Notes on Dream.Sim: The Darkness Cycle


I’ve had this dream before, but something’s wrong. I wake up, but the alarm doesn’t chime like I expect it to. The music is lilting and subtly melancholy. Things are dark, grainy, gray, colourless. The silence is the thick residue of violence. Something happened here. I awaken into this world as if having walked in on something after the fact. The silence and the darkness speak volumes about things falling apart.

I look over to the corner of my small apartment where I expect to see my computer monitor by the window and art hung on the wall, all neatly arranged. Instead, things are broken and in disarray. Comforts of home, luxury and sentimentality are all heaped in a pathetic pile like trash. The monitor is suspended in the pile which appears stuck to the wall, the screen static and flickering. I walk past a painting stuck off-center to the wall. It’s so pallid it looks like it’s been murdered. Did I do this? Why would I do this? Why would I dream this?

I walk around the corner, and that electric, solid mass of blue water in the toilet and tub are gone, replaced by a pile of indiscernible geometric scrap. My glass fire escape is not only still here, looping around the complex. Now, there’s a little step leading to it from my balcony. It’s more efficient. I look behind me. On a skyscraper, barely legible but enough to make out, I see in severe block letters the word, “WORK.”

I decide, instead of just jumping down harmlessly into the streets, to amble along the spiral stairs, peeking into other apartments in the complex to find they all more or less look like mine. This was true in the more colourful, neon candy-coated world of Version 1.5, but I read the repetitious spaces, with their very slightly modulations, in a more positively indulgent light. The apartment, a cozy little artist’s alcove was a space that indicated a personal sense of order, comfort and safety. I take it as a piece of focalization, the silent protagonist’s ego asserting itself within the space. It could be just as well that the developer of Dream.Sim, OXAM, simply made the apartments look alike for the sake of efficiency, but the spaces inarguably evoke different sensibilities when complemented by different aesthetics: lighting, colour filters, music, and so on.

Here, in this dimmed monochrome, the little spaces don’t just seem compressed and repetitive but oppressive and redundant. Things seem sharper, more jagged. The wash of neon colour at least gave the space a jaunty enthusiasm; now, the center is gone. I walk back out onto the stairs, eventually finding a platform and I follow it to its edge. There, I find my artist tools─the ones that were in my room in the neon dream. I see my jars, my brushes, my stationary. But it’s less solid, now. Gray, translucent, glassy. I can clip right through it, like a ghost. Either it, or me.

The center is gone. I drop down and into the city. The white light illuminating the main routes of the grid-like streets shines harshly. The intelligible words of that former dream come far more into focus now: words like “SHOP” and “MONEY” line the walls with their aggressive, bold san serif. And every so often I pass by another “WORK”, prominent as though shouting. There are some ironic contrasts going on: the words in this grey world are legible, but things otherwise appear broken. In the previous version, the actual space itself was arguably more composed for the most part, in juxtaposition to the mess of colours that was its heart. Here, everything looks shattered, like a broken mirror. There’s a day and night cycle, where the white level of the background hue goes up and down, but I still find myself getting lost in dark corners.

I find myself feeling claustrophobic in tight, narrow corners full of charcoal-coloured Unity boxes. In the middle of intersections I find spiky shards poking out of the ground. Throughout the space is a smattering of broken monitors and televisions. I find one tucked into a corner, surrounded by garbage, displaying only static. It speaks to the fact that I’m alone here. While that neon world felt alive enough in its own right that I didn’t mind it, here the isolation is crushing. I find white lines carving out geometric patterns in dark gray alleys. I find a large rectangular space that’s simply empty. It offers me little in the way of platforms to practice my parkour on. The most I can do is take in the void, and walk past.

The center is gone. I look for that vivacious swirl of neon strokes and I can’t find it at all. I try zooming up and down the streets, hopping when I gain momentum, looking for something reaffirming. I start to wonder: the controls, which were a little unwieldy in v1.5, were supposed to have been tweaked in this new version, but they feel much the same. The strange disembodiment and semi-weightlessness I felt in the earlier version are still present and still dreamlike, but everything about this dream feels tonally leaden. I can zip around, hopping on rooftops, but when I finally get trapped in a corner it feels more ominous, foreboding than before. I wonder if making the run slower, the walk heavier, would do more to buttress the sensibility oozing out of every other corner of the game.

I feel as if I may be missing something─OXAM’s page for this newly released version promised new capital-C Content. I find it curious and a little disconcerting that the developer feels it at once necessary to speak of their game using this kind of product lingo, while at the same time professing it as an “homage to New York City and its nocturnal mystique”, citing inspirations like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Lebbeus Woods, Futurism and Cubism. As I think about it, however, that’s the central conflict of these two worlds OXAM has constructed, which for now remain entirely separate. Art and commerce. Work and play. Order and mess.

These may be easy metaphors to draw, and some critical principle compels me to assume that the emotional valences depicted in both dream scenarios are representative of this unseen artist character’s perspective. But I’m tempted to further that comparison between the piece and the somewhat contradictory language used to promote it. For what it may be worth, I’m not begrudging OXAM this at all. We all need to eat. But I do sense an unstated insecurity─the desire to express, as an artist, one’s motivations and inspirations, while needing on the other hand to put forward a desirable consumer product. Those ghostly paintbrushes, outside the apartment, hanging on a ledge, unattainable─those stick in my mind now. The broken art. The sans-serif sign beckoning the player to acknowledge the emotional cost of labour. I’m reminded of Phobia, the book of illustrations by John Vassos, who believed that he could represent people’s deepest fears through evocative spaces. Like Dream.Sim, his works lean strongly into the angularity of German expression, and like Dream.Sim 1.7, they are done in black and white.

Much like in v1.5, the deferred feelings and creative imperatives come through so strongly in the subtext of v1.7, this nightmare revealing a heavy despondency underneath the jarring white lights and spooky dark corners. I don’t know if these two dreams will be united in one file in Dream.Sim’s final iteration, or if there will be more dreams. But for now, they really do exist in two separate worlds, two modes of feeling, conceptually connected but incapable of reaching one another.