We used to dream
We used to dream, but now we worry about dying.
Whenever I hear Earthbound’s walking around music, I feel like I’m discovering something. That’s my favorite feeling in video games: the joy of discovery. That’s what makes video games noteworthy, something worth writing about: that over the next hill, there could always be something fantastic, and you’ve moved your own feet to get there.
That’s what’s punk rock about video games: pulling the new, kicking and screaming, from the body of the old. Super Mario Brothers begets Braid. Final Fantasy begets Cthulhu Saves the World. The Sims begets Cart Life.
Earthbound begets Yume Nikki
Yumi Nikki, a RPGMaker game with its own detailed wiki, sits in its own little world, like mother Earthbound does, a world where other video games either don’t exist or are wholly irrelevant. Earthbound didn’t follow the trends of popular (or even unpopular!) gaming at the time, and neither does Yumi Nikki. It stars a Japanese hikikomori who withdraws from the world, whose only experiences come in her dreams.
What dreams they are! Describing them would be to rob the title of all of its value; suffice it to say that the game plumbs the depths of the human subconscious, providing players with a constant state of wonderment at what could be just off-screen.
And that’s all the game gives you. There’s no motivation for the player or for the player character besides an insatiable desire to see what’s happening, to explore the world that they find inside their own mind. When you get there, nothing’s spelled out for you, either. You have to explore, find novelty hidden inside other novelties, and grow yourself.
What makes Yume Nikki noteworthy is its rejection of conventions, its punk rock appeal. It does things video games rarely do. It’s made in RPGMaker, a platform which has produced very few games with real critical appeal (the weird and wonderful Space Funeral, the sentimental To the Moon), rejecting traditional avenues to indie success. Furthermore, like Earthbound it tends more towards abstraction than meaning or reality: unlike Earthbound, it falls wholeheadedly into the abstract.
Video game symbolism
Video games are primarily a visual medium, and as such we can ascribe them points on Scott McCloud’s “Comics Map”, discussed in his book Understanding Comments. This map is a triangle with three terms—reality, meaning, and abstraction—at each point. Reality is the attempt to convey real life through pictures; Meaning is the focus on the idea rather than actual representation of life; and abstraction refers to expressing ideas in nontraditional, symbolic ways.
On the chart above, video games tend towards the bottom of the triangle: they split between expressing reality and ditching the conventions of reality for the meaning contained within. There’s little symbolism in the mass market video game because it rarely tells a complete story, and we, as gamers, are devoted to the idea of story. But symbolism can be a narrative device, and Yumi Nikki uses it to tell an entire story.
As you explore the girl’s dreams in Yume Nikki you explore neither linear stories nor even traditional gameplay mechanics, but rather you are confronted by symbols. Instead of characters you have a faceless ghost, a smiling guillotine, and Shitai-san, “Mr. Corpse.” There are lizard people who speak in random strings of five numbers, strange walking jellyfish monsters, and creepy girls devoid of color. Arms and legs protrude from the ground with symbolic certainty. Some worlds are normal, like the picaresque snow world, while others, like the infamous “number world”, are unsettling, with numbers writ across the floor, a blurry top-down image of the area scrolling in the background.
All of these elements mean something. We don’t know what they mean, and the game is reticent to even tell us what some of these symbols are. We’re forced to draw our own conclusions about what the game’s creator expects us to take from Yumi Nikki; in fact, I’d imagine they didn’t have any specific answer for us to take from the game. We’re placed into a world of symbols and symbolic action, and we are expected to draw our own conclusions. And fans have drawn many conclusions, as evidenced by the wiki’s intense theories page.
We still dream
To say abstraction another way, it is imagination. My favorite moments of games are when I’m allowed to imagine my own conclusions. One of the best scenes in Earthbound is when Everdred, a hustler who’d been a major part of the plot two towns earlier, is found outside of Fourside’s Jackie’s Cafe. He’s wounded, on the ground, abandoned by one of his business partners, a man you’re chasing down. After saying his piece, he wanders off screen, and his future is left for the player to decide.
This ambiguity is the heart and soul of games. Tell us everything and there’s nothing left to explore. When Everdred first wandered off I followed him, down the streets of Fourside, searching every nook and cranny for hints of a man who had, at most, a tertiary relationship to the plot. More than just a plot piece, Everdred was a symbol: the dangers of corruption, the fallacy of living an evil life. He disappears, and we’re not able to find him, even though we still care about him. He’s been doomed by his own fate.
But someone else could have an entirely different experience of this event! They might think he just walked off screen. Maybe he went to get his revenge. You don’t know any better than I do. The game doesn’t tell us specifically what’s happened, and we don’t need to know, because in our mind we’ve filled in the loose end.
Yume Nikki writes this strategy large across video games. It’s trying to get you to think about your comfortable relationship with games by telling you a profoundly different story than you are used to. It’s showing us what a world would be like stripped of story, with only the narrative mechanics that offer it left in place. In this sense, it’s the postmodern art of video games. It’s akin to The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich, Matisse’s The Yellow Curtain, Fellini’s 8 ½. Yumi Nikki shares more with those games than it does with any others, and we need this sort of game to remind us that we’re dreaming, that we can dream. That instead of our video games being about kill counts and murdering rows upon rows of archaeologist thugs, they can be about our dreams.