As the world pivots more to the integrated and homogenized Web 3.0 that we are used to, we run the risk of losing some of the more obscured gems of the previous decades. In Web 1.0 and 2.0, with a much more decentralized Internet, oftentimes cult classics such as Yume Nikki could only be shared through word of mouth. Born in the depths of the earliest imageboard era networking, Yume Nikki managed to crawl out of the gutter of obscurity and become a cultural touchstone, influencing future works and storytelling within games for decades.
Originally posted on 2chan, a Japanese pre-cursor to 4chan, Yume Nikki gained traction among a small number of devoted players in some of the most obscure areas of the earlier web. The creator, known only by the name “Kikiyama”, released a few updates over the years with more content and bug fixes before finalizing Yume Nikki with version 0.10 in 2007.
Yume Nikki’s quiet debut was that of a passion project, a single person’s dream painstakingly pored over with no dream of critical success. Despite this, it managed to find its way organically across the deeper parts of the net, being swapped across imageboards and eventually becoming an integral part of the underground Internet scene of the early 2000s.
The question begs, what makes Yume Nikki so iconic?
The first thing I should clarify is that no one truly knows what Yume Nikki means. Yume Nikki will never be any more complete than it is now, and we are left only to wonder about the intention, themes, and imagery that appears within it. There is an official “ending”, but it really seems to be only a singular point plotted within Yume Nikki, offering little explanation for the rest of the world. Yume Nikki is not a linear story, it is fittingly similar to a restless night’s dream: inherently meaningful, but never meant to be entirely understood.
From what we are given, however, Yume Nikki is believed to be the story of a hikikomori, with reoccurring themes of mental illness and trauma hidden amongst the surrealism. Madotsuki, the protagonist, is unwilling to leave her room while awake (an important distinction, she simply shakes her head when one tries to exit) and the majority of the game can only be experienced by getting in bed and falling asleep to enter the dream state.
When entering the dream, one may finally open the door to the apartment. From there are 12 doors to choose from initially, with many, many interlocking passages and secrets inside. Inside of the dreams, one will find “Effects”, items that trigger a change in Madotsuki’s appearance and sometimes give her an ability. Some are helpful and even necessary to collect other Effects, however, some are totally useless — parallel to the nature of dreams. Collecting these Effects is the only stated goal of the game and the only way to reach the ending is by dropping all 24 in the dream door room, however, for most the experience is not boiled down to achieving this goal and is instead the journey that it incurs.
It is not the gameplay that made the Yume Nikki a cultural phenomenon, so one must look deeper into the experience to understand why it garnered adoration from some of the darkest pockets of the early internet.
Yume Nikki specifically connects people across the internet because of the thematic isolation. It is hard to describe exactly how it paralleled the internet by today’s standards because of how drastically the internet has changed over the past decade, understanding the nature of the early 2000s Internet is integral to understanding the cultural impact that Yume Nikki had because the two are linked in the way that allowed it to proliferate so many different circles and affect so many different people in a time where we were less connected.
In the earlier incarnations of the Internet, rarely was one tied to their real world identity as is the case now. Most users were instead under monikers and usernames that allowed a bit of anonymity, and in that anonymity, a more personal experience. Through this, aided by the vagueness of Yume Nikki itself, it is easy to understand why those of us who lived in the digital world completely independent of the real world were able to closely relate with Madotsuki, who ultimately becomes something of an icon for more isolated internet dwellers overall.
Regardless of the way that one expresses themselves online, the earlier Internet was a much lonelier place by comparison to the world of today. Before the advent of cell phones, social media, and platforms like Discord that are able to bridge social gaps with ease, the Internet required a more sleuthy approach to find community. Your people were hidden away in forums, message boards, or other tiny groups scattered across a larger Internet. There was certainly a type of journey to find the connection that one craved. Yume Nikki strangely encapsulates this experience in some ways, and it is easy to see the ways that early net denizens were able to find if not comfort then at least understanding within this winding world of corridors and isolation.
To support this idea connecting the loneliness of withdrawn or marginalized people between Yume Nikki and its players, it is important to look at the cruel and hostile world present in Yume Nikki. Most NPCs are at the very least off-putting, and Madotsuki is largely ignored by the ones that are not actively hostile or menacing. This is very in-line with the ideas of isolation and trepidation that seem to follow Madotsuki, even in her dreams she is still an outlier navigating a world that doesn’t care about her at best, and seeks to harm her at worst. Most outright threats are hidden away, making the experience more sinister overall. Instead of a monster chasing you, they are posted along the wayside, waiting for you to open the door or walk by.
Without giving away too much for prospective players, an example of one of the more ominous figures in the game is a silent NPC that simply stands by a staircase.
This NPC can only be accessed by using the Knife effect on a door that is essentially a sentient zipper. When one enters the bleeding doorway, this phallic figure is present, who simply rubs the staircase rail and leers at Madotsuki. This is the type of imagery in Yume Nikki that leads fans to endless speculation. While specifics will never be given to us, Yume Nikki is oftentimes pretty blatant as far as symbology goes. This is corroborated further when one continues up the stairs, where one of the most iconic “Dead End” events occurs — necessitating pinching oneself to wake up.
Yume Nikki makes its fears and anxieties known in this sort of language, somewhat outright but also obscured from concrete speculation. By this measure, it becomes much more accessible for the average player in that no specifics are given and the user is able to insert themselves or their own interpretations with ease. By framing threats or haunts in a less defined way the world seems to become a generalized space of discomfort, which in turn makes it easier for the average player to understand and participate in.
For anyone at the odds of normal society this idea of a hostile world hits home, and we are able to gain greater insight into the ways that people from many different walks of life are able to sympathize with the same feelings of disillusionment and mistreatment within the real world. Through this parallel, it is easy to see why people who flocked to the Internet for a separate digital life might also empathize with the way that traumas that Madotsuki seems to have experienced in the “real world” brought her to her own secret world.
The experience of the dream worlds is another reason that the game has grown so far from its origin. Rife with symbols, theme, and plenty of mysterious imagery to decipher, even without trying to decode the language of the dreams one may find themselves lost for hours. Every door connects to somewhere else, perhaps even another dream, and one may amble around for hours without reaching a dead end. And there are most certainly dead ends, like the one encountered after finding your way to the staircase with KyuuKyuu-kun.
While the spirit of the game may be accessible for the player, there is still a voyeuristic distance from Madotsuki that makes the game feel comforting (or at least compelling) to navigate. In this way, Yume Nikki avoids a central narrative that controls the experience and largely leaves the takeaway of the game up to the player entirely. Yume Nikki merely presents itself and its ideas in the form of symbology, requiring nothing more than the will to explore its world, and explicitly offering nothing to the player as a reward, encouraging the production of personal meaning and interpretation rather than a finite end with a definite message.
Yume Nikki also comes with some famous imagery that, in addition to protagonist Madotsuki, has found footholds across the Internet. The most famous of which, a particularly prolific early internet figure — also the symbol that introduced me to Yume Nikki in the first place — is Uboa.
Encountered only by a 1/64 chance of flipping the light switch in Poniko’s room and activating the event, Uboa is the most iconic symbol of Yume Nikki aside from Madotsuki herself. There is very little explanation of Uboa and their role within the story, but fan theories have run rampant for years. The significance is overall totally up to interpretation, but the image of Uboa sprawls across the Internet like a secret handshake for those who have entered the dream world. From 4chan posts to Team Fortress 2 sprays, anywhere even slightly inundated with online culture in the 2000s could have Uboa pop up.
One of the most famous projects descended from Yume Nikki, Toby Fox’s Undertale, even has a character heavily inspired by Uboa. The likeness and cryptic nature of the character is clearly attributable in some part to Yume Nikki, and serves as an excellent example of the way that the fluidity of loosely-defined characters allows for personal interpretation and experience to become the meaning instead of fandom.
Other famous characters like Ponoko, Monoe, Monoko, and Masada-san can be found in the bizarre places Yume Nikki has made its way to. Without any concrete backstory or explanation, these characters bear more of a symbolic virtue, and as a result have much more freedom in their application than a defined character from a narrative. Their significance to the player is totally subjective, but there is a strange attachment to these symbols of Yume Nikki, and it carries them far and wide across the greater Internet.
The appearance of Uboa that introduced me to the world of Yume Nikki was as inconsequential as a T-shirt bearing his image on Roblox that an old friend of mine wore. This is the way that Yume Nikki is able to distribute itself: purely through the unique impact that it leaves upon its players.
As far as inspirations go, Yume Nikki is a far-reaching one. Within the world of RPGMaker bedroom projects, “art games”, and other more streamlined indie games, there is a common thread that often traces back to Yume Nikki. Even games currently in the zeitgeist like OMORI are directly influenced by this almost 20 year old game, a testament to the way that it has extended far beyond its original birthplace.
Other games like Doki Doki Literature Club, Anodyne, Oneshot, and LISA, underground successes of the 2010s, all can attribute parts of their inspiration to Yume Nikki as well. Aside from projects inspired by Yume Nikki, there are also several fan-made sequels, such as .flow and Yume 2kki. I would recommend taking a look at the sprawling list of fangames if you’re curious to see the different ways that this inspiration manifests.
Yume Nikki is truly a unique beast with a very loaded history and impact on the larger internet. With so many different interpretations and inspirations all derived from the central source material, it is easy to see why something like a devoted bedroom project could find itself becoming a larger phenomenon. While kikiyama might have had a particular experience in mind, or at least perhaps more interpretable if you were one of their peers around the original release, Yume Nikki has evolved into an entirely different beast, and that is part of the triumph. The beauty of the game is that with no defined meaning, one truly is only able to interpret it through their own lens, and there are numerous people across what used to be a very tiny Internet who have been deeply affected by this hidden gem.
If you have never played Yume Nikki, I implore you to give it a shot with an open mind and see what there is to find for yourself within the dream.