Made in Dreams.
By Richard Wakeling | @richardwakeling on
The first game I played in Dreams was a cute Captain Toad-inspired puzzle platformer called Pip Gemwalker. It’s about a Sloth who has to collect hidden gems across seven increasingly-complex levels. The second game I played was Blade Gunner, a Resogun-style twin-stick shooter with upgrades, an in-game store, and online leaderboards. After that I hopped into Art Therapy, a first-person game where your goal, as a disgruntled artist wielding a baseball bat, is to smash your way through a museum without any of the guards catching you in the act. The fourth was Shadows Dance at Olivetop Reach, a fantasy RPG with turn-based combat and an XP-based levelling system.
Each of these games is vastly different from the last, not just in terms of genre and gameplay mechanics, but their use (or disuse) of cutscenes, voice acting, art style, music, narrative, and so on. The one thing they each have in common is that they were all created using the exact same set of tools. That’s Dreams in a nutshell: a platform where you can create pretty much anything you can put your mind to. Developer Media Molecule has continued the mantra of “play, create, share” that it used to define the LittleBigPlanet series and applied it to a much more ambitious concept with a significantly broader scope. Metaphorically speaking, if LittleBigPlanet is a single country, then Dreams is the entire universe. There’s just so much promise and potential for the burgeoning Dreams community to create some innovative and inspired art, all by using an intuitive toolset that’s made accessible via a streamlined creation suite and the use of informative hands-on tutorials. Whether these creations take the form of an hour-long video game, a short film, a simple visual spectacle, or something as simple as a sound effect that another player can use in their own project. The possibilities are endless, which I know is a tired cliché, but in Dreams–more than anywhere else–it actually applies.
There are two parts to Dreams which both branch out like roots from a tree. DreamShaping is where you can begin creating your own projects and find myriad tutorials that will teach you how. DreamSurfing, meanwhile, lets you find other people’s creations and play them for yourself. It’s also where you’ll find Media Molecule’s own creations, including Art’s Dream. If you want to construct a level in LittleBigPlanet, you are always confined to the base template of a side-scrolling 3D platformer. Inevitably, some people found inventive ways to circumnavigate this template, but compared to what you can do in Dreams it’s overly restrictive. To demonstrate the monumental shift between LittleBigPlanet and Dreams, Media Molecule has created a showcase of sorts, placing Art’s Dream front and centre when you jump into DreamSurfing for the first time.
Art’s Dream is, for lack of a better term, Dreams’ story mode or campaign. What makes it so fascinating, however, is that the two-hour-long game was made entirely using the same creation tools available to everyone. Media Molecule didn’t cut any corners or cheat with some hocus pocus development magic–unless you count a team of highly skilled professionals creating a game with tools they’re intimately familiar with as cheating. The fact that Dreams’ toolset allows for the creation of something like Art’s Dream is genuinely incredible, but it’s also a touching and melancholic tale that’s completely different to any story Media Molecule has told before. The narrative centres on a troubled double bass player who quit his band and alienated all of his friends, leading to a life of regrets. It’s not quite as depressing as it sounds, meshing the more dour notes with plenty of hopefulness, charm, and that Media Molecule whimsy, but it is a notably mature tale for the studio.
Art’s Dream is split into three disparate parts. Each one is integral to the story being told, but they’re also used to demonstrate the variety that’s possible in Dreams’ creation suite. There’s a combat-focused platformer section where you play as childhood toys trekking across a surreal countryside; a puzzle platformer starring an Astro Bot-style robot who’s travelling through a techno-forest; and a point-and-click adventure that includes dialogue choices, item-based puzzle solutions, and some fantastic musical interludes. The whole game cycles through these three parts as it briskly moves along, introducing new mechanics and ideas the deeper you go. The shift between genres, art styles, and camera perspectives is consistently impressive without ever feeling disjointed, due primarily to Art’s compelling narration tying it all together. Eventually the adventure reaches a thrilling final crescendo that coalesces each story thread into one and throws in some Bullet Hell and endless runner sections just to up the ante. As a singular creation, Art’s Dream is an enjoyable two-hour adventure with striking abstract visuals, but it’s also a statement and a promise of what’s achievable in Dreams.
That’s not to say you’ll be creating something as complex and grandiose as Art’s Dream within a couple of days, months, or even a year. The DreamShaping creation suite is initially a daunting proposition. With the freedom to create anything you can put your mind to, the toolset has to be exhaustive to compensate, so your first gander into DreamShaping is guaranteed to be overwhelming. Fortunately, the Dreams Workshop is chock-full of informative tutorials that run through each tool and fundamental technique that’s available to you. There are beginner classes that focus on the basics of edit mode, from getting you accustomed with its control scheme to teaching you how to place platforms, resize objects, and clone items.
The control scheme is definitely a sticking point, though. There are three to choose from but none of them are especially intuitive. Navigating around a 3D environment with the left and right sticks while using motion controls to move a cursor initially feels cumbersome, particularly when you’re trying to be precise and hone in on the finer details. The undo button comes in handy during these instances, allowing you to instantly go back and erase your last action, but it’s clear the DualShock has inherent limitations when faced with a creation suite this complex.
When it comes to creating your own project, Dreams gives you the flexibility to ease yourself in.
The PlayStation Move controllers fare slightly better when it comes to sculpting, mainly because it feels much more natural to mold and shape objects with your hands. For instance, the ability to drag items towards and away from you just by performing the same physical action yourself stands out in this regard. The Move control scheme does come with its own unwieldy nuances, however, giving the DualShock an advantage when it comes to navigating menus and controlling the camera–which in turn makes designing levels a slightly more fluid experience with the DualShock in hand. Whichever control scheme you choose, the mixture of imperfect motion controls and imperfect regular controls does present an additional learning curve. The more you get used to them the more comfortable they become, but it does take a while to grasp.
Other tutorials delve into more specific areas of game design, with step-by-step guides to painting and coloring, tutorials on how to animate characters and objects by hand, and “How To” videos that teach you how to quickly assemble a level, among other techniques. Beyond this are advanced, intermediate, and masterclass tutorials that teach you how to create your own original music and sound or run through how to assemble connectors and use physics. There’s a tutorial where you learn how to create hitboxes on enemies that react to projectiles, whether it’s a bullet fired in a first-person shooter or a flying disc in a platformer. In short, there’s a lot.
Learning it all means devoting a significant amount of time, so it’s good that the tutorials are incredibly helpful and enlightening. Each one delves into the inner workings of game design in a way that’s easy to consume without it ever coming across as patronising, as developers–through narration–share their insight and expertise on particular subjects in a hands-on setting that gradually guides you along. The toolset is streamlined compared to Unity or Unreal Engine in order to make the creation suite slightly more accessible for your average Joe, but the tutorials provide a greater appreciation for how challenging game development truly is.
They also maintain Dreams’ focus on creativity, actively encouraging you to express yourself even when learning how the toolset works. This makes working your way through each tutorial an enjoyable experience when tutorials can so often be a drag. Take creating a character from scratch as a prime example. There are precise steps to follow, including a video showing what your character could look like, yet the narration encourages you to add your own flourishes and create a concoction unique to you, so long as you gain an understanding of how the tools work along the way.
When it comes to creating your own project, Dreams gives you the flexibility to ease yourself in because not every piece of it has to be wholly your own. Media Molecule has numerous presets for you to choose from, but other players can also upload their own creations, whether it’s an entire environment, a single character, or a piece of music, which you can then download and use in your own creations. This establishes a tangible sense of community that bleeds into every other aspect of Dreams, from DreamShaping to DreamSurfing.
A lot of the games available to play right now were collaborative efforts, with characters or objects designed by different players. You might have no interest in creating an entire game yourself, instead opting to find a niche creating characters, buildings, or even music that other people can use in their own games. I’ll probably never be great at designing levels, but there’s a certain satisfaction to glean from using the game’s sound and music studio, paint tools, and sculpture moulding to conceive bespoke creations. Maybe I’ll make a tree that someone likes and uses in their own game to populate a forest, or use the comb tool and flow effect to form a raging river. I might even mesh various sound elements together to create a baritone growl that another player applies to an antagonistic monster in their own game. It’s this community-centric approach that inspires me to learn and create more.
Dreams is like YouTube for video games, where a single hour can take you on a journey through so many disparate and imaginative experiences.
The simple act of making stuff is also just enjoyable to do. There’s a tactile feeling to using the various paint strokes or object moulding that’s satisfying to play around with, grabbing and pulling at a sculpture to establish a shape before using facial features from the community to devise an unorthodox character. The way you create sound and music is similarly freeform, with the option of loading up a pre-made virtual instrument that you can then play around with using basic button inputs. I may not know the first thing about music composition or sound design, but I’ve listened to enough to know how to create a rudimentary tune–the toolset’s intuitiveness just makes it possible. Obviously, designing an entire game with mechanics that actually work is a challenging process, but the ease with which you can simply jump in and make objects and sounds means ensures that the creation suite is engaging to use even if you’re just messing around.
On the flip side, you can always ignore the creation side completely and fall down a rabbit hole of playing other people’s work. Dreams is like YouTube for video games, where a single hour can take you on a journey through so many disparate and imaginative experiences. There are the usual imitators with myriad recreations of levels from the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Metal Gear Solid, and Crash Bandicoot, but there’s also value in seeing these familiar characters, environments, and mechanics recreated because it offers an easy way to gauge what the toolset is capable of. For instance, there’s a Dead Space remake that features a primitive version of the original game’s limb dismemberment, and a 3D Mario clone that authentically recreates the mustachioed plumber’s distinctive animations. Some of these imitators are inspired, too. One imagines what Silent Hills could have been if Konami didn’t pull the plug, adding some LA Noire-esque interrogations to the mix, while another stars Persona 5’s Morgana in a 3D platformer about stealing pizza that’s a natural fit for the anthropomorphic character.
The majority are original creations, however, and it’s their sheer diversity that really stands out. There’s a game called Southpaw Cooking that “simulates” cooking with your left hand because your right is too busy holding a phone to your ear. Others are more elaborate, like Project Ikelos, a Souls-like action game, or the short music video Duet, which features a green ukulele-playing character and a pink dinosaur with a kazoo. One of my personal favorites is Dog’s Run, a game where you get to play as the creator’s own pet dog, Binkie. It’s a classic platforming collect-a-thon like Banjo-Kazooie, but I found it oddly heartwarming because of its furry protagonist. It actually inspired me to try and improve my non-existent skills in the creation suite, just so I can one day immortalise my own dog in Dreams.
Finding each of these games is relatively simple thanks to Media Molecule’s beautiful curation of the DreamSurfing area. The homepage includes trending creations, favorites picked by Media Molecule itself, and recommendations based on your play history. There’s also the Annual IMPY Awards which reward the best creations of the year, with lists of all the winners in categories like best visuals, best narrative, best animation, and best gameplay. Media Molecule also hosts intermittent game jams where the community is tasked with creating something adhering to a particular theme in a short amount of time. You can get involved and create something yourself or simply play other people’s creations and vote for your favorite. If you’re not sure what to play you can hit Autosurf and be transported directly into a random game, or if you want to search for something specific there’s a robust search engine that lets you find what you’re looking for with a few simple keywords. Media Molecule has made it so you can effortlessly hop from one game or singular experience to another and discover something worthwhile.
Dreams was in early access for less than a year, but the small community it’s built since then has already created some stunning projects that exhibit imagination, innovation, and artistry. Now that the full game is out in the wild, it’s going to be fascinating to see how the community continues to grow and what creations arise from that growth. Media Molecule has devised something really special with Dreams, placing a hefty toolset in players’ hands where the only limitations are your skills, imagination, and time. There’s nothing else quite like it, and it feels like a culmination of everything the studio has been working towards since the first LittleBigPlanet. The presentation is too charming, the tutorials too informative, active, and engaging, while playing and finding other people’s creations is a breeze. Dreams is a refined constructor for building a wide variety of games, and a community-centric showcase where others can play them. It’s a stunning achievement that encourages limitless creative expression, a place where people can come together, collaborate, and explore each other’s imaginations. It’s a tool for the fools who dream, and one of the most innovative releases in years.
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