What Yume Nikki does right

A good game has clarity. It may involve subtleties that only advanced players will grasp with time, but it should always be instantly obvious where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

Yume Nikki just burst out laughing. For those that haven’t heard of it, that’s a surreal RPG maker game where you navigate a convoluted megalabyrinth of interlinked dream-worlds. It pulls every trick in the book to keep it’s inner workings arcane and unknowable. You might get into an area by talking to an NPC, or walking past a certain place three times before turning back, or interacting with some flowers an odd number of times. Some doors only appear randomly. One of the more famous monsters has a one in sixty-four chance of being summoned when you turn out a light.

Here’s the hypothesis Yume Nikki’s working with: The moment you fully understand a game is the moment it loses the magic. You should never be able to get your head around an ideal game. Nevertheless, you should explore it, and make discoveries. By experimenting with these discoveries, you can use them to make more discoveries – never finding everything, but slowly building small islands of knowledge. Ideally, you and your friends talk about what you’ve figured out.  

“But how did you get past the bloat ghosts?”

“Oh, you need the Exorcism Prism. You get it by sacrificing your third soul container to the demon in the boiler room.”

“OOOOOoh!”

Every game felt magical and infinite like this when you were a kid, but almost nothing manages to pull off the same effect for adults. You’re too clever, games are too linear, and the internet knows too much. The modern adult gamer is a tough nut to crack; confusing one enough to give them that old feeling of mystery and discovery requires a game that’s as absurd and labyrinthine as Yume Nikki.

The other important way Yume Nikki taps into your kid zone is by relying entirely on interpretation. There’s no dialogue, nothing is named, and the abstract pixel art could represent anything. You’d think relying on the player to give so much would make the game feel cold and impenetrable, but Yume Nikki’s fanbase has responded to the tough love with a massive outpouring of incredible fan art. One-off sprites are given names, personalities, custom mugs and home-baked cookies. It’s an incredible reaction for an indie RPG maker game, and Yume Nikki earns it by cutting straight through to your subconscious. Because it never explains where you are, what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, Yume Nikki is played in your imagination as much as anything else.

There’s a caveat I should mention here: The easy availability of wikis and walkthroughs means that no game can stay an undiscovered country for long. Just type “Yume Nikki Wiki” into google and the whole game lays bare and dissected in front of you, taken apart and catalogued with surgical precision by people who’ve opened up the game files in RPG maker. In the old days, the most accessible source of information was other people who’d played the game. Pooling your fragmented knowledge made the game seem even more mysterious. Now, the closest source of information tells you absolutely everything about the game.

It’s a hard problem, but it’s possible to work around it. Dark Souls gave it a go; you can make messages out of pre-selected words and place them in the world for other players to find, using the games online mode. Because you can only use a limited set of words, the messages end up giving clues instead of revealing everything at once. Not only that, but putting this resource in the game itself makes it easier to access the knowledge of other players over an all-knowing wiki again, just like the old days.

Look at the time! I’d better wrap this up with a moral. Talk less, have secrets and hidden bits in your game, and make sure there’s always some inner workings that remain bizarre and unknown. Do this, and your game will seem magical, strange, and infinite in every direction.

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About Jack McNamee

In the third year of a game design course in Queensland, Australia. Thinking a whole lot about games. Scrabbling desperately against the oncoming future.
This entry was posted in More games should do these things and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to What Yume Nikki does right

  1. BeamSplashX says:

    I remember helping my friend find everything in Final Fantasy VII with a guide recently, to which we often thought “How would anyone think to do this?”

    I realized that a lot of people weren’t supposed to. Picking apart the logic of the secrets in reverse was an interesting exercise.

  2. Jack says:

    I recommend that you try out the Tower of Druaga, it seems really similar to Yume Nikki.

  3. Jack McNamee says:

    @Jack

    Well, that was surreal. I looked up the name and went straight from this to this. How far we’ve come!

  4. Is that last image supposed to be inspired by Ico? It reminds me a lot of the Japanese cover art.

  5. John Brindle says:

    Though I have not played Yume Nikki, I agree totally with everything I viably can.

    If you don’t mind I might as well link to a reddit discussion of this post for the bulk of what I want to say about this – but right here, I would like to ask the question suggested by the bloke I’m disagreeing with over there:

    To what extent does Yume Nikki actually reward the player’s attempt to understand it, and actually sort of play with states of understanding and confusion? To what extent does it depend on the player having a limited ability to grasp? And on a graph charting games in terms of their ratio between ‘ease of learning’ and ‘difficulty of mastery’ (where Chess is like 7 on the easy scale and 9 on the mastery scale, but Dwarf Fortress is 1 to 8), where does it sit?

  6. Jack McNamee says:

    @John Brindle

    That reddit thread contains my first real criticism. You’ll have to be gentle, I’m in over my head here.

    For the most part, Yume Nikki doesn’t have a consistent system of hidden rules that you must master and exploit to progress through the game. Almost all of the secrets you must figure out to open up new locations depend on one-off rules that you cannot apply in any other situation. It’s an adventure game.

    It’s the labyrinth map as a whole that plays with understanding and confusion. Your goal in Yume Nikki is to find new areas. By exploring the locations you can see, you find out connections to new places. You slowly build up a base of knowledge by mapping out how each location connects to each other. Learning how to navigate your environment efficiently is naturally rewarding.

    Because every map connects to every other map in that totally inconsistent way, though, it’s impossible to master- there’s no consistent rules to gain mastery over. You can gain knowledge, but each piece of knowledge stands alone. Thus, without going into the game files, it’s impossible to ever know whether or not you’ve gained knowledge of everything in the game.

  7. Jack McNamee says:

    @BeamSplashX

    Wish these replies appeared under the post they’re replying to.

    Anyway, I grew up with two types of secrets. One type came from Ratchet and Clank, which has big shiny objects to find and a little box in the menu saying “X/X secrets in this area found”. The other came from Banjo Kazooie, where they made a whole bunch of hidden locations which hinted at a massive underlying secret chain between the game and it’s sequel – then never actually got around to making the secret itself.

    So I spent a few extra hours ticking off the extras in Ratchet & Clank, and months combing every inch of Banjo Kazooie, jumping at shadows and feeling like I’d stumble upon some massive revelation at any moment. I don’t want to say one is better than the other, honestly, because Banjo Kazooie must have added years to my life.

  8. John Brindle says:

    @Jack McNamee – ah, got it.

    I do wonder these days if it’s even possible for kids to crowd around a game and mythologise about possibilities it doesn’t have. I remember sharing stories and half-remembered rumours at school that blatantly weren’t true, claims that if you did X or Y in Z game then something ludicrous or amazing would happen. There was something about our young brains that didn’t quite seem capable of entirely grasping the game and the way it worked, which meant that, for a while, anything seemed possible. ‘Course, I was also much crapper at them, so there’s that.

  9. Nemo says:

    Hm…I’m 12, actually. I find these games quite interesting and full of mysteries that I can’t see based on past experience, but maybe in a few years I’ll see them and realize the significance of.
    I guess if I handed the game to another person of my age, they’d interpret it as some kind of fantasy game or become grossed out. Because I’m a 12-year-old girl and play these games, trying to find hidden meanings and references.
    Some people refer to the game as ”Disturbing”, but I guess it depends on how you look at it. All these items seem to have a purpose, and the ”Disturbing” objects symbolize Madotsuki’s reality. Madotsuki has feelings for these things, she might be terrified of them, confused, they could symbolize her emotions.
    Madotsuki has an obvious imagination, she has very colourful dreams, some dark, some bright.
    Some of them are absolutely horrid, but we all have horrid dreams once in a while. And to think she can visit the same dreamworld over and over again…I wonder if that’s even possible, unless you have very strong feelings for this dreamworld.
    The lack of dialogue is amazing. I kind of feel sorry for this girl, though, for having such a lack of dialogue in her dreams. It seems she’s very lonely…
    She’s a fictional character, but she deserves better in this fictious world. Maybe I just feel for her because I’m like that–I often have those dreams of walking through a fictious world, alone, looking for nothing, just wandering around almost aimlessly.
    This is a beautiful game. I’m sorry if I don’t seem very…age-appropriate. I’m still a 12-year-old girl. But I would never become one of these girls with the bright clothing who hum Justin Bieber songs and don’t look into how the world works, just keep dancing without any worries. That’s just not who I am.

  10. @Nemo

    You’re more mature than the most people I know. And I think Madotsuki has truly strong emotions for the dreamworld. It seems like it’s the only thing she has left. And this game is more than a regular video game. It’s art. And like every kind of art, Yume Nikki has the task, to arouse our feelings. I don’t know what Kikiyama thought when he made this game, but I think he didn’t want to make a regular game at all. And I hope that people like you will never die out.
    Sorry if my english is too bad, I’m german.

  11. Harmony says:

    @Nemo

    First, let me say that you’re very mature for your age, and probably more mature than a lot of people MY age. And that makes me happy.

    I discovered Yume Nikki when I was your age, or perhaps slightly older, and I was filled with exactly the sense of wonder this article talks about. I wanted to know everything about this wonderful and mysterious game. And perhaps more importantly in the long run, I wanted to make something like it… but that’s another story for another day.

    As for being able to visit the same dream world repeatedly in real dreams, it can happen, usually within lucid dreams.

    And finally, if you ever find yourself wanting a similar experience, I recommend .flow and Yume 2kki. There are a lot of Yume Nikki fangames, actually, but those two seem to be the most well-known and the most extensive.

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  13. nerc says:

    @Harmony
    Yume 2kki is almost better than the original

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