Over the past few years, Media Molecule’s Dreams steadily piqued my interest with glimpses of its possibilities, but it’s now safe to say they have my attention. My moment of enlightenment came when I visited the studio in February of last year and get hands on with Dreams for the first time.
With my one hour of time with the game (admittedly almost entirely using other creators’ assets), I formed my first masterpiece, this beautiful donut-eating bird man:
Even during that all-too-fleeting time, Dreams had its plasticine hooks in me and I couldn’t wait to fully dive into its well of creativity. Fast forward 11 months and I’ve finally found the time to play with the early access version of the game ahead of its Valentine’s Day launch, and my bizarre, fantastical ideas are (sort of) becoming a reality.
There’s a vast array of tools in Dreams, even an overwhelming amount at first glance. While it may be tempting to jump in head first and see what you can conjure up, I can’t stress how valuable I found it to play through its tutorials. I’ve found the handful that I’ve made my way through to be really well constructed so far, and felt as if I was genuinely learning with each step — dozens of previously illegible symbols littering the top of the screen quickly formed into a language I could understand. By making my way through the ‘Start Dreaming’ string of lessons, I could now create, move, and clone basic 3D objects. All vital skills when you’re tasked with creating a shiny staircase so that Connie, a suitably named pastel-orange cone, can be reunited with her stranded mauve cuboid friend, Cuthbert.
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After mastering those most basic of fundamentals, I yearned for something more creative. After all, creating and moving blocks and platforms probably isn’t new to anyone familiar with Media Molecule’s previous Little Big Planet outings. That said, I find myself connecting with Dreams in a way I wasn’t able to with Little Big Planet — the idea of using a game as an art studio interests me far greater than just making platforming levels or minigames. So with haste I moved onto the art section of the tutorials to begin to understand just how some of the stunning sculptures, luscious landscapes, and breathtaking breakfasts I’d seen on Twitter and YouTube were created.
The ‘Coats, Style and Effects’ tutorial is where Dreams started really coming into its own for me. Learning how to transform a few handfuls of misshapen blobs into fully-realised scenes gave me a real insight into what’s possible. I felt like I was putting my own mark on the game rather than strictly following instructions, combining the comfort of a paint-by-numbers but adding your own flourishes to it. That’s the joy of Dreams’ tutorials. It doesn’t force you to do things one way and gatekeep until you do. Rather, it’s constantly encouraging you to put your own spin on things. I could have made the grassy knolls surrounding my quaint little cottage neon pink, but I stuck with a more familiar green. Maybe I’m a traditionalist, maybe I’m just a boring bastard.
After I finished colourising my scene, with such daring decisions as turning water blue, I then had to give life and depth to it. By reducing the looseness of the green blobs, they no longer looked like solid, rubbery masses but now gave the impression of being formed by blades of grass. So much had changed just by holding down R2 for a couple of seconds. The same technique, but with the impasto tool equipped, added a welcome dash of Van Gogh into my chimney smoke. Changing the material finish of my water to shiny wax added a flow effect, and by dragging the current in the way I wanted with the comb tool, I now had a fully operating river.
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I’m constantly surprised with how few steps it takes to make something look great in Dreams. After just an hour, what once seemed near impossible to achieve now felt remotely possible. I still didn’t really know how to create anything from scratch, though, which would probably be considered a stumbling block.
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Next I got sucked into the ‘Sculpting Basics’ tutorial, learning all about the pleasures of ‘smearing shapes’, which I figured I’d have some aptitude for, since I’ve been known to do it on the dancefloor after one too many rum and cokes. It’s weirdly satisfying, manipulating digital clay to form unconventional shapes and bridge gaps, so that the conical Connie can move along. I’d happily use this tool for hours to solve problems punctuated with deep backstory about my new orange friend. A smear campaign, if you will. (I’m sorry.)
Throughout this sculpting lesson I quickly learned new ways to play with Dreams’ raw materials, both learning how to add and subtract with ease. Everything you need is just one of two button presses/combos away, and it’s easy to see it becoming second nature once I sink enough time into it. I made three bridges, each stunning and inventive in their own way.
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Now that I was quickly becoming a master of the art form, I decided to see what I can create from a blank slate. I searched my mind for inspiration. What would be my first grand project in Dreams?
In the end, I went for what seems to be the fall back for every kid when they had to make a diorama for the science fair at school: a volcano. I’ve seen about a hundred made in every American school show I’ve ever seen. How hard could it be?
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Here%2C%20I%E2%80%99m%20afraid%20to%20say%20is%20where%20things%20start%20to%20go%20downhill.”]I start by dropping down a cone — Connie would be so proud — then used a sphere in subtract mode to cut into the top of the cone to create a crater. Nothing can stop me now. I plop down a donut of sand for the volcano to sit on, taking into account all of my previous influences. Here, I’m afraid to say is where things start to go downhill.
I put down a layer of blue in efforts to make some surrounding sea, but have already forgotten how to infuse the water effects. My ocean is nothing more than a speckled blue sadness circle, and the same can be said for my ‘lava’. The ability to make liquid flow has left me, and instead I am left with hardened globules of buffalo sauce.
It’s fair to say that in the space of 15 minutes I have made maybe the world’s worst volcano. Which, to be fair, is an achievement in itself, but not the one I set out to garner. I put Dreams away for the day. It’s time to go back to the drawing board, get some more tutorials under my belt, and come back refreshed — the artist in me rages on and has grand designs in mind.
The past couple of hours have transported me back to my primary school art classroom, but with a feeling of unrivalled freedom and lack of a teacher stooping over my shoulder, telling me that I’m “not doing it right”. That’s my real takeaway from Dreams so far; it’s whatever you want it to be and anything is possible. Even in its tutorials there’s no “wrong way”, and I can’t wait to try my hand at more complex skills. After I’ve gone back and relearnt the basics, I’ll be able to sculpt the world’s second worst volcano. Then the third, the fourth, and so on until someone spots it on Twitter and gets inspired to create their own terrible volcano, in the same way I had been months previously.
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I may not ever have a painting hang in The National Gallery, but now I can make my own National Gallery and fill it with whatever nonsense I want — and to me, that’s more exciting. Dreams has evoked in me the feeling of being a child again in a way that’s normally relegated to the majority of Nintendo’s offerings.
I was always drawn to art in school, but that doesn’t mean I was actually any good at it. I hold distinct memories of sketching what felt like every fruit and vegetable under the sun, sculpting deformed cups from clay that you’d, at best, hesitate to put your lips to, and painting a self-portrait that beared more than a striking resemblance to former England captain Wayne Rooney. That never stopped me from enjoying it, though, and while I’m now resigned to not taking up real estate on any museum walls, I’ve always had that urge to ‘make shit’.
That’s exactly why Dreams caught my curiosity, even if we had no real idea of what it even was. Now, it firmly has my attention and I can’t wait to dive further in and get lost in its infinite worlds and possibilities and, hopefully, not be terrible at it for too much longer.