November 2, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By Deck Harper
Like everyone else, I first emerged into this world with no knowledge of music. My earliest exposure to music came from my mother – my childhood soundscapes were full of Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, plainchant, Vivaldi, Vanilla Ice and I’m sure a myriad of other artists who I’m not thinking of right now. But musical exposure comprises many ways we encounter music, including soundtracks. A lot of the music I listened to when I was a kid came from film or video games.
My brother and I have a longstanding tradition of playing indie games together. One of the first such games we dug into was the classic Yume Nikki. Released in 2004, Yume Nikki is an abstract and beautiful game about walking around in your dreams. You can talk about other complexities in terms of gameplay, particular events that can happen or theories about what it all means. At its core, I always related to Yume Nikki as this wonderfully atmospheric game where everything was possible – you never know what kind of dreamscape one door may whisk you away to.
Sometime last year, we decided to play one of the best-known fan-made sequels, Yume 2kki. What makes 2kki so special is that it is a massive collaborative project. Going between worlds feels more surreal and dreamlike since it draws from the imaginations of many. I had already been everywhere there was to go in Yume Nikki and was thrilled at a chance to continue these dream-like explorations.
Although I’d love to go into more detail on the game itself, this is a music column. And, yes, as you can imagine, one of the most important features that brings a game like this to life is the music. Yume 2kki alone has created more than 700 pieces of music, with such lovely and distinct names like “932-warm.” It was a bit difficult for me to determine to what extent these tracks have “official names,” so for the sake of this article, I’m going to refer to them in terms that make them easy to search for.
The variation in sonic qualities in both the Yume Nikki and 2kki soundtracks are pretty staggering. Still, I think you could broadly categorize it into the following: highly atmospheric, somewhat atmospheric, profoundly off-putting, high energy, lyrical and so on.
The music also tends to be short, some tracks quite literally only a few seconds long, and loops back into itself. There is something I love about this monotony in the context of Yume Nikki – typically I would find it bothersome, but I think the hypnotic quality plays into the “dreaminess” of the game and its many worlds. There is also a certain kind of “haunted-ness” among many of these landscapes (yes, there is also a cotton candy world) and a general underlying darkness to its serenity. I think this kind of music plays into that wonderfully.
One of the more disturbing tracks in Yume Nikki is the kind of low-pitched distant clanging that plays in the mall. However, just on the mall’s rooftops, the music shifts to something more trance-like, hypnotic and slow but with a certain energy and movement to it. The theme that plays on the save screen, by contrast, is slow and melodic, a kind of lullaby-esque mildness to its chiming tones.
Although it would be untoward not to discuss the original game, the music I find the most moving comes from Yume 2kki. There are some incredibly ethereal, fragile, gentle and lyrical tracks on the soundtrack that I absolutely love.
The slow ringing melodies in the Green Butterfly Forest in Yume 2kki are nice on their own, but the use of flourishes and of space on the piece makes it stand out. Sometimes, the embellishments come before a pause, sometimes after, and the weight of that space is otherworldly.
The pained, soft melody over the echoing somber pianos in “Piano Alley” are beautiful, but I prefer a slowed version of the piece, such as the one played in the “Unknown Child’s Room,” as I feel it gives it a chance to shine and breathe more. There are real tones of agony and strange hints of hope in that track, but I don’t think they come through as much in the normally paced version.
Ultimately, I find talking about this music a bit like trying to explain a dream. The way it feels can be challenging to articulate, and perhaps a literal account of the details would totally fail to get across the emotion. But I think this game is a bit like a dream in that the full experience is what makes it feel so moving and strange.
Although I usually recommend specific tracks to listen to, I think this time I’d encourage you to find compilations of music from the games – they usually show some of the artwork/locations which are paramount to work as a whole. Given there is so much music in these two games, it’s difficult to narrow it down to just a few.