Kikiyama's Yume Nikki is a poem written in video game.
It takes the language of games and outputs a world so pronounced and realised that it's almost too easy to overlook. At the same time just enough of the conventions are silently rewritten to make the game jarring for an unprepared player. There are no games quite like Yume Nikki, at least not that are comparable in their focus and scope. It's not the first time we've seen suspenseful and psychedelic worlds, but there's no other world quite like it. It's a confusing alien game for anyone who's not fully immersed in it.
Okay, I understand that this all takes place in some weird dreamland. I've been to Kirby's dreamland before and that one was fun and familiar. But this one doesn't even seem like a game. Why are there no walls in this game, or floors for that matter? What am I standing on? Why is every level an endless repetition of nothingness?
Nothingness characterises Yume Nikki. Formally, game objects exist for their logical and mechanical value. A particular room exists because it houses something beneficial to winning the game. A particular character exists to either hinder or aid the player. Aesthetics are a backdrop for the mechanics. Any focus on aesthetics comes at the expense of the mechanics, and vice versa. There is either one or the other. In Yume Nikki however, there are long drawn out areas filled with nothing. No people, no things, simply a void. When an object or a graphic does come into view it will rarely have any function, much less mean anything. I wonder what Samuel Becket would have thought of this if he was only born a generation or two later.
When a game is this focused it draws attention to all of its nuances. Every object of every room suddenly has meaning. Except for when they don't.
Why does the protagonist have a videogame console in her real world but not in her dream room? What does that tiny alteration signify? I suddenly see a jittery pixelated coloured ball; does that mean anything? Now I see a dozen of them strewn randomly across the map. Do the individual sprites mean anything? Does their overall pattern mean anything? Do they even do anything? No. They don't.
If you play this game you are going to be walking a lot, usually in random directions. There is no direction given to you by the designer. Each map is an empty sandbox. You can only move in four directions; which will you choose? At what point will you decide to change directions? Landmarks are few and far between so these decisions are important. There could be a critical location placed just outside of the lines connecting the landmarked dots. Or maybe there isn't. Either way, you'll never know until you find out. But now you're in the middle of nowhere with no orientation or direction at all.
The few surviving mechanics seem to have more meaning than ever. The edges of the screen have always been the foundation for any sort of computer visual. It's assumed that everything you need to know is between those four corners. There is no map in Yume Nikki, along with no path and no anything. Suddenly those infinitely empty edges are a horrible unknown. Who knows what could possibly be a mere pixel away. Then you move to see- and realise it was actually just nothing. What a relief or just a bleak letdown.
Yume Nikki is a game encoded in white noise. Its signal and noise are one in the same thing. You'll never know what is important or not until you realise that nothing has any intrinsic importance, only the value you yourself give it. Each indeterminate splinter of subconscious could signify anything.
Suddenly the graphics turn from colourful 16-bit to low-resolution 8-bit; what does that mean? This is all in the character's dream so what might they mean to her? Maybe it's connected to that minigame she played in the first screen. More importantly though, what do they mean to you?
Out of every games about dreams, this is the one that probably comes closest to actually resembling one. The software itself is dreamlike. Barely anyone seems to know who or what Kikiyama is or where this game came from. On the title screen you're informed that this is version 0.10, the tenth iteration of an incomplete game. Presumably the final game, the version 1.0, will be played someday by someone, but only time and Kikiyama can tell. Like all great dreams, they're only ever replayed in fragments.
This game is, thankfully for the sake of classification, in fact a game. That's going by the strict sense of the term. It's not just a creepy pixel art gallery. It has rules and a goal. It's not randomised. The white noise has a comprehensible pattern. This is what makes the game really special, the fact that it strikes a balance between nonsense and logic. Its rules are consistent, and everything does something. The logical value of an object is rarely apparent however. The rules will change, but they change consistently. Doors will open to misleading areas, and return to completely different places entirely. But they do so as part of the design. Once the player has travelled throughout the entire world and documented every detail it's apparent that the game is completely fair. The only possible problem is that once you've accomplished that you're just as insane as the game is.
Espen Aarseth observed that a major divide between interactive stories and linear stories is that interactive ones exist in a dimension of their own which linear stories can't even comprehend: the logical and mechanical dimension. Historically, video games have focused entirely on that new dimension and completely underplayed the value of any traditional story, thus polarising the two mediums. We all know that a game can never be art, and that likewise art can never be a game. Aesthetics and mechanics are incompatible.
It's interesting to consider Yume Nikki's place in this balance of powers. Its mechanics and its aesthetics are each similarly minimalist and nonsensical; however there's a difference between nonsense and lacking any purpose. I'm tempted to say that its aesthetics outweigh its mechanics, but how are you supposed to quantify and compare those? Either way, the two depend on each other entirely. There's no part of Yume Nikki which can be excerpted and displayed individually. Every part of the experience enriches every other part. I don't know what's planned for version 0.11, if anything is, but I can't imagine a single thing being added or removed. That would create a completely alternate experience. Version 0.10 is the dream I know and that I'll keep replaying.
Reprinted with the permission of John Jackson.
John Jackson is a student at the University of South Carolina and has been playing videogames ever since he can remember. When he's not playing games he's writing about them on his blog (gamesarentnumbers.com). He's especially interested in the growing indie movement and hopes he can find the time to make games of his own someday. He firmly believes that playing games is a critical part of understanding ourselves and our universe.