Reviews

'Dream' Makes a Case for the Waking Life

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.


Dream

Publisher: Independent
Price: $16.99
Platforms: PC
ESRB: N/A
Number of Players: 1
Developer: Hypersloth
Release Date: 2015-07-31
URL

HyperSloth describes Dream as a “Walking Simulator,” a term that is not one that has been universally adopted among gamers (Stephen Beirne, "Two Minute Game Crit -- Walking Simulatores and Phantom Rides", Normally Rascal. 20 January 2015), 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, leading to 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 in a maze in which Howard 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.

4
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.