Occasionally, as reviewers, we are given the opportunity to try a game we would otherwise (for one reason or another) not have experienced ourselves. While this sometimes means we have to slog through a game we don’t really enjoy, more often than not, we at least broaden our experience and expand our tastes. Once in a while though, we get to try out something truly special. Dreams by Media Molecule is one of those games. Originally teased back in 2013/2014 and officially announced in at E3 2015, 2020 finally saw the full release of this hard-to-define masterpiece nearly a decade in the making.
After the runaway success of games like LittleBigPlanet (in which the creative spark so evident in Dreams was first seen), Media Molecule was clearly given a serious amount of time and leeway to develop their vision. So what is Dreams, exactly? Usually, once you’ve played a game, this is one of the easier questions to answer. However, after spending just over a week with it – it’s a game that definitely does not fit neatly into a genre-specific box. After years of development, community feedback and various iterations, what you’re left with isn’t really a game in the traditional sense. In short, Dreams is the manifestation of creativity in the form of playable software.
Dreams is the manifestation of creativity in the form of playable software.
Ok, so not a game…. check. Well… not quite.
You see, you start your Dreams journey by playing Art’s Story – a two to three hour game produced by Media Molecule showcasing what the impressive software can do – the final product (in this case a pretty good little title). However, despite its short length, this is no simple tech demo. Artistically, the main storyline looks like an impressionist/blocky-pop-art hybrid painting that I rather enjoyed. The humorous writing is good, if a little on the nose, and the main storyline parts of the game take the form of a visual novel. Then, sprinkled between these bits, Art’s dreams jump between other game genres; from a fun futuristic robot platformer with great tight controls to a rhythm-based jazzy shoot ’em up with amazing music to boot.
It feels a lot like a light buffet of several pretty absorbing indie titles and while alone, it would feel a little thin, the “Made in Dreams” logo in the bottom right corner is a constant reminder of how impressive this story mode is and what it tells you about Dreams as a creation tool. However, before diving into the ‘creation’ side of things there is still more discover as a player.
Media Molecule has instituted a pretty robust discovery system and their curation is pretty good too.
I Dream, You Dream, We All Dream…
As soon as you complete the game, you’re immediately taken to a search screen displaying a plethora of more games created by the Dreams community as well as Media Molecule. While the basic search is a little intimidating, there has been quite a substantial amount of optimisation work done and Media Molecule has instituted a pretty robust discovery system and their curation is pretty good too. Frequently, Media Molecule runs time-based themed competitions (like ‘Medieval’ or ‘Monsters’). Players create games (or other creations) under that theme and then a winner is chosen. Several of the already completed competitions highlight the winners and runners-up and allow you to quickly jump into their games/creations. Of course, because you can ‘like’ creations, (games, short-stories, artworks and more) creations that have been liked most often appear higher in the search.
Even if you have no interest at all at trying to create anything in Dreams, Dream Surfing (the play mode) allows you to venture through a universe of player creations.
In the time that I searched, I found several pretty unique short films, amazingly detailed still images and a plethora of odd-ball and wide-ranging games. Of course, a few of these were pretty bad, but happily even those were mostly lacking technique and not heart. I jumped from one fantastically different creation to the next for hours. In one of my first attempts, I started watching a rather crude recreation of the opening few scenes of Star Wars IV – A New Hope, then moved on to laughing hysterically (while failing horribly) playing a game featuring a left-handed cook seemingly determined to set the kitchen on fire. I then jumped to a less than perfect Super Mario Sunshine level re-creation, to an amazingly crafted original, story-heavy RPG… not to mention the series of platformers and even a crazy-good retro-modern space invaders-like shooter I enjoyed along the way.
In short, even if you have no interest at all at trying to create anything in Dreams, Dream Surfing (the play mode) allows you to venture through a universe of player creations. Of course, just like many creatively-aimed social media sites, you will have to sift through some chaff. However, the discovery system is already quite good and by following creators you enjoy, you not only support their work but also have a seemingly endless font of new games (or at least parts of new games) available whenever you log on. Many of these games are trying something so different and unique that you’d likely not to see them from any of the bigger developers. And only Dreams gives you this special opportunity to explore new experiences by much smaller creators. Plus, even if you just want some comfort food, or to watch a funny short film or hear an interesting piece of music, Dreams offers that too. Additionally, creators are always credited and community feedback is almost always (quite uniquely for the internet) positive.
And yet, despite all the has come before... Dreams still offers so much more. Yes, in fact, arguably the main goal or purpose of Dreams is the toolset it provides for anyone and everyone to create. Now, before I get too far ahead of myself and without wanting to go into overwhelming details, I’m going to get started by saying that in case you needed to hear it, developing games is ridiculously tough. Dreams is a fantastic tool. An incredible piece of software that magically brings this kind of development into the hands of people like me that have never had the skill or opportunity to enter the field by using video games and a video game controller to create some amazing things. That being said, this part has not changed: Creating a game, a scene, an artwork… heck even a rock in that artwork – still takes a heck of a lot of patience, time and willpower to boot.
Dreams is a fantastic creation tool; An incredible piece of software that magically brings this kind of development into the hands of people like you and me…
What Dreams does so well though, is it translates this skilled creative process into a language so many of us use every day – the language of video games. Instead of a complicated coding language, swinging the controller, rolling analogue sticks and pressing a few buttons opens up an entirely new world to you. And while this is exhilarating on its own – it can also be quite intimidating. However, once again the Media Molecule team shines. There is a seemingly endless supply of detailed, comprehensive and easy-to-follow tutorials guiding you through every step of the creation process. And an “Imp” pointer creature companion that you’ll soon learn to fling around the screen and power your creations.
The tutorials range from Beginner to Advanced and after only a few Beginner classes and a single Advanced Sculpting tutorial I was well on my way to creating my first ‘Dream’; a scene with my own funny shaped character, crossing an umm..’ organic’ looking bridge while platforms swung wildly from (almost) left to right and pressing-buttons to open drawbridges along the way. Yes, it was only a very simple platformer using some pre-created elements of course, but within a week I had made something that was kind of playable. A game with wiring and logic, and jumping and… well a little bit of me. It felt exhilarating and I can’t wait to keep going back and build some more.
Hard to wake up
Dreams is astonishing. A creator tool game has been tried before (heck Mario Maker did it pretty well) but in Dreams, we have an almost perfect game in the genre. And it even goes beyond that with all the Discovery and community features. Of course, don’t get me wrong, there are a few downsides. I didn’t quite understand the overall purpose of the ‘homespace’ area and found it to be quite confusing to navigate at first. Also, in general, controlling the camera with a PS4 controller while creating, really takes a lot of practice even for a gamer like myself pretty fond of his 3D platformers. Even using motion controls to build… well let’s just say I’m still not convinced – I mean, I’m pretty sure most game developers use a keyboard for a reason.
However, all being said and done these are the tiniest of gripes. It may not be a game that was on your radar. It’s not a blockbuster single-player adventure, or the online multiplayer shooter/sports title that you’ll return to daily. No, this is a very different experience. But one I beg you to consider. Not only does it manage to be more than the sum of its already rather remarkable parts but it’s also a wonderful master of them all; An interesting and marvellously-accessible creating tool connected to a collection of custom games, short films, music and ideas from an unexpectedly positive community, Dreams is, quite simply, something very very special.