When I was playing A dreamerits demo back in June, I thought this could be something special. It seemed to be a game about a failing game developer, presented using a combination of point-and-click and coding tasks, but in an accessible way. And that’s what it is! Hurray! In fact, it’s far more gorgeous, captivating and superbly put together than it already seemed.
Frank is a game developer who had an indie hit, a VR multiplayer MMO called ProxyLife it was briefly a big deal. But now it’s struggling, player numbers are dwindling, and the lack of a constant input of new features is demoralizing the player base. At the same time, Frank does some soulless freelance work (a situation familiar to almost every indie developer), helps a AAA game implement stricter DRM, or reduces the statistical chances of players receiving in-game currency.
But none of this is told in a simple way. Instead, through what seem like they could be dream sequences, we learn the history and motivations for its creation ProxyLife, in extended sections where Frank is able to edit the code of the objects in the world around him. Here, using the game’s pseudocode (a simplified version of C# that even I can understand), you can – say – reprogram a duck to meow like a cat, or more usefully, control a lever to open a locked gate in the distance.
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In the real parts, where Frank works surrounded by overdue bills and threatening letters, such programming is confined to his computer. Here, you are tasked with making these mercenary changes in the AAA game, while trying to pick up your own pieces. As someone who has never been able to get on with games that ask me to learn and implement code, I’m happy to report that’s not the case here. This is so cleverly designed that it works like a puzzle while teaching me the basics of code structure. But then, brilliantly, it’s mostly just teaching me how to romp.
It is a a lot it’s smart A dreamer, from its narrative structure to its ridiculously beautiful pixel graphics, but the way you’re required to solve puzzles using code-bodging is just great. Do you need to remove the feature that gives new players 100 coins? Change the value of a small CoinRewardTier from another part of the game’s code, copy and paste it into NewPlayerData so that starterCoins = CoinRewardTier.Small. Sure, it will probably break something else somewhere else, but it does the job for now.
This idea of getting by, of cutting corners, permeates everything enigmatic in the game, making it so delightfully honest, and brilliantly teaching bad habits. So many code games are so exhaustingly worthy, acting as if they reward the player with amazing knowledge – not here. Here, in this superbly designed game, even the coding tasks lean into the depressing tone of trying to stay afloat during disaster.
The story is told very out of order. That intro game I gave you at the top is where it feels like things start, but as you play you’re jumping around the timeline in a way that’s very deliberately underexplained. For the most part this works very well, but there are occasions when I get confused. There is also one rather central moment that is a bit underplayed in a movie scene, which makes me quite unsure of what had just happened. I mean, I got it, but it would have been better if it had been explained a little better.
My only other issue with the game is how slow Frank moves when going up and down stairs. It’s something you do a lot with him, as he traverses 2D side-scrolling scenes, and it allows for the game’s beautiful moments where the location changes when you enter a door, or climb a flight of stairs. But he really takes its time, and it starts to drag. But damn, when this is my main complaint, you know you have a great game here.
The art is just spectacular, especially the lighting and flourishes on these pixelated characters, made even better by superb voice acting and a truly gorgeous soundtrack. This is so damn solid.
It is also much longer than I expected. At a point where I realized things were coming to an end, I watched a YouTube playthrough (to re-see the confusing scene I mention above), and found I was barely halfway there. So at this point I’m not done, but I’ve played enough to know how much I wish you did too. This is something very special, a fascinating and moving exploration of the driving forces behind so much indie development, and how incredibly unhealthy and toxic it can become. And yet it also feels full of hope, full of the potential of creation. And somehow it even has a dumbass like me solving coding puzzles.
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