Dreams review: Limitless possibilities

When I first saw Dreams in action at a preview session in 2015, creative director Mark Healey said something that’s stuck with me ever since: “We don’t know what Dreams is.

As I said at the time, “that simple, off-the-cuff statement told me more about Dreams than all the trailers in the world ever could, and got me more excited about the game than anything I’ve seen or heard about it to date.” The point he was making wasn’t that the development team was confused, or that they didn’t know what they were doing, or that the scope of the project wasn’t properly nailed down. It was that the thing they were building was a creative suite that was so open-ended that the people making it had no way of knowing what people would do with it once it was out in the wild.

Fast-forward five years, Dreams is now officially available—and it lives up to the optimistic vision contained in Healey’s comment. More than anything else, Dreams is a suite of creative tools that you can use to make just about anything: games, movies, music, visual art, books, journalism, blogs, vlogs, remixes … within the broad physical limitations of digital creative media, the sky is truly the limit.

One of the first dreams I played in Dreams was a Space Invaders-like shoot ’em up that, after reaching a certain level, “crashed”—before the camera cut back to reveal that you’re actually a character inside a low-fi arcade in a futuristic, dystopian city where arcade games keep people in zombie-like states. What started as a simple shoot ’em up suddenly morphs into a first-person stealth game, as you try to avoid the patrolling robots and escape the arcade.

Another early taste of Dreams came through a tribute to Death Stranding: digital painting of Sam Porter Bridges, crossing the rocky American hinterlands as timefall rain pelts down. It was a mostly-still shot, but with the rain lightly animated to look like it’s falling, and with the ability to move the camera around just a little bit to get a sense of the depth of the scene.

I’ve heard all manner of music, seen sculptures ranging from inspired to downright terrifying, and played everything from classic platformers to turn-based RPGs to introspective walking simulators. I’ve seen experimental prototypes, familiar videogame comfort food, and no shortage of efforts to recreate old classics like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon within the “Dreamiverse”. 

That being the case, even if you have no interest in creative stuff yourself, Dreams can provide an endless stream of things to enjoy—on the condition that you don’t expect the most pristine, polished, triple-A games to come out of it. Rather, the Dreamiverse is a place to explore people’s unrestrained creative expression, as messy and buggy and beautiful and bizarre as that can be. If you’re the kind of person who makes itch.io your first stop when you’re looking for something new to play, you’ll be right at home in Dreams

But I don’t think many people would jump into Dreams without at least playing around with “Dreamsculpting”—that is, the creation side of the game. Thanks to an intuitive interface and extensive tutorials, Dreams offers up one of the best ways to try your hand at making games and other digital media.

Building a scene in Dreams ultimately comes down to a very straightforward drag-and-drop interface. With an extensive—and continually growing, thanks to player creations—library of characters, objects, and scenery, building and populating a setting for whatever type of dream you want to make is as easy as searching for the thing you want and then dropping it in place. Cameras and lighting work the same way, as does film editing—just create and drop different shots into a timeline to easily create a movie or cutscene for a game.

Programming games, while slightly more complex out of necessity, still runs off the same basic idea: grab a function from a wide array of different tools, drop it into your scene, and connect it to the relevant objects and other functions in order to create the desired outcomes. For those who want to go deeper, there’s plenty of scope to play with settings and options within each function, and to build sophisticated networks of code. At the other end of the spectrum, the way the functions are set up means you can achieve a lot with minimal amounts of even Dreams‘ simple approach to “coding”; a lot of common game mechanics, like platformer physics and health systems, are ready to go out the box.

Even the most intuitive system still needs to offer a bit of training. Fortunately, Dreams ships with an extensive library of tutorials, covering everything from the basics of using the different tools to “How-to” videos that show you step by step how to create certain specific things. For a more gamified approach to learning, there’s also a wide range of different quests you can undertake, which direct you to different aspects of the creation suite with the promise of special rewards upon completion.

Or you can collaborate with other players, which is easily the biggest strength in Dreams‘ creative suite. The Dreamiverse allows all players to share their models, level template, code snippets, music, and whatever else they create, giving you an ever-growing library of assets to use in your own creations (with creator attribution built into the system, for those who want to be credited). Instead of forcing each player to be jacks of all trades or to take it upon themselves to find collaboration partners, you can easily find artists, musicians, programmers, sound engineers, game designers, writers, or whatever else you need just through the collaborative nature of the Dreamiverse. Sometimes that will be a more deliberate joint effort to make something together, but most of the time it will be an almost asymmetric collab, where someone’s created a character and shared it without any specific project in mind, and it’s found its way into your game or film because it just happens to be the right fit.

Dreams even takes this idea a step further with remixes. As well as making your own creations from scratch, or using assets shared by other players, you can also take other players’ completed and released projects and remix them—maybe take someone else’s game and make it easier or harder, or re-cut a film someone made, or change the mood of a painting. It’s up to each creator whether their work will be “remixable” and to what extent, but in keeping with the collaborative nature of the game, most people tend to leave things fairly open. A remix will always show up as a separate but related project, so there’s no need to worry about people permanently ruining something you’ve made.

I’ve played around with a fair few different “game development games” and pieces of software that promise game development with no need for writing lines of code, but few show as much potential as what I see in Dreams. It’s easy to use and to learn, while also having an impressive amount of depth for the people who really want to push its limits. The Dreamiverse ensures a ready audience for as long as Dreams has a community around it, and blurs the line between “audience” and “creator”.

Even now that it’s out in the wild, we still don’t really know what Dreams is—because, by its very nature, it’s going to be a thing that constantly grows and evolves with the community around it. That’s a wonderful thing.

Score: 5 stars

The publisher provided a copy of Dreams to Shindig for reviewing purposes.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.