Download link here. Don't read this if you haven't played this game.
I'd say I'm stuck, but I just opened Yume Nikki and immediately found something new. Talking about "progress" seems pointless. The only reason I even know this game has an "ending" is that Google told me while I was searching for a download link. That there's an ending at all seems to counter the intent behind most of the game--an experience of wandering, exploring, discovering the new, being surprised by the new appearing in the banal. To surprise your audience with the appearance of the new in the banal, you must first create banality. Yume Nikki does. Areas with higher densities of unique events to discover are accessed through open, repetitive hub worlds, through which the player will travel again and again and again. Tedium sets in. Suddenly, a structure you've never encountered or an event that randomly teleports you to a new area. Discovery; new turf. Explore it all. Now what? Back through the same hubs. This is the rhythm after hours of play. The beginning is different. All is discovery. Each new area and encounter is a surprise. You could switch it off for good once the novelty's left, but I just opened Yume Nikki and immediately found something new. I'd have told you I was stuck.
Deep in the game's guts are events you're unlikely to see if you're playing without access to the Internet--if you're playing somewhere in the middle of a deep forest. They have no effect on gameplay. They occur in obscure corners of the world. A banal action in the middle of nowhere will trigger something strange 1/64 tries. Perform an obscure action before a mysterious character in an area accessible only though random chance to see a strange animation that has no consequence on gameplay. Stumble upon one of these and every element of the banal, the familiar areas becomes suspect. Where else are these things hiding? What's the ratio of noise to signal? Unknowable, except GameFAQs can tell you exactly where to go and what to do to see everything. These obscure bits are celebrated on the web, in YouTube videos. YouTube and GameFAQs can destroy the experience of Yume Nikki. With the veil lifted, the mystery dispelled, there's nothing to appreciate but the effort that went into the game's creation and the premise of its deliberate obscurity--the effects that obscurity might have created are gone. The existence of the ending, the tangible goals, the sense of "progress" inadvertently contribute to this, feed the compulsive drive to see all "content," have a "complete" experience. Going to X location before acquiring ability Y to trigger event Z is no longer pleasant, mysterious wandering. It's steps you'll have to retrace later, the "right" way. It's a waste of time. The banality becomes the player's enemy. It must be vanquished. Guide in hand, they set themselves to the familiar task of getting this game over with as quickly as possible so they can move onto the next. Yume Nikki is consumed in a manner identical to industrial product created specifically to feed compulsive drives. I suspect that this is not what creator Kikiyama intended, but what's happened to Yume Nikki was a consequence of dangling that carrot. The early experience reminded me of playing Myst for the first time. Wandering, discovery, surreal mystery, an open world slowly closing in as the boundaries are reached, paths are blocked by "puzzles." The "puzzles" in Yume Nikki are like the "puzzles" in old adventure games. Find a new item or ability, take it back to old areas and try it on everything to see if something happens or some new path opens. Find another item. Do it again.
The game was made in RPGMaker and borrows its tile-based world from the 8- and 16-bit RPGs that program was intended to emulate. Movement is mapped to a grid. Characters and objects can be "on" or "off" tiles, never in-between. This sense of a rigidly formal world is violated by occasional mouse-drawn elements and creatures that don't conform to the expectations set by the vaguely uniform, vaguely 16-bit pixel aesthetic established in the opening areas. The pixel aesthetic itself is violated by the appearance of a thoroughly implemented 8-bit look in the "Famicom Zone" or the hand-drawn appearance of the "White Desert" (and a few other areas.) The world is constantly shifting. Only the player's character, the girl, remains a constant, but she shifts at will--trying new costumes, new hairstyles, new bodies. Her forms are drawn mainly from what could be taken as quotidian concerns of a child's life: cute animals (a cat, a frog,) common objects (a streetlamp, a stoplight,) folklore (Yuki Onna, Oni.) Then there are the more dreadful forms: the severed head, the knife wielder. Transformation and mutilation of the body are present throughout as identities are adopted and immediately discarded. Take the knife and kill everything in sight, grasping to understand what violence is, what murder is. Reset the world. Become the cat and the wandering creatures are drawn to your presence. You are loved. Your sense of the body, your tiny avatar's body, shifts depending on the scene; you're highly aware of it in claustrophobic mazes patrolled by hostile entities. In the wide-open, void-like hubs, awareness of the girl's specific spatial location is frequently irrelevant. Tiny landmarks like candles or colored blobs drift past in a sea of black and it comes to feel like you're just scrolling the screen, moving the environment around the girl instead of moving the girl through the environment. The only enemies I encountered were the googly-eyed bird women, who have the ability to imprison, rather than kill you. "Time out." Punishment for a child from a vaguely maternal authority. They're mildly terrifying. Nothing else has their capacity to disrupt play, they move fast, they appear suddenly. They're susceptible to the stoplight, which freezes them--an instrument of control from the adult world invested with supernatural power in this childlike, imaginary space. The trial-and-error of locating secrets unlocked by specific identities could be taken as an analogous to the efforts of a developing mind testing the boundaries of its world, testing its identity, forming a sense of self.
Yume Nikki does have an "ending," and that's an "ending" defined as "the point where the game won't let you play anymore and shows you some credits." You collect these identities, go into the dream world, discard them in the main "hub" room and wake yourself up. Then you jump off your balcony and get a little cutscene that shows the girl's turned into a blood splat. So much for developing a sense of self, then. I suppose you can interpret the discarding of the collected identities as the girl rejecting that abstract progress or rejecting her forming identity and thus becoming so despondent that she can't bear to run around in Neon Hallway Land with all the honking monsters anymore. Why is the player explicitly prompted to do this in the compulsory instruction screens? Why is this one of the only things the player is explicitly prompted to do in the entire game? If this game had to have an ending, this might make more sense as one of many the player could discover--making something of the preciousness of these forms and the self-mutilation of shedding them. As it is, it feels like an attempt to put a hundred exclamation points at the end of a meandering stream-of-consciousness experiment. It extinguishes the ambiguity of all that preceded it--this is what it's about, it's about depression, the girl's suicidal, just brutally filter everything through that premise--even the parts infused with childlike wonder which seem not to fit that premise at all.
Look at how the ending alters Yume Nikki and look at how we're interpreting it. It feels like more of a weird failure state than a conclusion to the story the zone exploration might represent. I had to look it up on YouTube to write this post, I hadn't the time or inclination to dig through the game long enough or read a FAQ to figure out how to collect all the things and access it myself. My impression of the game was rather different before I knew about it. With some distance, I got that impression back; the girl's suicide feels like a consequence of our ability to create open and ambiguous interactive or reactive works yet still attempt to enclose them in narrative bookends in an emulation of closed, fixed, linear storytelling techniques developed for traditional media. Open up Yume Nikki and run around until you're surprised by something new or something old you'd forgotten. Close it again. Why was that experience "incomplete?"