Infinity is incompatible with design. Even gameplay freedom requires conditions coordinated to create it, as we might have learned when No Man’s Sky edified a lack of structure as its perfect nothing art, a rubble pile where a sculpture should have been. If the church of gaming is full of preachers spreading the good word, Media Molecule posits itself as no less than a new prophet with its promise, not to build their own wonderful game, but to let anyone raise the idols themselves.
Many wonder how Dreams will turn out, but have their wonder converted to expectations by starry-eyed developers dressed in awe, trust-falling to each other’s communions. The good work promised by Media Molecule is nothing short of the ultimate sandbox for user-created content, a new horizon of creative design.
But PS1 owners may remember Net Yaroze, the Dreams of two decades ago, and the polygonal scripture it added (and failed to add) to gaming history.
Net Yaroze was a revolution in toy boxes, providing the materials to develop the same games as any of its day. But its creative energy was stinted by the dash to three dimensions – nothing on Net Yaroze holds up better than beta for Final Fantasy VII. By contrast, open source engines today like Gary’s Mod have compacted similar designs with the simplest materials. Indie developers are making revolutions in tininess on Flash and DOS and Notepad and whatever else, with such simple marvels as Undertale and SanctuaryRPG, games that could have run on an IBM in 1982. The budding game developer in our age of miracles can find a perfect pedestal for his sculpture for as little as free – the infinite space of source codes.
So what is Dreams compared to all this? It is an interface, a shortcut to this freedom for those brimming with images but challenged by the math. If it works, it will work not by delivering infinity to the masses, but by delimiting it.
Consider that Super Mario Maker contains far more limitations than tools. The creativity is not contained by limitless space but by the carefully guarded “infinity” within a level of Super Mario Bros. It gives designers the tools necessary to edit and recombine assets into expanded versions of existing creations, as a company would do with a DLC addition. The “game” is a smash hit not because it offers so much freedom but so little: no matter your shortcomings, the game makes you into a Mario game developer. It does so out of necessity. If it was too academic, it would not function as a toybox; too rigid and it would instill no creation complexes. Its source material is its code, by which its creator-inhabitants are let out to play on a leash always held taut by the unbreakable conditions of the simple template for a level in a Miyamoto platformer.
Dreams could not exist, with that title, with this marketing, without suggesting that it will transcend this kind of level-editing. But how will it do so?
If it does, it will do so by betraying its own prerogative: with stipulation. There can only be so much freedom in the landscape of 1s and 0s from which all games are made: eventually, someone has to design a game. Few games have preceded themselves as much as No Man’s Sky, whose crime was to fail to know this truth of the ghost in its machine. It thought it could suspend code, the arithmetic of infinity, as an experience in itself. It could not. When it was time to patch it, what did Hello Games add? They added objectives, quests, costs of failure, a game. A game has conditions by default, even if they are not communicated and especially if they are in the pursuit of player freedom. Dreams may work, but only with enough conditions, and if this is true, it will have already failed in its purpose to the expectations of those hungering for infinity. If it is a good enough template, we dreamers may yet uncover brilliance in its numerical spaces.
But the question is not whether Dreams will offer a good campaign, or whether it will allow for satisfying experimentation, or whether it will mine us for bountiful creativity we never expected to find in the limited minds of the design-impaired. The question is: in twenty years, will our dreams look any better than they do now on Net Yaroze? We’ve already been down this road that promised infinity, already plied our dreams against the limitations of programming and comprehension, and time and again we’ve carried out the only endgame for the dream of omnipotence: the nightmare of boredom.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org