I bet you can’t willingly make yourself bored. I bet you won’t even try.
In our world of on-demand stimulation, boredom has become an unspeakable taboo––the enemy of all that is good and natural and holy. Consider that almost every type of punishment at every level uses it as a deterrent: the time-out chair, the penal system, eternal damnation, sensory depravation at Camp X-Ray. Mental bankruptcy has become a threat worse than financial loss and physical pain.
While plenty have attempted suicide, few will take on boredom. In fact, a fair percentage of those who commit suicide do it because they are bored. In his unfinished manuscript for the novel The Pale King, David Foster Wallace wrote, “Bliss––a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious––lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” This is how I begin to explain that Yume Nikki is one of the most boring games I’ve played, and why that is a wonderful thing.
Yume Nikki is a freeware adventure game, which surfaced on the sprawling Japanese internet forum 2channel in 2005. The mysterious Kikiyama created it using RPG Maker, a long-running software series that lets users make games in the vein of Dragon Quest or the original Final Fantasies. While Yumi Nikki uses their conventions (3rd person overhead view, pixel art), it isn’t much of a role-playing game. It doesn’t even have battles.
Yume Nikki translates to “dream diary,” and it is the story of a teenage girl who has psychotic dreams. The game begins in her bedroom. She falls asleep, dreaming of a room with twelve doors, each leading to a strange and often radically different place. The goal is simple: explore, discover, collect things.
This unorthodox game has a fairly large following. There are numerous Wikis, forums, and a Tumblr where players confess everything from memories of their first time playing to marginally suicidal thoughts. “Yume Nikki [has] let me know of lucid dreaming to escape reality. My parents are neglectful workaholics…,” an unsettling post begins. A number of fan-made spin-offs have turned up, such as .flow (pronounced “dot flow”). And although Yume Nikki has almost no text, the community has taken it upon itself to name the unusual places and things. The mysterious “Towel” resides in the “Infinite Wilderness.” “The Thing with the Quivering Jaw” is a grotesque skull with a hand growing out of it.
It is kind of insane. I say “kind of” because the actual game is incredibly pedestrian. There isn’t much to do but walk in huge circles (or ride a bike in circles––I definitely recommend the bike!), looking for needles in the haystack. While a snoozer in the gameplay department, its visual art and internal logic are seriously warped and usually fascinating. Like the asymmetrical paintings of Adolf Wölfli, or Daniel Johnston’s doodles of ducks and spaceships and alien planets, you get the feeling that real-life schizophrenia went into it.
The art is pretty abstract, and hard to talk about without dulling the edge. That said, here’s my take: My personal favorite is the room that looks like Salvador Dalí did an oil painting of a fetus. Yet I’m particularly drawn to the foreground. There are 7 different symbols, each 16×16 pixels long, placed on a 20×15 grid, meaning there is a total of 320×240 square dots on the screen at any time, each composed of a number of much smaller dots, all which reduces to a ratio of 4:3. The wild patterns that emerge from the grid leave me with the impression of Mardi Gras Indians in ceremonial parade. But when I look closely, they are merely neon sprites copied and pasted.
The scenes are pretty amazing––for the entirety of a few minutes. Then, the appeal of radioactive disco earthworms wears thin. Boredom creeps in, slow and hard, as you realize that Yume Nikki is the equivalent of moving a video game character across a far-out mural on a broken down van. You can get behind the wheel, but you ain’t going nowhere. This was someone else’s trip. You wonder what kind of craziness went down, and wish you could have been there.
Don’t get me wrong. Yume Nikki is definitely a game. It’s just a game where the challenge is to overcome your own boredom, the way in other games you overcome mobs of ripped street punks, or puzzles with metaphysical cubes. That is something of an accomplishment. I can hardly remember the last time I was this bored. It must have been ten years ago, when I was working as a pollster––a job that consists of calling people and being hung up on ad infinitum.
“Hi, this is so-and-so with generic research company x––.” Click.
At least it kept me occupied. Yume Nikki has long stretches with nothing to do. Still, there is a point. It has an incredibly worthwhile ending. Plus, you gain the ability to grow long hair and turn into a cat and say meow. There are even a few legitimate bad-guys who will grab you and send you to a small square room with no exit.
However, the nodes of interaction are few and far between. Video games tend to be like searching for a light switch in the dark. You grapple with unseen sets of parameters. Here, almost everything interesting happens with the lights on. It has no hooks, no fiendish mechanics, no computer-role-playing-game turned-based strategy, no underlying math based on ludic philosophy. In short, it is really boring.
I found it suspicious that anyone could get absorbed in the visually lush, but ultimately flat and lifeless environment––a lobotomized wasteland that, nine times out of ten, is devoid of even a flicker of brainwave activity. Yumi Nikki is at its best when it does the indie game equivalent of Lynchian––when it presents rapid-fire bursts of absurd imagery, the way Cactus and Messhof’s games occasionally do. Or so I thought.
One night, I booted it up. I was soon struggling to concentrate as per usual. I just kept playing as the boredom washed over me. I went through the door leading to the pitch-black world, and walked around in empty darkness for what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a few minutes. Then, I got lost in the field of geometric cubes, which breaks some theorem of geometry, where the screen has no edge, and loops recursively forever.
Something weird happened; weirder than the weird art; and weirder than people thinking that aimless wandering constitutes a good game: My boredom began to trickle away.
Maybe for that one time only, I cared about this ruleless, freeform space, where I wasn’t told to think about hexes, and where all there was to learn of was its shape, which was unfolding before me like a cardboard box. I entered the vexing red labyrinth known as Hell, which passes in and out of dreams like an inter-dimensional rift, and into the mouth of the behemoth red face, past the Aztec Rave Monkey, and the electric glyphs vomiting zig-zags on TV.
Eventually, I pressed 9 on the keyboard, and my avatar woke up. She was back in her room, where I could choose to go to sleep again, or save and quit, or even play the most unimaginative mini-game known to man. That’s Yumi Nikki. Somehow in our wanting to not be bored, we have lost the ability to dream and be amazed.
About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.
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