The developer for a cult classic, experimental horror game disappeared from the internet for a decade. Their sudden, unexplained resurfacing on Steam leads to more questions than answers.
Yume Nikki is a game defined, in some ways, by its obscurity. It was released on 2channel, the Japanese precursor to 4chan, in 2004. Yume Nikki, which means "dream diary", is about a Japanese woman named Madotsuki, who explores surreal landscapes in her dreams. In those dreams you can collect "effects", which will change Madotsuki's appearance and sometimes give her some kind of ability. There's no explicit goal to the game, but most players try to collect all the effects. But even getting far that means traversing a series of hostile, unwelcoming and sometimes frightening levels.
For a while the game was distributed in English on fansites or via direct download links, meaning that you had to be really looking for it to find it. It's also difficult to wrap your head around how to play. It isn't complicated, it's just that there's no real direction. Once you head off into your first dream, you're on your own. You may enter a snowscape, or pitch black darkness. All you can do is explore and hope to find something. A lot of the time you end up walking in circles. Although many fans have made guides, the experience of actually playing the game is one of loneliness and isolation.
Over a period of a couple of years, the game's developer, known only as Kikiyama, released new builds on their website. Once Yume Nikki reached version 0.1 in 2007, Kikiyama disappeared and the website stopped updating. It would take another year until the game really took off in the West, but when it did it garnered a cult following because of its unusual visual style and oppressive tone. Derek Yu, who would go on to develop Spelunky, blogged about Yume Nikki in early 2008, saying, "The lack of dialogue or any 'action' fills me with this strange sense of dread. … Visually, the game really reminds me very much of Earthbound (especially Moonside!) and cactus, which is a pretty awesome and terrifying mix."
Yume Nikki has spawned enough fan games that they need their own wiki to categorise them all. In Japan, the game had a manga and also a light novel adaptation. You can see Yume Nikki's influence in games such as Undertale, which pays homage to Yume Nikki in one of its character sprites. We see similar themes of isolation and exploration in popular indie games from the late 2010s such as Lisa: The First.
Despite Yume Nikki's pedigree, no one really knows anything about Kikiyama. Their return and the announcement of a new project hasn't brought any more details about who they are. No one knows their gender, where they live, their age, or their real name. They seem to exclusively speak Japanese, or at least prefer to communicate in that language, and, as far as we know, they are the lone developer of Yume Nikki. Those two things are the only known facts about Kikiyama. Everything else is speculation. There is only one alleged contact for them - an email address from a readme file in an early version of Yume Nikki. One fan claimed to have gotten a response from the address where someone thanked them for playing Yume Nikki, but most emails go unanswered.
In the past decade, Yume Nikki's fanbase has remained stalwart despite the lack of updates or news from the developer. They still make fan games and discuss fan theories, and try to give newcomers a sense of what the game is like if they want to try it. The Yume Nikki subreddit feels kind of cosy - there are a lot of posts about Madotsuki, some fan art, as well as a little speculation about who Kikiyama is or where they might be. Most people are wondering the extent of Kikiyama's involvement in whatever this new Yume Nikki project is, or if they contributed anything to it at all besides the name Yume Nikki. While people ask about Kikiyama pretty often, longtime fans provide the same answer over and over: We don't know who Kikiyama is, and we probably never will.
"I think one of the game's core themes - one of extreme loneliness, essentially - is something that resonated with a lot of people," Lewis Denby, a former journalist working on a Serial-style podcast about Yume Nikki, said over email. He had been in the process of researching and recording his show when the news about Yume Nikki's Steam release dropped on January 10.
Actually, after over a decade of silence, there is now a countdown for "the next Yume Nikki project," coming in eight days.
Even now, though, there's some distance between fans and creator. All the communication about the Steam release and the upcoming project is being done through the publisher, AGM Playism, and Kadokawa, the production company that is handling the new project. A representative from Playism confirmed to Kotaku that Kikiyama was involved in the Steam release, though.
The question of who Kikiyama is adds to the cult appeal of Yume Nikki. Denby described it as like an alternate reality game, but for a real person. As a game, Yume Nikki is full of secrets, and most of playing it is finding things that are hidden. There's something maddening about knowing that even if you finish the game, you'll never know much about the person who made it.
The game's Steam release has revived that topic for some fans, but people seem resigned to the fact that they will probably never know who Kikiyama is. On a topic from the Yume Nikki subreddit titled, "The 2017 Hunt for Kikiyama HP is a go," one person said, "It would be nice if some day Kikiyama could finally come into the public eye, but at this point [they] probably prefer it this way."
Before the Steam news hit, some fans thought Kikiyama may have committed suicide, based on the dark subject matter of the game, or that they died in 2011 Tohoku earthquake. "The last email they ever replied to was allegedly shortly before the earthquake hit," Denby said. Still, die hard fans of the game are looking for any way to contact the developer. It isn't because they are trying to solve a mystery. It's because Yume Nikki has made a very strong impact on their lives. At least now we know Kikiyama is still alive.