All screenshots courtesy Sony
The new game from the makers of LittleBigPlanet is a perfect fit for the social media era.
Dreams is wondrous. It’s a game and a tool that’s allowing its players to create great-looking broomstick riding demos and elaborate mockups of horror levels. In my few hours of play, I traveled through a mystical landscape in a 4x4 and wandered across a desolate landscape as a lonely robot. I did some first-person shooting, some puzzling, and everything in between. Dreams, which is out in early access on the PS4 right now, is already giving players the capability to make anything under the sun within it. And that is very cool.
But I also need to state something that is overwhelmingly apparent yet easy to forget: Everything you make in Dreams is inside of Dreams. You cannot liberate your project from the Dreams. Everything you craft inside of this platform that is owned by Media Molecule (itself a subsidiary of Sony Interactive Entertainment) is trapped within that space.
So, I have to keep both “wonder” and “ownership” in my head when I read aboutDreams. Mike Fahey at Kotaku wrote that “ Dreams is not a game. It’s a massive virtual artistic commune.” Nick Summers at Engadget similarly remarked thatDreams’s existence as an accessible game-creation platform and sharing system “could liberate game development the same way Minecraft did a decade ago.” These writers aren’t wrong, but it also seems distinctly more complicated than this.
Dreams isn’t an artistic commune because nothing you build can leave. It isn’tMinecraft because Dreams’ existence on the Playstation 4 means that, while you can build templates inside of the game itself, building mods or creating texture packs (two things that made Minecraft explode) just aren’t in the cards. While I agree with the two writers that this is the promise of Dreams, the reality is that though it taps into all of these pre-existing ways we have of talking about art, in reality it’s a lot like something completely different: social media platforms.
At best, the beautiful paintings and engaging games made in Dreams are fundamentally like a solid Facebook post or a viral tweet. You know the ones I am talking about: the long political polemic that gets things exactly right; the “now listen to this” tweetstorm; the mind-blowing gif or animal video that you just need to share. Those forms of media content live on those platforms, but they can be “liberated” from them via screencapping or copying. They proliferate across all of social media, the tweets appearing as images on Facebook and the good Tumblr posts getting listed off on Twitter. The good stuff gets cross-pollinated everywhere.
The things that get made in Dreams are stuck in Dreams until they’re liberated as videos or live streams or images that make it to social media or articles from journalists who are commenting on how cool things made in Dreams are. Like those good social media posts, the things that get made in Dreams are fundamentally about making you engage with a platform. Like the Facebook posts or comedic Tumblr reblogs, the form of the Dreams creation is recognizable, and there’s a lingering sense that if you want that pure, uncut stuff that you need to be doing some discovery of your own in Dreams. Because there’s wonder in there, and you might discover it if you dig deep.
There’s another side to the screencapped Facebook screed or the bufoonish tweet that goes viral across six different social media platforms. These platforms need to make you feel things. They draw eyeballs, they generate discussions, and we generate discussion about them. Agreement or disagreement, rage or joy: it all gets used to draw a monetizable picture of us.
Hearts and minds are dollars and cents on the internet, and the platforms that host the posts that keep us coming back are dramatically unwilling to do anything to threaten either their monetary bottom line or their social capital as the place where we express our feelings. Facebook needs you to argue with your great uncle about politics so it can know who you are, what you feel, and what those identifiers might make you likely to purchase.
Dreams wants you to be creative and explore whatever you want to do, and it also wants to sell copies of itself so that people will enjoy the labor you have put into your creations. In the same way that we are allowing Twitter to monetize our every thought when we tweet, we are literally allowing Dreams to monetize our creativity when we make things with it.
And that’s not necessarily a reason to reject the game, but it is a decision to make. It’s one that we make any time that we login to social media, take an Instagram picture, listen to a podcast, or turn on a media app. 2019 is the time of complete platformization. We are constantly interacting with things that provide the base for our social and economic actions, and they hoover up all of our being so they can sell it to corporations who sell it back to us.
The draw of Dreams is making things and consuming things, and while you might get the emanating photos or videos on another platform, the only place toplay the dream creations that are created on the platform is by engaging with it. You need to search them out by name, or do what I do and “dream surf” your way through an automated playlist of games.
What I learned there is that Dreams completes the circuit. While the games created by Media Molecule, like Please Hug Me in which you are a robot who no one wants to hug, are unique and goofy and outliers in the world of games, the vast majority of player-created content is not. Much of the work that appears in a playlist are standard recreations of familiar things. The skeletons of first-person shooters, driving games, and platformers riddle the random samplings picked from the cloud of Dreams. Demos that are using the platform’s tools to recreate the look of the Metro franchise or the demo for Silent Hills keep popping up.
Right now, players are using Dreams to rehearse the rest of their video game experiences. Dreams sells you on the idea that you can create anything, but people seem to be overwhelmingly recreating the same media that they are already consuming in other parts of their life. It’s a culture eating its own tail, but it isn’t a problem with the players themselves. This is, by and large, the shape of games across the board. Browse Steam or itch.io or GameJolt and you’re going to see a lot of people trying to work out how they can improve upon basic formulas like the puzzle-platformer or the first-person exploration game. Take a look at every storefront and you can see blockbuster games that have all found their angle on the same broad genres of first- and third-person shooting.
A lack of originality is not a unique problem for Dreams. The game just points to a problem of replication, re-creation, and the constant enjoyment of the same-but-slightly-different that is contemporary video games. Dreams captures the dream of creating your own video game and reveals that most of us just want slightly different versions of what already exists.
We want to be the person who slam dunks the same joke that everyone else on Twitter is making. We want to be the person who makes the salient political point that ends the conversation. The reality is that my version, or your version, or the star developer’s version, of a game is not going to be the “right” one universally because that’s not how art works. And the social media post is going to piss people off because that’s not how expression works.
But the dream is that the right level of creativity and ingenuity will change things. The dream is that a tool will emerge that allows everyone to finally get things right and create the words or the song or the sculpture or the game that finally expresses whatever they’ve been feeling. And maybe it works for some of us. Some people will become Twitch famous for creating the best things, and we’ll watch and say that this is what Dreams is for. We’ll check out the tertiary industries that kick up: YouTubers dedicated to new Dreams content followed by Instagram accounts that screencap and video capture playthroughs that scrub creator data and Twitter accounts that show off cool creations credited only toDreams. You know, Dreams, that game with all the games in it.
The vast majority of people who are going to be making mock-ups or tools that other users can play with in Dreams are not going to be those people. They are going to be creators whose very creativity will be what gets people to buyDreams or watch streams of Dreams games. The people doing the work are not going to be the people benefitting materially from this game. Clicking around theDreams app and the official site for the beta gives me no information about who owns intellectual property in Dreams, and I can’t help my pessimistic feeling that the layer of fun creativity covering up legalese is a tactical one.
Dreams is built for 2019. It’s a full model of how we produce across our lives, what we produce for, and the rhetoric of freedom and creativity that surrounds all of that. Despite how fundamentally grumpy I am about it on many levels, I can’t quite shake that it’s going to feel good to play some of the excellent creations that are certainly going to pop up there in the next year. It is an undeniable success in giving more people access to game development tools. Gaining access to these tools comes with a price when it comes to Dreams, though, and I wonder if that price is worth paying for the opportunity to be a well-loved flower in a walled garden.