Saturnday: Waking Up to Yourself with NiGHTS into Dreams

Welcome back to Saturnday, the weekend column dissecting the games and stories surrounding Sega’s doomed mid-90s console. This week, we have a guest post! If you have a Saturnday pitch you’d like make, please email pitches@fanbyte.com with the subject line “Saturnday pitch.”

There are a few things from my childhood that, looking at now, make me go: “How the hell did I not realize sooner that I was astonishingly, flamingly queer?”

For me it was NiGHTS. Oh, NiGHTS. You sparkly-eyed, garish, androgynous clown monstrosity. I’m not saying that no cishet person has ever played NiGHTS, but I’d put good money on them being a vanishingly small minority. It’s not for them.

How do I even explain NiGHTS? There’s the Wikipedia approach: NiGHTS into Dreams was a Sega Saturn game developed by OG Sonic Team luminaries Yuji Naka, Naoto Ohshima, and Takashi Iizuka. The story goes that Naka was inspired to create a game which mimicked the sensation of taking off in an airplane. Functionally, NiGHTS is a 2D side-scroller, its 3D environments reduced to a flat plane on rails in which the player is hurtling its avatar constantly to the right, like Sonic with floatier gravity. Each level has four “mares” or tracks, starting with short loops that can be completed in a matter of seconds and ending with long circuits involving toboggan rides, rollercoasters, and getting shot out of cannons. Because, again, Sonic Team.

NiGHTS is also kind of short. It’s weird to say now, because as a kid the game seemed epic, infinite, mysterious, but in fact the whole thing can be banged out in about an hour, even if you’re not very good at it. Except that’s not how you’re supposed to play, is it? NiGHTS’s levels are meant to be played again and again and again. There is an entire fandom revolving entirely around its score attack features, with combos and score multipliers and a surprisingly punishing time limit.

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Personally, I never really got into NiGHTS for Numbers Reasons. I never got into any game for Numbers Reasons, because I just never had the opportunity to hone those skills. We often take for granted the huge swaths of recreational time needed in childhood to develop the reflexes and patience to become good at twitchy games, and in my case my desire to play was always deemed less important than my older brother’s. There was, in fact, a period of several years after my first exposure to NiGHTS where I didn’t even have access to it, because my brother convinced our parents to return our Saturn and buy a Nintendo 64 instead (which he then never used). I spent those years saving up to buy my own console, but even when I did, I was told I was “too old” for such things. It was unbecoming, unfeminine, to sink evenings and weekends into games.

Maybe if I’d explained to my parents that it was less about the games themselves and more about how NiGHTS’s ~*~aesthetic~*~ played into my burgeoning sexual identity… but nah, that wouldn’t have worked, either. Understand, my parents were only about as bigoted as any other set of working class, white bread parents in the 1990s (which is to say, considerably), but I already caused enough problems for them, being what might charitably be considered a “sensitive kid.” So I stayed quiet, lived in my own little Nightopia, and subsisted on the game’s tiny online fandom like a cave creature feeding on rare glowing moss – places where scores did not live, but lore, ah. Lore was in abundance.

Nowadays it’s easy to recognize NiGHTS’s setting as the derivative shadowplay that it is, but at the time it seemed deep and enchanting. A powerful entity from the realm of Nightmare, Wizeman, creates servants to harvest the crystalized emotional attributes of dreaming humans, called ideya. At some point prior to our story’s beginning, one of Wizeman’s Nightmaren, NiGHTS, rebelled against their creator. Wizeman imprisoned NiGHTS, Monkey King style, inside an Ideya Palace, which is only accessible by dreamers with a rare red form of ideya formed from that dreamer’s capacity for bravery. As luck would have it, two sleeping teenagers, Claris and Elliot, both possess this ideya and happen to come into contact with NiGHTS. All of this is only explained in the manual, by the way.

Even though most of the game is played on rails as NiGHTS, you actually can explore its 3D stages on foot as Claris and Elliot, including nooks and crannies not easily reached while flying. Then there are the Nightopians – benign NPCs equipped with a rudimentary AI, which you can hatch from eggs and crossbreed with low-level Nightmaren into new, horrifying abominations. It’s part of that era of early game creature AI that straddles the divide between mysterious and grotesque, and chances are that if you got into it back in the 90s, you got really into it. Either way you ended up accidentally murdering them a lot.

You couldn’t wander around for long, of course, because this alarm clock kept chasing you. As a result, walking around inside the game always felt rushed and stressful. Only flying as NiGHTS was liberating, and only for very brief periods – each “mare” had a time limit of 120 seconds, and if you went over, you dropped out of NiGHTS’s body as a heavy, cumbersome human-shaped thing and had to drag yourself back to the Ideya Palace on foot. Flying in NiGHTS was always ephemeral and too easily yanked away from you. The hypersaturated colors, the balletic movements, it always came with conditions, and that fleeting nature only made it more enticing.

Fly Away with Me

 

We often talk about games as escapism, but few are as explicit about it as NiGHTS is. From the Nightmaren’s perspective, NiGHTS is a story about a civil war in dream land, but to wandering dreamers Claris and Elliot, it’s a literal escape from their stressful waking lives. Claris is haunted by a failed audition; Elliot is ashamed of being shown up by older kids on the basketball court. By merging with NiGHTS and defeating Wizeman’s Nightmaren – which are not so much formed from their subconscious as just there as persistent concepts, like “cats are scary” and also “piranhas are very scary” – they gain the confidence to confront these obstacles and overcome them.

And OK, yes: characters finding inner strength through dreams is a well-worn narrative trope across media. But NiGHTS landed in 1996 – two years before Dark City and three years before The Matrix. It falls right into that late 90s/early 00s epoch of gnostic cinema, to which we might also add the likes of, say, Serial Experiments Lain (1998) and Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001). Stories about simulacra, the mutable nature of reality, and the power of consciousness over the real. That NiGHTS is brighter and cheerier than most of its contemporaries doesn’t change the fact it fits right in with them thematically.

Claris and Elliot run from distortions created by their own emotional states, escaping into dreams where logic and physics bend to their assumptions. When they wake up at the end of the game, there are suggestions they haven’t really left the dream world behind: Elliot sees a vision of NiGHTS that leads him to Claris; their environment melds back into a dreamscape the moment they reunite. Even in Christmas NiGHTS (the spinoff/reskin released originally as a sampler disc and now as an unlockable in the remastered version), Claris and Elliot intuitively understand that changing things in the dream world will influence reality, creating a wave of emotional resonance which affects an entire city. The only real difference between Lain and NiGHTS is the color palette.

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made of

 

Everything about NiGHTS’s whole thing seems tailor-made to excite a certain kind of tween growing up in the 1990s – gemstones, sparkles, big glittering eyes, tights only David Bowie could pull off – but it’s mostly NiGHTS themself that makes my adult brain go, “Really, me? You didn’t figure out you were non-binary until your late 20s? Really?

I mean, let’s start very simple here: narratively, NiGHTS is an avatar for an adolescent boy and girl, a literal fusion of their respective blue and pink color schemes. As a character, NiGHTS is intended to scan as androgynous: no visible hair, long eyelashes, slender fingers, legs for days (well, nights). If you look closely, you see their hands terminate at the wrist and they have no visible neck, design traits shared by two of NiGHTS’s fellow Nightmaren, Reala and Jackle. Jackle in particular is nothing but a head, some gloves, and little booties, so we can conclude from this that a) Nightmaren like them are invisible except at their extremities, and b) Jackle is an exhibitionist.

NiGHTS’s figure, then, is the figure they want to show. Because not showing it is as simple as not wearing clothing at all. They wear bold colors with rounded, soft corners, a ringmaster’s waistcoat emblazoned with stars. And I’m not saying they necessarily got the striped cuffs from Jotaro Kujo but I mean look:

They’re sort of a Peter Pan figure, in the classical “we don’t know how to express this so we’ll get a cis woman to play them” sense. In the Wii sequel/remake they’re voiced by a woman, Jewels Jaselle, although you’ll find most fans deny that game ever happened. (Ironically, it actually was directed by Takashi Iizuka, same as the original. But the world is determined to believe Sonic Team hasn’t made a competent game since Naka and Ohshima left.) This didn’t stop me from gendering them as masculine when I was a tween – because, again, 1990s, limited understanding of gender outside the binary, etc – but I’m impressed that on some subconscious level, my brain must have seen NiGHTS’s character design and gone, “Yes, that. That is what I want.”

NiGHTS was free in a way my young brain could barely even conceptualize up until that moment. Flight often has this connotation in media, but something about NiGHTS and the context in which I discovered it made it resonate particularly strongly with me. It was maybe the first 3D game I ever played, outside of flight sims (where I always crashed immediately). Even if it’s on rails during the flying section, it’s really meant for the 3D controller, which was developed in tandem and shipped together with the game disc.

(An aside: Internally, the 3D Control Pad was referred to as the “Spielberg controller.” Probably coincidentally, Spielberg also appears as a bearded, be-capped “director” at Claris’s audition, where he’s snoozing peacefully until he hears her sing.)

Try to imagine being me, 10 and depressed and a misfit in ways you couldn’t even articulate at the time, queerer than a $3 bill and not even properly aware of the fact. Try to imagine being held at arm’s length from games your entire life, the concept of an analog stick on something besides an arcade cabinet still a complete novelty. Try to imagine moving the stick to the upper right, which was a direction that as far as your little Sega Genesis-fed brain was concerned did not even exist up until that moment, and seeing this vibrant, androgynous, sparkling thing take off into the air in that direction, just where you wanted it to go.

It was a revelation. It felt like waking up.

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