You’ve probably never heard of the game Yume Nikki (literally Dream Diary), an indie psychological horror game made with an early version of RPGMaker. It was developed all the way back in 2004 as freeware. Unlike most RPGMaker titles, this game does not follow a typical RPG formula — it has no true plot, minimal dialogue, and unclear, meandering gameplay. Frankly, it’s pretty scary, but not in a jumpscare or serial killer kind of way. You’ll experience elements like blood, weapons, and the occasional chase, but this is the smallest part of the game. Themes of isolation, trauma, loss of identity, and nightmares create the game’s biggest tension. Its overall slow, eerie gameplay makes it one of the most terrifying video games.
Table of contents
- What is Yume Nikki?
- What is the Backrooms?
- Inside the Backrooms
- A Good Ol’ Backrooms Birthday
- Liminal Yume Nikki, the Backrooms Game
- The Technical Backrooms
- Yume Nikki’s Backrooms
What is Yume Nikki?
was released on Steam back in 2018, and since then, the game’s garnered a strong cult following. Yet, when it first came out, it was only available in Japanese on the creator’s website
, and it didn’t necessarily have the clearest audience. (Who wants to play a game that feels like Earthbound
, but without any of the fun?) As it turns out, though, that audience is bigger than you might think.
What is the Backrooms?
Sure, you get the gist of Yume Nikki now, but what about the Backrooms? Essentially, the Backrooms are a creepypasta (a type of horror-driven internet story or myth) that takes a mundane, generic office hallway space and turns it into a labyrinth. Instead of hallways leading into rooms with designated purposes, the office labyrinth of the Backrooms leads nowhere — sometimes they lead into more hallways, rooms that don’t make sense, or dangerous, booby-trapped rooms.
The idea is that the Backrooms is something that isn’t appropriate for the “real” world, almost as if it were randomly or procedurally generated (much like a video game).
Inside the Backrooms
The best place to seek out this kind of horror is on TikTok, where people post their own versions of Backrooms exploration:
This TikTok follows the typical Backrooms appearance: dark yellow (almost moldy-looking) walls, large flickering ceiling lights, and narrow hallways. Where it diverts is the inclusion of the “Happy Birthday” room. As the Backrooms is tied with that dual feeling of uneasiness and nostalgia, the “Happy Birthday” room conjures a memory of having a children’s birthday party — quite literally in the “back room” of a restaurant or amusement center.
A Good Ol’ Backrooms Birthday
The typical children’s birthday party of the collective Zillennial past is full of chaos and people. Chairs would be both in and out of their places, food everywhere as people order, toys and games out for the kids to play, and the overall atmosphere would be warmer. Here, the room is sterile. The place is bright, but lacks the nuance of an actual party and the semblance of life. The tables have what appears to be a birthday cake and an accompanying slice, but the cake seems “off,” as if you couldn’t confirm whether it was in fact a cake after all.
But, the worst part of this birthday party scene is the room’s relationship to the rest of the hallway labyrinth. There is no door or curtain marking it off from the empty halls, meaning someone could pass from the party to an office space or something altogether different. The party is much too liminal — it is not secure nor safe. The party, although not inherently threatening, harbors a certain violence that makes it dangerous. Basically, it’s a party you’d want to leave immediately — or not attend at all.
Other Backrooms media represents this kind of balance between almost-normal and severely off-putting. The Backrooms is chock full of different spaces like the birthday party room. Others include true office rooms, swimming pools, abandoned school hallways, and more (seriously, the idea is that it never ends, so there are essentially infinite spaces). If it fits in the “back,” or a space that you shouldn’t see in normal day-to-day life, it can exist in the Backrooms.
Think Disneyland — what you see typically is the manicured, curated Disney experience, but beyond that, the employees have their own entrances and ways of navigating the theme park to make sure the curated experience can run smoothly for Disney’s customers.
Liminal Yume Nikki, the Backrooms Game
Let’s look back at Yume Nikki again. When you start the game, you’re in the main character’s room. Her name, Madotsuki, is another clue to the game’s tone. It’s not typically used as a proper Japanese name — rather, it’s an interesting adjective, meaning something like “windowed” or “aperture.”
Much like the Legend of Zelda player-character Link is so named as a “link” between player and character, Madotsuki is a sort of alias that allows us to see into her (dream) world. It’s already unsettling because unlike Link, who has a purpose and a clear narrative that you navigate through gameplay, Madotsuki’s game is much more mysterious.
Like the Backrooms, in Yume Nikki, you’re not sure why or how you got to your starting point. Sure, you’re in Madotsuki’s bedroom, but if you try to exit (by interacting with the door presumably leading outside), Madotsuki simply shakes her head. You can only “leave” the room by going to sleep and waking up in an alternate version of Madotsuki’s room. By leaving the dream bedroom, you subsequently enter a room of doors, each leading to a different neverending room with no obvious connection to the other rooms.
Essentially, here you can choose whatever path you want. Every room possesses some sort of “effect” that you’re trying to collect (a fact you pretty much only learn through trial and error, or else through the Steam description
). Getting all the effects unlocks the game’s “ending,” and certain effects change the way you can interact with the world and NPCs around you. The changes are minimal, but given how minimal the game itself is, the changes are the most dramatic thing to happen in the gameplay.
The thing that ties all of Yume Nikki together is its exploration of the liminal, that which is between worlds or boundaries. Since the game’s title translates literally to “Dream Diary,” we understand Yume Nikki as Madotsuki’s lucid dreamscape. We also know this through the player’s means of saving the game: through a diary on Madotsuki’s desk. It seems like Madotsuki uses this diary to record her dreams, since the only events to happen in the game include dreaming, and the Nintendo-esque minigame at Madotsuki’s computer.
The Technical Backrooms
The Backrooms is often compared to the gaming term “noclip,” which is a cheat used to force the game to no longer recognize boundaries such as walls that the character cannot travel through. With it, the player can take the character through those boundaries and discover areas of the game’s map that they’re not supposed to see. Sometimes, game developers put testing rooms in these spots, such as , in order to test the character’s fighting abilities, interactions within the game, and other crucial information in a space that allows for that sort of specified testing.
Yume Nikki’s Backrooms
Much of the Backrooms’s appeal is the same as Yume Nikki’s. Both offer a world to explore beyond reality. Both encourage illogical progression and meandering, endless wandering. The point is that you can and should get lost, at least momentarily. For Madotsuki, the journey ends when you find all the effects, but this process could take a long time, especially if you’re the type of gamer who doesn’t like to use guides.
The game expects you to feel isolated, to feel the hikikomori phenomenon
Madotsuki participates in, either willingly or for some other unknown reason. (Plus, if you want a related game, Omori
takes its name from the phenomenon, allowing users a more traditional Earthbound
-like gameplay, while still offering both an homage to and exploration of similar themes to Yume Nikki
There’s a meditative quality to the liminal worlds of the Backrooms and Yume Nikki
. They’re not outright disturbing — no murderers are out to get you, but you know that you’re not supposed to be there. Essentially, you have access to a space you’re not meant to know exists, and you have the power to walk through this world without guidance, as if you’ve slipped through the tangible world altogether, like clipping beyond the traversable world in a video game.
It’s scary, surreal, and sublime — but overall, it’s a recognition that our dreams and memories don’t often add up with our present realities, and that’s okay. We can at least play Yume Nikki to live out those feelings.