How do you sell a game like Dreams to the masses? Well, you need a showpiece. Something that highlights the pure freedom of expression you can exercise, that proves you can create almost anything you can imagine. It’s no surprise, then, that Dreams’ launch-day story campaign Art’s Dream opens with the following message:
“This story was made entirely in Dreams, to give just a glimpse of what’s possible with our tools. We hope it inspires you to use these very same tools on your own creative journey.”
For many players, Art’s Dream is their first taste of what Dreams can offer, exploring the story of Art, a disillusioned musician struggling with his career, and the challenges of creative collaboration. It’s a typically surreal and magical Media Molecule experience; over the course of the game you’ll fly with dragons, explore a mechanical forest, and spend more time with a heavily mustachioed blue man than you ever thought possible. Art’s Dream also embraces three separate gameplay styles in one, as you journey across three different worlds, each with their own unique characters.
But in actuality, Art’s Dream was more than just a showcase game for Dreams. It represented the culmination of everything the team at Mm had achieved during the early-stage development of Dreams, as art director Kareem Ettouney explains. “We're like, right, we've done a bunch of tools. What kind of content comes out of that? And we found that we were making a bunch of different scenes very quickly. And one of Mark [Healey]'s very first ideas was, hey, if we can't do all that crazy stuff as different environments, why don't we make something like when you’re in a dream - where you can go from a science fiction scene through a door, and suddenly you're in a jungle kind of experience?”
With the tools in a working state, the team was free to come up with all sorts of unusual and off-the-wall ideas for Art’s Dream. Most of them came from internal game jams, where Molecules were able to play around with what the Dreams toolset currently had to offer, and let their imaginations run wild.
Senior principal animator Mike Pang remembers some of these jams, and the irregular creative processes that came with them. “I suppose at the early stage we had this thing where we all would just chat, and then we had to make lots of minigames. Then they sort of forged it all together to make a narrative out of it - because originally, Art’s Dream was meant to be a mixture of the different types of games you can make in Dreams. So it's like a point-and-click game one moment, and then a platformer, and then an action adventure.”
The jams were a real explosion of ideas - but, given the team were also working simultaneously on the tools to create the campaign that they were developing, it was also mildly chaotic. “We had to figure out how to deal with the levels at the same time to work within the limitations of the in-development tools,” designer Steven Belcher tells us. “Everything was unknown at that time. The tools weren't even working every time - and we didn't even have any animation tools!” Regardless, the team pushed through, and ideas for what Art’s Dream could be started to form.
Out of the various game jams came four leading ideas - first, a noir following a grizzled detective investigating a kidnapping. Then there was a game where a teddy bear (an early version of Frances) was fighting off cartoony zombies. There was also a game set in the world of the Greek Gods, competing in some sort of robotic Olympics style contest - and finally, a fantastical adventure exploring a beautiful forest location. These games were the seeds for what you see in the final version of Art’s Dream (although the game was originally called Derek’s Dream - a slightly less evocative title, perhaps). The detective noir story became the basis for Art and his real world point-and-click adventures. Frances stopped fighting zombies, though the combat system remained, and gained a partner in Foxy. The forest adventure incorporated robots and became the digital forest. But the Greek God game was cut completely - though perhaps the idea to include robots seeped into the D-BUG and ELE-D portions of the game.
Art director Kareem Ettouney tells us he wanted “to create a visual style that looked like concept art”, and that would allow “players to transition seamlessly between dreams”. Ettouney took a lot of inspiration from noir style graphic novels, which made it through to the final version of Art’s Dream, setting the tone for the moody, rain soaked streets and bleak city streets. But if you’ve played the game, you might have noticed that it’s not all doom and gloom. Art’s rainy real-world inspired locations are contrasted sharply with the vibrancy of the fantasy world that Francis and Foxy inhabit, and the digital forest that D-BUG and ELE-D call home.
Ettouney and the team had also started to consider not just the visual, but the thematic links that could appear between these three different worlds. “We were still trying to make the games parallel to each other in pace - they build up in the same place, chill out in the same place and then they go crazy in the same place,” he says. “The idea was to cut between them like a music video. So there were some parallels from the start trying to make them match in a Cloud Atlas kind of way, where you have match cuts and things like that - but it was superficial pace-matching, not anything more."
Senior Animator Dave Campbell remembers the biggest challenge for him wasn’t bringing together the story of the game, but finding a way that linked the gameplay scenes together seamlessly. “I think I was stringing things together again and again. The story kept changing paths, so that determined what scene would lead into the next one.” In some cases, they’d have to split up content-heavy scenes: “We always had to transition them into each other in a really awesome way, so it felt like one whole scene when really it's split into two.”
As designer Steven Belcher explains, “It's trying to blend everything as much as possible to feel like one story, so people weren’t playing it and second guessing themselves. You want them to not be fully sure what's going on, but it doesn't feel too much like you’re just going from one random game to another. We tried to make sense of that so it feels like one thing as much as possible.”
“I think what really helped was that image I did [an image of Art’s head as the villain’s fortress, see below],” Ettouney continues. “Before that, it was just a conventional ‘villains’ layer of a story. We were trying to think, ‘What's the bad guy in the childhood one?’. The early concept was like, ‘Frances and Foxy get to a hovering evil palace.’ But we never really were treating this fortress as Art. It was just a crazy, surreal landscape.
“What changed the game was when we were asking, okay - what if that was all part of the effort to blend in the art?” he continues. “We'll treat that ‘villains’ layer as a fragmented part of Art’s soul - and his childhood toys are going through his maze of his mind through broken instruments. I remember really squeezing in those broken instruments as a response to Mark's desire to make all this part of this guy’s psyche”.
For Healey, this was a breakthrough moment in the story: “This is all one dream that this dude is having - it helped us sort of just tie it all together, really.”
Art’s Dream, then, is probably the darkest game that we’ve made here at Media Molecule. Ettouney describes embracing this tone, and a story that explores themes of depression and burnout, as a test of what the Dreams engine could be capable of. And, much like in a theatrical production, he wanted Art’s Dream to employ “symbolic set design”, which made the environments as much a part of the character of the game as the people you’re playing as or interacting with.
And with a darker tone comes the need for a higher age rating. Given the creative freedom on offer in Dreams, the team ideally wanted the game to be given a 12 PEGI rating - and any creations made in the game would need to be moderated at that rating as well. Senior producer Suzy Wallace remembers this as one of the most unusual challenges they faced. The team had nearly finished not just Art’s Dream, but Dreams as a whole, and it was time to send it off to the age rating organisations. One early access creation featured a nude sculpture in the Greek classical style. “We realized that content would be moderated at the same level,” Wallace says, “for showing what is no more nudity than you'd find in a museum. And we were very keen for that not to be a thing.”
The idea, then, was to aim for a 12 rating. “Since you can’t get rated on UGC (User Generated Content), we had to focus on what content was actually included,” she says. “So the only content we had was Art’s Dream. We went back and I remember, very late, we had to do a pick-up session just to record Art's character saying a swear word. We had to research very carefully which swear words would get us a 12 rating, but not 15!”
Pang remembers being concerned at how all this effing and jeffing might detract from the game being a recognisable Mm experience. “We had to add all this stuff to Art’s Dream, because I think we all knew that it was getting a bit too dry, and not very Mm when you compare it to things we made like Tearaway. It was all very sort of handmade and rustic, heart-warming. And then Art’s Dream was sort of melancholy.”
Lightening the mood#
Narrative would be a key part of making sure that all that darkness was leading somewhere that felt right for a Media Molecule game. Fortunately the team had help. Cara Ellison came aboard to lead the development of the narrative, and Kengo Kurimoto arrived to head up the design team. The work of the two leads would come to cross over significantly during development of the story, with both working to shepherd the rest of the studio through the process. It was Ellison, studio director Siobhan Reddy tells us, who really "pushed the narrative of them being a band, and built in all the links between the band and Art.
"Cara brought a structure to the narrative and therefore the game," Reddy continues. "She brought the characters to life, gave them nuance, and made them feel connected. She leant into the humour and encouraged levity." This was not to be a story purely about one man's inner struggles, but ultimately about how his connections with his friends - especially best friend Leila - would help him return from a dark place, to heal and to grow. Once the idea of the band was in place, it made sense that it would be music that helped Art and friends build those bridges back towards one another after their grand falling-out. One of the best moments of the development and the narrative, Reddy tells us, "was when 'the gig' came together. This scene is the culmination moment - friends and band back together!"
And with music came the concept of comedic musical interludes. These helped bring moments of levity to Art’s challenging foray through his own mind. Beyond just being wacky and fun, the songs also represent an interesting plot element of the game. They have a habit of popping up whenever Art wants to progress forward both physically and mentally, blocking his development - as if they themselves are obstacles. Head of Audio Tom Colvin tells us that the songs were “designed to poke at Art’s insecurities”, highlighting his weaknesses as he embarked on his journey of self-reflection.
The songs were originally intended to be more serious, but that all changed when Colvin picked up his banjo and started writing a silly song about the banjo player in the train station scene. And from there, things continued to go off the rails, as it were. Tickets Please is a song in which the obstacle in Art’s way is mundane and silly. The Password Song takes playful rap jabs at our hero. Chill Out is a groovy ‘60s-style ode to not taking oneself too seriously, helping to take some of the edge off a pretty serious message - the importance of looking after your own mental health and relationships whilst working in a creative environment. Out of all the features of Art’s Dream, music became the binding element that united the game together. The music even changes as the gameplay tempo changes. As you swing at the enemies with your mighty hammer as Frances, the tempo increases, and the drums swell.
Tyler recalls the importance of these moments where the more musical mechanics were introduced. “I don't think I was in that meeting, but I do remember the scale of it. We were like, how can we actually ship [Art’s Dream]?” she says. “It felt like we had so many different parts to it. We had all these cool levels - but it wasn't quite cohesive and it wasn't a finished product.
“We had to overcome that final hurdle to sort of bring everything together, and make it all make sense. That was probably the biggest challenge and I feel like the team needed something to gel it together. And I remember, John Beech and Ed Hargrave locked themselves away in a cupboard for a weekend. And that's when we got Frances and the metal guitars. And they're like, the bringing together of these confused levels and like that sort of heavy metal stuff in the end, 'cause that none of that existed before. And they sort of came up with that in a weekend!”
But how did the denizens of the Dreamiverse react once the game was released to the masses? Wallace can still recall the moment that people first started interacting with the game, and the impact that seeing people’s comments had on the team. “You knew that people were really enjoying it and were really connecting with the experience. I think the whole team did an amazing job pulling everything together into a cohesive whole at the end. And when I went back and played through, it feels very connected, doesn’t it? It feels like there is a great story running through all of it. They did an amazing job on the script, making Art a believable character that you can really empathise with, and the whole story about people losing their mojo and having to reconnect with friends to find that inspiration again. I think a lot of people were really able to empathise with that, and that showed up in the comments. Yeah, I remember being very moved. I don't know if anyone actually cried, but we might all have done”.
It’s an emotional experience to see something you've poured your heart and soul into come to life and be received by your audience - especially something like Art’s Dream, which turned out to be a meandering sort of journey through development. But that’s the big secret of any kind of creation - things aren’t always straightforward. There's as much material that doesn’t get used as there are sections that do.
Perhaps this is why the game resonated with creators so significantly. As Healey muses, “[Art’s Dream] was trying to be a play on words. You know, it's like, 'Well, there's this guy called Art, and [here's] his history. But it's also like, 'No - this is the ultimate dream of art itself as a concept, and Art is that lost soul that all creators have experienced at one point or another”.
As Art himself says, “Sometimes you can really only see clearly in your dreams. Like a light has come on in your mind”.
The Dreams User Guide is a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for updates as we add more learning resources and articles over time.