The Decade’s Most Important Game?

Dreams could propel video games lightyears ahead

Last Tuesday (16th of April) saw the official launch of Dreams Creator Early Access on the PS4. At a glance, Media Molecule’s new outing looks like an enormous risk: it’s not exactly a game. Though it’s called Creator Early Access for a reason, it still remains to be seen what the finished product will look like. At this moment, though, taking the “Play, Create, Share” approach known from the studio’s Little Big Planet games to the very extremes, Dreams offers scant anything to play.

Oh, but if it’s create and share you want, have I got news for you…

Unity, Unreal, Godot or… Dreams?

Dreams is a game engine in disguise.

One that also has built-in 3D modeling, animation & audio editing plugins. Very simple, all of it — but surprisingly powerful nonetheless. It’s somehow both easier to pick up and more fully-featured than the ill-fated Project Spark. As an engine that aims to be as accessible as possible, it seems to sit on the somewhat shaky middle ground between too difficult and too limiting: never being either, yet still risking someone dismisses it for one of those reasons. The multi-layered menus and ever-present popups certainly look overwhelming at first, however if you stick with it to tinker with premade templates and tutorials, little by little you’ll discover that while it may take you completely out of your comfort zone, Dreams seems to stay close enough to it that you might just manage to grow into it.

It’s an absolute wonder for people who’ve never made a game. While modern game engines have already come a long way regarding accessibility, even if you no longer have to learn to code they can still be a right mess to find your way around. Besides, you need a particular kind of resolve to even download one. They have a single, well-defined purpose and they look the part, their documentation has been written by engineers for engineers and frequent updates mean that the online course you’ve purchased a few months ago might not even work anymore. Game engines are intimidating in their own right, but making matters worse is trying to learn one after sitting at a desk for hours at your 9-to-5. Factor this in, and it becomes painfully apparent that you’d need some serious drive to sit in the same position at home working with interfaces that 2009 wants to get back.

With Dreams, Media Molecule is sneaking a game engine onto a console, moving development from traditional PC workspaces to the comfortable confines of your living room couch. Back home from work, you can grab a gamepad, interact with a colourful, inviting world and toy with abstractions of game mechanics represented as The Incredible Machine-style real-world contraptions. On the surface you’re indulging yourself, playing a game, yet all of a sudden you’re no longer just a player.

Dreams makes creating games accessible entertainment.

Lacan and demand for art

To realize what this potentially earth-shaking change means for our medium, let’s step back a little and consider a fascinating definition of art.

Jaques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst that followed in Freud’s and Jung’s footsteps in trying to engineer a comprehensive model of the human psyche, believed that infants are conscious, thus capable of thought, before they learn to speak. Since language is learned once a person has already developed some mechanisms to suppress their behaviours that are antisocial or in another way deemed unseemly by parental figures, there are things we’ve never developed words for. In Lacan’s model of psyche, language, due to its practical and societal nature, is actually an impairment to our identity. Due to social taboos and plain inadequacies of all languages, we carry latent thoughts, drives and feelings that we can never express through conventional means. Lacan called this space, created by the deficit of language in relation to what’s actually happening in our minds, “demand”.

Now consider the art, from among all kinds of media, that stuck with you the most. Remember when in your life it impacted you so. What feelings did it evoke? Can you, in an exhaustive and efficient way, put the experience into words? Poetry’s not allowed.

If you still doubt me, look at your Facebook wall — anyone there recently answered the “What’s on your mind?” question with a link to a song, or a memetic picture?

Thought so.

Art inspired by Lacanian demand is impactful and has enormous staying power, but it takes a special kind of environment to facilitate its creation. Meanwhile, large international companies spend years to make modern games. Lacanian demand is by its very definition difficult, if at all possible, to put into words, and game designers may have problems explaining it to their, often distributed, teams. Worse even, they need to store their vision somehow to be able to hold that elusive idea for the entire length of the project. John Lennon used to say that one needs to keep a single state of mind when writing a song, no point trying to return to it when you no longer feel it. If connection to the original demand is lost, a vision might lose its integrity and then the resulting product makes it much harder for players to project their own latent thoughts and feelings on it and achieve catharsis.

The obvious problem here is that a game that will allow players the means of expression to relieve their psychic tension needs to itself be as clean an expression of the creator’s intent as possible.

Is there an art form that we can look at to search for solutions to that issue?

What tool for artistic expression enables to feel rather than think?

Making games, like playing a guitar

Art shouldn’t have to be made by hundreds of people working overtime for years while their vision is being compromised bit by bit. “Real” game engines are all fine and dandy, but we also need accessible tools that will allow small groups of people create short but impactful experiences.

A musician can simply pick up their instrument and play what they feel. Very few virtuosos will create a masterpiece this way, but it doesn’t matter. Gaming doesn’t have a problem with masterpieces. Thankfully, many talented auteurs are in charge of large projects backed by enormous corporations. What our medium needs, however, is a way for the little people to more easily express themselves. A way to groom future auteurs, if you will. Compare it with writing, for instance: it takes probably around 4 hours to write an article that’s a 4 minute read. An average person should probably dedicate up to 30 minutes to consider an exact wording of a tweet before they post it, and it takes people no more than 20 seconds to read.

If creators can spend 10 hours in front of the TV to craft a 5-minutes-long experience that expresses what they feel but can’t put into words, you can bet they will. Such creations, while short, might stay with you a long time. They might come from places you’d never recognize and impact you in ways you’d never expect, made by people who’ve never made a game before.

Or, perhaps even more importantly, by people who traditionally feel excluded from gaming.

The long-term impact it will have on our medium cannot be overstated.

Dreams attempts to break down barriers between artistic vision and digital reality. It aims to be a musical instrument, that — once one learns how to play it — will enable outsider artists to just pick it up and express themselves.

“Exciting” doesn’t even begin to describe it.