HyperSloth describes Dream as a “Walking Simulator,” a term not universally appreciated among game critics,1 but still implies a certain kind of recognizable game. A walking simulator is deliberately slow, and it refrains from typical “gamey” conventions like objectives and challenges. A walking simulator is an introspective character study, the minimalist art show to gaming’s big-budget Hollywood action pieces. The term is usually connected to games like Dear Esther or The Unfinished Swan. Far be it for me to decide for you what your opinions on walking simulators are, but Dream is one caught between the worlds of self-proclaimed “art games” and traditionally designed goal-oriented games.
In Dream, the player controls Howard, a listless twenty-something living in a big house that even he seems to know is way too nice for him. Howard’s days go by outside the player’s awareness, and every night he dizzily slides into bed where the player will guide him through the same bizarre series of dreams, solving puzzles, and collecting scraps from a dream diary, and gradually learning more about him. Howard is a sarcastic, neurotic sort of chap whose Britishisms have apparently rubbed off on me, and in between each major dream, the player will experience a brief nightmare version of a house and a conversation with his uncle Ed, a popular fantasy novelist.
These conversations reveal to Howard what an observant player will already have found out. Wandering through Howard’s house at night is lonely and anxiety provoking. The home is well enough looked after, but it’s too big and dark for a young, good looking graduate. An unfinished room, a pristine kitchen with nothing but take-out and condiments in the fridge, and a bedroom with retro-gaming consoles and anime posters all tell more of a story than any of Howard’s own introspection.
A part of the appeal in Dream is that it’s obvious to everyone but Howard that he isn’t in a healthy place. Gradually he reveals through flashbacks with uncle Ed that he has a rotten relationship with his parents, that he’s extremely lucky to have such a sweet pad, that he feels guilty about being so lucky, and that he feels guilty about feeling guilty. His self-destructive thinking patterns are obvious from the outside, but not from the inside, Howard’s mental health is only visible through weird and uncomfortable dreams.
The dreaming, unfortunately, is where Dream hits a brick wall. Howard is a type, a pretty standard self-obsessed slacker who still hasn’t grown up because the world has handed him everything. Still, the character-study through the space of his home is a powerful conceit, as it is in Gone Home or the aforementioned Unfinished Swan. But the dreams don’t have the same personality as his home, nor is the surrealism particularly striking. None of the dreams are especially fantastical or otherworldly. Many aren’t even all that weird.
To properly abstract mental illness, some of the dreams take on horror tropes, which, okay, is appropriate, but lacks the subtlety of a crooked painting that Howard just has to straighten in waking life. Even the fact that Howard’s waking life is skipped each morning, that it’s so unimportant to him that the game skips right to the point in his day when he is about to sleep implies that his days are forgettable and droning. The normalcy of Howard’s mental illness is far more frightening and emblematic of mental illness than the part where his bathtub is filled with blood (Or is it?).
The puzzles also pose a potential deal breaker for Dream. They seem an attempt to compromise between kinds of mechanics typically associated with “art” games and those associated with “mainstream” games. Puzzles are usually a matter of collecting the thing, finding the password, and lining up the glowing orbs or other lock-and-key procedures found in many platform, horror, and exploration games. Some are engaging and clever, but most often, they are tedious. For example, early on Howard finds himself in a maze where he must walk by several dozen lights to turn them off while avoiding a doom cloud that will send him back to the start; he then must work his way through three more mazes, avoiding three more doom-clouds, and after solving one of these mazes Howard quips, “Who knew my subconscious could be so arbitrary?”
Therein lies the problem. The tasks that the player must guide Howard through are totally arbitrary and burdensome, even if the cheese at the end of the maze is occasionally worth it. I felt generous early on while solving these doom cloud mazes. Working through mental health often is a maze with relapse always threatening to send someone back to the start. But after several hours of similarly arbitrary and convoluted puzzles, this stops being worth the effort, particularly when each dream, while somehow indicative of Howard as a person, really doesn’t feel very dreamlike.
The soundtrack is excellent and the use of space, when done right, really meshes well with the story and characterization that Dream seems eager to present. But the process of learning more about Howard and his situation is pulled down by a mundane and overly complicated machine running his dream-life. When I first started Dream, I had high hopes for it and in spite of its shortcomings. I want it to succeed because the developers have good ideas that—with this learning experience—could certainly find better execution in the future. Ultimately, though, Dream does not quite grasp the stars it seems to reach for. Aesthetically it is too mundane, and mechanically it is too abstract. It is worth a look for those with an intellectual interest in walking simulators, but it’s the sort of game that leaves a player dreaming more about what could have been than remembering what is.
1 (Stephen Beirne, “Two Minute Game Crit—Walking Simulatores and Phantom Rides”, Normally Rascal. 20 January 2015).