Thanks to the proliferation of digital distribution options, video gaming is one of the few industries whose profit margins are yet to be harmed terribly by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Though as it wears on, it remains to been how it may affect the frequently awful working conditions at the major studios.) One new release that’s gone under the radar, but is cultivating a thriving little community, is the PlayStation 4 title Dreams. Media Molecule, the company behind the game, is best known for the LittleBigPlanet series, which lets players craft their own stages to play in. Dreams takes things a step further by allowing players to create fully fledged games, and then make them discoverable for others to play via the console’s internet connection.
Having zero mind for crafting game narratives or mechanics, I didn’t venture into that side of Dreams. But about two months out from its early access release, many people have already shared a robust crop of diverse and interesting creations. One of the most popular is Southpaw Cooking by user Kapten_basse, which challenges players to cook a meal — chopping up vegetables and meat, tossing them into a pot, and plating the result without spilling it — while one-handed. The game simulates the awkwardness of using your non-dominant hand by making you use one control stick to move your arm forward or backward, and the other to move it from side to side. Some unforgiving collision physics make it a riot to play (my favorite little touch is that if you knock into a radio on the countertop, it will blare music and make the whole scene even more frantic).
Overall, short games are the platform’s forte, which makes sense. (It will be interesting to see what kind of longer-form experiences emerge as users get more used to the tools and have more time to work with them.) The single best title on the network may be Please Hug Me. A super short experience, you play a little block creature who just wants a hug. Unfortunately, its conical neighbors are repulsed, and will flee as you approach for a hug. It’s a cute, dark, sad little rumination on social isolation. It’s struck enough of a chord with players that multiple reinterpretations and unofficial sequels have already been created.
Some of the games use their simple premises to much deeper effect. As the name suggests, One Level by arnoldochavez has precisely one setup, within which you have to maneuver a little snail to her home. Each time you do, however, it resets with a different parameter. For one run, it may flip your controls so that tilting forward makes the snail go in reverse instead, or it may only allow you to jump once, or it will make the surfaces you land on slippery. It’s a clever way to reframe one’s idea of what actually entails challenge and variety within a game; as it turns out, you don’t necessarily need complex art assets or a ton of different environments.
There are more traditional games as well, of course. Ball World Adventures by xXRazorfistXx has enough polish that it could easily be mistaken for an ordinary release. The Eternity House by HandsomeFiend is a chilling short story in game form. Art’s Dream, Media Molecule’s central showcase title for the game, is an ambitious, frequently beautiful feature-length story about creativity. As is usual for networks built around user-generated content, though, some of the more unusual ideas floating about are the most interesting.
People are using Dreams not just to make games, but also recreations of movie and television scenes, music playlists, surreal imagery, and much more. Here’s a short experience in which you, playing Vincent van Gogh, are inspired to create “The Starry Night.” One of the most intriguing games I’ve come across is Jurassic Park – The Kitchen, in which you can freely explore a meticulous recreation of the kitchen scene from Jurassic Park. If it could be elaborated upon to the point where you could watch the whole scene play out as in the movie, it would make for a great tool to study cinematic blocking and framing.
Dreams has the potential to host a whole new community of creations outside any known boxes of gaming, art, and whatever else it may incorporate. Already it’s cultivated a selection of fun ideas, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of it next.
Dreams is available now for the PlayStation 4.