We’re living in an age of mass, democratised creativity – or at least that’s what the technology industry likes to tell us. You can shoot a movie or record an album on a smartphone, you can become a household name with a webcam and a YouTube channel, and you can download any of a dozen applications and build a video game from nothing.
But the latter is an intimidating notion. Games are ultimately complex mechanisms, constructed from code, involving physics, narrative, animation and audio. There has been a deliberate effort within the industry to make creative tools more accessible, arguably spearheaded by Unity, a technology that both powers games and lets users create them – and yet, designing and constructing a game can feel overwhelming. Even the first step, having confidence in your ideas, is a difficult one. It’s also where Media Molecule’s ambitious new PlayStation 4 release Dreams comes in.
Dreams isn’t just a game with a level building mode and it certainly isn’t a traditional game development tool like Unity. What its creators say is that, although you can use Dreams to play games, actually making a game in Dreams is the defining way to play it.
“When you make something you don’t have to make for a reason, you can make it for the experience,” says Media Molecule co-founder and creative director Mark Healey, pondering the idea that so many people shy away from creativity due to insecurities about having a clear vision for any final output. “When I play guitar, I love playing and I’ll sit at home and I just play. I don’t record myself every time, or put it on YouTube. I just enjoy doing it because when you’re in the midst of doing it, to me, that’s what the word ‘art’ means.”
Healey and his colleagues often compare Dreams to a notepad for doodling or a toy box in which you can tinker for the sheer joy of it. But you can release completed creations out into the world via the game’s community. In fact, a rather sterile term best defines Dreams. It is a platform: a place where you can build games using simple, surprisingly instinctive tools. Or you can use it to craft an animated scene that isn’t a game, paint in 3D, or just compose music.
Dreams’ lineage actually goes back to the series of platform games that first brought Media Molecule fame. The LittleBigPlanet titles always put user-generated content at the centre of the experience, providing a wealth of simple tools to get players making their own levels.
The studio’s latest release ups the ambition by allowing a vast amount of creative freedom. With an early build of Dreams available to some players since April 2019, many have simply chosen to create content that other users can place in their creations: models of trees or even office furniture. That’s something Media Molecule actively fosters, in fact. Recognising that games are commonly made through numerous contributions by different individuals, Dreams is deeply informed by remix culture and the idea of creative collaboration. Yet Media Molecule’s platform has also been used to create some very impressive things, from the strikingly polished to the daringly original.
SlidEout 3019, for example, is a loving homage to the Wipeout racing series that has stunned even the lead Dreams team, and enjoyed considerable viral success.
“Someone was saying to the guy that made it: ‘Well, why didn’t you do this in Unity? Why didn’t you use a professional game engine?’,” remembers Alex Evans, Media Molecule co-founder and technical director. “He gave some really interesting answers. He had previously had no idea he could have made what he made. He only made it because I stumbled into it after he picked up Dreams. He was messing around and suddenly, you know, he was putting a lot of effort into it, and he made a popular game. It was brilliant, and that’s somebody who probably would never have thought to have tried to make such an ambitious game.”
And that is the aim with Dreams. The Media Molecule team are equally quick to add that it will suit people with a clear, ambitious idea for a game. But encouraging creativity and shooing away imposter syndrome are core to what Dreams is. Indeed, the included campaign mode game Art’s Story tells the studio’s own tale of creative self-doubt and discovery.
“I really hope it’s a bridge for people to get into zones that they have dreamed about getting into really, so people can end up getting into maybe the games industry or another creative role,” says Healey. “But what I really hope is that someone makes a game in Dreams that is so good we have to put on the PSN store as a standalone game, and then it sells more than Dreams. That’s what I would really want to see; sort of our greatest achievement.”
Evans has an even grander vision. “I’d want someone to go and collect an Oscar and say: ‘I’m doing this now because I picked up a video game 10 years ago called Dreams’,” he reveals. “I’d love for that to happen, and I think it will, or could. On a smaller scale we’re hiring people from this community already, so it’s almost already happening.”
One of those people is Jamie Breeze, a former teacher turned Dreams community content creator, who now works at Media Molecule, having fallen for his new employer’s output early in the LittleBigPlanet series. “As a kid, I always wanted to be in games eventually, but that’s not very realistic, is it? I just thought I’m going to try something that’s a bit more down-to-earth. So I went for teaching and I enjoyed it. Of course, it’s a brilliant contribution to the world. But with Dreams I feel like I’ve got a wider sort of audience since I can inspire more people by doing this. I was limited as a teacher, in a way.”
Teaching remains a vital societal contribution; there’s little doubt about that. But Dreams makes one thing clear: there are other ways to inspire and motivate creativity.