Madotsuki going down some stairs, nothing to see here.
Year 2004. A person hiding under the name “Kikiyama” makes Yume Nikki (Dream Diary), a rather unique RPG Maker game which would steadily gather more and more fans throughout the years. It recently landed on Steam too. Have you ever played with RPG Maker 2000? I did a lot of that in middle school and would recommend you trying it out too. The app gives you rather limited possibilities – a typical first generation JRPG battle system, 320×240 as the maximum resolution, and the most basic tools a proper game programmer would have. But, if you were a serious type, after fucking around with the program for a while, you’d ask yourself the question: “Could I make a genuinely good game with that?” It seems to me that Kikiyama had that thought too. One way you could go about trying to make a valid game in RPG Maker looks like this: you give up using the default RPG-making tools the app gives you and make your own game rules from the ground up. You try to make a game of a different genre. The interactivity offered by this environment is extremely limited – the player can only use the four arrow keys, Enter and Escape. So, you could try to throw the option of appealing to your audience with gameplay out the window and focus on impressing them only with the game’s aesthetics…
After starting the game, you land in a small room where you can’t do much apart from talking to the bed and falling asleep. There, in the dreamworld, you wander a surreal, disturbing hellscape. At a glance, it seems that’s all there is to Yume Nikki – it’s only a toy that shows you bizarre imagery. Not a game – there’s no gameplay nor a way to beat the game. But, if you explored the dreamworld long enough, you’d discover collectable items, Effects, which can be used to change the appearance of Madotsuki (the player’s avatar – you can only learn her name by looking at the game’s menu). That hardly counts as gameplay, but it’s something – you could now try to gather all of the Effects, and it would be possible to write a walkthrough for Yume Nikki.
2013. A comic adaptation of Yume Nikki appears. Try imagining – how would you adapt this surreal little video game into a comic? Tomizawa Hitoshi, the artist responsible, took the shortest, most obvious route. The manga is just a visual account of walking through the game. It has all the most memorable moments and characters in it. As you can imagine, it isn’t very good, mainly due to the difference in media. You can’t journey through the dreamworld by yourself in the comic nor can you even hear the creepy, haunting sounds that accompany you in the original. The subpar drawing skills of the author don’t help its case either.
The cover of the novel.
…And now, on to the real point of this blogpost. That same year, 2013, VG Bunko – an light novel imprint created to squeeze some money from existing indie games and Vocaloid songs by making novelization of them – put out Yume Nikki: Anata no Yume ni Watashi wa Inai (Dream Diary: I Am Not in Your Dream). It was written by Akira (日日日), the writer you might associate with Sasami-san@Ganbaranai. It’s available in English at J-Novel Club, but I bought the original Japanese book not long ago instead, since I’ve seen it getting some rather positive reviews. How is it? What’s its relation to the game?
The first noteworthy thing about it: the first of three parts this novel is divided into is written in second person, old text adventure game-style. Most of its paragraphs, including the very first one starts with “you“, or rather “anata“. “You are standing in a small room”. Every single time the second person pronoun is used, it refers to her. Is the reader supposed to be the protag instead of Madotsuki? Just like in the game, you fall asleep and begin your odyssey in the weird, scary dreamworld. You might think this means Yume Nikki: The Novel later goes down the same erroneous path the manga descends into. Not exactly – since it’s a novel he’s writing, Akira makes fine use of the advantages of the medium he’s working with. He gives the reader some insight into what’s (probably) happening in Madotsuki’s head – not only her emotions, he tries to analyze and interprete whatever You is seeing at any given moment. Very literary, and it works. Even after getting through Part 1, the novel is already way better than the comic, and it’s only the beginning. The deeper into the story, the further away it is from its original source.
Eventually, it turns out that there’s also a “Me” (“Watashi“) beside the “You“. She’d been observing You since the beginning and serving as the hidden narrator. Starting from the second part, she takes over as the focal character of the story. Illustrations seem to suggest that “Me” is Poniko. Me follows You everywhere, constantly thinks of her and talks to her – she gives her a lecture on basics of psychology, starting from Freud and Jung, for example. Wanting to free You from her nightmare, Me tells her to find and crack the meaning of significant items spread around the dreamworld, just like in the game. Now that I think of it, all the Effect-collecting in Yume Nikki brings to mind an introspective quest for self-understanding by dream interpretation. That’s real nifty, Akira.
At some point, You disappears. In despair, Me searches for her, and the deeper she goes into the dreamworld, the clearer it is that it’s Me who’s dreaming and You was only another character in her head. Who is You anyway? Even after gathering all of the Effects, the dream doesn’t end. Me will eventually figure out the mystery of her dream. In between streaks of horror imagery, it offers surprising reveals, getting you closer to the dream’s mystery – its meaning, her suppressed memories, the identity of You, and the true nature of the relationship between Me and You…
Ultimately, Yume Nikki: The Novel strays so far from the game, it becomes a story of its own – an original tale made up by Akira. A gensakuchuu‘s nightmare, you might say? Not really – it gives Yume Nikki substance the original work did not have. It improves greatly upon its predecessor. It makes the creepy meme game into a proper *story*. With progression, ideas, twists and turns, and in the end – a conclusion that explains everything. As far as adaptations go, this novel is pretty great. It’s a display of literary resourcefulness, which puts the whole lot of lazy, low-effort adaptations to shame.
Yume Nikki: The Novel should be then quite high on the quality scale, BUT… In practise, I still wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. It’s a chore to read. Finishing it took me a long time, but we could assume it’s because in Japanese. It might be because it hardly contains any dialogue – the narrator’s lines constitute 99% of the book. The novel isn’t terribly interesting or engaging. And, maybe because the author was afraid of going *too* far into original content territory, the story and both the main characters are terribly vaguely presented and lacking in solidity. He fails to make them into clear, developed characters. In the end, we know nothing about them – let their lack of names be the ultimate symptom of the problem. They don’t have personalities either. If you think for five minutes, it’ll turn out they’re built of a slightly outstanding speech pattern (this only concerns Poniko, as Madotsuki doesn’t even talk) and one or two facts the reader knows about their past. That’s it. There’s surprisingly little flesh on the only two characters in this 250-page novel. Although impressive in a way, Yume Nikki: The Novel was not worth the time I spent with it.