At Night, In Dreams

After a few taps on my controller, I’m standing in a familiar scene: a sparse, sunbathed living room with wall-to-wall windows, a spartan furniture arrangement, and a sliding glass door that leads out to a dock-side balcony. Though it’s more of a crude rendering (there are no textures here, and my avatar is a simple, blue mannequin), it still accurately captures the default living quarters in PlayStation Home, or at least how I remember them. Sony shut down PS Home in 2015, yet here I am, inhabiting a space I never thought I’d see again: some dedicated user took the tools afforded to them in Dreams, Media Molecule’s in-development creation/play suite, and rebuilt a lost world just because they could.

As it turns out, Dreams has inspired a number of recreations like this. One of its most popular destinations, “P.T.”, does its damnedest to showcase everything from the abandoned original, including the photos and radio show. There’s a rhythm game that borrows its aesthetic from the 360-era Guitar Hero games. And yes, someone has already accomplished the obligatory and rebuilt World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. If there’s a wildly popular gaming franchise, you can be sure that someone is working on its Dreams counterpart.

You’d think that a game, created by and published on the largest console at the moment, would feel more like a walled garden when it comes to content curation. Thankfully (for now, anyway), both Sony and Media Molecule appear to to be lax with copyright enforcement, so what we have instead feels closer to a Newgrounds-esque free-for-all. Have you ever wondered what Marble Blast with a Sonic-esque style would look like? It’s here. How about a comical “bathroom simulator” that ends with you flooding the entire room? Someone built it. Dreams hosts an eclectic mix of mimics and original content, sometimes mashing the two together in the same showcase. It’s an undoubtedly messy approach, but given the disappearance of Flash and mid-tier games, said mess feels invigorating.

Of course, there’s the matter of what the creators themselves are getting out of this arrangement. As Cameron Kunzelman pointed out for Waypoint, the games, sculptures and other works built in Dreams can’t be taken out of the title or monetized: by using Media Molecule’s tools, you are essentially adding to their own library, building content they can use to monetize and sell more copies of Dreams. Before I picked it up myself, this was also my biggest concern. What made it any different than the shady HitRecord collaboration with Ubisoft for Beyond Good & Evil 2, or the numerous “for exposure” deals that exist to squeeze free or underpaid labor from artists? Was this truly something to be excited over, or was it yet another form of exploitation?

Now that I’ve spent some quality time in Dreams, I finally understand that it’s closer to Super Mario Maker, WarioWare D.I.Y., and a number of other games centered around map-making tools. By focusing on the labor aspect of creation, I had forgotten the value in building something for the hell of it. No one could sell “3D Recreation of Kakariko Forest” for profit without Nintendo breathing down their necks, nor would anyone rush out to buy a five-minute goof about farting and overflowing toilets. Yet someone got a kick out of building both of those things, and I can honestly say I’m happy that I got to play them!

Dreams harkens back to a time when you could download a custom map in Jedi Outcast where folks would fight on a trampoline as All-American Rejects blared in the background. It captures the energy that gave us hundreds of stick figure action games: they were terrible to play, but I was happy they existed in the first place. When I boot up Dreams, it only takes me a handful of button presses to jump between a Van Gogh-inspired absinthe experience and a Pong clone. If one of them doesn’t capture my interest, I can back out easily and move onto the next thing, like swiping through a series of photos in an ever-expanding album. And it feels incredible.

Media Molecule have suggested that in the future, they may look into ways to compensate Dreams creators who successfully build entire games with these tools. Until then, as it exists right now, Dreams represents the Internet that corporations destroyed, the Internet I missed: an anything-goes explosion of silly, junky, copyright-skirting art. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Hell, it doesn’t even need to be good! It only needs to be there. And Dreams is there.

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