We like to throw around the words “like nothing you’ve ever seen before” in game reviews and, in fact, that’s what I first thought after playing a few hours of the trippy creative experience that is Dreams.
However, after a few more hours of play I really stopped to think about it and realized that we certainly have seen something like this before. Dreams is a “maker” game at its core, and we have been putting creative control in the hands of the player for ages. Super Mario Maker lets us create unique platforming levels with our favorite plumber. Nearly every Bethesda RPG and wrestling game has a character creator. Heck, Nintendo was giving us creative suites as far back as Mario Paint or even the track editor in Excitebike. Even Dreams’ predecessor, LittleBigPlanet was basically just a creative suite to make cute platforming levels. We have been turning video games into creation tools for as long as video games has created.
If you can dream it you can make it
But what makes Dreams unique is its scope. This isn’t a character maker or a level maker. This is an EVERYTHING maker. Everything. Characters, levels, menus, mechanics, music, cut scenes, title screens, cheat codes, anything that you can think of can be created with Dreams. It is, in a sense, a full game creation engine, like Game Maker or Unity.
Developer Media Molecule did a great job showing us just how powerful Dreams is. It’s headlining creation, and the closest thing that Dreams has to a story mode, is a 2-3 hour game called Art’s Dream. It tells a story of a jazz musician who breaks up with his band, battles with depression, and finally finds the strength within him to apologize, open up to his bandmates, and join them for a gig of a lifetime. It’s a neat story tackling subject matter that isn’t normally tackled in games, but it’s how the story is told that is interesting.
The story takes place, appropriately enough, in Art’s dreams, and like most of our dreams they are all kind of incongruent. At one point he dreams of his childhood stuffed animals who he used to imagine battling a giant crow. At these points, you play a third person action game. At times he remembers his little robot toys and the game becomes a puzzle platformer. At times he remembers past events with his band and the game becomes a point and click adventure/puzzle solver. Sprinkled throughout there are all sorts of other genres, from rhythm game style cutscenes to racing segments, all eventually culminating in a massive genre shifting finale that swaps between an auto-runner, a Star Fox style space-rail shooter, and a 2D shoot-em-up, and all of this, from the character modes to the voice acting to the music was created with Dreams’ creation tools. It’s superbly impressive.
Dream delivered directly to you
But why create games in Dreams instead of a plain old game engine? Primarily, it’s because of Dreams’ curation tools. As a player, Dreams will attempt to find creations across the “Dreamiverse” that fit your preferences, allowing you to constantly be spoonfed with new content, and trust me, there is a lot of content. Dreams has been in beta and testing stages for over a year now, and that has been plenty of time to populate it’s servers with games and demos. You’ll find everything from short 2D platformers to full 20 hour RPGs. You’ll be able to play multiplayer competitive shooters, dating sims, full remakes of P.T. and Five Nights at Freddy’s, a million Sonic fan games, and much more.
Of course, not everything is great. This is crowd sourced content, of course, which means the quality of what you play will always be proportional to the effort the creator put in. Some, actually most, of these creations are just jank garbage. They might look good on the surface, but any number of small problems can render them unplayable. I’ve played games that have totally frozen, whose basic mechanics have broken, who failed at basic collision, who have glitched out beyond recognition, whose controls barely operate, and then some. Even with the amazing curation system (which can be accessed from computers and mobile devices to browse in your off-time) you are going to have to wade through a bunch of garbage until you get to the gems. However, the gems all have a quality to them that is fairly indescribable. I’d pay money for some of these games. Heck, I’d pay full price for a cherished few.
Unfortunately, I can’t, which is another problem with Dreams which I won’t get into in detail here. In short, you don’t really own your creations. Yes, Media Molecule has a system in place so that you are always credited whenever one of your creations shows up in a dream, but you can’t, say, make a game in Dreams and then once it hits it big, take it off, put it on Steam, and sell it for $5. It’s always going to be a dream and just a dream. Nothing more.
That’s not all bad though. It’s primarily bad, but it does allow Media Molecule to fool around with the way they make assets available to you. Sculpting models from scratch, designing game mechanics, composing music, and so on are very difficult tasks. If you had to build everything from scratch for every game you ever made, you’d never get anything done.
Fortunately, you don’t have to build everything from scratch. Media Molecule has given you a ton of assets to start creating with, and if that’s not enough, anything that any other player has made is also available in asset form. That’s part of the reason there are so many Sonic games in the Dreamiverse. Only one person had to make the core Sonic model and mechanics and everyone else can focus on stage creation and picking out their favorite piece of butt rock to serve as the soundtrack.
In fact, Dreams goes out of its way to help you find other users that might be able to help you out. As you fool around with Dreams you get an “aura” which essentially tells you and other players what you have been using Dreams for. If you primarily play other people’s creations, the game will label you as a player and note that you are probably useful as a playtester, sharing your criticism of projects in progress.
If you have made a bunch of art, models, and stages, the game will peg you as an artist and point people your way whenever they need visual assets. If you have made a lot of music, you’ll be a composer and people will come your way for background tracks. There are so many other roles to fill, and you don’t even have to try and fill them. The game itself takes notice of what you do and tracks your activity for you.
This is what makes Dreams “unlike anything we have seen before.” It’s not just a game creation engine, or a curated way to play other people’s games, it’s a way to instantly connect with other creators and a massive database of assets including every asset ever made or imported into the engine. This makes Dreams one of the most accessible game creation tools ever, and it’s generally one of the best ways to get into basic game design, period.
Dreaming is harder than it looks
Dreams has one major flaw: its Playstation 4 exclusivity. I have no problem with exclusive titles of course, but being on the PS4 greatly constrains its control options. In short, you are going to be doing intricate game design with a gamepad. Does that sound like torture? Well it is.
Dreams’ game creation engine is primarily controlled via motion controls. It’s one of the best implementations of motion controls ever, allowing you to make very minute adjustments to your “imp” which serves as your cursor, but they are still motion controls. They still twitch and jutter at the slightest movement. They still take a long time to get used to. They still aren’t nearly as precise as other forms of control, and precision is what you want.
Not to mention, you’ll be performing all sorts of finger gymnastics to make even simple creations. Even simple copy-pasting requires a button sequences that feels like a cheat code when the same function with, say, a keyboard and mouse requires a simple right-click or, if you are snazzy, a keyboard shortcut.
There are alternative control schemes. You can turn off motion controls but this just increases the amount of finger-gymnastics you have to do. You can also use PS Move controllers and, eventually, the PSVR which we are sure is going to be amazing. Being able to craft your own VR experiences really will make Dreams truly one-of-a-kind. But still, Move controllers just aren’t as precise as a keyboard and mouse.
What I don’t understand is why Sony and Media Molecule didn’t allow you to use a simple USB keyboard and mouse. Yes, there is limited keyboard support but without a mouse… what’s the point? You can actually see on the Dreams reddit, that many beta users have gone out of their way to purchase converters for their keyboards and mice just so they can use the editor the way that game designers usually use editors.
This is the biggest problem with Dreams. I futzed around with hours in the editor and, quite frankly, I just got frustrated. Of course, this is coming from the perspective of someone with some game design experience, so your mileage may vary, but personally I feel like the editor was just too clunky. Even Super Mario Maker’s editor wisely used touch controls to make it feel intuitive. Motion controls and futzing around with analog sticks just don’t make for a good user interface for a powerful game creation engine.
Dreams can go on forever
That being said, Dreams is worth it even if you never touch the editor. Dreams is being sold at a ludicrous budget price of $40. That’s $40 for nearly infinite gaming content. There are certainly creators out there with far more patience for the editor than I have, creators that are willing to create games that compare easily with indie hits, or even some full priced AA titles. Heck, since the game’s “aura” system marks you as someone who plays more than creates, you can STILL give back to the community as a tester. So if all you want to do is play other people’s creations, that’s fine. You are providing a valuable service to game creators everywhere and getting pseudo infinite content for less than the price of a standard game! How could you possibly pass that up!
So maybe it is fair to say that Dreams is like nothing we have ever seen before. While it may be familiar, its ambition and sheer magnitude is something that only a strange experimental studio like Media Molecule could pull off. This is not just a game, it’s an experience, and it’s one of the PS4’s (and if we are to believe rumors, PS5’s) most unique. If you have $40 in your pocket right now spend it on Dreams. You’ll more than get your money’s worth, and who knows? Maybe one of your dreams will inspire you to take up the hobby of game design.
Or maybe you’ll just flood the Dreamiverse with memes, and frankly that’s OK too.