There were few things more exciting as a kid than going to the house of that friend who had heaps of games. Or, in my hometown, the nirvana that was the kids' section of Cobb & Co - with its walls of CRT televisions, emblazoned with the dizzying colours of Spyro, Crash and Super Mario 64.
Though overwhelming, the sheer variety of new experiences on offer in these moments was a unique thrill. The memory of which has stuck with me into adulthood - but one that I thought I wouldn't have again.
That was, until I played Dreams - the eight-year gestating game/game engine from Sony developer Media Molecule.
Browsing through the galleries (or dream surfing, as the game calls it) of player-generated content filled me with a similar thrill. Though the game has only just launched out of its almost year-long beta, there is already so much there to explore - items, short film sequences, games, and prototypes. Much of it is unique, beautiful, and surprising.
One moment, I was rampaging through a museum with a baseball bat (the wonderful Art Therapy), next I was examining a stunningly detailed English breakfast, before jumping into prototypes for near photorealistic spaces.
All of which had been designed, sculpted, painted, programmed, and composed with a PS4 controller, right within Dreams
I felt like a kid in a candy shop, jumping from one experience to another (often without load times). What makes this candy store so enticing, is how well curated it is - with the best works easily identifiable and accessible due to the combination of a clear UI from Media Molecule and engaged community who, like Reddit or Youtube, help curate through a voting system.
With all the best dreams laid out plainly in front of me, I was filled with wonder at the talent of the people involved in creating these intricate works of art.
It is a different sort of wonder than I experience playing AAA games. Because, as a player of Dreams, I have access to the very tools that made these works possible and have been introduced to the process of how you could make something similar.
It makes dream surfing an experience that is simultaneously awe-inspiring, revelling in the talent of these other creators, and inspiring, as you start to imagine the things you could make yourself.
Although, to jump from dream surfing to dream crafting, is a pretty immediate reality check. The depth and complexity of the Dreams crafting engine is clearly complex to allow for the range and depth of experiences witnessed in the Dreams galleries. That complexity can quickly overwhelm when first introduced to the sub-folders upon sub-folders of creative tools at your disposal.
Thankfully, this is a problem well prepared for by Media Molecule. Before even attempting to create something, there are tens of hours (maybe hundreds, by the look of it) of tutorials available to you - walking you through beginner, intermediate and advanced lessons on everything from art, to logic, and composition.
Before you run away in fear, these tutorials are themselves an incredibly fun and satisfying part of the experience. They are very hands-on - guiding you through lessons with VO and a video in the corner showing you the steps. You dictate the pace, stopping and starting the video at will as you practice the lesson at hand, and only moving to the next step when you are comfortable. The tutorials are well conceived - with fantastic understanding of the complexity curve, charming and fun writing, and smart scenarios to place you in.
After learning the basics, the first tutorial that really opened my eyes to the possibilities and accessibility of this game was a colouring and texture tutorial. You were presented with a beautiful landscape, with lush grass fields, a running river and a cottage which glowed from a fire inside and smoke billowing out of its chimney. Then suddenly, all of the texture and colour are taken away, and you are presented with just the plain white foundations of the image. It seemed impossible that I could recreate something as beautiful as the landscape had been - and yet, after an hour or so of tutorials, I had completely recreated it with my own colour palette and styling.
However, there is one currently one major frustration presented by Dreams - the PS4 controller. While Media Molecule has created what seems to be the best possible interface for the controller for such a complex system, that does not make the experience natural or satisfying. Essentially, they have designed the controller interface to work like a mouse and keyboard - the buttons acting as the keyboard and the motion controls working as the mouse. It is incredibly finicky at first and still remains occasionally frustrating, but I was surprised to find myself becoming more adept with it - especially as my first impressions were that I would never get used to it. One of the keys for working with this system is to experiment with the guides system early until you find something that works for you. Clearly, from the complexity of others creations, it is possible to master this controller interface - but, personally, I am really looking forward to the potential announcement of the rumoured PC version of Dreams.
Despite this controller challenge, with each lesson the breadth and depth of what creative expression was available to me grew. I would spend several hours working through sculpting tutorials and be excited about the images I could create. Then, I would work through logic tutorials and realise I could bring those images to life. Before I knew it, I had all of the tools to create a fully functional game of my own.
Of course, everything I have created so far has been pretty crap - rudimentary objects, poorly coloured and jankily programmed. But for the first time, I understand how I could take this crap, and refine it into diamonds. It will take an incredible amount of time and patience, but the path is clear, and understanding that path removes a huge underlying hurdle of game development.
It is hard to express just how fundamental this tutorial suite is to the success of this game - without it, Dreams easily could have been just as alienating as any other game development engine is to someone like myself. What makes Dreams special is the one thing these engines don't dedicate themselves to; teaching you.
It is early days, but it feels like Dreams could do something similar to what the introduction of consumer video cameras, and now cell phones, has done to the world of film. All of a sudden, filmmaking wasn't just for arts college students - with such a huge technical hurdle overcome, anyone could begin the journey of becoming a filmmaker.
Time will tell, but Dreams could be the thing that opens up game development to the world.
+ Incredible breadth and depth of creative tools.
+ Well curated gallery of the amazing work made by players.