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Yume Nikki (PC) artwork

Yume Nikki (PC) review

"This really isn't a review of Yume Nikki."

1. It's been six years since I last wrote a video game review.

2. When deciding on a game to review for AlphaOlympics 2017, I had a hard time figuring out which one to choose. There are plenty of games beginning with Y, but so many of them, it turns out, are epics. And so it was that I realised: I don't have time to play video games any more. I'd known this for a while, deep down, but anything that would require more than a couple-of-hour commitment was off the cards, and that brought it home. There's an adventure game called Yesterday, which looked like it could be beaten in an afternoon with a walkthrough, but it also looked shit, and my tolerance for shit adventure games disappeared - ooh - roughly around the time I reviewed them all for HonestGamers.

3. Since 2011, my journey away from games writing has led to my bobbing around different roles in the industry - from production to ops to PR - but, increasingly, I've found myself in situations where there's no place for long, elaborate, flowery prose. I find I'm now more comfortable with concise, efficient content structures; clearly delineated sections without segue; numbered lists and bullet points to illustrate my working.

4. Yume Nikki is:

- A game
- A title that begins with Y
- Therefore a suitable choice of game for this review

5. I've reviewed it before. Right here on HonestGamers, in fact, back in 2009. Is that cheating? It's also free to download, and only 48mb in size, making a traditional review kind of pointless. This suits me just fine.

6. Yume Nikki follows the story of Madotsuki, a teenager in Japan who mainly takes solace in her dreams. (Yume Nikki, by the way, translates as 'Dream Diary'.) These dreams play out in the form of strange, 8-bit DMT trips, in which your only goal is to collect a variety of tools and power-ups - some of which aid your progress, some of which don't.

It's a game of perplexing visual themes and infuriating geography. Yume Nikki's top-down maps take the form of enormous mazes. You'll walk through them (later you can speed up your travels by riding a bicycle, should you find it), and you'll do very little else, other than absorbing yourself in neon geometry, glancing at otherworldly beings, who scurry to and fro and, aside from a few exceptions, seem oblivious to your presence.

7. I gave Yume Nikki a score of 9 out of 10 when I reviewed it before. I re-read the review. I talked a lot about its psychological themes and the artistry with which it portrayed a terribly sad young life, and a mind yearning for freedom but trapped by itself. I seemed to really like the game. Today I find it infuriating. I can't play for more than a few minutes at a time. Maybe there's a statement there; maybe I read too much into it before. Whatever: I now find it incredibly dull, impossible to enjoy at a basic level.

8. I found Yume Nikki striking and beautiful the first time around: a portrait of a lone teenage girl, struggling to break free of her inner demons. I suspect this reading came from a place of naivety: my ignorance, maybe, of Japanese culture and society. I recall later learning more about its inspirations. I discovered that Madotsuki is actually an unusual casting for Yume Nikki's protagonist, because it is largely young men, rather than women, who retreat in the way Madotsuki does.

Japan has a problem, and it's only in recent years that the extent of the problem has become apparent. When Yume Nikki was first released, back in 2003, people could only guess at the number of hikikomori: teenagers, overwhelmingly boys, who slowly retreat from the real world, and hole themselves up in their rooms, eschewing social contact. It wasn't yet common knowledge that Japan had one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, an extraordinary 25,000 per year, second only to neighbouring South Korea. Documentaries on Western television had yet to pick up on the fact that Japan faces a crisis of population at odds with the rest of the globe, decreasing rather than increasing, with so many people of childbearing age unable or unwilling to form romantic relationships.

Last year, the Japanese government released the results of a study that found that 541,000 18-35-year-olds live in complete isolation, aside from low-level contact with their parents. That's almost three per cent of the young adult population - which is actually a slight reduction on a similar study a few years before, although the 2016 survey showed a trend toward longer periods of isolation, up to decades at a time. There is now a serious concern, and a government-level conversation, about what will happen to these people in the year 2030, when their mothers and fathers - by that time reaching the average life expectancy - begin to die.

9. I find myself more interested in reading the data than playing the game. Yume Nikki chooses a bold subject matter, but it's a surface-level exploration at best. Madotsuki explores her dreams but, aside from a firm shake of the head when you attempt to make her leave her bedroom, she never communicates. So it’s fascinating, and often deeply upsetting, to read the comments of real-world hikikomori, struggling to reintegrate into society.

"I started to blame myself and my parents also blamed me for not going to school," a man named Hide told BBC News a few years ago, recalling his descent into isolation. "The pressure started to build up. Then, gradually, I became afraid to go out and fearful of meeting people. And then I couldn't get out of my house."

Parental expectations appear to be a theme. Another recovering hikikomori, Matsu, added: "I was very well mentally, but my parents pushed me the way I didn't want to go." He wanted to become a computer programmer for a large Japanese firm. His father was adamant that he should pursue a more creative endeavour, and become his own boss, just as he had done years before.

The perceived differences between men and women also seem to play a role in our understanding of hikikomori: why is it that it is so heavily associated with young men? Glasgow University's Andy Furlong speculates that this may even be a misreading. There is such an expectation that young women will blend quietly into the background, he says, that perhaps the number of hikikomori has been chronically under-reported, as reams of struggling young women pass by unnoticed, assumed instead to be meek and unassuming.

To understand hikikomori, it seems, one needs to understand the nuances of Japanese society: the deeply entrenched social structures, the pressure upon individuals to confirm, and the ways in which a modern, globalised Japan is increasingly clashing with its traditions of old. Japan, it is clear, is a country in the midst of dramatic change, and this change has brought with it an unfathomable amount of pain.

10. This really isn't a review of Yume Nikki any more, is it?

11. I've never visited Japan. Historically I always said I wasn't that interested. I was always unusual, being a person involved in the games industry, with no desire to take that pilgrimage. But the truth is, I was scared. Travelling is a thing of which I said, "Oh, yes, it would have been nice to have done that, but I suppose I'm not in that stage of my life any more." In reality, the thought of weeks spent thousands of miles away from home comforts was a trigger for anxiety.

That's changed in recent years and, now, instead of spending my money on material possessions, I save up, and travel to new places with my partner. Japan isn't on our radar just yet, but later this year we'll be visiting both India and the United Arab Emirates for the first time. I'm still nervous, those old anxieties clinging on for dear life, but it's something I want to do: to cast aside my own slightly withdrawn past, and venture out into a new, unexplored world. (Unexplored, that is, aside from the hundreds of thousands of tourists who do the same thing each year, but still.)

12. If this isn't a review of Yume Nikki any more, what is it? In many ways, I suppose it's an exploration of change: of shifting attitudes, feelings and emotions, cultural landscapes. On both a micro and macro level, the world is different to how it was eight years ago. Since then, we've seen two console generations, an even bigger upsurge of indie games, and new genres begin to emerge from the embers of old ones. On a personal level, I'm now in my late twenties and and working in PR, instead of in my early twenties and sitting in my pants nattering about video games for something I pretended was a sustainable living. My tastes have changed. My outlook on life has changed. Games have changed. Somehow, Yume Nikki seems to have changed.

13. So what can we take from all this? I think the fact that change is always going to be difficult, no matter who you are, where in the world you are, what stage of life you're in. Whether it's parents who battle with their children's differing outlooks, or troubled adults struggling to reintegrate into society after two decades withdrawn; a nation with deeply held traditional values trying to hold onto them while adapting to the modern world, or video game PR reps trying to live a little more as they approach 30. As a species, we have a problem with change. We don't like it. We fear it. It's uncomfortable and frightening and the status quo is more predictable.

But with change, I think, comes hope. An opportunity to challenge problematic worldviews. A chance to help those in need. There now exist charities in Japan, whose sole purpose is to help recovering hikikomori on their journey back to full health. The numbers are dropping. Their parents, still alive, are visiting their loved ones in rehab centres, reassuring them that they are still loved, still part of the family, no matter what their difference in beliefs.

Somewhere, in Tokyo or Osaka or Niigata, I hope that a real-life Madotsuki is re-emerging - still following her dreams, but this time, out there, in the world.

LewisTheSecond's avatar
Community review by LewisTheSecond (June 21, 2017)

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hastypixels posted June 23, 2017:

Dunno about anyone else, but I appreciated this thoughtful discourse.

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