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REVIEWED BY BEN ALLAN
How to sum up Media Molecule’s long-gestating PS4 project Dreams? It’s not really a game in itself, although it gives you access to a whole bunch of them, and is sort of game-y in its operating nature. But don’t be fooled by all the cute characters, terms like “Dreamiverse” and Playstation trophies it throws at you - it’s really a remarkably wide-ranging suite of creative and technical tools that allow you to build your own art, animation - and yes, video games - and then put them out there for other Dreamers to play, remix and collaborate on.
Dreams eases newcomers in with a lot of fluffiness and talk of imps and “dream-shaping” designed to reinforce the idea that this is a product designed to unleash your inner bohemian. You can jump straight into making stuff if you like, but I suspect most will head to the play side of things - “dream-surfing” - to get an idea of what’s possible. Users’ creations are uploaded to a central online hub and classified by various categories - art, animation, games and so on, and it’s easy and fast to jump into anything that takes your fancy.
The showcase - literally - here is Art’s Dream, a three-hour or so gaming-cum-story experience that Media Molecule themselves cooked up to demonstrate what Dreams can do. It tells the tale of Art, a bass player in an up-and-coming jazz band who sabotages himself due to his anxiety and self-doubt.
Despite the short run time it manages to careen wildly from adventure game style gameplay with dialogue options to platforming, animated cut scenes, musical interludes, twin-stick shooting, driving and aerial combat sections and even to a stint as an arcade-style bullet hell shoot ‘em up. Along the way it smooshes in robots, dragons, evil crows and a bureaucratic train conductor. It’s all a bit thematically incoherent, but works a treat as a tech demo, and carries a message of overcoming your doubts to express your creativity.
That’s perhaps just as well, because when you get into making some stuff for yourself, you’ll find a simply enormous amount of intimidatingly technical tools, layered deep in submenus upon submenus, that seem a bit overwhelming. Fortunately there’s a vast library of friendly, easy to follow tutorial videos to walk you through things one step at a time, taking you all the way through from plonking featureless cubes on flat ground up to animating character models and logic programming.
And while the complication ceiling of what’s possible is incredibly high, a lot of the tools make it very simple to achieve some decent results, with those whose art skills are a little rusty - or non-existent - sure to appreciate tools and special effects that often seem to amount to magical “just make this look good” buttons. Many pre-made art assets are also available, and creators can also release their own for others to use, while entire templates for things like first-person shooters also mean you don’t always need to start from scratch.
In fact, you may find yourself frustrated less with any sense of impenetrability and more with the limitations of trying to use the creation tools with a PS4 controller. Dreams itself recommends navigating things with the motion sensor option it provides, but I for one abandoned that faster than a horror film script abandons an amusement park, retreating to the relative precision of the controller sticks. It will be nice though, when Dreams makes it to PC.
This is another wee sticking point for Dreams; the amazing creation you may put countless hours into is, for now anyway, confined to the walled garden of Dreams itself. People have already put serious work in, though, with a host of the world’s weird and wonderful creations on show.
Jumping at random around the “Dreamiverse”, I’ve had experiences ranging from smashing up a city as a cartoon Godzilla to losing a whole evening to someone’s simple but cool robot-programming game and flying my viewpoint over an incredibly detailed, totally static recreation of an English cooked breakfast. While there’s naturally a lot of recycled, unfinished or buggy stuff too, seeing the home-spun nature of what people come up with is a lot of the charm, and you never quite know what you might find. Give it a year or two, and there’s likely to be some Dreams efforts that make creative careers.
And that could be you! If you’ve got some burning creative games or artistic ideas, Dreams is the excuse-destroyer that you need to pick up. And if you haven’t got the time or inclination to do the creative hard yards, it’s a direct line into the imagination of others. Dive in.
Ben Allan is an ODT sub-editor.