Games

'Dreams' Is So Much Weirder and More Interesting Than Video Game Remakes

The moment you scratch beneath the surface, you find a fascinating world of surrealist art, copyright infringement, kids doing weird experiments, and so much more.

by Patrick Klepek
Mar 10 2020, 12:38pm

Image courtesy of Sony

Not all art is polished and professional. Sometimes, it’s crude and still speaks truth. Mans Best Friend, featuring a man kneeling next to his dog, only has 74 likes in Dreams. It only takes a moment to understand why that’s the case. The dog looks like Clifford, a puppy hit with a ray gun and was grossly and awkwardly increased in size. There are typos. And yet.

“To me, a dog is more than just a pet,” the story begins, “He’s a friend who would never hurt you. A best friend who will alway listen to your problems and never leave your side.”

That’s when the gut punch hits: “I miss you Louis.” This is a story about one dog in particular, about hoping there’s a world where you’ll see each other again, and “you can steal my socks one more time.” It’s revealed this short story is a memory to an “old friend,” the dog of Dreams creator MattyMaythem_. The player is told to stay as long as they like, however long they need, with the hope that, if you share a common grief, “yours was a good boy too.”

Mans Best Friend is awkward, at times cringey. But it works.

A Google search for Dreams, the new and ambitious creation tool from Media Molecule, developers of LittleBigPlanet and the underrated Tearaway, reveals how much people love watching people successfully recreate popular games inside Dreams. There’s horror games like P.T. and Dead Space, platformers like Crash Bandicoot, and even recreations of unreleased games like Sucker Punch’s Ghosts of Tsushima. It’s undeniably impressive, and a testament to the elasticity of what Media Molecule’s created. It can do almost anything.

But it’s also deeply misrepresentative of what’s happening beneath the surface in Dreams, and a disservice to the shocking levels creativity and general weirdness already happening in Dreams, despite its final release only happening a few weeks back. It’s not just a platform to make video games, it’s a platform to create.

It’s an important distinction. Dreams has established itself as a sort of 2020 take on Newgrounds, the website best known for hosting Flash oddities like Salad Fingers, a creepy but unforgettable animation series, and gave rise to developers like The Behemoth, who premiered their first game, Alien Hominid, on the site.

When you load up Dreams, you’re immediately confronted with the elaborate and beautiful creations from the developers at Media Molecule. These are clearly meant to represent the broad possibility space of Dreams, because they were made using the same tools available to all players, too. They are very impressive but also misleading, because of course they’re going to look amazing. You’re also confronted with The Algorithm, which surfaces popular player-created works in Dreams. Many, like one inspired by Housemarque’s Resogun, are cool, and reportedly have inspired real life job offers. But unsurprisingly, it also highlights the same recreations that’ve been popping up all over YouTube and every gaming website.

I had no interest in The Algorithm. If it was possible, I’d sort Dreams not by “most liked” but by “least liked,” because I’ve been primarily interested in discovering what people are creating that’s either being ignored or created without the explicit purpose of being popular. I want to see what seven-year-old kids are getting up to when they’re supposed to be asleep:

Or a stunningly beautiful interactive tribute to musician Freddie Mercury. (Wait for the end.)

Or how far people might push the bounds of copyright use on a creation platform that also happens to be owned by a corporation. It did not take long to find plenty of both. A good place to start is with Mickey mouse vs goku, created by Dreams designer Bobo_Detroit.

Inside, recreations of both characters square off. By square off, I mean Mickey Mouse declares “I want someone to kill today,” Goku responds by saying “Kill me,” and Mickey says “OK.” There is no animation, and you don’t interact with the scene. At one point, there’s a loud explosion, and Goku announces “Im dead,” as he lies on the ground. That’s it. It’s over.

It’s the equivalent of smashing two action figures together in the backyard, except now it’s a short film. I’m almost reluctant to even point out material like this because I don’t want Sony to wake up and take it down. And I also feel obligated to share another Bobo_Detroit creation, Yoshi vs shrek train, which is disturbing for altogether different reasons. Enjoy?

Bobo_Detroit did not make the Mickey Mouse or Goku models featured in his work—those were made by other Dreams designers. Dreams is collaborative, allowing users to pluck creations from one another and “remix” them into their own work. (You do not, however, have to let people use something you’ve made.) This gives amateurs exhaustive access to high-quality material to include in their creations. It lets you make completely weird bullshit.

Which is all to say that, of course, Dreams is likely to prove a successful vehicle for game development, and I’m excited to see where that goes. But all it takes is a little digging to find people taking Media Molecule’s tools and running with them in unexpected directions, and part of the reason they can do that is because the system itself is designed to support that.

Players can create their own tags, allowing niches to flourish and build communities. There is a robust website where people can read about and view creations made inside of Dreams. In fact, every Dreams creation featured in this piece includes a link to its online profile. If you have a PlayStation 4 and a copy of Dreams, all it takes is a click to add it to your own queue.

(My personal hope is someday Dreams will go free-to-play, and you’d be able to click on a URL and immediately launch a cloud-based version of the game from a computer or phone.)

It’s understandable to think the point of Dreams is to play games, but it’s just as common to find people publishing straightforward art. If you’re not a game designer, you still find a home in Dreams, while writing music and sculpting models. Maybe it results in a music video, like this one called Molar Flares by designers AyeWilder and MaJiCkALOne. It’s awfully trippy:

Because everything made in Dreams credits what was used and who made it, including the annoying and omnipresent “made in Dreams” logo hovering over the screen, Dreams smartly attempts to avoid folks burying the work that helped them achieve their creation.

It’s actually exposed interesting fault lines in how to manage the community; at one point, a creator was banned for making a detailed but clearly unsexualized model of the female body, and they were banned. After an outcry, the ban was lifted and they said future creations would come with alternatives featuring “basic coverings,” aka they would add underwear.

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The level of craft on display is, at times, equally astounding and surprising. One of my favorite parts of Final Fantasy XV was the absurdly detailed food Square Enix’s artists made for the game’s eating sequences. At times, it made me legitimately hungry. There’s similar levels of food porn happening inside Dreams. There’s even interactive tools to help you understand the level of detail involved, such as A Greasy Meal from designer VitaminG_90:

The only problem with that hot dog is the weird dents? Still, I’d eat it.

The notion of recreating reality is hardly limited to video games in Dreams, either. Despite most people agreeing The Rise of Skywalker was a lackluster ending to the new trilogy of films, people still love Star Wars. And because people still love Star Wars, they want to recreate Star Wars in Dreams, too. Sometimes that means moment-for-moment recreations, like designer DrJones20’s primitive attempt to build the opening moments of A New Hope, complete with audio that sounds like someone held a real bad microphone up to their TV:

Or there’s a designer like APE_MONKEY_BOY21, who focused solely on the sequence in Rogue One where Vader becomes Jason Voorhees. They added some tiny interactive details to the experience, like allowing you to alter the color of Vader’s saber in real-time:

So far, Media Molecule has left blatant copyright violations like this alone. It seems untenable, but watching people stretch and distort major iconography is really cool, too. If we’re lucky, they just keep turning a blind eye, and hoping other companies won’t notice.

When I asked, here’s what Sony told me about copyright in Dreams:

Dreams does not pre-moderate [content] but does expect its Dreamers to comply with our community guidelines, and will review user reports of any violations, in the same vein (and by the same team) as LittleBigPlanet. You can see the community guidelines for content in the Dreamiverse here. Reported content is reviewed and removed if found to be in violation of the rules. Users can then amend their content and republish if they see fit. Only the copyright owner or their authorized representative may report a suspected infringement. In response, Dreams may remove or disable access to the reported content and, in appropriate circumstances, may terminate access to the Dreamiverse for users found to be repeat infringers.”

In other words: they really don’t care, until a lawyer comes knocking. Then they care.

The bizarre things people are doing with copyright can be a similar trap to recreations, however; it’s the familiar. There’s no interactive requirement to publish in Dreams, and in fact, Media Molecule encourages people to publish the equivalent of non-interactive short films, of which there are many. Day By Day from designer CrAZy900, in which an older man stuck at a deadend office job finds themselves living out the same day, is a great example:

Alan Invasion, from the same creator, is a nearly 10-minute (!!) story about what happens when two guys meet a new friend named Alan, who turns out to be an alien. It’s genuinely funny, sporting an impressive variety of voice acting, animation, lighting—the works. It’s not exactly a Pixar short, but it’s demonstrable talent. Among the many neat things Dreams affords creators is the ability to string together creations, so Alan Invasion is actually a story in progress. CrAZy900 has created five parts of the story, with more currently being made.

The “in progress” part of Dreams is one of its most fascinating elements, because it means creators can publish drafts for feedback or run the equivalent of beta tests without issue.

This isn’t all to suggest Dreams isn’t also good at the video game part, because in the right hands, it is. And it’s understandable why so many are drawn to recreating what already exists. Doing so provides a framework to build off of, so you can focus on how the tools work. But recreations are inherently shallow because, inevitably, they cannot live up to the original. It’s fun to jump around in a surprisingly decent take on Mario, until a few minutes later it becomes clear it’s only fun when it actually, really feels like you’re in a Mario game.

Media Molecule has acknowledged how often The Algorithm pushes recreations, but you don’t have to go very far to find truly impressive and original work happening within Dreams.

The Watergardens, by designer HalfUp, is one of those games. It’s a short adventure where players wander a surrealist and watery landscape, navigating between tiny islands by boat. Each island has a series of puzzles to solve, a mixture of jumping and object manipulation. Once you’ve solved all of them, you can escape through a mysterious gate. It’s beautiful and smart, and The Watergardens just showed on Steam one day, nobody would even blink.

HalfUp, who goes by Anthony Cristiano in real-life, hasn’t made a video game before, with his creation experience driven by LittleBigPlanet and, now, Dreams. He’s currently a full-time student, and tries to balance his Dreams work with actual work. The Watergardens took roughly a year to make, with Cristiano scrapping the whole thing a couple of times, as they came to better understand how the tools worked. The finished version took about three months to build, and he’s currently working on a sequel that’s trying to build on what’s there.

Another game by HalfUp, Potcid’s Treasure Hunt, has serious Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker vibes, and features a main character so adorable that I simply cannot get over it:

Come on. I’m dying here.

There are legitimately good Mario Kart clones. An RPG with functional turn-based combat.

I have spent precisely zero minutes with the creations tools of Dreams, and have no plans to ever touch them. It’s the same reason I’ve made exactly one level in Mario Maker, despite having spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours with those games. But whereas something like Mario Maker is constrained for all sorts of annoying reasons, Dreams has no such problems.

It’s a creation platform that’s been pitched through the lens of games because that’s the easiest way for our brains to understand it. But the true genius of Dreams is how much that doesn’t matter. The best tools are accessible ones that democratize creativity, and the best proof of that isn’t some glossy piece of high-quality entertainment made by a group of professionals, but the trash where someone makes Mickey Mouse and Goku kill each other.

In Dreams, you can have both. That rules.

But if nothing else has convinced you, maybe this will:

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

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