Indie video games offer a pretty great opportunity for new environments and new styles of gameplay, whether it’s killing demons with a BFG or wandering through a deserted island like in Dear Esther.
Speaking of Dear Esther, it was a major influence on Hypersloth, a small UK developer who produced the indie game Dream.
Dream is about a young grad student named Howard Phillips, who lives alone in a house left to him by his Uncle Edward and undergoes a series of strange dreams each night. As the player, you get to traverse those dreamscapes, from brightly-colored deserts to never-ending mazes and Escher stairs. You solve puzzles in each environment and explore new layers of your subconscious, which seem to revolve around internalized stress and your uncle’s legacy… at first, anyway.
What attracted me to the game at first was the beautifully rendered landscapes, like the desert where you begin or the Escher stair sequence. Honestly, most maps in this game are gorgeous. The amount of detail in this game is impressive; it’s clear that open landscape games like Dear Esther were an inspiration. I could just wander around and feel good about it, and the idea of solving puzzles in these finely designed territories really got me interested.
However, once you get past the beauty of the landscape, it’s the rest of the gameplay where I felt less enchanted and more frustrated. For example, the mazes in the desert are clever, but you have to travel them while eluding a smoke monster—one that’s more irritating up close, but with a terrifying motor sound. Fortunately, all it can do is drop you out of the maze without undoing your progress, but given enough encounters, it’s quite aggravating.
The same can’t exactly be said for some of the other puzzles; I’ve gone through so many walkthrough videos just to figure out half of them. Even then, when you switch between maps, they don’t stay solved, so if you’ve only completed two out of four maze challenges and reload the game later, you have to go back and solve all four challenges in the same sitting in order to advance. But then again, this game is designed for non-linear storytelling, so I suppose it’s only fair the gameplay is non-linear, too.
Speaking of smoke monsters, another aspect about Dream is that it very quickly changed to a horror game with no clear end in sight. Some players may like the creepy atmosphere and dark environments you have to navigate at times, but not me. I’m more a fan of semi-dark, desolate areas like the island from Dear Esther or the Enrichment Center in Portal than some creaking old house where something’s moving through the shadows and the background music suddenly cuts out.
While I had high hopes for an exploratory, imaginative puzzle game like Dream, I just wasn’t satisfied with the results. Yes, it’s big and unusual, but after a while, you find yourself wondering what’s the point after you fail the Graveyard Puzzle for the 87th consecutive time and you can’t bloody figure out the sequence. I feel like a good puzzle game is based around a single mechanic, like the Portal Gun in Portal or rewinding through time in Braid. In those games, you have a single tool, but the trick is how you use it to solve different challenges. Here, all you have is an inventory of random objects that you collect, no clear direction, and several bizarre clues or twists that don’t seem to really tie into Howard’s waking life. At least, not so far as I can tell.
Dream is available for purchase and download on Steam.
Bibliography: Dream (video game). Designed by Ashley Sidebottom, Lewis Bibby, and Samuel Reed. Developed by HyperSloth Ltd. Steam relase date: August 13, 2013.