Seven years after being announced and following an Early Access period from April to December 2019, Dreams and its PS4 content creation tool has now been unleashed upon the general populace.
Is it a game? Is it a game-development tool? Is it a dream? Dreams, developed by Media Molecule for the PS4, is all of these at once. You play content, create content, and share content.
Think LittleBigPlanet’s “Play, Create, Share” mantra, with the volume turned up to ten.
A whole new world
Dreams is overwhelming in both its ambition and its potential. It’s a collection of player-made games. A canvas. A music-maker. An artistic endeavour. A community.
It’s very tempting to continue this description purely as a series of nouns, but if I had to boil it down to its most basic level, Dreams is made up of “Dream Shaping” (making content), and “Dream Surfing” (experiencing content made by others).
Dream shaping is where you’ll create your own art, music, and games, either from scratch or with pre-made assets. Creating games in Dreams feels like playing a game, in that you are physically immersed within the scenes you create. Where in other systems you might interact with the system via windows which pop up over the screen, in Dreams these windows are items with which you interact within a 3D space.
It’s a real game-ception (forgive me).
One of the many great things about Dreams is the freedom to choose how deep you want to go. Which is lucky, because for a beginner this thing is as deep. Like, Mariana Trench deep. Plus a few metres for good measure. Luckily, Media Molecule provides a substantial amount of pre-made material to work with, and there is also a sizeable number of community made assets thanks to a hard-working Early Access community, with more added by the day.
And trust me, when the choice is between spending an hour hand-crafting a single sad flower, or five minutes cloning assets to create the Virtual Hanging Gardens of Babylon, I won’t judge you for using a shortcut or two.
Media Molecule also reportedly has long-term plans for Dreams, including VR, 3D printing capability, and many more very exciting nouns.
The universally accepted starting point for those wanting to know what Dreams is capable of is “Art’s Dream”. This three-hour campaign, created by Media Molecule, is also the highest quality content currently available on Dreams by a long-shot.
“Art’s Dream” follows Art and his childhood toys as they battle his inner demons across several hours of platforming, point-and-click adventuring, side-scrolling – plus a music video or two. It’s an absolute mish-mash of genres and visual styles, and frankly, it’s a masterpiece. And that’s the point. Made entirely within Dreams’ own engine, “Art’s Dream”’s raison d’être is to show-off and to inspire.
However, “Art’s Dream” alone isn’t worth the current New Zealand asking price of NZD$69. Outings like Dreams live and die off community output.
It’s lucky then that the Dreams community is off to a roaring start. While there is nothing yet approaching the size and complexity of “Art’s Dream”, there’s a decent range of fun available already.
Standouts at time of writing include:
- Pig Detective 2: Adventures in Cowboy Town – REDUX by Lotte_Double and SdeReu. A bizarre and hilarious puzzle adventure that does exactly what it says on the box. The best ninety minutes of pig detective shenanigans in the West you’ll likely ever play.
- Southpaw Cooking by Kapten_basse. You cook as much as you can with only one hand. If you enjoyed Surgeon Simulator, you’ll get a laugh out of this, too.
- Ruckus by morishiro1935, HeartfactoryKW, AzraelSeventh, Bella_Iris and Mandelbo. One of the first breakout hits from Dreams, you play as a terrifyingly adorable Godzilla smashing up a coastal city. Great therapy after a bad day at work.
- Get home from bar by Conballz. It’s a get-home-safe-while-drunk simulator. Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?
- Full Beech Breakfast by Media Molecule senior principal designer John Beech. Okay, not actually a game, but the most realistic plate of a breakfast fry-up I’ve ever seen. This is art.
There are also way too many horror games getting made, guys. The point is to create dreams, not nightmares!
Making your dreams come true
But you’re never going to create the fantasy-puzzle-RPG-dating-simulator of your dreams if you can’t even use the cursor. And Dreams’ controls do take some adjusting to. Tasks like moving and altering objects and camera control are carried out using button combinations you’d do well to learn early, and learn well.
The cursor itself is an “imp” – a fluffy little guy with a light on their head. I was more excited than I should have been when Dreams invited me to select an imp design that felt right for me, a choice that I could later change when I’d locked newer, cuter imps.
My current imp is the little fellow with sunglasses. I’ve never felt more attached to a cursor image, and likely never will again.
This emotional attachment goes a long way to endearing you to a system that I personally found a tad clunky. The cursor-imp is controlled via the PS4 motion-controls, which can be re-centred as you move around your couch. Alternatively, the analog sticks can be used instead. When combined with the afore-mentioned memorisation of various button combinations to interact with the menu and navigate around the screen, I can’t help but feel the whole system would feel much more natural using a mouse and keyboard.
Learning these new controls alongside the huge amount of new tools themselves make the tutorials practically mandatory. In fact, some of them are, with some aspects of Dreams locked until you progress through the basics.
I tried to dive into Dream Shaping from scratch after only having completed a couple of basic control tutorials. I couldn’t even paint grass on the ground without the camera swinging wildly out of sight. Grass.
During the learning curve, it’s worth remembering that you’re learning an entire game development engine. While other engines like Unity take months (at least) to become proficient in, Dreams only asks for your attention through a few hours of friendly and approachable tutorials. And that’s where Dreams will truly add value to the market.
A dreamlike aesthetic
Much like the puns in this review, the “dream” analogy is laid on often and thickly. You’re not a game-developer or a player, you’re a dreamer. You’re not creating games, you’re building dreams. It’s totally different, I swear.
I don’t fault Media Molecule for this approach. The analogy serves as a simple way to tie the dream shaping and dream surfing elements into a coherent thematic concept that isn’t “make content and consume content”.
This theme is carried over visually, too – particularly in the way the default brushes lend themselves to a soft impressionistic vibe. It’s all very calming to look at.
Well, calming until you choose to create another horror game. Please, stop.
It’s difficult to review the music and sounds of Dreams, because they are infinite by design. While Media Molecule provides a surprising amount of pre-made instruments and tracks for you to play with right off the bat, Dreams also allows you to remix pre-made tracks, or make your own tracks note by note. It’s even possible make your own instruments with which to make your own tunes which can then be used and re-mixed by the entire Dreams player base.
All of this leads to an enormous amount of what is, arguably, player-made intellectual property. The scope and variety of what can be created using the engine is exponential, particularly when compared to what is possible using LittleBigPlanet or Minecraft (as examples).
And yet, all of this content cannot be enjoyed by anyone who does not also own Dreams. To compound this, a lack of monetization is already beginning to plague the engine, and will likely be debated by the community for some time.
Dreams is a wish your heart makes
I have an admission to make.
During all my time with Dreams, the most complicated creation my partner and I managed to make was a creepy face that slowly smiled, accompanied by a sick beat.
But you know what – we were really, really proud of that creepily smiling face. Dreams is a gift for the game-developer hidden in all of us – powerful enough to create complex, feature-length games for those with the patience, but with a low skill barrier for entry. Once you’ve got the basics, it’s a darn fun place to mess around.
If you have any interest at all in making your own game, Dreams is a great place to start.