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Yume Nikki and the .flow of Surrealism

For some reason, as a kid, when I first saw .flow I thought it was the most terrifying video game to ever exist. I couldn’t look at the main menu without being deeply unsettled, let alone watch videos of people playing it. Years later, I became drawn to it, and I played the entire game from start to finish in the span of three or four days. Something about the story line, the characters, the music, graphics and the environment just clicked with me.

One of my worst childhood fears, I now absolutely adore.

I am one hell of a sucker for two things; dreams portrayed in art and media, and obscurity. I have quite the fancy for surrealism, abstract art, and whatever fits in between. There’s almost always some hidden emotion or feeling that can only be described and expressed using either broad or concise brushes of grey matter, no matter who or what you are.

Obscurity, on the other hand, may or may not be a strange thing to love so much. It can sometimes give the feeling that you’re viewing something not meant for others--something only you could appreciate and understand, like wonderful exclusivity. Another benefit obscurity offers is the oh-so-common cult following that precedes any classic. Oftentimes, a cult following can be so much more loyal and endearing than a crowd of fans; and who doesn't love being a hipster?

More importantly, it's about giving the recognition and love that a quality piece of art deserves, regardless of popularity or whatever else is bringing the art down from reaching the general masses. Love is all about appreciating something even through its faults, shortcomings or negative qualities, and it doesn’t just apply to people.

I am filled with that kind of love. So many pieces of art have negative qualities, dinks or scratches in its polish that (to my eye) add to the experiences any kind of art will give. It's an absolute bias, yes. I am possibly "too" attached to the wonderful feeling of confusion and strangeness that a good piece of art befitting my tastes provides, but gosh is that feeling such a rush.

And it would be rare, if ever, for others to share my feelings for something as obscure as Yume Nikki: usually I can be credited as the biggest fan of some enigma floating about on the internet without exaggeration. But for once, there is a community of people that love this wonderfully surreal and imaginative game as much as I do.

Yume Nikki (Dream Diary) places you in the role of Madotsuki, a "hikikomori" who is implied to spend their entire life indoors, adamantly refusing to open her bedroom door.

And for those who aren't aware, a hikikomori is a lifestyle somewhat unique to Japan. Hikikomoris are known to spend every waking moment of their lives alone, either afraid, incapable or simply not needing to leave the comfort of loneliness. As technology grows and delivery food becomes increasingly elaborate and possibly nutritious, it's much more feasible to never see daylight in the span of several months than ever before.

The first thing anyone will do when playing Yume Nikki for the first time is attempt to leave Madotsuki’s room--but that results in a stern head shake of disapproval from Madotsuki. The player can spend some time on NASU, the aforementioned repetitive and unenjoyable game, but other than that, they have no choice but to sleep inside Madotsuki’s bed.

And in Madotsuki’s dreams, the game truly begins.

The only objective or goal the player has is to explore the mind-bending landscape of Madotsuki’s psyche, collecting ‘effects’--powerups and abilities that affect the environment and surroundings, ranging from an umbrella that summons rain to fall from the sky and extinguish fires to cosmetic effects, like turning your hair blonde. And turning it into poop.

The world inside Madotsuki’s head can be disturbing, strange and indicative of past events in her life. Traumatizing events, memories and hints to larger themes are all buried deep inside her mind past hundreds of different areas and rooms, all unique in their atmosphere and meaning. Disembodied limbs tell the story of loneliness, repression, isolation, trauma and deep psychological fear all without saying a single word.

What really makes Yume Nikki unique is the lack of formal communication to the player; there is never a single word spoken to the player aside from the initial instructions and premise. The game tells a cohesive story through thick symbolism, intrigue and metaphors but never being too clear.

This is usually where the story would end--but here’s where the cult following plays in. Yume Nikki’s fans have made several games and continuations of the same gameplay, narrative and story design, putting their own spins and ideas on the base game.

They--or we--have practically made a genre just based off of Yume Nikki. Each game stars different protagonists, themes and ideas, but the idea is the same: Play as a lonely person (usually an adolescent girl), explore mind-bending surrealist landscapes (whether it’s set in the protagonist’s mindscape, a virtual world or somewhere else) and decipher a (usually wordless) deeply hidden story about the protagonist’s history, insecurities and weaknesses.

My favourite of these fan games also happens to be one of my favourite games of all time: .flow takes much of the same gameplay and narrative design, but changes things so subtly you might not even notice it. The environments, while easier to navigate, are still difficult to wander (in a good way). Areas are more streamlined and more sensible, the effect abilities are more useful and the subject matter perhaps more daring.

.flow takes a turn for the dark--or, the darker. While Yume Nikki’s more unsettling moments relied on implied body horror and shock value, .flow can be comparable to a horror game. Blood and gore litters the floors of many rooms, carrying themes of disease, identity crisis and hate. But perhaps that’s why I relate to it more. I find it to be all in good taste.

The one thing I personally find most noteworthy about .flow is its non-linear plot; you can tackle every area in any order, yet you’ll find yourself locked in a wonderfully executed story about Sabitsuki’s past, her life shrouded in unsettling but tantalizing mystery. Ideas, themes, metaphors and connections are conveyed in subtle, surreal fashion in such a way that .flow may have even topped its source inspiration in terms of sheer quality.

Of course, the Yume Nikki genre isn’t for everyone. Most games have many faults: lack of proper ‘gameplay’, level design funneling you into mazes that never seem to end and always feel empty, abilities being either limited or useless, uninteresting graphics or repetitive music…

But like I said, love is never about blindly accepting something; it’s about acknowledging its faults, seeing where it succeeds and what it fails to be, and loving it nonetheless. And sometimes, something like .flow will come along and capture your heart, no matter the downsides.