Making sense of YumeNikki (2018)
This has been bugging me and I needed to write something. Sorry.
At this point, it seems clear that Yume Nikki (2018), also known as YumeNikki — Dream Diary -, is comparably inferior to its predecessors in every way, shape and form. Not only it omits a fair amount of the original content that made the first title infamous, it also diminishes the impact of the scenes that made the first title worth remembering. The most glaring example of this kind might just be the nonchalance that surrounds the encounter with Uboa, or the lackluster feeling of finding out about the secret mansion behind the tree. In any case, it’s safe to assume to the original Yume Nikki earned a reputation that the remake hasn’t been able to replicate, which has led many critics to decry it.
This criticism is kind of unfair considering the impact and legacy of Yume Nikki, as it was conceived in 2004. Nowadays, it might be difficult to imagine the context of its release, and how much it reflected the way that people thought about the Internet. Back then, the most interaction we had was constrained to small forums with endless discussions about every kind of topic we could think of, and other than that, we would spend time chatting about our hobbies non-stop. So when Yume Nikki came about, it became the perfect fuel to foster speculation and gossip. It’s not just that the game lent itself to this kind of treatment; its design contributed to it. After all, each patch included a whole new array of content that players had to actively discover and unravel for themselves. In many ways, it felt like the game was evolving and offering more secrets as time went by. Given all that, Yume Nikki felt a lot less like a typical video game and more like a living piece of culture that gave meaning to the Internet and planted the seeds of what would eventually become the creepypasta phenomenon. Add to that all the specifically Japanese elements that characterize the title, with its veiled references to hikkikomori and its simulation of the Japanese suburban landscapes.
Yume Nikki isn’t so much a game that was especially popular than an ethereal presence that is firmly attached with the early development of internet, especially the parts that involved endless debating. Much like the first online reviewers, the Slenderman Mythos or even anime fandom did. Aside from that, Yume Nikki was also a significant contributor to the nascent RPG Maker scene that would grow up in later years and give us such classics like Ib, Off, Gingiva, Kaima and To The Moon. At the very least, it would serve as the direct inspiration for Lisa: The First, which could almost be described as a “ Yume Nikki clone” if we were feeling mean. One of the main reasons that going back to Yume Nikki feels so overwhelming has to do with the fact that so many games today take small notes from it. That, and the fact that the game goes so much against common design conventions and doesn’t cater to the player’s sense of place. Games that are uncaring or downright hostile to the player’s presence wouldn’t become trendy until many years later with the advent of Dark Souls, and outside the confines of Bullet Hell titles, and even in those cases, that hostility is partially justified by some clear-cut goals and objectives that give failure a sense of meaning and self-realization. Yume Nikki, with its obscure non-ending and lack of explanation, doesn’t even have the decency of telling us what became of Madotsuki and their disturbing, bewildering and frightening inner demons, or what those demons could even represent.
Against all those debates, those rumors, those endless discussions about the hidden symbolism behind everything and everywhere, the 2018 remake doesn’t (cannot) hold a candle at all. Much like what happened with the Doom remake, it would be no longer possible for such an evocative work to replicate its impact and legacy in the same way. At least, not without making some radical decisions along the way for a 3D space. Instead, it would seem that Kadokawa was tasked to develop an experience that could be as similar as possible to the original title while also feeling recent, a version of Yume Nikki that could serve as an homage while being more easily marketable. As such, the game as it stands right now isn’t so much an update or a reboot of Kikiyama’s title but a love letter. This is something that can be easily noticed by just looking at the team behind the programming and coding, which call themselves “ardent Yume Nikki fans,” but also in the way that the game spends so much time building up to some of the events of the title, giving tension to specially notorious moments and devoting so much resources to certain creatures and dreamworlds.
If one were to judge the original Yume Nikki by the standards of this year’s remake, one would probably consider that special points of the world map, like the Ghost Town or the encounter with Monoe and Seccom Masada, were important components of the plot. While the game itself didn’t have an explicit objective aside from pushing your desire for exploration, it did offer an ending of some sort. After acquiring all the effects and visiting almost every place, the game opened up the possibility for the player to make Madotsuki leave their room and effectively end the experience. For a gamic perspective, this offer allowed players to put an end to the activity and to Yume Nikki, effectively closing the book on their interaction with the title. For Yume Nikki (2018), however, that doesn’t seem so obvious. Instead, we are granted with the now trite “end-secret end” binomial that designers have been doing for decades, with one offering something a closure and the other opening the possibility that, indeed, there might be something else beyond the dreams that Madotsuki is able to conjure by their own.
All of this reads like the remake is pissing on its ancestor’s legacy and is simply appropriating its images to garner some marketing bona fide before players are able to appreciate it on its own terms. That sounds pretty harsh and awfully mean to the team behind the title, but it’s important to remember a couple of things about Active Gaming Media. Aside from collaborating with several Japanese studios in labors such as localization and debugging, AGM is also the main institution behind the establishment of Playism, and the biggest thing it has going for at the moment. Playism, as we all should know, is one of the major localization and distribution companies that specializes in selling Japanese games to “Western” markets and platforms, like Steam and itch.io, and has been responsible for marketing some of the mos interesting Japanese titles of recent years. With a lead team of notorious programmers and very close ties to the development scene generated around BitSummit, Playism has been encouraging beginner programmers from Japan to create and promotes their own works to as big a market as possible.
To offer a small sample of the games associated with this company, we have Momodora, La-Mulana, One Way Heroics, Cave Story and Downwell. So saying that the Osaka company has a significant role in the way that Japanese games (especially “indie” Japanese games), is no exaggeration. The people that compose this group are one of the most active, interesting and dedicated developers can be known about outside of usual firms like Nintendo, Square-Enix and Capcom. And their similarity to Yume Nikki is evident both artistically and ideologically. As much as their titles might feel less daring or subversive, it is pretty evident that they see themselves as continuing Kikiyama’s legacy through their effort. And I’m pretty confident with that assertion because they made a remake of their title and because they call themselves “ardent fans.”
So having said that, I think that a difference of sensibilities is the main reason why Yume Nikki (2018) and Yume Nikki (2004) feel so different to each other, despite using the same concept art and plot lines. If the original feels a lot more like LSD: Dream emulator, the newer one feels like its trying to remake Abe’s Odyssey. My main feeling is that the game almost seems to be answering Limbo and Inside. Aside from offering a very basic “graphic adventure” framework to the macro structure, levels and challenges are very clearly designed as spatial puzzles that usually require some reflexes or memorizing paths. Some parts almost feel like they are explicit references to Playdead’s style, like the Forest World, where we are only able to discern small silhouettes of the Yuki Onna but are never told about it. There are many things with Yume Nikki that are never explained, but there is a significant difference between showing the player hints of a bigger world and simply presenting them as another element that sits there.
Which might be the biggest difference with Kikiyama’s style, come to think of it. Playing the original game now feels as if the creator was putting everything that came to their mind to the software and making sure that it fitted, with dream logic as an excuse for the bizarreness of it all. Active Gaming Media’s design, however, feels cohesive and tight, with everything put in its place and nothing left adrift. The result is a title that, for all intends and purposes, works just fine as a Limbo sequel. In fact, it follows some paths that Playdead never bothered to explore with Inside that reveal some very interesting developments for the “platformer-but-with-puzzles-and-focused-on-presentation” genre, but as an attempt to faithfully recreate the title that it takes its name from, it doesn’t have much going for.
Originally published at http://laeradelvideojuego.wordpress.com on April 28, 2018.