Notes on Dream.Sim: The Lightness Cycle

I wake up and the alarm chimes like a bird. Gentle music and the ambient noises of the city drone. Striking neon tones making up the fills and contours of this dream world pop vividly against the otherwise-black background that covers the entire landscape. I could be dreaming about TRON, or some other brightly-lit cyberpunk vision of the future from thirty years ago.

To my left, a computer monitor and art hangs on the walls, all neatly composed. Near the painting there are jars, paintbrushes, other artist’s tools, and I take the art on the wall to be my character’s. They way the pieces are hung, they must be a point of pride. I get a sense of scale by the bed’s proximity to the computer desk; even more by the bathroom’s proximity to the exit. Everything feels organized but compressed. I get a sense of competing, contradictory textures when I collide with, on the one hand, the solid, electric-blue mass that’s meant to represent water in the inexplicably full tub. On the other, an almost-transparent—were it not for the red outline—spiral staircase looping around my balcony gives things a feeling of lightness.

Already there’s this tension going on. It’s in the material: things which should not be solid appear to be, and things which should provide a feeling of support feel thin, weightless or even slippery. It’s in the colour scheme, loud neons screaming out from a blanket of perpetual night. There’s a tension in the space itself. It’s actually quite expansive: according to OXAM’s Greenlight page for their game, Dream.Sim, this “virtual walkabout” digitally represents about three square miles. The size of the space in this early version of the game, however, is confounding because of all the stuff that’s in it. Things feel compressed, dense, barely navigable in a conscious, deliberate way. If I follow the catwalk-like roads beneath the skyscrapers and the clutter of featureless, colour-contoured Unity blocks, I have a hard time making sense of what’s in front of me. My field of vision is obstructed by the close walls on either side, by the visually confusing confluence of lines, and by that dense clutter of buildings, blocks, ramps, and platforms that populate the environment.

I’ve played many “walking simulators” like eoeoeo344’s Nault Nipp and Tom Van Den Boogaart’s Bernband which present these sandbox-like interrogations of space full of interesting objects to observe and lightly interact with. I’m not taken aback by the idea of a virtual space one just exists in, constructing some kind of meaning, narrative, or symbolic consciousness within its often dreamy, surreal parameters. How do I know, though, other than by being simply told—both by the title and by the contextualizing bit of prose OXAM has provided at the start screen—that in this case, I’m situated on an oneiric plane? This game, like for the most part the games mentioned above and many like them, relies on the camera to create the sense of a “body” in relation to other “bodies” (or objects) in the space. In this case though, it’s important to note the jarring effects on perception caused by navigating this labyrinthine grid. My “body” has no visible or audible feature that I can use to center myself, so it relies on its relationship to constantly conflicting depths, heights, and sizes of other objects. Walking down a narrow road makes me feel confined and small, but hopping along the roofs of buildings and across narrow rafters—which seem to offer little practicality in the way of urban planning—changes my view of the horizon. It makes the world feel smaller, but also more precarious. As if I were a bowling ball balanced on top of a hairpin.

This shifting and breaking of proprioception, of my body in space, of the materiality of objects all indicate a reality which is not quite “real.” This rupture in the expectations around space thematically echoes that lack of pragmatism in the urban planning and, more broadly, an ongoing tension between familiarity and the alien. Things have an uncanny quality to them. Buildings have enough shape to be distinguishable, but not enough detail to signify anything in particular. Words seem to be embossed on walls, but the letters are jumbled and unintelligible for the most part. I recall that scene in the film Waking Life, where the protagonist attempts to flick off a light switch, only to realize that doing so has no effect on how he perceives the light. I recall a dream of my own, walking through a mall parking lot, frustrated and disturbed by my inability to make sense of the numbered rows that I had become acquainted with in everyday life. Dream.Sim captures that strange purgatory between the grounded feeling of consciousness and the disconnected feeling of moving through the imaginary gardens within the boundaries of unconsciousness.

But there is a center, if not for my body then for the city itself. There is a nucleus that I had been looking for. I’d seen it in the trailer but have no luck finding it deliberately, until, by accident, my attention is piqued by a neon-tinted cobblestone alley.  I look in toward the shore of a glorious prismatic swirl of colour, like a 3D action painting. It seems to be orbiting toward some kind of blue circle in the sky. Maybe an exit? Maybe a hole in the universe? Most of these vivid swirls have no mass, as if someone had managed to create rich trailing strokes of spray paint in the air. I move through them, noting the solid, neon-outlined structures spiraling out into the sky. I try to climb one to reach that blue globe, but I can’t seem to. The platforms lead nowhere, or they aren’t built to actually support my movement, and I fall off or become blocked. The tensions pervading Dream.Sim overwhelm all logic here. Any semblance of intelligibility breaks down and the space becomes truly impossible. Everything becomes an intercourse of lines and colours, of impossible heights, of incoherent but powerfully emotional invocations. The gentle music swells and fades, and the center of the world is the declaration of the artist.

I stay here for a minute before closing the window. This is, clearly, a lucid dream, but this is also more than a neat window into a surreal virtual space. OXAM describes Dream.Sim as “a ‘will it blend’ between Duchamp and Sant’Elia; an angular smoothie that pushes the aesthetic boundaries of three dimensional space.” While I see that comparison working, especially with regard to the Futurist architecture of Sant’Elia, I might be more inclined to draw a comparison with action painting, or the electric, seductive, moody neon nightlife of Romain Trystram’s Réflexions faits series. What I see is an engagement with a dream space which is messy, warm, celebratory, playful, disconcerting, a little sinister. I see—to pull out some cheap armchair-Jung—the exploratory dream space as an assertion of the ego, a process of “individuation,” where the substance of the dream is a reconstruction of the self. The artist awakens into a world of her own making, a world fashioned after herself. It is the will and the need to create. It is the narcissism of that will that erases some details while highlighting others—a potentially dangerous implication that’s only discernible in the game’s subtext but never explicitly engaged. But then, this game is mostly subtext. It’s a muddling of deferred desires and emotions that manifest symbolically in strong colour contrasts and a confused self-image in relation to others. It’s the dream of a work yet to exist, a statement yet to be articulated, a reality yet to be snatched from imagination and brought into the waking world.