Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: Yume Nikki

I find many things disturbing; war, disease, famine, poverty.  There's a small bit of comfort in knowing that I'm fortunate enough to not have to experience any of it.  However, there are things that disturb me more than any of that; things that happen every night, even if I should choose to forget about them the morning after.  Dreams.  There are a vast amount of things in dreams that don't make any sense to us.  Why is that dog floating?  How did this hole get in my hand?  Though it's the dreams that are most unknown to us - the images and thoughts that our subconscious brain hasn't prepared us for - that make up our worst nightmares.  Why do you think babies are crying constantly, even weeks after they're born?  They're confused; overwhelmed by how unfamiliar they are with the world around them.  Scared.  It's this fear of the unknown that is subconsciously present in all of us, and the way Yume Nikki utilizes it makes it one of the most disturbingly accurate recreation of the world of dreams that I have ever seen or played in any form of media.

 There are a few small tutorial tips displayed at the beginning, after which you start the game  The first room you find yourself in is a small, bland-looking apartment with a bed, a desk, and a television set with a Famicom plugged in.  If you try to go out the front door, the girl shakes her head.  Going out on the balcony won't do you much good, either.  Looks like you're confined to this tiny space.  No way in, no way out.  You're starting to feel a little bit drowsy.  Can't hurt to get in bed and just relax a little bit, so you climb snug under your covers and fall asleep...

You open your eyes.  The room seems - different - somehow.  The Famicom is missing, the TV static has been replaced with an eye that stares eerily at you.  The dark, foreboding skyline that used to be behind your balcony has been replace by a strange desert wasteland.  Something is terribly, terribly off.  Your only real option at this point is to go through that door in your bedroom.  And that's when things start to really get crazy.

The door room (pictured left) serves as the "hub world" in your exploration of dreams.  Each door leads to a different part of your dream.  They give a general idea of the theme of the world it leads to, but you generally won't know what it is for sure until you enter though one.

The primary goal, although never stated by any of the game's minimal instructions, is to wander around the dream world and collect each of the 24 "Effects" scattered about.  Some are very useful and essential to progression, whereas others simply serve as cosmetic changes with no use at all.  Sometimes, the areas or NPCs that give them to you have nothing to do with the effect itself.

In order to play Yume Nikki, you'll have to suspend all disbelief.  Nothing makes sense in this game.  There is not a moment where something won't confuse you, bewilder you, or genuinely disturb you.  Dismembered legs that hop around, hands with eyes in them, bird-like creatures that follow you and send you to an inescapable area, disembodied heads that send you to a strange looping landscape; the game provides no shortage of scenery or NPCs that don't seem to serve any sort of purpose.  Not only that, but the majority of the game is just spent wandering around.  Much of the areas seem hauntingly empty, and some rooms are set to loop infinitely, so you'll find yourself back in the same place without even knowing it.  The ambiguity of the dream world adds a chilling feeling of isolation that follows you around the whole game.  And that brings me to the one area Yume Nikki excels in: making you feel uncomfortable.

Despite the harmless appearance of your character, Madotsuki, the game is about as grim as grim can get.  It almost seems like the creator threw a shroud of innocence on a truly unsettling creature.  You won't feel scared at any one point as much as you will be disturbed.  There are many moments that will make you a little bit uncomfortable while playing.  In particular, an odd rainbow creature you encounter that seems to have an odd obsession with stroking a metal pole.  You can't interact with it, and it just runs through a continuous loop of moving its arm back and forth.  Some areas can't even be passed without stabbing a creature first, causing it to emit a shrill scream before fading away.  This game really emulates the experience of dreaming well in that the places that make the least sense are the most upsetting.

But the real creepy-factor in Yume Nikki comes from the dialogue, or rather, lack thereof.  Aside from the text that comes up during the beginning of the game, and the occasional boxes that pop up when you collect an effect, not a single word is displayed on-screen.  None of the NPCs have anything to say, there are no text box descriptions for various objects; the game is completely dialogue-less.  Madotsuki's own mind is an alien world in of its own, as not a single thing in it seems to understand or have any interest in speaking with her.  The eerie music only heightens that overall feeling of isolation brought about by the strangeness of world around you.

Through all of the bleak scenery and themes in Yume Nikki, there's an ever-present depth that has me wondering about everything around me.  The ending, which I'm not going to spoil here, is dark but powerful.  Like an author might use strong words to convey messages, the creator of Yume Nikki uses some strong and disturbing imagery and gameplay to convey the messages found in the game.  There's an unsung sort of beauty to the way this game is presented, and the bond the player forms with Madotsuki is stronger than I've experienced with any other heroin.  This is not a game for the faint-of-heart, and most certainly not one for children.  Besides suffering from a couple issues like aimless wandering and lack of direction, Yume Nikki is a title I highly recommend for anyone serious about games, art, or brilliant pieces of media in general.


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