We’ve talked a lot about themes and aesthetics in our previous pieces. Analyzing the Hitman series has shown us how the premise shifted from delivering a vision and a thought-provoking narrative to pure gamification of the series. Silent Hill 2 proved that even if you sacrifice fluid combat mechanics and create a piece of media which isn’t specifically ‘fun’, you can still end up with a huge followup. Visiting Final Fantasy X’s Spira presented us with an alternate view on the personal story of its protagonist and Alice Madness Returns was all about moving away from the uniqueness of what made its prequel great to begin with.
I’ve also discussed many products dealing with mental well being. That is probably because of my personal interest in the subject. I find comfort and enjoyment from comparing my own experiences with those shown in various media. Digging up those which present topics close to my heart with accuracy and ability to make it visually appealing at the same time is simply exciting for yours truly. Today, we’ll be continuing this odd narrative by looking at ways to tell a story with a minimal number of words (an art I have never truly mastered, if you can believe…), instead focusing on themes, aesthetics and gameplay choices. As always, I encourage you to play these games on your own and do some more analysis in your spare time. We are individuals. Aspects invisible to me might be quite obvious for you and vice versa. All the matter of perspectives…
This piece has been partially influenced by Mark Brown’s “What Made Psychonauts Special”, so I obviously suggest you go watch his video before delving deeper into this piece. To be fair though, the idea for replaying Psychonauts for myself has sprouted during my replay of Alice Madness Returns. Both titles draw heavy inspiration from and attempt to picture, mental illnesses. Alice Otherlands is pretty much the concept of Psychonauts, just grounded in real life history. Unfortunately for Alice, it doesn’t do it well. Maybe it’s because its environments aren’t much different from what we are used to in the real world. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t do a great job in portraying mental issues using the magic of symbolism. Maybe it’s because it is somewhat game-y in its nature, with a linear upgrade system done via a boring menu. Maybe it’s all of those combined…
Weirdly though, Psychonauts also has a handful of menus and it throws the player back into the overworld after every single level. However, it does present great care when it comes to keeping everything in-universe. The item menu, for example is shown as Raz’s thought bubble. The objectives, collectibles and the map are all disguised as his notebook. The game never breaks its established illusion. Maybe except for the always on-screen HUD. Every item and mechanic is grounded in the Psychonauts fantasy and that’s the beauty of it. American McGee’s Alice has also succeeded in creating this feeling whilst its sequel failed. But there are other video games which have managed to convey their stories exclusively by using their themes and playing around with symbolism and we are going to look at a few of them in this piece.
It is no surprise to anybody that I absolutely adore The Binding of Isaac. If you ever took at least a peak at my Steam account, you would know that I have way too many hours of playtime clocked in both the original Flash version and the updated Rebirth. And whilst most of it is because of their gameplay mechanics and replay value, I do not think I would have ever took interest in the series if not for its unique theme.
The Binding of Isaac takes place inside our little protagonist’s troubled head. Tales of religion and violence have been present around the traumatized boy by the name of Isaac – akin to the Biblical tale which has also influenced the title of the game. The intro, narrated by the wonderful voice of Mattias Bossi, is one of the only times when the story is given to the player in a typical fashion. In this 300-word cutscene, we learn the framework – Isaac is being forcefully kept in his room by his deeply religious mother. She has presumably heard a voice of God speaking to her and asking to take away everything from her son up to even his life. To escape his fate, Isaac finds a trapdoor in his room and sneaks away into the bottom of their small house on a hill.
If you want to uncover the rest of the story, you will have to dig deep into it. In my “Theme of Hitman vs. Theme of HITMAN” analysis piece, The Binding of Isaac was one of the examples I gave when presenting a title keeping every aspect of itself in-universe. Starting from the very main menu and the intro cinematic shown to us as Isaac’s drawings. This should be the first tip off point. Is everything we see real or are these events exaggerated by the boy’s troubled mind? The few first chapters of his underworld adventure are fairly normal – he goes through The Basement to enter The Caves and then The Depths where his initial trial ends. But killing the boss featured at the end of The Depths is only the game’s prologue. From there, it is down to The Womb and then either The Cathedral and then The Chest or Sheol and its Dark Room. I am giving you a very linear path through Isaac’s world as there are multiple equivalents of those chapters as well as the optional Blue Womb area and the true final chapter – The Void. Those were gradually added to the game in multiple expansion packs starting from the Flash version’s Wrath of The Lamb and ending at Rebirth’s Afterbirth+.
This is all getting pretty confusing even with this basic rundown… The basis of what you need to know is that that the final boss of the prologue is Isaac’s own mother… or rather her giant leg and body trying to reach her son all the way down in The Depths. Killing her logically (accordingly to Isaac) unlocks The Womb and the next story-related boss. This trend continues until the very final area and the encounter with Delirium. This is one of the ways this story tells itself – via the natural gameplay progression. Killing the bosses not only gives you one of many ending cutscenes, it also rewards you with an item related in some way to either the boss itself or the choice of playable character. A Lump of Coal is given by defeating Krampus, a familiar by the name of Abel is unlocked by clearing The Cathedral as Cain, all of Maggie’s unlockables are based around her faith and are often presented in form of angels or crucifixes.
The items themselves are joyous to analyze and pick apart. We have an impressive arrange of religious themes, demonology, pop culture-related content as well as some unique sets inspired by the characters. Just thinking about a child getting their hands on their mother’s razorblade or various syringes can make your skin crawl but then add this thought to the mix: why would Isaac be in possession of things like Mom’s Wig, Mom’s Bra, Mom’s Perfume or Mom’s Pad. Why would he have his Dad’s Key or hold on to various parts of his Dead Cat’s body? Guppy was the only big transformation in the original Flash version of the game. Gathering three cat items made Isaac appear as Guppy himself and if you put a bit of thought into it, you will start asking yourself if he’s actually putting Guppy’s Head, Paw and Tail on his own body? With the release of Rebirth as well as the Afterbirth expansion, we got even more unique transformations. Isaac can now, among others, become Beelzebub – The Lord of The Flies, Seraphim – the highest rank of angelic beings, Leviathan – a Lovecraftian creature, as well as his own Mother. This, in addition to the fact that originally all of the enemies were supposed to be based around Isaac and all of the characters are Isaac, just in different hats, makes you wonder…
There have been many hypothesis on the topic of the main storyline of The Binding of Isaac. A lot of them came around after the first endgame boss was released. Entering The Cathedral’s exit whilst holding The Polaroid transported Isaac into The Chest. Defeating its big foe then presented the player with a set of photographs documenting boy’s extended family. Here we could get a glimpse of Isaac’s father as well as his sister Magdalene (one of the playable characters, nonetheless). It appears that times were not well for the family as Isaac ends up miserable sitting by his toy chest.
This chest is probably the most important aspect of the story, as it is not only a physical being but a big symbolical piece as well. It represents Isaac being stuck in his own head not able to deal with the outside world. The later endings show him transfiguring into a demon-like form, squealing as he’s lying in the fetal position inside of the toy chest. We can also see him reading The Bible, grasping to his dead cat’s remains and later on, his mother looking for her son. All of this paints a greater picture and I definitely advise you to try and connect all of the pieces. For me though, the meat of it all are the little details.
The attention to theme-relevant technicalities is praiseworthy. There has been an entire separate mode developed around the theme of greed. It used the basic idea of how players were interacting with the main game to deliver on the core principles of the side mode. In the creator’s own words: “The inspiration for greed mode was greed. I tried my best to fold that theme back in on itself as much as possible throughout. I’ve been testing it out extensively now, and I can tell you that every single death was because I got greedy, I tried to save up my money for an item I really wanted, and disregarded my health.“ And then there are so many more tidbits! A ghost character – The Lost starts out with 1 coin – a possible reference to the Charon’s obol. One of the practices adopted by Christianity used to be placing a single coin in the dead person’s mouth sometimes accompanied by a small key. It is however most known for its place in Greek mythology as it served as a payment to Charon for transporting the soul of newly deceased through the river Styx.
An important mechanic in The Binding of Isaac is earning a Devil or Angel Room – a special type of room featuring powerful items – which is available after defeating the respective level boss. The Devil will offer his deal first. Taking it will result in closing your path to Angel Rooms during that run. From then, the chances are much smaller but can be upped by accomplishing specific tasks. Killing a beggar or a shopkeeper earns you a tiny percentage to your Devil Room chance. Same can be said about holding specific items. Avoiding taking red heart damage is probably the most important of it all. Waging the Devil/Angel Room chances is usually the key to victory in any run and I truly enjoy how even though it is a pure gameplay mechanic, it all still makes sense in-universe.
Even the song titles are relevant to the plot and the symbolism behind the game, a lot of it being in Latin. Sepulcrum plays during the Final Ending. Sepulcrum means literally a place of burials. Matricide is the act of killing one’s mother and that’s the track playing during the Mom fight in The Depths. Acceptance plays on the death screen and Ascension is The Chest’s boss fight theme. Everything in The Binding of Isaac is relevant to its theme. Why? Because that is what the creator himself thinks is what makes a memorable video game. In an interview with VICE, Edmund McMillen has stated: “a great indie game is something that not only brings something new to the table, but everything about the game embodies what it is.” The Binding of Isaac embodies Edmund McMillen’s childhood. It’s honest in nature and very intimate at times. It’s a tale of religious upbringings, traumatic experiences, D&D and a whole lot of poop. Art was always McMillen’s emotional output. “I try to make it as cute as possible when I want to get a really dark message across.”, he said.
The symbolism and themes helped others find solace in their lives. For me, it is fascinating how a tiny video game based heavily on the first The Legend of Zelda has managed to evolve overtime and create its own unique identity. It is often that creators get boxed in instead of branching out and trying something new. Maybe it was because of how different it was, or maybe because of its honesty that The Binding of Isaac has managed to captivate so many hearts. Not just red hearts but soul and black hearts as well…
Our second victim of analysis might also bring us closer to its creator’s mind… or maybe it doesn’t. The internet isn’t quite sure on that one… What I do know for sure though it’s that it is definitely a unique product worth at least looking at, if not – explore for yourself.
The best way to describe Yume Nikki would be that it isn’t strictly a video game. It’s an experience. The topic of “what is a game” has been plentiful throughout the years, often discussed whenever a new “walking simulator” hits our virtual store shelves. Yume Nikki is both a “walking simulator” and a “video game” if you want to go by a definition that a video game has to have a failure state. As there are many different and very loud voices on the topic however, let’s disregard the whole “what makes a video game” discussion. Maybe we will come back to it at some other time. The truth is that Yume Nikki doesn’t care about the rights and wrongs of game design. It makes wrong choices with premeditation as the player involvement isn’t craved. The product is free and given the creator(s?)’ anonymity and presumably literally living under a rock, the cult followup of Yume Nikki was never intended or wanted.
This tiny video ga–… interactive experience was developed by KIKIYAMA. All we know about them that they are Japanese and… that’s pretty much it. The internet hasn’t managed to dig up much more about the creator(s?) and boy, it tried. It still does, in fact.
It was developed in RPG Maker, specifically the 2003 edition of the software and trust me, I am a huge fan of seeking hidden gems in between the waves of “babby’s first video games” running on the engine. As much as the internet seems to hate RPG Maker games just because the software is so easy to use, I find it even more appealing. It’s accessibility allows a wide variety of people to create interactive experiences without the knowledge of advanced programming. This means everybody can simply pick up the software and play around with it. It’s what KIKIYAMA and many others did and how Yume Nikki came to be. Art is a way of self expression. Giving people easy access to it is also giving its receivers easy access to the creator’s mind. Picture it as sticking a Psycho-Portal on the back of someone’s head as it is what Yume Nikki probably should be described as.
The game is basic. It explains itself by showing players its Game Flow at the beginning of the adventure. From there, we are thrown into a tiny square room. A chubby little girl is facing the camera. Again, there are not many options. The girl does not want to step outside. We can only leave via the south double door and even then we are stuck on a small balcony. We can sit down and play NASU – a simple mini game involving a bird and fish raining down the sky, write in the girl’s journal which is equivalent to saving our progress or… go to sleep as sleeping is where the magic begins.
The majority of Yume Nikki takes place inside the protagonist’s dream world. The scope of this interactive experience quickly expands as we actually get outside Madotsuki’s room and into the Nexus. Here, we have multiple doors to choose from and they all lead to different locations. Those are vast. The walking speed isn’t favorable until you find one of the 24 effects or – in more generic terms – items. Some of them grand additional abilities, some are used to solve the most basic of puzzles, some trigger special events and some are simply cosmetic. Getting all of them is the player’s goal in this adventure but trust me, it’s not as easy as it might sound.
Not only the locations are huge, they are also extremely hard to navigate. They lack proper landmarks (something which fangames [yes, there are many, and I mean many fangames] tend to fix), often loop around which means the environment seems never ending and are almost, if not full-blown, labyrinthine. The tiny resolution the game runs in, as well as the initial slow walking speed makes traversing the world feel like a chore. There aren’t many ways or opportunities to interact with creatures inhabiting Madotsuki’s dreams and some are even straight up hostile – touching them sends the player into a dead end with their only option being to pinch their cheeks and wake up. See what I mean by Yume Nikki throwing the “proper” game design out of the window? It’s almost as if it doesn’t want you to further your adventures and many players give up at this point, never knowing why this interactive experience is so praised.
Obviously, it is best to go into Yume Nikki not knowing anything about it but the initial wall might be hard to overcome. Take my word though that this is worth it and if you are struggling to keep your attention, come to it in small bursts or, if you really need help – Google where the Bicycle effect can be found. Yes, even the most basic of upgrades the game gives you is hidden behind many beginner options and inside a vast environment. From there – explore. This title is literally Exploration: The Ga– Interactive Experience! Enjoy the atmosphere created by dreamlike music and abstract imagery. The soundtrack is also as basic as it can get. It consists of short tracks looped indefinitely and yet somehow, it never feels boring or annoying.
Yume Nikki hides its true face. As exploration is key, the player will often find themselves in completely new environments as everything is connected™… well… a lot of things are connected… The secrets it carries range from simple hidden rooms to random events which you might not even known existed until someone else comes across it. It’s almost as if the title itself is a huge puzzle needing multiple people to solve and yet the solution is not clearly given. It carries its theme on a competent level, presenting us with an array of more or less reality-based locations. As dreams can be down to earth or truly abstract in nature, serene or nightmarish, it does an amazing job in showing all of those possibilities as well as so many in-between. Analyzing Madotsuki’s dream world gives us a window into her own personality and interests as the character never speaks or interacts in any meaningful fashion. At least The Legend of Zelda’s Link has diverse facial expressions… We may only deduct that she is partial to Aztec aesthetic as it is commonly present in her dreams. She might be afraid of people – the fact that she doesn’t want to leave her room as well as the existence of a humanoid enemy by the name of Toriningen might speak in favor of this hypothesis. One of my personal favorite details is that the Fat effect used to be acquired by interacting with a mirror.
Discussing and analyzing game design in Yume Nikki is an art in it of itself as it has so many flaws yet I am pretty certain it does not consider them as such. Its secrets are obscure for some reason or another just as KIKIYAMA secluded themselves out of the Big Brother’s view. Maybe there does exist a hidden meaning in all of this or maybe it’s as simple as a college project devised out of randomly created assets. The topic is still in the air and we may never get to know the answer. Yume Nikki, albeit we’ve known to love it as a complete title, was never finished. The version number still says 0.10 and after 13 years, the chances of it changing are dying down. The tenth anniversary of this interactive experience has brought us some celebration allegedly given blessing from the creator(s) themselves. And whilst you may think this has made the community joyous – the opposite has been the case.
The name of it was as vague as the subject matter itself. Project Yume Nikki has been teased and the internet was adorned by it… until the eventual reveal of its contents. Those included a Vocaloid album, a light novel and a manga, all retelling the events of Yume Nikki. How can you retell something which has no story, you ask? That is the same question the community has had on their mind at the time. The pieces worked around that by claiming to be “interpretations” of the original subject matter. They ended up being quite controversial as, at least the Western part of the Yume Nikki community tends to be pretty defensive over their own ideas and theories. At the same time, even they cannot decide if what they love so much has a defined story or not. Some people speculate based on the previously mentioned imagery and many references to Japanese mythology. Others claim that “Everything is “kind of just there” in Yume Nikki, that’s the whole point of the game.”
As terrible as it sounds, this is what I think made this interactive experience what it is. It has popped out of KIKIYAMA’s hands right into the wide world of the internet and from there, it has been adopted by like-minded individuals who gave names to characters and wrote stories about them. Sometimes it is hard to even say if titles still belong to their creators, or the people who keep them afloat.
Yume Nikki would not be a topic of conversations over ten years after its release if it wasn’t a memorable experience at least to some devoted individuals. It wouldn’t be relevant if not for a multitude of fangames created in its image – sometimes ending up being as popular as the original. The same can be the said about The Binding of Isaac. It’s the let’s play culture that will keep the game alive. That, and the recently introduced modding tools and Steam Workshop support. Once the creator is done with its piece, it is time to give it to others. This is what I’m doing right now, leaving you with gateways to experience these titles for yourselves.
A huge thank you for my Patreons for making this piece happen!