What is Dreams? Well, It’s pots of paints, a ball of clay, a games compendium, a music studio, a creative classroom, an animation programme, a social network, your first footsteps into game development. And crucially, often incredible.
Media Molecule’s follow up to the LittleBigPlanet series follows its established mantra of play, create, and share, but takes it to an all-new level. Whatever path you choose to take, getting lost down it is easily done as new bursts of joy are discovered around every corner. Like a Mary Poppinsesque bottomless bag of creativity, you never quite know what you’ll end up playing when booting up Dreams, or what inspiration will be sparked inside you to sculpt, paint, or engineer yourself. It’s a highly ambitious concept, and one that has been magically brought to life.
When starting up Dreams for the first time, you’d be forgiven for not knowing where to start. After a short string of basic, yet important tutorials, the most alluring and arguably best place to head is Art’s Dream – the two to three-hour story mode created by Media Molecule all within Dreams itself. You follow the titular Art, a down-and-out musician who’s recently abandoned his post as a double bass player in a jazz troupe, as he goes slaloming through three distinct settings: a fairytale-like rural area, an industrial world laden with steam trains and neon-soaked cobbles, and a digital forest where steel takes the place of wood and LEDs flicker like owls eyes watching from their branches.
The trio of plotlines intertwine to tell a surprisingly melancholic and emotionally involving story and is a much more mature one than seen in previous Media Molecule games. It’s a beautifully told tale that isn’t afraid to tackle some serious subjects, which it manifests throughout via visual spectacles such as the dreaded Thornbeak, a charcoal-feathered oversized crow that was the source of Art’s childhood nightmares.
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In order to battle those inner and outer demons, you’ll run the gamut of game genres along the way. There’s everything from classic point-and-click adventure to puzzle-platforming, some twin-stick shooting, and even a sprinkling of bullet hell. It all crescendos in a final half hour of explosive psychedelia that results in what I imagine giving Pink Floyd the dev tools to Sayonara Wild Hearts would feel like. It’s infused with song throughout, with absurdist musical numbers punctuating the story, such as a take on ‘90s east coast rap and a haunting jazz piece that I still find myself humming the bassline of with regularity.
While never providing much of a challenge, Art’s Dream does a fantastic job of blending solid combat and puzzles with a compelling plot. Most impressive, though, are its distinct and varied audio-visual stylings, which act as a great way to showcase just what is possible with Dreams’ creation tools.
Back to School
When first casting your eye over Dreams’ creation suite, it can be a worryingly overwhelming proposition. This isn’t a game where you can afford to dive in blind. But after completing the first set of basic tutorials it all started to make sense. The multitude of multicoloured glyphs that sit at the top of the screen soon meant things to me and I actually found myself enjoying the tutorials rather than them being tiresome chores as they can often be in other games. The key to this being that even while it’s teaching you the basics, Dreams is encouraging you to be creative at every turn – nudging you to not simply follow instructions when building a simple bridge or painting a garden, but teaching you to be willing to put your own spin on it.
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Media Molecule has done an outstanding job at teaching you the basics and in some cases so more advanced techniques, with the most complex batch of tutorials being a series of Masterclasses led by developers who take you step by step through their respective areas of expertise. These include Sculpting a Male Bust, Stylistic Scene Creation, Sculpting and Level Assembly, and Remixing Dreamiverse Dash (one of the Media Molecule designed games included). As of now there are only these four masterclasses available, which is a shame because I’ve found them to be the most engaging lessons, whether creating alongside or simply watching the artists at work.
Another of my favourite sub-menus of tutorials are the “How To..” videos. These range from beginner-level creations such as making a window to more advanced techniques like “How To… Make a Shooty Cannon”. Pleasingly, these are much more abundant than their Masterclass cousins and I’d especially recommend them if you’re planning on delving into the game-making side of Dreams. Overall, there’s no shortage of tutorials to get sucked into when you begin Dreams, with the vast majority being informative without stepping into patronising, and really good help you find your feet in what can be an intimidating place at first.
Even after absorbing a lot of tutorials, though, controlling Dreams can initially feel unintuitive. To some extent this is to be expected: Dreams is attempting to do things that a home console has never done before, so naturally it will have button inputs that are unfamiliar. I spent a while trying to work out which of the three different ways to control Dreams was best for me. The default, which involves using the DualShock 4’s motion controls to move my Imp (your smiley, colourful cursor) around the screen, ended up being my chosen weapon after spending time with each, but in truth I found it hard to find the perfect combination for me.
At first it can feel cumbersome to move an Imp with motion controls while at the same time moving around in 3D with the left stick and rotating around it with the right. I quickly got more used to the control scheme when using the DualShock 4, but never felt I could be as precise as I wanted to with the motion controls when trying to be delicate with a paint brush. I’d often find myself slashing a swath of colour across my canvas where all I wanted to do was add a small detail. Thankfully, the trusty undo button comes to your aide in times like this, but having to try a dozen times to get it right is still aggravating.
One way to improve this is to use the PlayStation Move controllers if you have a pair lying around. These allow you to be much more deliberate in your actions, but in turn come with their own unwieldy control scheme that never quite clicked with me. The third and final option is a new addition since early access and means using the DualShock but with motion controls removed, where your Imp is moved using the left stick. It allows for small details to be made easier, and straight lines to be created with much more ease, but altogether it feels like the flowing, magic wand-like feel of Dreams is lost.
Once I found what felt right for me, I had a go at building something from scratch, which resulted in a series of unsuccessful projects at first. In the days after, however, I felt myself learning and picking up techniques, crucially feeling like I was making progress and never feeling lost. I was by no means creating masterpieces but I was having a great time doing it, and that’s the crucial part. The act of sculpting and painting was fun and, even if the final product wasn’t as impressive as I’d envisioned, it was still an entirely enjoyable process. After all, the best part of a LEGO set is building it – otherwise you’d just buy a toy ready-built.
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Sculpting is done by first choosing a shape and its material and smearing it onto the screen in a satisfying motion. You can then add and subtract shapes from it or mould it more freely if you wish to get the exact shape you’re looking for. Once achieving a form you’re happy with you can add coats, styles, and effects if you wish. There’s a variety on offer and you’ll soon learn which does what, and the corresponding look and feel it will give your dream. A shiny wax surface accompanied with the flow effect and the addition of the comb tool can create a river with a current, for example.
Even small simple objects like flowers and bowling balls that I was forming delivered their own levels of satisfaction. Whether that be when receiving a thumbs up from someone who had stumbled across my creation in Dreams’ built-in browser, or that unique thrill of someone using it in one of their own dreams.
This is the crux of what makes Dreams so special to me. The sense of sharing and community is unlike pretty much anything I’ve seen in a game before. The ability to take any asset uploaded to the server and remix it for your needs is a thing of beauty. Whether it be a piece of landscape, a character, or a sound effect amongst myriad other categories. If the idea of creating a whole fully workable game sounds daunting or you simply have no interest in doing so, there’s so much more you can try your hand at. You can become a tree specialist, a voiceover artist, or a music maker in the fully kitted out audio studio and contribute to other people’s whole fully workable games.
For me, it was the painting side of creation I found myself drawn to most in my time with Dreams. There’s something satisfying about the way flecks of paints are applied to the screen, which varies depending on the angle of your controller and amount of pressure you place on the trigger. It feels like you’re actually brushing the strokes and feels wonderfully fluid as you sweep each layer of colour onto the other. I won’t be in a position to forge any Rembrandts any time soon, but once again I had a great time using the tools and was not necessarily concerned by my less-than-stellar results.
That’s not to say that stunning works of art can’t be made in Dreams. The tools are there and there’s no shortage of proof that they work. The quality and variety on show when browsing through the “Dreamiverse” (the server where all Dreams creations are stored) is immediately apparent. It inspired me to persevere and get better where it would feel easy to give up. A bad workman blames their tools, after all.
Many will see the prospect of being able to make their own games as the most enticing aspect of Dreams. Never before has this been attempted on consoles, at least not to this level of scale and complexity and open-endedness. No longer are the LittleBigPlanet-shaped chains of side-scrolling platforming tied around your ambitions when it comes to Media Molecule’s in-game game-making. Just from a quick browse of the Dreamiverse hub screen you can see the range of game genres and artistic styles people have already achieved. From the remarkably polished Wipeout homage “SlidEout 3019” to the sloth-led, Captain Toad inspired mascot platformer “Pip Gemwalker”, the level of depth displayed is astounding. Even though you shouldn’t expect to reach these heights straightaway, it’s empowering to know that it can be done.
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Once again, the tutorials are key when first stepping into Dreams game design – especially if, like me, you’re taking your first baby steps into making a game of any kind. If you played a LittleBigPlanet game you’ll be on familiar ground to start with, however, as the basics you’re taught relate to basic platformers, whether that be programming a character with a jump function or connecting a button to a bridge that lowers upon pressing.
This is where ‘logic’ comes into play and things start to get exponentially more complicated. Mercifully, the lessons are taught at a kind pace and I never found myself lost in the tangle of wires and cables connecting objects together at first. The more ambitious I got, however, the less I started to build from scratch and started to take advantage of maybe Dreams’ biggest asset: that ability to use others’ assets to create your own.
The shareability of all items uploaded and made public means that you don’t have to – nor are you expected to – create a whole game independently from scratch. Alongside a couple of Media Molecule provided templates, such as a basic first-person shooter, you can also remix creations by the community. My first ‘game’ was a combination of the aforementioned FPS template, another user’s small platforming section, and a gigantic wedge of waxy cheese that I sculpted, which rotates when stepping on a button. You can then shoot at the cheese, because why wouldn’t you?
It was in this moment that I fell in love with Dreams’ creation suite. I realised that I could make as weird an experience as possible and no one was there to say “no”. While I don’t possess a great amount of interest in programming logic or carefully sculpting detailed characters (nor do I have the time), it’s the ability to create using others people’s creations that I’ve enjoyed the most. Placing Batman on Tatooine with R2-D2 under the shadow of a Christmas tree being projected by the planet’s twin suns, for example. Dreams is a kit basher’s paradise and a place for worlds to collide in increasingly odd ways.
Of course, you don’t even have to create anything at all if you don’t want to, but instead chose to watch, play, and experience all manner of dreams created by others.
Surfing through the Dreamiverse of community created content can become an absolute time-suck in the best way possible. Akin to spelunking down wikiholes or losing yourself in YouTube algorithms, you pick a starting point – whether that be something grand like high science-fiction or a more mundane notion like an apple – and before you know it you’ve enjoyed a dozen unique games or pieces of art before finding yourself stood inside Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. You may only spend 30 seconds in some creations, but as someone’s imagination gets its hooks in you you might spend 30 minutes exploring another.
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Just as you can create whatever you like in Dreams, you can view pretty much whatever you want as well. There are all sorts of games enveloping every genre imaginable, from cute character platformers to first-person military shooters, to even hour-plus-long action RPGs. There’s also, of course, a large helping of imitations and re-imaginings of established franchises such as the Batman Arkham series or the Sonic franchise – seriously, there’s so many Sonic games. If you feel like being a bit more cultured, though, you can browse though the art section and effectively spend a day at a gallery without leaving your sofa as vast watercolours and ridiculously detailed sculptures fill your screen.
Then there’s some dreams that combine the two and offer completely singular experiences that you just wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. The most pertinent example of this perhaps being “Haus of Bevis”, a walking sim of sorts that begins as a tour of a sculpture gallery before taking a sinister turn. I won’t spoil it, as it’s really something that you should experience for yourself.
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You never know quite what you’re going to get, and that’s the unique joy of Dream Surfing. I’ve played BABATUNDE The Father Has Returned, an arena fighter, multiple times due to its fluid-feeling movement and dynamic power-kick animation, but also spent the best part of 15 minutes staring at a fully realised cooked breakfast as my eyes glaze over at the sight of a puddle of baked beans. There’s also the “Autosurf” button, the variation on Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” which selects you a random taster of the Dreamiverse. It’s like a friend offering chocolate to you from a box without knowing what flavour each is; it’s a lucky dip. You may get one of your favourites, and savour it, or get one that you’re not overly keen on, but at the end of the day it’s free chocolate and how bad can that be?
If you want to take less of a chance, however, then there’s a helpful tagging system for all creations that lets you be more specific with what you’re looking for. Looking for a shooter? Then search “shooter”. Want it to be third-person? Then add that. Looking for something with aliens in? Simply add “alien” as a keyword, and so on and so on until you find something that catches your eye. Adding more tags will help you narrow down your search until you’ve found the exact thing you’re looking for. It’s a smart system that, along with the numbers of thumbs up a dream has received, gives you a clearer indication of what might be worth spending your valuable time on.
There’s a level of weirdness on offer that you wouldn’t normally find on the PlayStation, even in the less-trodden recesses of the PSN store. For example, I’ve controlled a three-inch-tall man holding a ham-joint walking around the inside of a cardboard box while hurling insults and trying to pick a fight with a pair of giant hairy feet that tower over me. It’s these bizarre dioramas mixed with jankier creations that add a sense of charm to Dreams and often ended up being some of my favourites. It reminded me of browsing through Vine and stumbling across a particularly odd six seconds that I couldn’t wait to share with others.
On the other end of the scale, the overall quality level of some players’ creations after only a year in early access is astonishing and I often found myself exclaiming, “How have they done this?!” as I found new things that amazed me. It’s a testament to the tools that Media Molecule has provided that all of this is possible, but also to the community of Dreams and their boundless imaginations. The sense of community really is there in the rawest sense of the word as well, that’s clear to see when taking a peek into the genealogy of some of the larger playable projects, such as The Pig Detective series. There are almost ‘micro game studios’ operating within the Dreamiverse already with numerous people contributing small pieces to create a more impressive whole. These range from people scoring the music to games for others, to more granular aspects like fine-tuning the walking animation of a character.
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It’s that ability to combine and design with others that gives Dreams a genuine sense of community that I can’t say I’ve experienced before in a game. LittleBigPlanet took baby steps towards a create, share and play ecosystem, but Dreams builds on it in almost every tangible way and feels like a burgeoning social network as much as it does a place to play games.
It promises so much more as well. People are already performing live music concerts from their bedrooms using Dreams, and it’s begun seeping its way into education with virtual career fairs being made and sign-language learning tools available. It’s exciting to think that there is already so much to see, do, and create in Dreams, and it hasn’t even really got going yet. Media Molecule has planted the seeds by creating the tools necessary for players to express themselves. It’s now up to the community to grow these ideas and help Dreams flourish by creating, sharing, playing and having a ton of fun whilst doing so.