This review is for Yume Nikki: I Am Not in Your Dream, a novel written by Akira and illustrated by Aco Arisaka. It was released in Japanese in August 2013, and is based on an unusual and surreal pixel-based exploration game made by Japanese developer Kikiyama. The Yume Nikki game was created with RPG Maker 2003, and released in June 2004. The game is available in English for free on PC via Steam. The novel I’ll be reviewing is a self-contained volume, and was released in ebook formats by J-Novel Club in January 2018.
I first played the Yume Nikki game about… oh, probably 8 or 10 years ago, somewhere around there. What feels like a whole lifetime ago. I’ve never been into games too much, but around that time I took an interest in what I’d call “pixel horror RPGs,” most of which were indie titles from Japan I could download on my laptop for free and play through in five or so hours. I enjoyed titles such as Ib, The Witch’s House, and The Crooked Man because they each told an interesting little horror story in a unique way, and I liked the characters.
Yume Nikki was different from all of these titles, and others of their ilk (Ao Oni, Mad Father, Corpse Party, etc), in that it didn’t really have a story. In Yume Nikki (“Dream Diary”), you play as a girl named Madotsuki. From what I understand, the name isn’t a real one, but mado means window in Japanese (and indeed, there is what appears to be a window to her heart, emblazoned on her sweater). In the game, Madotsuki goes to bed and falls asleep, and pretty much all you do control-wise is have her walk around in bizarre dream worlds. You start by picking one of twelve doors, each of which leads to a unique dreamscape (each of which in turn has doors and hidden passages that lead to even more strange places). Much of the game has you walking through large and discomforting empty spaces, making for a slow and lonely experience that is highly unusual for video games. But there is still much to find and see, in terms of strange creatures and unsettling imagery. There are even a few people you can run into, but they are hard to find — and without any in-game dialogue, there isn’t much that actually happens in the chance you do run into them.
What was it I liked about such an aimless, dull-sounding game? I think it all boils down to the game’s atmosphere, and its abundance of attention-grabbing “moments” that felt well-designed for encouraging the player to attempt some kind of interpretation or analysis. To give one small example that stood out to me, there was a time when I was traveling through a large desert-like region that had odd, thick swirling vines in place of cacti. I stumbled upon an area where the music shifted from its gloomy echoing ambience to a lively, happy party tune. Going a little further, I found a group of three of the tall and lanky bird-faced girls, who were dancing to the music (provided by a boom box) and enjoying a picnic of cake and rice balls. I couldn’t join in the festivities though, because there were vines that blocked the way. The game does not explain the point of any of this being in one of Madotsuki’s dreams, so it is up to you to decide if it means anything or not. It could simply indicate Madotsuki as a social outcast in real life, or it could allude to something more.
I did feel that it had to mean something though, as the whole scene felt far too specific and intentional to just be something random for random’s sake. This is how the whole game operates, and I believe this is why it attained something of a cult status back in the day–and why it still has its fans even now, still sharing theories with each other and debating the meaning of every small detail.
With all this in mind, how in the world would anyone go about writing a light novel for Yume Nikki? It seems like a task that could only be handled by a certain kind of author–one who is fully willing to experiment and push the boundaries of what constitutes a typical story. And Akira seems to be just the right author for such a task, having written a wide assortment of weird and quirky books such as Sasami-san@Ganbaranai, Mushi to Medama, and Biscuit Frankenstein.
The first third of the Yume Nikki novel really caught me by surprise. Akira wrote this part of the story in 2nd-person point of view, meaning the viewpoint character is you. You are the one dreaming and exploring the dream world, just as you would if you were playing the Yume Nikki game. I found this part of the book fascinating, much of it feeling a lot like poetry. The prose itself is very simple, but Akira did an excellent job at translating the surreal atmosphere of the game into a text format. I could recognize everything as Yume Nikki, but it didn’t feel like a bland retread of material I was already familiar with either. I thoroughly enjoyed this section of the book, and can safely say I’ve never had an experience remotely like it in any other novel I’ve read. It really got across the feeling of getting lost in a dream.
Things change for the other two-thirds of the novel though, and my feelings for the rest of the story are mixed. The point of view transitions from 2nd to 1st-person, from you to I, and we follow another character from the Yume Nikki game: a girl with a blonde ponytail (thus dubbed “Poniko” by fans), who in the game lives in a cone-shaped house on an island in a pink sea, but in this novel is trying to follow Madotsuki through all the dream worlds. At first I was disappointed in the shift in viewpoint, but eventually I found it intriguing? It perhaps just took me by surprise–which, I suppose, is fitting for Yume Nikki.
But more significantly, the story also shifted in how it went about the dreaming in general. In the first act, there isn’t an explanation given for any of the things “you” encounter (as Madotsuki is silent). But in the second and third acts, the narrator is very actively trying to make sense of everything. She discusses Jungian dream interpretation at great length with other characters she comes across, which on one hand I found quite interesting, but on the other hand I did not feel it meshed as well as it could have with the story at large. Sometimes it works well enough, but sometimes it drags on a bit too long, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to have much of a point.
That said, I still liked reading the second and third acts of this book, and I did find the ending–the conclusion the narrator reaches for the meaning behind the dreams–to be very interesting (and definitely a unique topic for light novels). It actually made for a rather one-of-a-kind interpretation of Yume Nikki, which I appreciated as someone who has read a lot of theories over the years. In that respect, perhaps making a character other than Madotsuki be the main character for most of the book was the way to go, as it’s not only something the readers wouldn’t expect, but it also allowed the author to delve into aspects of the game from a direction that most players would never have considered.
I will go ahead and recommend this book to anyone looking for something that’s completely 100% different from anything else we have for light novels in English. Yume Nikki does not feature anything resembling adventure, comedy, or romance, and it’s kind of a stretch to call it a mystery, drama, or even horror in any traditional sense. It’s really it’s own thing, and for that I’m really glad J-Novel Club was willing to bring it over for us to read in English.
Cho’s Rating: Recommended
(But I do suggest giving the game a spin first if you haven’t yet, to see if you like that.)
You can purchase the ebook online via sites like Amazon. This is an affiliate link, so a small percentage of sales goes toward this site.