Dreams is similar to Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet series, which the British studio created in the PlayStation 3 days, in that it’s as much about creating as it is playing. Along with a single-player campaign of stages authored by Media Molecule, Dreams offers a mind-bogglingly expansive suite of level creation tools for budding game designers out there. But where the LittleBigPlanet games were limited to a side-scrolling 2.5D perspective, Dreams on PlayStation 4 lets you build in full 3D, which vastly increases both the possibilities and the complexity of the game.
The game creation engine in Dreams is so robust, in fact, that even the pros use it. If you’re wondering why all the screenshots bear a “Made In Dreams” watermark, the answer is that Media Molecule built all of the story mode levels using the game’s built-in creation mode.
I found this hard to believe when I played a stage that ended with an in-game cutscene. Surely, I thought, Media Molecule had built that non-playable sequence on a computer, the same way most developers make games, using software to animate the characters and move the camera. I figured that the studio had simply created a variety of cutscene templates and included them in the game for players to adapt and build upon.
But no — it’s all right in there for you to handle yourself. Michael Pulst, a producer on Dreams at Sony Interactive Entertainment America, later showed me during a demo of the game’s creation tools that it’s possible for players to manipulate the camera like a filmmaker and direct characters in a scene.
In a simple stage where the goal was to make it across to a floating patch of grass before a bridge crumbled beneath us, Pulst set up a special camera move to mark a successful run: He made it so that when you reach the end of the stage, the camera turns around to face the player character while zooming in on them, as the screen is letterboxed by black bars. In a separate level, Pulst showed off a recording feature for animations — essentially, you can “record” yourself moving around as a character, and use that “clip” in a cutscene.
Perhaps the most complex thing you can create in Dreams is music. I found the tools as overwhelming as they were impressive; there’s a lot to wrap your head around (and I’m speaking as someone with a rudimentary understanding of music, albeit less so on the composition side).
The process allows you to pick a voice or instrument — there are dozens of different ones already, and you’ll be able to upload your own samples through a web app after the game launches — and then record notes. It’s clear that a musician made this tool: You can choose between major and natural, harmonic or melodic minor scales. The face buttons are assigned to different notes depending on the scale; you tilt the controller to change the octave. (Motion controls are everywhere in Dreams.) Those with a less free-form compositional style can opt to lay down notes using an in-game keyboard and move them around on a timeline.
If all this sounds daunting, you’re not alone — I felt the same way. It’s encouraging that Media Molecule is including a raft of detailed tutorials in Dreams, explaining basic tasks like moving and cloning objects as well as nuanced elements such as adjusting lighting. Frankly, though, I may keep busy by playing the game’s Dream Surfing mode, which cues up an endless stream of levels that other people have created and uploaded.
I “Dream Surfed” for a few minutes, making my way through eight or 10 different stages, and was astounded by the variety on offer. In the first one, I took down fighter planes in a Star Wars-esque dogfight set in space. The next was a peaceful side-scrolling platformer in a forest. Later, I tried a level called “Hammer Time,” a one-on-one game in which my opponent and I played as hammers and competed to, uh, hammer things.
To be sure, there was plenty of community creativity on display in the LittleBigPlanet series. But if you didn’t enjoy the notoriously floaty jump mechanics in those games, there may not have been much there for you. Dreams expands that flat canvas to an honest-to-goodness sandbox, and it really seems like it can handle whatever your brain can cook up.