First person exploration games get something of a bad rap on Steam these days. Typically focusing more on narrative and themes than engaging gameplay, these games have earned themselves the (often derogatory) mantle of “walking simulators”, and not without reason. Sometimes these games are everything that label implies – boring, overly pretentious titles that involve walking around and not much else. Other times, though, gems like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Gone Home come along and offer genuinely worthwhile experiences, daring to show us how games can tell us stories in a way that no other medium can.
The debut offering from British dev HyperSloth, Dream is a game that, thankfully, falls neatly into that second category, fusing a surreal narrative experience with some interesting non-linear gameplay. It’s a game that does what it sets out to do very well, and, while it won’t win over anyone who isn’t already a fan of the “walking simulator” genre, it definitely goes out of its way to avoid the kind of contempt these kinds of games usually attract.
In Dream, you play as Howard Phillips, a down on his luck man who just inherited a house from his deceased uncle. Wracked by grief and seemingly going through some sort of existential crisis, Howard’s subconscious taunts him each night when he goes to sleep, and it’s up to you to explore Howard’s dreams and help him resolve the issues that plague him. What’s really cool about this premise is that it allows Dream to take place in some suitably weird and otherworldly environments and exploring them is a surreal experience — somehow whimsical and creepy at the same time — that’s usually absent from these kinds of games. If you loved the bizarre atmosphere of the dream sequences in Inception, then this game is right up your alley.
Although exploring Howard’s dreams mainly consists of walking around and taking in the sights, there are other gameplay elements thrown in here and there to make Dream more interesting to play, from adventure game style puzzles to solve, pieces of lore to collect and the occasional enemy to avoid (for example, a LOST-esque smoke cloud that chases you around an Egyptian tomb). Dream‘s main selling point over other “walking simulators”, though, is its Stanley Parable style non-linearity. Each main dream is a wide open sandbox that you can explore as you please, and where you go and what you choose to do will lead down different paths through the game and (eventually) to one of 3 endings. It’s possible to finish the game multiple times and still not have seen a specific dream or cutscene — the rebel in me loved being rewarded for doing my own thing or blatantly ignoring the game’s attempts to point me down a single path.
Unfortunately, despite its cool gameplay, Dream does have a few issues worth mentioning that sour the experience a little. First of all, it’s pretty apparent that Dream could have done with another round of QA before release, as it isn’t very well optimized. Despite not being an especially detailed game, Dream had occasional lag spikes and frame rate drops on a decent gaming computer, and I had to drop the settings down to Medium at certain points to make it playable again. Secondly, there are a bunch of graphical errors and other oddities throughout the game, from being able to see through certain walls if you get too close and the character’s shadow reverting to a default unmoving “T-pose” whenever you’re swimming. There are also pieces of scenery throughout the game that aren’t solid despite looking like they should be, or places where you’ll get stuck despite there not being any visible obstacles near you. Thankfully, none of these issues interfere with the gameplay.
Wrapping up this review, I have to say that Dream impressed me and surprised me. While I’m not usually a fan of first person exploration based games, and as someone who found some of the “classics” of the genre rather boring and uninspired, I really enjoyed this title. The writer in me appreciates when games do this whole narrative thing well, and Dream nails it with its bizarre locations and atmospheric gameplay. If you don’t mind “walking simulators” and everything that term implies, then Dream is definitely a worthwhile experience, and even if you don’t like the genre, who knows? For $8.99, it’s at least worth a look.
Check out Dream here.