The first door Madotsuki opens leads her to a sprawling forest. It's quiet. Ghost-like figures stand in place, scattered around the brush; they don't respond to her when she comes close. On the ground, the shape of a huge insect flows from one edge of Madotsuki's vision to another, like a moving mural. She wanders for what feels like hours. Eventually, she finds another door.
Yume Nikki tells the story of Madotsuki's dreams. When the player first boots up the game, the young Japanese girl is in a small room. There's a television, a game console, a bookshelf, a desk, and a bed. A glass door leads to a balcony outside, and another leads out of the room; if the player guides Madotsuki to the bedroom door, though, she'll refuse to open it. Eventually, the player will guide her to bed, and she'll lie down and fall asleep. Then the dreaming begins, and that's where Yume Nikki (the title translates to "dream diary") begins as well.
The PC game has been shrouded in mystery since it was first released on June 26, 2004—though “released” may not be the correct word. It surfaced, shared by a developer known only as Kikiyama, on the forum 2channel, Japan’s rough equivalent to 4chan. The game was made in RPG Maker 2003, a publicly available free software suite for creating 2D role-playing games, meaning the developer, who has never revealed their identity, could be just about anyone. They're likely Japanese, and their choice of release method suggests a young man. That's about all that's known.
Following the game's initial emergence, it was translated into English and began to garner a cult following in both Japan and the West. Kikiyama updated it incrementally and repeatedly, until, in 2007, build 0.10 released—and Kikiyama disappeared. No more builds followed, and Kikiyama, who never interfaced substantially with his fans, became entirely unavailable. The last known email the creator responded to was reportedly in 2011, shortly before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.
Until, that is, about two weeks ago, when, with no fanfare at all, Yume Nikki appeared on the Steam distribution platform. A publisher was attached—Kadokawa Games, who created the RPG Maker software on which the game was built—and a countdown appeared, ostensibly teasing a new Yume Nikki project.
The dream diary is back.
Night into Dreams
Madotsuki's next dream takes her into a black void full of hands. She finds a hat that, when donned, turns her head into a hand with a single unblinking eye. Another door takes her to a desert devoid of color or sound. Another, a series of stairwells—always, impossibly, going up. When she gets bored, or scared, she pinches herself to wake up. But she returns to the same dreams again the next night, and the one after that as well.
Yume Nikki is rich in atmospheric dream worlds, but almost entirely devoid of what you'd traditionally call "gameplay." There's no dialogue, no plot, no combat. It's impossible to reach a “game over” screen, and no indication given in the game what your goals are. There are twenty-five objects scattered in the world, called "Effects"; each effect, like the hand described above, causes a change in Madotsuki's appearance or immediate environment. Some of these are useful, some are nonsensical. One is a bicycle. Another is a knife, which lets Madotsuki kill any being she meets in the dream. None appear to have any broader effect on the game world.
Yume Nikki ends when all the Effects are collected. And … that's it. It is an experience of aimless wandering, an anxiety stupor in interactive form. If Yume Nikki's creator is a mystery, that mystery is only compounded by the mystery of the game itself.
Playing Kikoyama's creation engenders a creeping sense of unease. While some moments are funny or delightful, the operant mood is one of frightened, lost defensiveness. It operates on an authentic dream logic, which is to say there's little logic at all. Doors lead to other dream realms (though doors themselves can take a number of forms, from open mouths to beds to abstract, floating shapes). Some spaces are are places that Madotsuki herself could have experienced in her waking life; one area in particular has the sense of a grocery store, seen from the perspective of a frightened, anxious child. But others are so anti-representational in their design and logic that they're difficult to even describe.
Even more unnerving, Yume Nikki is full of startling, unexpected events that occur randomly. In a certain room, a frightening ghost face can appear when a certain light switch is flipped—but there's only a 1 in 64 chance of it happening. In such a minimal environment, these random occurrences are almost uniformly frightening. Yume Nikki is the scariest game ever made where nothing actually happens.
That lack of activity, combined with the uneasy atmosphere, breeds paranoid apophenia in the player. Maybe if I follow this creature, it will lead me somewhere. Maybe the best method for exploring a dream space is to moving left and right until it loops, then up and down, then diagonally. Maybe that assortment of abstract shapes is an arrow! Following these hunches sometimes leads to discovery. Sometimes not. Even in cases where these maybe-patterns lead to something like success, it's impossible to know whether the pattern you saw was real or not. On that matter, as in all others, Yume Nikki is silent, yielding to the projects of the player, so minimally designed, in traditional terms, as to feel almost like it has no designer at all. Like it just appeared when you closed your eyes.
What's Behind The Bedroom Door?
The mysteries of Yume Nikki, both inside and outside its game world, intertwine around each other in an insoluble knot. There's, first, the mystery of Madotsuki herself. Every silent inch of her journey invites the player to speculate on who she is and why she refuses to leave her room. There are bits of repeated imagery scattered around her dreams for the player inclined toward dream interpretation: grabbing hands; screaming, monstrous women; faces distorted in neon reds and yellows.
Some images particularly evoke a car crash, maybe suggesting that Madotsuki is traumatized from an accident. Or maybe the truth is even more macabre, and she's an abuse victim hiding from a violent parent—or is already dead, in her own looping purgatorial dream realm. What's really beyond that bedroom door, which doesn't appear to be locked or barricaded? Madotsuki could leave. She just won't.
Then there's the mystery of Madotsuki's unknown creator, Kikiyama. Who are they, and where did they go? Yume Nikki's sprawling fandom is as fascinated with speculating over the creator’s identity as they are with speculating over the game itself. One popular theory suggested they died in the earthquake that hit Japan in 2011. Another, likely taking cues from the dark subject matter of Kikiyama's only known work, suggests they committed suicide. The re-emergence of Yume Nikki has led to a confirmation from publisher Kadokawa Games that Kikiyama is, at least, alive, and involved in some capacity in the new developments in what has come to be called the Yume Nikki Project. But not much else is known.
For the sprawling fan community, which encompasses a decade of fan games and semi-official merchandise like manga adaptations, those two mysteries are one and the same. All art brings with it the temptation to read biographically, to try to glean details from the artist's life and psychology out of their work. But with Yume Nikki that urge is overwhelming. The twin mysteries are so congruent—of course a game like this would have an unknown creator!—that they can't help but feel connected. And all the games and fanfics, forum posts and Serial-style podcasts are an attempt, by those affected by Kikiyama's games, to explain them, to hold the power they hold and make it legible.
And yet the illegibility is itself the joy of Yume Nikki, and of Kikiyama. As I write this, a couple of days left remain on the timer counting down whatever the next step in the Yume Nikki Project is. It's not clear what exactly it is, although another game of some sort seems a likely guess. It's a moment not unlike what happened when famed indie band Neutral Milk Hotel emerged from a decade-long exile and went on tour. There's a sense of possibility, as something once obscure has the potential to pass into the mainstream.
But if these mysteries are ever solved, they'll lose something. Like a dream, they'll solidify and fade, transforming into something mundane. Yume Nikki is unsettling but also joyous in its own way, a warm blanket of loneliness, a world entirely the domain of one girl. To save the game, Madotsuki writes in her dream diary. She's a cartographer, making maps of her own nightmares. She never shows her diary to anyone else. So far as we know, there's no one with whom to share it. It belongs to her, and to the player, alone. That's the point.