One of the dreams from Dreams, the game that lets you turn your dreams into gaming reality.
One of the dreams from Dreams, the game that lets you turn your dreams into gaming reality.

Pop CultureMarch 7, 2020

Review: Dreams shows the endless bounds and limits of the gamer’s imagination

One of the dreams from Dreams, the game that lets you turn your dreams into gaming reality.
One of the dreams from Dreams, the game that lets you turn your dreams into gaming reality.

Sam Brooks reviews Media Molecule’s Dreams, the game that allows you to turn your dreams into (virtual) reality, and share them with a likeminded community. 

Throughout my teenage years, I had dreams that my teeth would fall out, or that I had loosening teeth on the verge of falling out. Recently, these dreams of teeth falling out have shifted into dreams about my painted nails falling off. Infinitely preferable to teeth falling out, but still fairly stressful. Dreams are a personal thing: the creation of your own subconscious, if you’re being scientific about it, or the result of some other world trying to show yourself to yourself, if you’re being a bit more fantastical. 

Dreams, the new game from Little Big Planet developer Media Molecule, aims not just to gamify dreams, but to turn them into a community experience. A chance to show yourself, and the weird doodles that live inside your brain, to others. It’s not just a game, it’s a platform to create your own dreams (little games within a game) and to participate in other people’s dreams at the same time. The game provides a range of tools, and lengthy tutorials, to allow you to do this, and the limits are, well, whatever your imagination and the engine is limited to. The game’s very first tutorial of this nature is breaking through the ‘Wall of Doubt’, as if Media Molecule is anticipating the average player’s desire to create.

Player creation in games is not a new thing. People will spend hours upon hours labouring over character creators, creating the perfect house for their Sim in The Sims, and then creating the perfect family to live in there. Players are used to creating within the boundaries of a game, and in fact some agency is even expected in most games. Where Dreams goes one step further is that creation is not just the goal, but the game itself. The beauty and the fun of it is in creating something for someone else, rather than creating for yourself. That’s a key point of difference here, and it’s enough to make Dreams special. (Which is not to say that Dreams is the first game of this nature – games like RPGMaker have been doing it for decades, but this is the first triple-A, mainstream attempt at it.)

A screenshot from Art’s Dream, the studio-made game in Dreams.

In the three weeks I spent playing Dreams ahead of this review, I got to play through a variety of games from people across the world. I also got to play Media Molecule’s own two-to-three-hour creation ‘Art’s Dream’, which serves as another tutorial – mostly easing players into the idea of playing dreams where the gameplay isn’t just platforming. It could be a word game here, or even a coding or puzzle game here. Dreams is whatever you can imagine, so long as you look hard enough (and someone else has actually made it). You get precisely what you put into it – if you want a shallow, diverting experience to play while you listen to podcasts, then Dreams will provide that for you in droves. If you want something longer and deeper, you won’t exactly get The Witcher 3, but I suspect as people spend more time with the game, and it garners a larger audience, then longer and deeper experiences will come.

The game shines in the moments when it gives you a snapshot inside someone’s head and what they want to create. Whether it’s playing a kaiju stomping around a city, or a more simple platformer-style game, the joy is being part of a community where sharing a little doodle is like sharing a little part of yourself. The bench is not necessarily deep at this stage, but the breadth of experience is remarkable. It’s clear that like Little Big Planet, Media Molecule intends for Dreams to be one of those games that you play for years.

The flipside of Dreams is that by promising boundless expression, it actually reveals its limits. Empowerment only goes so far. The limits are not your imagination, the limits are your abilities to engage with the engine. This is most clear at the moment with the offerings to play through – a lot of them are recreations of other media, ranging from a frame-by-frame remake of David Lynch’s Rabbits to a recreation of the first level of Tomb Raider. There’s a glut of people recreating what they’ve already experienced, rather than using the tools provided to create their own experience. It’s a little disappointing, but not unexpected from a new service like this. After all, we learn how to draw first by tracing, then by creating our own thing. Media Molecules has given players the tools, shown them how to create, but it’ll take time before players want to create something new rather than just mess around in familiar sandboxes. 

The inherent problem with any media that focuses on limits is that dreams are always in the brain of the beholder – it’s the vast spectrum between the blandness of Inception and the terrifyingly logic-free Twin Peaks. At the moment, Dreams caters to both; the limits are not in the tools, they’re in what the players can do with them. The first step is empowering them to do that, and the second step is waiting for players to feel empowered. It’s to the game’s credit that Dreams isn’t a one-and-done experience, it’s meant to be something that you return to and get more comfortable with, both as a maker and as a player, over months and even years. In the future, there are plans to add multiplayer and even VR. I just hope to god nobody makes a game that makes your teeth fall out. Some dreams should stay off the screen and in the brain.

You can buy Dreams on the PS4 right now.

Keep going!