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IF Comp 2017: The Dream Self, October 11, 2017
Set over the course of several months, The Dream Self depicts the everyday activities of a character based in London. The PC stays with their parents, works, and interacts with and befriends other characters, but the game is generally light on details about their life. Greater richness abounds in the dreamscapes the PC explores in their sleep, in which a compelling unknown figure plays an increasingly prominent role.
(Spoiler - click to show)Between its dreamy periwinkle-and-teal cover art, the clear and clean interface, and the ingame art, The Dream Self makes an attractive impression. The dimming and brightening effect overlaying the PC’s room as the sun rises and sets, along with the dates flicking past, is a handy visual shorthand for the passage of time. Different dreams have different colours, elegantly emphasising the mood and tone of the text.
And there is a lot of text. It’s not hard to read by any means, but I found that with frequent strings of passages without choices, the click-read cycle grew repetitive. It was interesting to read, but the images and events didn’t grab my attention enough to stop me wondering when I was going to be able to have input into the story. For a game focused on surrealism and dream logic, the prose is quite straightforward and workmanlike.
When choices arose, I enjoyed being able to state how the PC felt about the events that were happening to and around them, but there were a few too many sections ending in a single clickable choice. For example, when shaking the hand of the dream-figure, the PC could not let go, and the only option available was to “Struggle”, whereas I would have been interested to have an option like “Grip desperately” or some such. Maybe my prior choices restricted the choices displayed, but there didn’t seem to be anything ingame to suggest this.
This seems a good time to mention my personal elephant in the room: that Birdland by Brendan Patrick Hennessy has spoiled me for dream sequences. Not only does Birdland’s style shift wildly between the real world and the dreams, while the stats highlight where dream-actions affect Bridget’s abilities in the real world. Where options are restricted, the game makes this obvious. However, in The Dream Self, things are less clear. Actions in the real world seem to affect events in the dreams, but it’s implied rather than explicit. Occasionally text is bolded; in some cases, it seemed to be conditional text based on previous actions, but elsewhere I wasn’t so sure. This ambiguity, and my uncertainty about whether the dreams affected reality, made it harder for me to care about the PC’s actions.
Having said that, I found that the development of the PC’s personality was effectively presented. I never had the sense that I should have been trying to gear my choices towards a particular type of character: I felt that I could pick and choose different attitudes as I went. As it turns out, Minuzzi based a large proportion of the choices on personality test responses, and I was impressed at the amount of nuance in the emotions the PC can express: no Harry Potter Sorting Hat style “do you want to go cliffdiving, read a book, give your friend a hug or murder someone” here!
In contrast, the unknown figure is by necessity a cypher. In my playthrough, the PC and the figure reached a sort of therapist-client accord, for the PC to confide in and return to when their worries took over. The connection the PC felt with them did not always feel quite earned, and yet at the end I found myself smiling at the interactions between the two, and wondering what would happen next in the PC’s life.
I found The Dream Self a gentle game with a thread of melancholy running through it, and I’m intrigued to see how other people’s playthroughs panned out. Despite wanting more zip and spark from the prose, the game is beautifully put together, and I’m intrigued to see more from Minuzzi and Tea-Powered Games.