Yume Nikki 1: Boxart is a Fake Idea
Teasing, groping, and at times abusing the line between gaming and art, Yume Nikki is one of the most beautiful and upsetting games ever made. Little Bo Beep presents a series exploring this slow-burning nightmare.
Yume Nikki (literally, “Dream Diary”) was born in 2005 by a reclusive Japanese man who goes only by “Kikiyama”, using the RPG Maker 2003 game creation software. It soon gained notoriety on seminal Japanese imageboard 2channel, and eventually came to the attention of English-language forums where emo teens and assorted basement-dwellers glommed hard onto the game’s profoundly dark tone and bizarre, graphic imagery. It has since been translated into English, spawned several theorybation websites, inspired more than one crowdsourced sequel, many elaborate fan animations, and continues to support a robust international fanart community rivalling Cave Story in terms of freakish, unnerving obsession to one man’s minutiae. Suffice it to say this game does not so much hit a nerve, as throttle it.
First, a quick note: Yume Nikki is a series of experiences that can only be had once. Saying this is not to be hoity-toity or ooh-la-la or lookee-here-we-got-us-a-city-boy — it’s simply how Yume Nikki works. You get one chance with this game, so watching videos of its gameplay or using a guide to find things, or even just seeing pictures of the creatures and places you’ll be coming across, has a deflating effect. And athough the game has a concrete ending, heading straight there is the last thing you would want to do. If you have run the length of your tether and can go no further, there is one guide out there which can help you find and figure out the remaining bits, but its author, Scutilla, is unambiguous:
“… my biggest bit of advice regarding this guide would be: don’t use it.”
So if you’re ready to ride the snake, download the game below, turn off the lights (or blow out the candles if all your electricity has been stolen) and do your thing. If it’s not up your alley, you will know pretty quickly, and there are many legitimate reasons for feeling averse. The game is steeped in dread, and not everyone enjoys being genuinely upset by what appears to be, at least superficially, a Nintendo game. On Yume Nikki forums, players have written with concern about not being able to unsee certain things, even though there is nothing traditionally graphic. It is also reasonable to be turned off by the gameplay itself, which can feel open-ended and aimless — boring, in so many words — if you are not feeling its groove.
But one of the neat things about Yume Nikki is that it illuminates concepts larger than itself, so whether you A) have played the game to the end, B) are interested in the game but not enough to install it (a nontrivial task), or C) would just prefer to turn on Sister Wendy (or Father Ted), drink some mulled cider and never hear another word about this degenerate game, we’re safe and spoiler-free to back off and explore broader ideas, as the best art will always inspire us to do.
It is December 28, 1981. Two insufferable moms in affluent Darien, CT are chit-chatting at the salon about trivial matters, as they are known to do. Conversation turns to the new Video Computer Systems they just purchased for their children for Christmas. One complains that the console’s wood-grain plastic clashes with the wainscotting in the family room, but both agree that they had never seen their children so elated.
“But I just don’t get that weird game little Taylor and Snetterton Jr. are playing for hours on end. What on earth is it supposed to be”?
Snet and I were playing Yars’ Revenge. In 1981 every kid was, and for good reason — it was colorful and challenging when very few games were. The cartridge even came with a comic-style booklet describing how the Yar — insectoid folk — were retaliating against the Qotile (the turquoise sideways jockstrap on the right, shielded by a jagged crescent of feces), for its rape of their home planet Razak IV. This was still an era where adding a Roman numeral to a pretend word made for plausible sci-fi, an innocent and half-assed age. Never mind that “Yar” and “Razak” were named for Atari honcho Ray Kassar; somehow I don’t think game author Howard Warshaw was taking all too seriously his effort to clad his little game in backstory, and it’s no surprise that we didn’t either.
“Oh, their imaginations turn those simple TV pictures into something better. Principal Huffington Buffington VII says they’re imagining at a sixth grade level!”
It’s likely that Us Kids weren’t transforming those pixels into anything in our minds, though. Rather, we were simply seeing a thing, becoming totally absorbed by that thing, controlling the thing with a joystick, and thus building a special relationship with it. In Yars’ case, the thing of note was a simplistic, symmetrical assemblage of purple pixels, spitting lines into a brown C, and interacting in various ways with a mesmerizing strip of Multicolor.
Our parents had clearly spent much more time looking at the box than we did. Us Kids did not realize that apparently, that was us on the cover, a gleaming, chitinous exoskeleton of airbrushed astrometal, spitting molten pinballs at … us? Flyguy needs to chill, we’re on his side. And why did the box art look like something we’d find in our older brother’s record collection?
“It looks really simplistic but their imaginations fill in the blanks.”
No. Nothing was being “filled in”. That Atari box was forgotten within seconds, and likely tossed out with the discarded gift wrap (unless you had OCD like your cousin Pierre, in which case you re-created the shrinkwrap using clingfilm and your mom’s hair dryer before storing the box in a repurposed aluminum gun cabinet). The same artwork appeared on the cartridge itself, but even though we handled it daily, it never occurred to us to associate this art with the gameplay itself. The designs on the box and cartridge always had their own separate place in our minds and memories. This was the experience not only of the Atari gamer in the early 80′s, but of every gamer since who has taken control of a protagonist that was, graphically, not definitively one thing or another. Human beings appear to have no problem embodying a monochrome formation of pixels and accepting it for what it is, we do not require any additional descriptive efforts. Can you imagine the boxart for David Shute’s “Small Worlds“? A 3-pixel stick would become a cybermarine in a scorched spacesuit, hurling down a corridor kickboxing his haunted memories. Spare us! Demystification is a villain more evil than any Qotile.
Yars’ Revenge has nothing to do with chrome insects, or whatever the Qotile was supposed to be. We just watched what we saw on our TV screens, interpreted those visuals without any real intermediary, and went about our gaming business. We simply accepted that we actually were that tiny, two-dimensional thing on the television that was different from anything in real life. Our imaginations were engaged, no doubt … but surely not in the way envisioned by our Darien soccer moms. We weren’t playing “as” characters; in talking about our pixelated protag, it was never “that block represents a creature you are controlling”. Nor was it even “that’s your guy”. Instead, it was, and has always been, “that’s you on the left”. You!
A Fake Idea
Since those days, video games have “progressed” along an inexorable path towards realism, and their boxart has followed suit, with two notable exceptions: first in 1983 with the NES, where Nintendo was briefly proud enough of their cutting-edge graphics to decorate game boxes with in-game sprites, and then again in 1986, when Sega adopted the controversial design philosophy that game boxes should suck.
Nintendo got over their nifty graphics pretty quickly, however, as did their fickle gamers, who were no longer impressed by the detail in Mario’s snotfire. By the time Super Mario Brothers 2 (née Doki Doki Panic) was released, things in games were more closely resembling things in meatspace, and boxart reflected this. When you compare the two Mario boxes side-by-side, you can almost feel your imagination shutting off when your eyes move to the SMB 2 box. Gone is the strange, two-dimensional avatar we look forward to inhabiting in a weird way, replaced by an utterly unremarkable cartoon Mario in exultation following a successful rutabaga heist. Hey, thanks for scrubbing away that joyful strangeness, and replacing it with this goofy Saturday morning style pablum, leaving our brains with nothing to do. If you needed the money, you could have just said so.
Boxart is a fake idea. It implies that we as an audience and participant are incapable of parsing abstract stimuli, and that games need to be more and more like real life in order for us to enjoy them. This is not only untrue, it is damaging to the truth. And it doesn’t take a high-minded person to appreciate this … in 1981, even Special Little Timmy down the block had no problem immersing himself happily for hours in what the modern gaming industry would consider the “unsatisfactory” graphics of Yars’ Revenge. Of course, boxart is in the purview of marketing, and these games receive their adornments long after they’ve left the hands of their creators. There has never been much choice for Nintendo, let alone a smaller publisher, to compete in crowded shelf space without communicating something bright and immediately appealing to browsing eyes.
But the damage done to games was lasting, and only now that independent games flourish are we seeing abundant creativity to make up for those lost decades of realism. In Yume Nikki, the special connection we have with abstract graphics is a critical underpinning of our experience. The game is dependent upon our ability to encounter what we see directly, without any layers of interpretive interference. It becomes important for us to see something like the dark environment above, and not try to compare it with any place we have been in real life. It must necessarily be a self-sufficient setting, requiring no corollary. It must remain fundamentally a Weird Place. And one wonders whether the endless stream of Yume Nikki fan art is in some respects an attempt to bring the game’s characters and worlds closer to our own, where they can do less harm.
Download and Installation
Not a painless process. I generally refer potential players to the Yume Nikki post at indiegames.com. Its primary download link gets you a package of everything you need to get started, and the blurb provides just the right amount of information. Although the included installation instructions are accurate, they fail to mention that if you have not already installed support for East Asian languages, you will need a Windows CD or ISO to do so. Also, the “Japanese” menu item in Windows’ Regional and Language settings appears, appropriately enough, in Japanese (as 日本語, although that won’t help you until you have Japanese support installed). Don’t be scared off — for many people, the entire process takes only a couple of minutes, though for others it can be quite a mess. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.