A tiny world full of tiny creatures, inside a virtual art museum in Dreams.
Media Molecule's David Smith, the technical director of Dreams VR, explains what's new and what's next for console VR.
Over the course of a few hours on a lazy Wednesday, I look at jellyfish floating through space. I move cubes through a 3D maze. I stare at strange robotic art in a virtual museum. I move a weird guy around in an apartment and look in his bathrooms. I spin giant plates of breakfast meats under a spotlight.
I can't say I understand everything living inside Dreams, the PlayStation 4 creative app that just added VR support, but developer Media Molecule's showcase of homebrewed creative VR experiences feels like nothing else out there.
VR is everywhere, if you want to escape. But mostly, it's games and experiences others have made. VR as a creative tool still remains limited. Although there are plenty of PC tools for VR creators, like Tilt Brush, Oculus Quill and more, there's relatively little PlayStation VR owners can do.
Dreams VR looks like the creative app that the PSVR needed four years ago. The game (if you can call it that) launched earlier this year on PS4, but without VR support. It's a way to make things (games, art or just random moments), and also browse what others have uploaded: it's like what LittleBigPlanet and Super Mario Maker enable, but unleashed with a palette that feels almost unlimited. Dreams was always meant to be a PlayStation VR killer app, but the VR updates ended up being delayed in favor of the basic PS4 functions first. They're here now, and based on what I've seen so far, I'm impressed, and also curious how much more will come next.
"The plan was a plan from day 1 was to conquer the world and do everything," Media Molecule's Technical Director for Dreams' VR update, David Smith, told me over video chat. "It turns out with a small team, you can't do everything at once."
The new VR-ready update took a while to optimize frame rates and figure out presentation of perspectives, among other things. While, he says, "there's nothing fundamentally different," about Dreams in VR vs. playing on a PS4 on a TV, there is a difference in how you experience things.
A lot of little games I've hopped into lean on seeing something from a third-person perspective, then jumping into a first-person view while standing still. Sometimes that's jarring, but there are also a lot of customizable settings in Dreams to control movement and interaction.
Existing user-created dreams in Dreams need to be labeled as VR-optimized to be played in VR, otherwise they play back in 2D in a VR headset, like looking at a TV. The VR-optimized experiences are a rough mix, just like you might expect for user-created things. Some are brilliant. Some are janky. A few quit out and reverted to 2D modes when the frame rate wasn't good enough. I'd say the VR browsing experience in Dreams is for those who are open to rougher works-in-progress: newcomers to VR might find the whole thing disorienting, although Media Molecule includes a bunch of great VR navigation tutorials. There's also a Media Molecule-crafted game and art gallery experience that feels like something that emerged from Valve's VR headspace, in a good way.
You can make virtual hands for yourself in Dreams; this puzzle-world has a Portal vibe.
A creative universe where VR is one tool among many
What I love the most is that Dreams' design is VR-optional: you can dip in and out of your headset, creating with or without. While that could make VR sound like an unnecessary add-on, I love the fusion. VR should be an optional set of immersive tools, like a pair of headphones for your eyes. Stand-alone VR like Oculus Quest has no non-VR set of apps to fall back on. Windows PCs can use VR as an interchangeable tool, but then you also have to invest in the hardware and the headsets. PSVR's proposition is a lot cheaper as it runs from your existing PS4.
Dreams usually uses the regular Dualshock 4 as a VR controller, which mostly is perfect -- except for when you might want to reach out and use your hands like in most typical VR apps (PS Move controllers can work, too). Smith prefers Dualshocks as a VR input, mostly: "Everyone's got them, and they're actually better for a lot of things." Smith sees the Dualshock as being an easier tool for swapping back and forth between VR and TV creation, too. "People tend to ... go between different ways of working. When they're working on a 3D sculpture or placing things in a very analog 3D way, then they'll still go to VR because that's just a natural way of doing it, that makes it easier. Conversely, when you switch into 2D, it's quite nice when I can get rid of that information overload. If you don't want to perceive 3D, it's nice to get rid of it."
There are shooting games, but they're not multiplayer.
Collaboration and social play aren't happening yet
Dreams VR has a social community for sharing and upvoting creations, but there aren't any collaborative tools for co-creation. I asked Smith if that might happen. "It's difficult for me to give answers without showing my hand too much about the future things that we're still considering or working on. I don't want to promise things that we don't do, or promise things in timescales," he says. "But yeah, I think this sort of notion of collaborative creation... we're listening to our community, shall I say, and trying to find ways to support what they want to do. I can't say more than that."
I also mention possibilities of sharing immersive experiences together in VR, much like in apps like The Under Presents that are blending games and theater into a new art form. "I think all of these thoughts are very wise, and... I have no comment," Smith says.
(If you're curious about how Dreams keeps evolving, there's a roadmap on some of the planned updates.)
A stepping-stone to future worlds
I played Dreams on an original PS4, and it will look nicer on a PS4 Pro -- but of course, I'm curious about how a creative tool like Dreams could eventually run on a PS5. The PS5 will be PSVR-compatible, but no real information has been shared about what games or even what hardware will be available for that next-gen console.
Dreams, I'd expect, would look pretty killer with the PS5's processing power. "I'm under strict instructions to not discuss anything related to PlayStation 5," Smith answers.
Well, at least I tried.