Media Molecule’s “Dreams” – The Beautiful Future of Interactive Entertainment

I was a nutcase for LittleBigPlanet. This is a game with a suite of creation tools, letting players create and share their own levels and scenes. The game’s title is apt – You create whatever little world you can dream up. I got so into it that my levels saw plentiful plays in the LBP community and a behind-the-scenes video of my creations made the youtube rounds and landed me a fantastically fun gig creating an official trailer for the game’s sequel. I would sink entire weekends into making a level and endured many hair-pulling frustrations in my attempts to bring my ambitious ideas to life. It was engaging, rewarding, a ton of work, and totally worth every minute. It amounts to some of the best time I’ve ever had with any videogame and in any community.

It’s true that for some non-creators, the novelty of the game wore off, with the 2D limitations keeping things a bit retro, and the difficulty in finding really great levels amid the chaff ultimately turning them off. It took time for the developers to iron out the “sharing” aspect, leaving gamers on their own to hunt down best-of lists online. Its focus was on 2D-style games, or side-scrollers using the game’s built in platforming engine. But for people familiar with the game’s limitations, it was a joy to discover something really imaginative or clever. What it ultimately lacked was a reliable way for the community to discover levels they really loved. The game needs loud tastemakers and accessible playlists and appropriate recommendations.

Fast forward seven years and the world is rapidly changing. Games are perched on the brink of the virtual-reality revolution people have been dreaming of since before the dawn of games. Single developers and tiny teams are creating wildly successful indie games. Communal creative gaming is becoming more popular, with Minecraft taking the world by storm. Apps like Netflix and Youtube and Facebook are learning users’ tastes and recommending content. Some of the most popular Youtube channels are gamers who make millions of dollars publishing videos of themselves playing videogames. Gamers stream themselves playing live to thousands of viewers on Twitch. A lot has changed in 7 years.

What has Media Molecule been working on all this time? What’s the next incarnation in the community-creation videogame experiment? It’s something that capitalizes on all of these evolutions and may make an indelible imprint on the future of interactive entertainment.

The simply-titled Dreams amounts to one of the most ambitious video games ever attempted – that is, if you can even call it a video game. In reality it’s a creation tool and a platform for shared community-built creations. Playable games, watchable scenes, explorable worlds, and wild experiments will all be accessible. It’s a way for people to share their immersive ideas with a wide community. People who aren’t interested in creating will benefit from a continuing supply of home-built hand-crafted experiences. It will be VR-friendly, with at least some creations playable using Sony’s upcoming Morpheus VR headset. There are scant details on this, but Alex Evans has stated that “it’s an obvious thing to do” and that “Anton Mikhailov, who helped build the first-ever Morpheus prototype, is at [Media] Molecule now.”

I want to stress what some of these details infer. In the near future, you will be able to don a Virtual Reality headset and explore “inside” the crafted dreams of other people. Not just the paid-for dreams of professional game-creators, but all kinds of people, and with all kinds of dreams. Outrageous action spectacles, comedies, simple old-school games, wild experiments, moody horror, tiny pieces of heartbreaking artwork, and things so bizarre and strange you’d never think to imagine them. And you won’t just have it on your screen, you can be immersed inside these worlds with VR. If you’re willing to put in the time, you will be able to create and share your own, anything you can dream up. I expect a first-person VR-friendly control scheme will be built-in so that it will be easy for people to easily make playable their worlds. If it doesn’t, no problem – A community member will create it immediately and share it for all.

There’s not much by way of media or details yet, but we have some crucial nuggets. Years ago they revealed the bones of what they were working on, to the perplexity of most. The official 2015 E3 trailer revealing the game had most viewers confused. What is this, exactly? Alex Evans and his team are not concerned by that confusion. In fact Evans stated in his intro to the demonstration revealing Dreams, “I’m hoping today I can have you scratching your heads. . . I hope it fills your head with questions. Every person I’ve shown this to in the last four years says it takes time to sink in.” The E3 presentation seems to suggest that most community creations will be small, bite-sized morsels, fleeting glimpses of imagined lands. But knowing how the LittleBigPlanet community managed to squeeze the most out of that game’s limitations, I will not be surprised if we see some pretty in-depth playable games come out of this. And as far as discovery is concerned, Evans has suggested that one way to play will be to go through a kind of “playlist” – possibly generated by the game – in which you flit in and out of many different people’s creations. Perhaps there will be a “skip” button, and it will be the VR-equivalent of something like Pandora. If all you want to do is explore, you could stick your face into a VR mask and just hit the “explore” button, sating your curiosity and hoping for a really affecting surprise somewhere in the mix.

Evans demos a slice of the creation tools, showing the sculpting of a sitting man, “sketched in” in 3 dimensions and then puppeteered, all using motion controls and also utilizing some pre-built shared community parts. There’s no convoluted suite of 3D modeling or animation tools, in fact there’s almost no User Interface whatsoever – The only thing onscreen is the 3D canvas and a floating cursor.  At the end of the official trailer you can see a series of creations inside little bubbles. I’ve screen-capped some of these, but keep in mind that the actual full-res E3 trailer contained many, many more.

Forgive the quality of these images, as they are composited into tiny bubbles in a video.

A few seem to be statue-like sculptures.

A few appear to be fully-playable games.
This little interior loft appears to be explorable in the first person.

This cute little tank is prowling the green countryside for explosion fodder.

In this game, you appear to navigate a small cloud puff through colored cloud rings in the sky. I’m really impressed by how beautiful the 3D cloud texture looks here.

And the rest can be described as “scenes” – setpieces which could conceivably be explorable, playable, or watchable. They look like 3 dimensional paintings, and I think the little country cottage is especially gorgeous.

And there were far more bubbles on display at E3 – Just take a peek at how many little bits they’ve cooked up in this creative kitchen:

Go as ambitious as you want. The chase scene demoed in the trailer takes place in a vivid, enormous, artfully-realized dream city. While most of the bubble-scenes are fairly contained, this one is expansive. In the E3 demo, the camera slowly dips down deeper and lower into the city’s guts.

The game has an amazing painterly aesthetic. It recalls to me the painted Heaven world in the 1998 Robin Williams film What Dreams May Come. It’s a fully 3-dimensional place, but an impressionistic one, seemingly composed of painted brush strokes. If you don’t like that texture, go with something sharper – Some of the objects in the demo lack that sketched-in feel.

I can’t tell you how excited I am for this. I often think of the incredible untapped potential in the interactive medium of “gaming,” and wonder when we’re going to be ushered into the future. Media Molecule is setting its sights astronomical here, and my guess is they’re going to pull off something really special. They’re single-handedly expanding the potential for videogames and giving the community unprecedented creative powers. If you don’t quite grasp it yet, you hopefully will eventually. It comes at a cost of course – If you don’t have a Playstation 4, the entire setup with VR and motion controls may run in the neighborhood of 800 dollars. I’ll be gradually chipping away at that pricetag because for my money it will be absolutely worth it.

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around at this point, because there’s really little like it in history. Soon after the launch of virtual reality to consumers, people will be able to create their own virtual worlds, and also to explore the worlds of others. It will provide an unparalleled outlet for creativity and curiosity to anyone who desires it. With a little curiosity and the right gear, you’ll be able to glimpse the incredibly-varied contents of the human imagination and stick your head right into the stuff dreams are made of.

I have every faith in this amazing team and in the forthcoming community of creators. There’s a real soft squishy place in my heart for the brilliant humans at Media Molecule and this, in my mind, has the potential to be a revolution.

About thomstitt

A career filmmaker based in Vancouver with experience in direction, cinematography and editing.
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