This is the first in a weekly series of posts about playing and critiquing one game for each of the 52 weeks of the year. Find all of the posts in this series here.
Three weeks into 2014, I decided to undertake a 52 weeks/52 games challenge.
Without wasting too much time on the particulars, my goal, perhaps foolishly, is to try to wade through my ever-growing list of Steam games, and games on other platforms too, of course, to thoughtfully play and critically assess them, as well as attempt to play as many games as I am able to this year. I’ve set a somewhat lofty goal of one game a week for every week in 2014 and, already behind, have a little bit of catching up to do.
And so, without further ado:
Dream — HyperSloth
(note: this review is current to alpha patch 0.3.7.1)
Dream is a first-person exploration and puzzle game from indie UK development studio HyperSloth Ltd. Players control the character of Howard Phillips (occasionally spelled ‘Philips’), a presumably young man coping with the death of his uncle, author Edward Phillips, who happens to resemble George R.R. Martin, just a little. Howard is dream obsessed and a frequent lucid dreamer, and as such, the main action in the game takes place in Howard’s dream-state.
There are a great amount of things to love about Dream. It successfully combines many of the best pieces of many successful indie favorites into something that is creative and engaging. Exploring Howard’s, previously Edward’s, home is an experience similar in feel to that in Gone Home. While we receive far less of a narrative overhead as in Gone Home, and the atmosphere is only slightly less creepy, much of the joy is found in the very details so carefully littered around the space. Howard clearly struggles to care for himself, or perhaps is stuck in bachelor mode, as evidenced by the living room littered with takeout containers, the kitchen counter populated with quick-fix cereal boxes, and the refrigerator filled with mostly soda. Indeed, on the living room coffee table can be found a magazine, appropriately titled Cooking for One.
Indeed, even the dreams themselves carry the flair of indie forebears. The developers cited Dear Esther as an inspiration and this is seen, almost quite literally, in a candlelit grotto hidden away in the desert dream, within which is tucked a small altar bearing a framed photo of Edward, one that can also be found in the main hallway of the house. One of the secret dreams, as well, bears resemblance to Antichamber in its endless hallways and Escher-esque winding corridors. The aforementioned desert dream, on its merits alone, is stunningly beautiful, realistically dreamlike, and full of great wonder. Dream is an atmospheric, visual masterpiece.
There are a lot of problems with this game.
I feel some hesitation in grading Dream so harshly, knowing it’s still in alpha, even more so when the game bears a warning of this before the title screen. With this in mind, I don’t intend to discuss bugs or broken features, knowing it’s an inevitable part of the process.
If I had to cite the largest issue plaguing Dream as it stands, it’s the gross disconnect between the world and atmosphere and the narrative, particularly, Howard. The world itself is rich and (nearly) fully realized–a gorgeous dreamscape for lucid play–and yet Howard is an excitable, maddeningly unaware fanboy who, though apparently somewhat of a connoisseur of lucid dreaming, literally remarks on the arbitrariness of the madding maze section, as if only a man aware that he’s dreaming but unable to meaningfully interact. Indeed, I would go so far as to actually call Howard kind of dumb; I can, at least forgive his apathetic nature, which seems in-tune with the solitary childishness portrayed through the way he maintains Edward’s home. But his confusion at the meaning in his dreams, his apparent inability to connect his waking and sleeping life, his passive attempt at true lucid dreaming, among other things, make him annoying. A game of this nature, particularly bearing the amount of narrative objects as this one does, is perhaps better left with a silent protagonist. Or one, at least, with more substance.
All of this comes bundled with another thing I found unnecessary: the dream dictionary. The desert dream contained numerous scraps of paper, to be picked up by the player, which contained entries for several of the sights and objects found around the desert, from gravestones to signposts. I understand–and I appreciate–the idea in the implementation of the dream journal pieces, but they served moreso to shake the stupid player by the shoulders and say, “LOOK AT THIS THING, IT’S IMPORTANT! IT MEANS SOMETHING ABOUT HOWARD’S LIFE. LOOK AT IT!!!” I found it to be incredibly clear what was important, what was part of the dreaming atmosphere, and being held by the hand made me feel, in many ways, kind of stupid. Don’t entirely underestimate your audience.
I will go further to discuss the maze section, which was unnecessarily stressful in a way that perhaps is only a personal reaction. The idea of it was creative–and the result of a wintery change to the landscape was quite beautiful and charming. In spite of this, running four mazes while being chased by amorphous smoke that would force the player back to the entrance to get lost again felt ridiculously tedious and unnecessary. This isn’t to say the mechanic itself was unwelcome; rather it was the incredible number of mazes to be run that put me in front of my computer for several hours trying to best them. The map–collected through exploration of the desert–was never clearly described to be ambient to the player’s location, and it was only after having run two of the mazes that it even became apparent that I could use the map to help orient myself. But I couldn’t use the map AND run from the smoke at the same time, and spent most of the time playing with the map open on another screen and a friend behind my back telling me where to go.
It’s curious that the game itself featured the smoke gauntlet AND a nightmare section, which was decidedly less ‘horror’ than I found even the mazes to be. There was fear and frustration in avoiding the smoke, to speak nothing of the topsy turvy maze of poison gas, which made the nightmare section sort of silly and cheap. We’re informed that someone is watching Howard as he moves through the house, but this is only evidenced through the security camera in every room that followed Howard’s movements around. The visual scares were also rather mediocre; the ghost in the attic was cartoony, the bathtub of blood was out-of-place, and the room full of eyes was, well…that gave me the chills, just a little bit.
Dream is truly a work of art in progress, and there’s a great amount of creativity in it and behind it. As an atmospheric exploration game, it is spectacular and stunning. As a narrative-driven cerebral adventure, it’s highly questionable. As a puzzle game, it’s endlessly buggy. In my honest opinion, Dream is a worthwhile purchase for those who love the exploratory ilk of Dear Esther and Gone Home and puzzles with a hint of Myst to their design, but those who can be patient with an alpha build and somewhat misguided, confused narrative. I am excited to see if Dream finds its way, as it feels like it wants to, but for now, it is only part of a whole.