Dreams Review: Powerful Packaging, Okay Creations

Dreams’ variety is dazzling, but rings hollow in a world of creation.

One of the first obstacles in Dreams opening tutorial is a brick wall. “That’s the Wall of Doubt” the narrator explains, before kindly encouraging you to destroy it. It’s easy to pull apart — both an introduction to the motion controls and a metaphorical invitation not to worry about the potentially daunting idea of creating your own games.

Ultimately, that’s what Dreams is: a tool for players to develop their own creations and a platform on which to share them. Through its several month early access period, the latest creative suite from LittleBigPlanet developer Media Molecule is already stocked with player-made games in dozens of genres, as well as audiovisual and sculpture showcases. It’s absolutely stuffed with variety and charm. “Isn’t it amazing that this was made in this?” is a recurring thought. But underneath that, it begins to feel hollow.

The brief opening tutorial is a promising start. You choose your own “imp,” a fluffy helper who essentially acts as a cute cursor, and get started on learning the basics. And those are things that may seem very basic indeed to people who are familiar with games in general, like how to move and operate a camera in 3D space. But that’s ideal for keeping Dreams approachable to those who may have less experience.

Art’s Into Dreams

Once you complete the tutorial, you’re free to do as you please. The game is split into two: the tool itself and the platform on which creations are shared. I’m not much of a creator, so I chose the latter first. From there, I opted to start with Art’s Dream, a two-hour showcase of what the tool can do that Media Molecule itself suggests as a starting point.

The game-within-a-game follows Art, a sad double bassist who’s driven away his bandmates and needs to grow as a person before his (spoiler alert) happy ending. It’s not a breathtakingly new narrative, but as I said, it’s really more of a chance to overview many of the things a player could make for themselves in Dreams. There’s platforming, puzzles, dialogue options, musical numbers, twin-stick shooting, and the inherent promise that you could create all of it right in the very same software you’re playing. The variety also keeps the game itself interesting — though some later sequences are frustratingly tricky. As a game, it’s fine. Not special, not terrible.

Art’s Dream itself isn’t really under review here, so let’s put a pin in the fact that it’s just so-so. It’s designed to encourage players to try their own hand, so I dutifully headed to the other half of Dreams, its creation tool.

The Intangible Effect

It was… overwhelming. There are hundreds of tutorials to play in any order, though it does signpost the basics where a player will need to start if they don’t have any experience. These are typically playful themselves — like helping characters Connie and Cuthbert through light platforming or puzzles — but also slow and repetitive. The pace is probably necessary to lock in the information, so it eventually becomes intuitive for a creator, but it doesn’t do anything to alleviate the sense that the learning curve to create something like Art’s Dream, or even a much smaller project, is very steep.

It’s not surprising that making games is hard, but it will nonetheless be a huge investment that many players won’t want to attempt. Others won’t find it so off-putting. But they face a second gulf before reaching the ability to make something like Art’s Dream: the people who created it are professional game developers. And as far as I could tell, all the hundreds of tutorials are about how to use Dreams itself. It’s undoubtedly a powerful tool, but not one that automatically produces good games — unless the creator already has some understanding of game design.

For example, in Art’s Dream, mechanics you learn early on come around again at handcrafted, quality assured, satisfying moments. Players who don’t make (or write about) games already may not realize they’re packed full of these sorts of tricks. And Dreams doesn’t really offer to teach them.

World 1-1, 101

Which brings us back to the platform side once more. It’s an excellent package, offering curation from what other players like, tailored picks from Media Molecule, and the easy ability to find less well-seen bits and pieces. Media Molecule also encourages creativity through community jams (currently players are being challenged to make something related to love). Non-game creations like sculptures are easy to find and consistently breathtaking. Having said that, it also can be very slow to load all the various menus and creations that you need to swap between (on a standard PS4, at least). Not to mention it refused to connect to the internet at least twice when I played it, trapping me in its extremely limited offline mode until restarted.

It’s also absolutely stuffed full of remakes of existing media (as anyone who’s played Super Mario Maker or even LittleBigPlanet could guess). This seems partly because of Media Molecule’s lack of game design tutorials; people are choosing to teach themselves by recreating the familiar.

I might play as Mario, with what I think are the original sounds directly ripped from Mario 64 and inserted into Dreams. The animations are also identical, potentially copied as a learning exercise. The same can be said of the first few scenes of Star Wars: A New Hope that I stumble across. The characters are clearly made by a player who wants to learn by making something they already know, but the audio is uploaded from a tinny-sounding recording.

Where to Spend Your Time

Media Molecule and publishers Sony skirt around the copyright issues at play here. The companies don’t allow those creations to be nominated in their recent award ceremony. But the question of ownership rights also run in the opposite direction through Dreams.

The game’s value comes from player labor, but those players cannot monetize or release their work outside the tool in which it was built. The game has already developed a powerful community during its early access period, so people are clearly happy to create purely for the satisfaction. Yet it’s undeniable that this is an uneven relationship where corporations literally profit off ordinary people. It also limits the usefulness of Dreams as a tool; already locked behind a paywall and a PlayStation exclusive (for now), the creations are also locked in this limited ecosystem.

I try some more “made in Dreams games, ones that aren’t directly inspired by an already existing property. There’s a stripped back prototype of a shooter made using one of Media Molecule’s templates, a lovely art piece showing a pair of bunnies in the snow, a sort of interactive WinAmp visualizer with its own music… They’re all interesting for a few minutes.

It’s while playing a pretty 3D platformer that my problem hits me. I open a chest that cheerfully proclaims “1/37 gold found!” I immediately realize I have no interest in finding the rest. Like Art’s Dream, this game is fine, but it’s not great. I wouldn’t choose to spend my time playing a “just okay” 3D platformer usually. Why are the ones in Dreams any different?

Other Worlds on Other Platforms

“Isn’t it amazing that this was made in this?” only goes so far. Only some will stick with the tool side of the game long enough to create something. Many, many of those will be mediocre at best. And while I firmly believe people should be encouraged to make imperfect things, it means that Dreams’ strongest appeal is its novelty.

This absolutely will find its audience. It already has, thanks to early access. And as more people play and improve their skills, the overall quality will also likely increase. Curation will (albeit imperfectly) help the best rise to the top, so people won’t have to dig too hard to find something that’s at least reasonably enjoyable.

But it’s hard for me to get away from the idea that this is functionally the same experience as scrolling through an indie game website like itch.io. (Plus, those developers are free to share their games anywhere and make money from their work.) Dreams inherently encourages patience and empathy with the smaller, less-polished game, because the player knows that it was made in the same tool they’re currently holding — by an ordinary person. But ultimately that’s just shining a light on something we should be thinking about any hobbyist or small-team game. “Isn’t it amazing that this was made?”