme of personal isolation twice over, once because their spoken gibberish suggests that Madotsuki has trouble with meaningful social interaction, and again because the fact that they exist in a deliberately “gamelike” environment suggests that Madotsuki’s only source of social interaction is with the characters in the games of the Famicom in her room.
Three other NPCs are also worth singling out here for specific analysis. Poniko and the Mono sisters, Monoe and Monoko, appear to be around Madotsuki’s age and are not aggressive towards her. In fact, they are among the only NPCs in the game who can be interacted with or manipulated without the use of Effects. Poniko, tellingly, ignores Madotsuki entirely, but will transform into the frightening and imprisoning Uboa a small percentage of the time when the player turns her light switch off. Her transformation from a girl similar to Madotsuki into an unknowable monster suggests the sort of relationship Madotsuki has to her peers. The Mono sisters can actually be “spoken” to in a sense. Speaking to Monoe causes a blown-up image of the girl’s face to appear on the screen before she vanishes and reappears elsewhere on the screen. Monoe is characterized by complete normalcy: she appears normal, you can even interact with her relatively normally, but she remains fundamentally unapproachable to Madotsuki. Monoko, on the other hand (so to speak,) is characterized by abnormality. Like Poniko, Monoko transforms into a bizarre creature when interacted with. Her bizarre, multi-armed, seemingly crazed form defies purposeful social interaction. Together, Poniko, Monoe, and Monoko form a sort of triptych depicting Madotsuki’s relationships with or interpretations of girls her own age: the three of them are superficially ordinary girls, but underneath they are aloof, inaccessible, mercurial, frightening, or deranged.
The theme of cultural isolation ties into the above-mentioned theory that Madotsuki is a foreigner or ex-pat. The game’s “real world” setting, although never explicitly mentioned, is usually accepted to be Japan. This is partly because the game’s developer, KIKIYAMA, is Japanese, and the game contains several references to Japanese language and culture. Something important to mention before analyzing this theory in depth, of course, is that the name of the main character, Madotsuki, is not usually used as a given name for people. Most people understand that it is almost certainly not the main character’s real name, and is instead either a nickname or simply the handle by which the player knows her. The meaning of the name- “window”- also suggests that she is simply supposed to be our “window” into the game. The manga adaptation of the game, which is interesting in itself but not likely to be considered canonical, also depicts Madotsuki as having a window design on her sweater. In other words, just because the player knows the main character by a Japanese name, it is not necessarily her given name, and she is not necessarily Japanese.
Although I have tried to distance myself from specific interpretations or theories here in favour of more general explorations of the game’s running themes, I’m going to get specific here, since the only version of the “Madotsuki is a forigner” theory posits that she is from a specific place, rather than simply suggesting she is not Japanese. Specifically, the theory suggests that she is South American, Central American, or Mexican. This theory hinges on the proposed significance of the game’s recurring South and Central American visual cues. Before we begin this discussion, I feel it’s important to note that I have almost no familiarity with the cultures and histories of the pre-Colombian Mesoamerican civilizations. The conversation surrounding Yume Nikki refers to much of this imagery as being Aztec, but I can’t actually verify whether they are specific Aztec images, images from other Mesoamerican civilizations like the Mayans or Incas, or whether they were invented by KIKIYAMA as a general pastiche of the artistic legacies of these cultures. For simplicity’s sake, and out of trust for the discussion that has surrounded this theme in the past, I will be referring to much of the game’s imagery as being Aztec. If anybody has some insight into the specific cultures or time periods from which these images might originate or pay tribute, I love being corrected and would be glad to hear from you in the comments.
Now, as for what these specific images are. There are two symbols related to this theory that exist outside of the dream world. The first and clearest indication is the patterned rug in Madotsuki’s room, which many players claim is reminiscent of Aztec textiles. The second is Madotsuki’s hair, worn in twin braids, which is a typical (or perhaps stereotypical) hairstyle used to depict Central and South American characters. These visual cues are important because they exist in what is ostensibly “reality,” meaning that those images that occur in Madotsuki’s dreams are rooted in a real world connection, and are not simply invented by her imagination. Within the dream world, visual cues reminiscent of Aztec art are very common. In the dream version of Madotsuki’s room, the television- which does not work in the real world- will depict scrolling Aztec imagery. An abstract Mesoamerican reminiscent pattern forms the background of the Nexus, and the majority of the Original Locations accessed by the Nexus have Aztec imagery parallax scrolling in their backgrounds. The Shield-Folk, Block, Neon, and especially Mural Worlds are also designed, to various degrees, around Aztec art. The most memorable Mesoamerican imagery from the game, for most players, is probably the full-screen event “Aztec Rave Monkey,” which can be viewed in the Wilderness area.
Madotsuki’s dreams also feature recurring references to Mesoamerican architecture, specifically Mesoamerican style step pyramids. Miniature visions of pyramids appear in the Neon Passage and Famicom World, and Mars features what appears to be a massive naturally occurring pyramidal structure. The Wilderness area is littered with giant stone heads reminiscent of the Olmec civilization, and also features a truly enormous step pyramid that leads to the Sky Garden. This huge pyramid is significant because everything about it, from its size relative to Madotsuki, to the specificity of its design, to the landscape it inhabits, feel like a reference to particular instances of architecture rather than general dream-structures. The very end of the game features what is simultaneously the most emblematic and most coded of the game’s references to Mesoamerican architecture. The step ladder that appears on Madotsuki’s balcony at the end of the game bears a superficial resemblance to the game’s recurring step pyramids, featuring a staircase built in to the side and a flat top (rather than a pointed top, like an Egyptian pyramid.) There is evidence that the Aztec and Mayan civilizations periodically committed human sacrifices at the tops of these pyramids- and it is from a miniature version of these pyramids that Madotsuki throws herself in order to end her own life.
A videogame with deliberately retro 16-bit graphics contains within it a Famicom, an 8-bit console, which can be used to play a Famicom-style game with 8-bit graphics- a game within a game. Similarly, Madotsuki’s dreamscape contains a world visually and aurally reminiscent of Famicom titles, appropriately called Famicom World. The game contains three areas that could be described as forests, each depicting similar landscapes in its own style unrelated to the others. Despite KIKIYAMA’s occasional attempts to depict realistic locations in a “gamelike” visual language, though, there are still several areas that are essentially voids- empty blackness, devoid of discernible landmarks. On top of all of that, the game frequently depicts landscapes or objects in photorealistic detail.
All throughout Yume Nikki, the line between what is real and what is false, what is reality and what is a representation, is being blurred or obliterated. This is true on two levels. First, the aesthetics of the game are constantly shifting between abstraction and realism. This muddying of the graphical waters is useful for a game explicitly set within the main character’s dreams, and is representative of the game’s examination of the line between reality and dreams. This idea serves the basis of another widely recognized, but not necessarily accepted, theory. Second, the aesthetics of Yume Nikki occasionally drift between different levels of “gaminess,” from 16-bit to 8-bit. We can recognize this as a sort of self-awareness on the part of the game, as an examination of the line between reality and games. This idea is the foundation of the only proposed theory in this article which is all mine.
Let’s begin with a quick discussion of the first category. To my mind Yume Nikki indulges in three distinct graphical languages: what I will call Abstraction, Representation, and Photorealism. Those areas of the game which are “Abstract” include most of the Original Locations that take place in featureless voids (Number World, Dark World, Puddle World, etc) as well as those areas which take place in deliberately cartoon-like landscapes (Monochrome World, Hell, etc.) Areas which can be said to be “Representative” include those that are recognizable as specific types of locations or landscapes, but which are depicted using deliberately “gamelike” graphics; these areas include Snow World, the Dense Woods, the Wilderness, the Sewers, etc. Areas that are “Photorealistic” include those that are depicted with imported photographs, or at least borderline photographic levels of realism that clash with Madotsuki’s 16-bit sprite. These areas include Mars, the Mall Roof, the edge of the Sky Garden, and the Traincar.
The game’s constant shifts along the scale from abstraction to realism address the theme of the distinction between dreams and reality. The “baseline” graphical style- the style used to represent the waking world- is what I’ve called Representation, essentially a standard aesthetic for a 16-bit RPG. This graphical style is also relatively common within Madotsuki’s dreams, which suggests that for Madotsuki the dream world is at least as “real” as reality. The dream world’s other two graphical styles, then, could be considered more or less “real” to Madotsuki relative to the established reality of the Representation style. Those areas of the game which are Abstract according to my definition could be said to be less real- more explicitly dreamlike- than Madotsuki’s reality. Locations like Monochrome World, with its limb-like geography and cartoon mountains, or Uboa’s Trap, characterized by inescapable white fluid and home to the Bloody Touching Monster, can be understood through this interpretation as being more symbolic than representational. On the other hand, though, there are the Photorealistic areas. By the rubric we’ve created here, these areas of the dream world could be said to be more real than reality, at least to Madotsuki’s mind. What’s interesting is that areas rendered Photorealistically include relatively benign locations, like a train car or city skyline, but also include fanciful setpieces like the journey to Mars or the Witch’s Flight. Even within the strictly Realistic areas of the game, the distinction between “reality” and “fantasy” is deliberately unclear. To my mind, what is telling about the inclusion of the Abstract and Photorealistic visual styles as deviations from the Representation style is that it blurs the line between dream and reality, both for Madotsuki and for the player. What sort of stock can we put in Madotsuki’s “reality” if, within her “dream,” we can see things that are clearly more lifelike than her real life, that would look more at home in our own reality than Madotsuki’s?
This idea of the line between dreams and reality being unclear actually feeds into another of the game’s popular theories: that Madotsuki’s “reality” is itself another dream. This theory posits that the game’s conclusion is actually a stealth happy ending, that Madotsuki’s suicide was actually her method of escaping her dream prison permanently. There is actually some compelling evidence that supports this theory besides what I’ve mentioned above, too. A previously suggested theory was that Madotsuki never opens her eyes because she is insecure about her hypertropia, but this theory suggests that her eyes remain closed even while “awake” because she is secretly asleep even in “reality.” The presence of two Jellyfish creatures at the spot of Madotsuki’s supposed suicide also supports this idea, since those characters can be seen in the Dense Woods area and have no business being in Madotsuki’s ostensible reality. The concept of “dreams within dreams” is also an established one in Yume Nikki: the Underground World, which leads to Seccom Masada-sensei’s spaceship and Mars, can only be accessed by sleeping in one of the game’s many beds while already dreaming. Sleeping in one of the game’s beds will teleport the player, similarly to how Madotsuki is teleported to her dream balcony by sleeping in her “real” bed, inviting the possibility that dreaming while already dreaming is a possibility here. The appearance of the stepladder, Madotsuki’s instrument of suicide, is also suspect: it appears out of thin air once the game’s Effects are all left in the Nexus, decidedly unrealistic behaviour for an object supposedly appearing in reality.
The second way Yume Nikki muddies the line between reality and representation (lower case this time) is by drifting between graphic styles intended to evoke different gaming generations. This theme is mostly one of my own invention- there are no major theories associated with it, and it is as close as I’m going to come in this particular article to proposing new ideas rather than simply analyzing existing ones. Still, this idea is intriguing to me, and for completion’s sake I thought I’d mention it.
Yume Nikki is a videogame, of this much we can be certain for once. When we play videogames, we are able to recognize that their depictions of what we are supposed to accept as “reality” are going to be imperfect, graphically. They may butt up against the limitations of their hardware, they may be deliberately stylized, they may be distractingly buggy or glitchy. Still, as players, we are willing to suspend our disbelief and accept that the world as presented to us, while not identical to our reality, is acceptable as a stand-in for reality. So long as games are internally consistent, we are usually willing to ignore the fact that the game’s every tree is a clone stamped version of the same sprite, or that characters’ mouths don’t move when they speak, or that the heroes are constantly repeating the same canned animations. When games are deliberately internally inconsinstent, however, they are usually trying to encourage the player to think of them not as “real,” but to get us to recognize that they are indeed videogames. Suda 51 is enamoured with this trick, for example, weaving self-consciously retro graphics and gameplay into otherwise internally consistent titles like No More Heroes. The effect created in Yume Nikki is slightly more sinister, as it isn’t intended to read as a fun throwback or as lighthearted self-deprecation.
Yume Nikki contains within it the aesthetics of two generations of gaming history: 16-bit and 8-bit. The game is mostly set in the 16-bit style, and the game’s “reality” is depicted as being 16-bit, suggesting that this is really a 16-bit game. Within the game’s 16-bit “reality” is a Famicom, an 8-bit console, on which Madotsuki can play a fictional 8-bit Famicom game: NASU. If that were the end of it, it would stand as an example of Suda 51 style self-conscious wackiness (albeit in a game that could never in a million years be described as “wacky.”) The trouble comes in the form of Famicom World, a distinct area within Madotsuki’s dream world that apes the visual and aural styles of an 8-bit Famicom game. For those who are interested in Yume Nikki as a character study, this provides an interesting insight into Madotsuki’s relationship with gaming and how she has internalized many of her Famicom’s aesthetics and rules of play (worth mentioning on this note is that her TV doesn’t actually pick up any channels, so really her only cultural intake since she’s been locked in her room has been gaming.)
What interests me is what this use of two gaming history aesthetics means for Yume Nikki as a cultural work. We’ve already seen above that there is a deliberate air of uncertainty regarding what is real and what is a dream for Madotsuki. Yume Nikki’s use of gaming technology and graphical styles as a secondary expression of that theme, to me, elevates the theme from being the exclusive concern of Madotsuki the character, to being the concern of the player. Above I mentioned that those dream areas which were Representational were her baseline for what constituted “reality” for Madotsuki. Now we can recognize that the game’s 16-bit mode is the game’s default representation of “reality” for the player, who will be familiar with the history and aesthetics of videogames. For Madotsuki, her dream world’s ability to transform from Abstract to Photorealistic from one room to the next suggests that certain parts of her dream world were more or less “real” than the others. For the player, then, the game’s ability to shift from 8-bit to 16-bit suggests that certain parts of Yume Nikki may be more “gamelike” than other parts. We experience Yume Nikki getting “more gamelike” when it transitions from 16-bit to 8-bit- from the game’s depiction of “reality” to the game’s depiction of a game- but we never actually see the game get “less gamelike” than the 16-bit areas. That is, of course, because it is impossible for a game to use the language of games to create an “ungamelike” environment. But in the same way that Madotsuki’s Photorealistic dream worlds are “more real than reality” for her because they copy the visual style of our reality instead of hers, we can now recognize that the “ungamelike” areas of Yume Nikki actually transcend the game. The “ungamelike” areas of Yume Nikki are real life, as in our real life. Perhaps this is why so many people who play Yume Nikki are so consumed by it, why it manages to hook people so completely despite being so simple and so incomplete: it subconsciously positions the player as a component of the game itself, as the “most real” element of a game that explicitly blurs the line between reality and dreams, and reality and videogames.
There’s much, much more to be said about Yume Nikki, and I intend to say it over my next several articles. For now, though, consider this a general overview of the text and subtext of the game. Starting, hopefully, next month, I’ll be wading into much more specific territory and I’ll also begin offering up more of my own personal interpretations of the game rather than just analyzing the existing theories. As I said, this series will be reminiscent of my earliest work on The Void, and I hope for it to be considered a relatively comprehensive and accessible guide to the world of Yume Nikki by the end. I don’t know what it is about obscure, depressing indie titles that inspires me to be so garrulous, but here we are. Sleep tight, my babies. Don’t let the Toriningen bite.