In the world of video games, with a little bit of skill and ingenuity literally anything is possible. Fantasy lands are born, player characters are given shape, a canvas is open for an artist to unleash his imagination in any way he wants to. So, why does it seem that so few games these days allow imagination into them? Realistic is a buzzword for nearly every new title that gets announced. Our shiny new engines are constantly urged to recreate scenes that exist in the world already, instead of defying logic and doing something fantastic. We have the technology to break the rules of physics, bend space and time, create terrible and horrible creatures that only exist in the mind’s eye. Games can stimulate the mind in ways that no other media has ever been able to in these engines where the very laws of nature exist or cease to exist in any form the architects of these worlds choose to. Yet, the industry at large strives for realism.
Don’t get me wrong, though. One of the reasons these types of games are so popular is because realism goes hand-in-hand with human drama. And everyone in the world can relate to human drama. Maybe that’s why the industry is more careful with their worlds they painstakingly create. So, I began thinking. What’s the easiest way to make fantastical landscapes to play in, while keeping it familiar enough for everyone to relate to? The answer is so clear, but it’s also one of the least represented landscapes in video games through the years.
Everyone (or at least the vast majority of people) dream, and rarely do dreams make sense. It’s a feeling that is just alien enough to intrigue, but comfortable enough for everyone to relate to. Yet, I know of so few games that use dreams as a gameplay mechanic, or even just as a setpiece. In dreams, nothing is subject to the rules of reality. Take one of the best known games that uses this idea, Psychonauts. Inventive worlds that take place in the minds of the characters you interact with, and while it might be considered a stretch to call these worlds ‘dreamscapes,’ they still brilliantly illustrate my point. The tutorial (also demo) level goes through the war-torn mind of the camp coach. From the visual style of the level obviously paying homage to any number of war movies, to the ‘figments’ you collect that resemble doodles of soldiers and tanks (among others), you realize just how versatile the idea of dreams as a setting can be.
To further illustrate my point about how dreams can offer more freedom of level design, we’re heading back to the NES days. Little Nemo: The Dream Master was a game of my childhood. Based on the media-spanning franchise from the early 1900s, the premise of the series at large is simply that Nemo is a little boy who goes on fantastic journeys in his dreams. I felt the game captured this particular feeling rather well, with a jump in scenery after every “level.” You start in a forest, but eventually your journey leads you through various locales, including (my personal favorite) a toy land of sorts. It’s a colorful, bright game that has a special place in my heart for its premise alone.
However, both of those previous examples still adhere to a logic of sorts. As abstract as their level design may be, they still have fairly defined “laws” that govern them. What about the truly outrageous things that are introduced in dreams? Things that don’t make sense, the dream logic that is equal parts familiar and chaotic? Let me introduce you to LSD: The Dream Emulator. A “game” that was only released in Japan, LSD is bizarre. Randomly generated each time you play, every new playthrough is disturbing, compelling, and entirely up for interpretation. Little makes sense, and there isn’t much interaction beyond moving from scene to scene, but it’s still fascinating to observe what homebrew narrative is cooked up each playthrough.
A similar title to LSD was released not too long ago, except in 2D form. Known as Yume Nikki, it’s another game that relies on abstract imagery and a certain amount of randomly generated content (namely that each time you dream you go into a random dreamscape, though there are static paths after that). However, the biggest way Yume Nikki differentiates itself from LSD is that your character can interact with her dreams. Scattered throughout the surreal setpieces of her mind, you can come across various “effects” that do a number of things for (and to) you. From giving you a bicycle to get around faster, to giving you a knife to attack with, to even just giving your character a different hairstyle, the effects are certainly imaginative if nothing else. Another way that Yume Nikki differentiates itself is the melancholy, foreboding atmosphere. Countless theories abound about the game and it’s character online, but no concrete evidence proves any of it. An enigma, completely up to interpretation in any and every way. I think that’s a fairly accurate way to express a dream.
Dreams can range from the mundane, to the terrifying, to the uplifting. They’re something that everyone can understand, but never have to make sense of. Limitless possiblities spring from the conscious mind, and even more from the subconscious. I want to see more games take advantage of this playground. Give me a game with no purpose, or a vague purpose that I can reach for any way I want to. It’s difficult, yes. It’s subjective, I know. But I also know I can’t be the only one wanting less “realistic” and more “absurd” from my games. Not even absurd, so much as less grounded in reality. What happened?
— Brandon (Taso)