I have a sleep disorder that results in frequent nightmares.

Like a lot of sleep disorders, if gets worse if I’m stressed out or overtired. In 2018 I had nightmares almost every night, punctuated by the odd bout of formless, surreal dreaming. Even my nightmares are weird – more formless dread than slasher-flicks. When I was a kid my dreams used to be straightforward, and for a while I could even control them. I lucid-dreamed an entire second world that lived in my head every night after bedtime. It went on for months, Batman was there. I was a weird kid.

I can’t control my dreams anymore, but I still get nightmares. In quarantine they’ve taken the form of shifting crowds and the sudden realization that I am among them, the shock that comes with avoiding human contact for over 8 months. My greatest fear now, according to my dreams, is accidentally finding myself in high-Covid risk scenarios. And then I’ll lose a shoe or something and everything will kaleidoscope into a Dali painting. I’m a weird adult, too.

Yume Nikki is a game about a girl trapped in an apartment. She lucid-dreams an escape and finds herself trapped in a Dadaist purgatory. Or maybe it’s hell, or heaven, or perhaps her own mind. It’s difficult to tell. Yume Nikk is a horror game, an art piece, and a meditation on the nature of dreams. It is also an exploration of the mind’s capacity to dream itself an escape when no other seems to exist. If that seems beautiful, it is.

Life trapped in an apartment, can you imagine?

Yume Nikki is a phrase that means ‘Dream Diary’, and on the surface level that’s what the game is about. You play as a silent girl named Madotsuki, who finds herself wandering the doors of perception in her mind and unlocking them one by one to explore the dreamscapes inside. But the game doesn’t begin in Madotsuki’s dreams: it begins (and ends) in her room. It’s a tiny space containing her bed, her desk, a stack of books and a television attached to the gaming system on the floor. If there is more to her life we never see it. We’re confined to her tiny room, her tiny bed, and her balcony with its empty laundry rack. It looks out on nothing at all, just the shifting, black clouds that obscure the moon outside.

Madotsuki is an extreme ‘hikikomori‘, a term that refers to a growing phenomenon of intense shut-ins that never leave their rooms in their family homes. They subsist in their own tiny, closed-off sections of the universe, unable to move forward in their lives. Estimates place the amount of real-world hikikomori in Japan at over half a million: some have begun to refer to them as a ‘lost generation‘. Yume Nikki is from 2003, but the hikikomori have only grown since.

We don’t know if Madotsuki has a family. The game has no dialogue whatsoever, and no opening exposition. You’re left on your own. When Madotsuki goes to leave her apartment, she simply stands at the door and shakes her head: “no”. The player isn’t able to proceed. Your only way to move forward in the game – and Madotsuki’s life – is to lie in bed and drift off to sleep, hoping to dream. It’s as stark and intimate a depiction of depression as you’ll find.

Things change in the dream-world. Madotuski wakes up – or doesn’t – on her balcony. The sky has changed colour, and maybe inverted. There’s a glow toward the bottom of the screen that suggests dawn, though it isn’t comforting. Nothing inside the room has changed, Madotsuki’s lonely life is exactly how you left, although oddly her gaming system is gone.

And then you try the door.

Madotsuki steps out into… well, no one is sure. It’s the hub of her dream-world. Symbols and illustrations of monsters cover the ground, and doors lead off in every direction. Madotsuki chooses one – any one, because the game is fully open – and begins to explore. Some are terrifying, most are simply bizarre, and all contain “effects”. Effects are various items that impact Madotsuki’s abilities in the dream world. One is a bike, another is a flute, and many are far more obscure and difficult to parse. Yume Nikki operates on dream logic, so many must be used in particular circumstances elsewhere in the dream world in order to move forward. There are 24 Effects, and collecting them all will finish the game and, presumably, set Madostuki free. You hope.

Each dreamscape in Madotsuki’s mind is distinct in its own strange way, and just because the game lacks dialogue doesn’t mean these worlds are empty. Many contain horrifying visions and monsters, but many more feature strange, ambivalent creatures ambling about, massive shapes shifting in the distance or other, harder to describe creatures. Some will change Madotsuki herself, or she will change them in turn. One plane looks like a subway station, complete with little waiting rooms. At another point you’ll end up in a room full of glowing red eyes with human feet, who seem to be lost in some kind of mosh pit. One more is a desert, another a forest. You might find something that looks like the Tower of Babylon, or a lonely, snow-swept plain with your own bed sitting quietly in the distance.

Yume Nikki is a horror title, but not for the reasons you might think. There is indeed a chance you’ll find a jump-scare – there are several throughout the game, some of them with ridiculously low appearance-rates. It’s completely possible to pass through an area a dozen times and get jumped on the thirteenth by some ghoul you could have sworn didn’t exist before. People are still finding secrets, even sixteen years later, buried deep in the logic of Madostuki’s dreams. Even if you do manage to get her killed, though, Madostuki will simply wake up in her room ready to go to sleep again. She’ll do the same on cue, if you stumble on one of the enemies that traps you in an inescapable room. You just have to hit ‘S.’ There is no way to die, and no way to fight back. It lends every ‘fight’ a sort of desperate, bored energy. You aren’t really being hunted because you can’t be killed – but you can’t kill back, either. At worst you’ll be returned to the start, ready to explore again.

There is only the dream and the creatures that live there, over and over, until you find a way out.

Yume Nikki is terrifying because of the mental anguish it depicts, and the total disorientation that comes with visiting a truly neutral world with no rules, no logic and no escape. It’s cosmic horror because literally anything can happen, and because you are totally and utterly alone, there is no real comfort to be found. Everything that doesn’t hunt you is ambivalent to your presence. You find yourself lost in a truly neutral and capricious universe, and though the existential dread presses in on every side it makes for a strangely comforting play. Like Madotsuki herself, you may as well throw yourself into the dream one more time. Why not? When nothing at all makes sense just have to go with the flow – you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

When you’re facing oblivion anyways, the only way out is through.

Much of the reason Yume Nikki continues to fascinate is because it is the work of a sole, anonymous developer: Kikiyama, who composed the soundtrack and built the game on RPG Maker 2003, and released it for free online a year later. You can still play it for free online if you want to chance your luck on some sketchy websites, or you can grab it on Steam right here. Kikyama returned with a sequel in 2018, so we know he’s still around, but that’s it: Yume Nikki is a lonely, frightening game, given away for free a person we know nothing about. Kikiyama isn’t credited on anything aside from Yume Nikki, and the original game has always been available for free online, like some cursed artifact at the back of a curiosity shop, awaiting some unlucky passer-by.

If it looks a bit like Undertale, that isn’t a coincidence.

Yume Nikki, itself influenced by Earthbound and other oddball adventure titles, has been hugely influential. Toby Fox, the solo developer and composer for Undertale cites it as a huge point of inspiration. Austin Jorgensen, the solo developer for Lisa: The Painful RPG makes note of Yume Nikki too, and you can see its shadow on other dream-logic horror exploration games like Yomawari.

No one seems to be sure who Kikiyama is, but his creepy little dream simulator remains one of the web’s most bizarre and enduring oddities, a testament to the power of the imagination. Go play it, see if it changes you.