SANTA MONICA, California—Ten years ago, the LittleBigPlanet game series did the seemingly unthinkable for console players: it opened up the “mod and make your own games” experience that had previously been the domain of PC gaming. Its cute simplicity enabled a new audience to create (and share, via an online browser) their own 2D platform and adventure games, complete with higher-level concepts like if-then clauses, proximity triggers, and per-object logic.
In 2015, LBP‘s creators at Media Molecule announced something even more ambitious: Dreams, a game that would do the same thing for the 3D-gaming world. Use controllers like a paintbrush, toggle through coding-command menus, and create your own 3D worlds, the Media Molecule devs promised.
But thanks to a number of unclear media-event teases, we’ve gathered more questions than answers. Would Dreams really require those old, barely used PlayStation Move wands, as originally hinted during its 2015 announcement? How exactly would we build our own worlds and experiments? And would this PS4 product ever look like an actual video game?
Though it still doesn’t have a release date, Dreams finally has something that (we’d argue) is more important: actual apparent gameplay that only requires standard PS4 controls.
The tip of the imp
Much like LBP, Dreams will include a standard “adventure” full of pre-made levels, and we got to try a couple during a world-premiere hands-on event. Thanks to this new game’s 3D shift, it plays less like Super Mario Bros. and more like Super Mario 64. Though, technically, it hews closer to another N64 game: Space Station Silicon Valley. (If you missed that 1998 game, it’s okay; the weird game, made by DNA Designs, was one of the studio’s last titles before changing names to Rockstar North and moving on to the 3D Grand Theft Auto era.)
Dreams borrows from SS:SV by asking players to possess and dispossess various characters and objects in a miniature 3D world. You start as a floating “imp,” which you control by moving your DualShock 4 controller in physical space. The gamepad’s built-in gyroscope and accelerometer track your hands’ movement to guide your floating, glowing bulb-creature around, which means you do not need a PlayStation Move wand to get into Dreams.
Press R2 whenever your imp flashes to grab and manipulate non-animal objects (blocks, trees), or do the same to living creatures in order to make them run around like a mascot platformer. (My demo’s host reminded me to keep my eyes on “the tip of the imp,” which would flash when something was manipulable; this phrase never failed to make me giggle.) Possessed creatures usually come with a few button-triggered maneuvers like jumps and attacks.
Many of the levels will play out in “point-and-click adventure” fashion.
I played through a puzzle-filled level from an early part of the game. I primarily controlled an axe-wielding pig and its pie-throwing fox buddy as they ran around, bonked things, and jumped across 3D hills and platforms. (My host, a Media Molecule rep, could jump in and out at any time with her own imp.) I needed to possess a creature to move the screen around and advance in the level. Escaping the pig’s skin and returning to my imp form meant the screen would freeze—which I needed so I could aim my hands around and possess new, puzzle-solving objects. Running and jumping beyond apparent bounds, for example, would expose secret areas where I could solve hidden puzzles and unlock new assets to import into Dreams‘ creative mode. (Just like in LittleBigPlanet, these new items and assets appear as floating, icon-filled bubbles, and they function as the levels’ collectibles.)
I then saw a hint of the campaign’s other style of gameplay, which will unfold under the auspices of “Art’s Dream.” This story portion will follow a tall, skinny guitar-playing man named Art in search of his musical partner Layla (“not a love interest,” the MM rep noted), and many of its levels will play out in “point-and-click adventure” fashion. A scene will unfold, and players will move their floating imp avatars to activate objects and solve puzzles. (I didn’t get to see whether this might include an inventory system, character commands, or other classic “point-and-click” gaming elements.)
The brief chunk of Dreams‘ discrete “campaign” that I played was equal parts adorable and moody, and the game’s visual engine, driven by a combination of repeating paint stroke textures and voxel-loaded geometry, was quite handsome—though that wasn’t surprising, since the game’s previous reveal events have all looked striking. The biggest surprise this time is that the content on offer ran efficiently on a PS4 Pro—an apparent near-locked 30 frames-per-second refresh in an admittedly unfinished build—whether the visible scenery was simple or vast.
That’s all important stuff, Media Molecule developers note, because the entire campaign has been built using the same toolset available to Dreams‘ eventual paying customers.
Dreams come true
Every 3D character, piece of terrain, musical composition, and animation in the game has been built using the same toolset available to Dreams‘ eventual players. We’ve seen bits and pieces of this creation system over the past year-plus at various events, but this latest pre-E3 demo was our first chance to actually test it out.
Should players have a PlayStation Move wand and a PlayStation Eye camera, this part of the game is admittedly easier to manage. To make a scene, you’ll use some kind of motion controller to guide your imp around a scene and create dollops of material, which can be assigned as individual objects and manipulated accordingly. Each thing you create can be, say, a controllable object, a piece of a larger entity, a surface, or more, based on the logic attached to any particular blob. Controlling this object-manipulation system with only a DualShock 4 gamepad is manageable enough—that’s the only one we got to test—but you’ll have to learn a combination of joystick, d-pad, and trigger controls to whip around in all dimensions. A PS Move wand, on the other hand, affords simpler “depth” control (meaning, pulling objects closer to or farther from you, relative to your position).
I was able to mold a simple surface in a level, then manipulate its size and rapidly copy-and-paste it to create a chain of surfaces or objects, like a long bridge. The copy-and-paste mechanic looked particularly cool when I grabbed a pre-drawn tree and then made a fan-blade chain of eight of them side by side to make a quick, cute forest wall. I was then told how to create a distant island and build a dangerous pool of lava in the gap between that new island and a level’s existing land mass.
In order to Mario-jump my way over there, I had to build an animated platform. Doing this was pretty cool: after switching to the game’s “build” mode, I grabbed the platform, toggled a “record animation” button, and moved my DualShock 4 controller in real space. My exact hand motion—first slow and jerky, then smooth, then rapidly up and down—was saved, replicated, and looped back and forth in the game. I had created a floating bridge. If I wanted to, I could go back and re-record my hand motion, and I was also shown a moment-by-moment chart of my motions to fine-tune the bridge’s exact timing and X-Y-Z coordinates.
I also got to “compose” music for this level by loading a metronome and a floating “sound field” window on which I could draw musical notes. This music-creation tool, sadly, was far too unwieldy in a brief demo to make anything that actually sounded coherent or rhythmic. After I complained about this tool, my MM demo rep showed me a far more customizable timeline tool on which I could draw exact notes, using a giant pre-built family of sound samples. She promised that I could also use a headset microphone to import my own recorded voice and samples. All of these note and sample arrangements can be easily looped and repeated, and the DualShock 4’s touchpad (which few games really use these days) will afford on-the-fly sound tweaks like note-bending.
Enough of the toolset reminded me of a baby’s-first Audacity or Cool Edit Pro to make me hopeful about how it’ll play out in the final version—though I do wonder if self-recorded samples will actually be sharable in the game’s final version. My MM rep insisted that the company’s “full moderation team” is prepared to parse through potentially offensive and TOS-violating content, and they’re certainly encouraging players to add voices thanks to one insane promise: automatic lip syncing for your characters. Record your voice, slap pre-made lips onto a creature, and watch it yammer in sync with your voice. (I only saw one sample of this in action, which looked good, but it was from a pre-made voice sample, so there’s no telling how this syncing will work with any given voice.)
Building for all ages and proficiencies
The best I could say about my brief build-a-level demo was that it included a tasty mix of simple grab-and-manipulate options so that novices can feel good remixing existing 3D levels and tab- and option-filled submenus to open up all kinds of logic, animation, and trigger options. If I want a bridge to start moving, a song to start playing, and a lava floor to expand beneath a player’s feet, I can toggle all of that with an “if player enters sphere, then things happen” trigger.
My rep showcased a range of levels that had been built by various MM staffers ahead of our pre-E3 event, including a stylized 2D platformer, a two-player mini-game competition, a free-range arcade space shooter, and a spooky walk through a dark woods. These were all anchored with an enjoyably floaty control base—think LBP‘s spongy jump-and-run style but perhaps a smidge more responsive—but each included a decidedly different gameplay feel, especially the mini-game versus challenge.
Additionally, one MM rep talked about using Dreams to draw and design ideas for a wedding reception space to share with their partner. Another described a 3D adventure about a banana being chased by a velociraptor—which was admittedly built using a ton of pre-made characters but opened up the non-developer staffer’s ability to focus on a cinematic presentation. In both cases, MM appears to already have a meaty base that builds upon the hand-controlled creative fun of VR hits like Tilt Brush.
Dreams players will be able to dive into similar, hand-tracked fun without needing anything more than a standard DualShock 4 (though Dreams will support PlayStation VR, as well, with info about VR-specific features coming “in the future.”) It’s all looking like good news for anyone hoping Dreams will either ship with a killer, LBP-caliber campaign or will include robust PlayCreateShare tools to make a good-enough game in the developers’ stead. We’ll keep our eyes on next month’s E3 in hopes of a release date.
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