When Valve announced the first fistful of titles advancing through its contentious Steam Greenlight process, among the Black Mesas and Project Zomboids was a little known game called Dream.
To many, Dream would have looked like a beguiling riff on the 3D explorative/adventure breed recently characterised by Dear Esther. Few would have been aware, however, that the team behind one of Greenlight’s earliest success stories had yet to make it out of university. Dream is their first game. It’s been in creation for three months. When Valve sent the team a congratulatory email, their first response was to send one back: ‘is this a hoax?’
With Hyper Sloth demoing Dream at the Eurogamer Expo, I took the opportunity to chat to two thirds of the mystery developer about the game, Greenlight and just who the devil they are.
Dream was one of the first ten games to make it through the Steam Greenlight process, you’re here demoing the game at the Eurogamer Expo, but who exactly are you?
Sam: We’re Hyper Sloth, three students from Huddersfield university. We’ve done two years of studying and now we’ve taken the year off to start our own company. We’re making our first game, Dream, which we’re hoping to bring out next year.
How did the project come about?
Ash: We met Lewis at uni. He had the concept for Dream down but it wasn’t quite there, it didn’t feel right. So we got together, formed the company and scrapped just about everything he had.
Sam: Lewis really likes exploration games and I really don’t like those type of games, so I saw it as big challenge to make an exploration game that I or a larger audience would enjoy.
You mention LSD (the game) and Yume Nikki on the Dream Greenlight page, what will players recognise from those games in Dream?
Sam: Really we just wanted to bring more of the craziness (of LSD). When you start dreaming you go into three main worlds and branching off from them are side dreams which are going to be much smaller but they’re going to be the more trippy dreams.
The more obvious point of reference would appear to be Dear Esther but I heard you refuting that.
Sam: When we first started designing the game, because it was a year ago we were in pre-production, we pretty much designed Dear Esther. Then Dear Esther came out which meant we couldn’t make Dream anymore. So we saw what they did and took all that on board but we wanted Dream to play more like a [traditional] game. So we’ve added things like the inventory and the collectible system. There’s the horror element too, so there’s actually something in the world with you. We’ve looked at Dear Esther and we really like that game, but at the same time we want to be our own thing.
Moving onto Greenlight, did you anticipate being one of the first ten games to be green lit when you submitted Dream?
Sam: No. We went on and made it to something like five percent in the first week and we were saying to ourselves, ‘Christmas. We’ll be on there by Christmas.’ When Steam emailed us I immediately emailed back and asked ‘is this a hoax?’ But it wasn’t and we’re on. It’s amazing.
Ash: It’s been really good; getting support and feedback from the community really helps us to build a better game.
Greenlight has been criticised from all angles, but what has the overall experience been like for you, particularly working with Valve?
Ash: The support has been incredible.
Sam: Because we got in on day one we didn’t have to pay the [$100] fee so we weren’t affected by that. Steam have been great and we know a lot of guys there now. When it comes to the fee, I can’t really talk about it because we’ve not been affected, but because it goes to charity I think it’s a good idea. If you’re really serious about a game $100 is not a lot. So I stand by that as a good idea.
Ash: I think the fee is more than reasonable. The funds go to charity and it filters out all the junk. I saw someone trying to trade a game on there, so with all that gone it helps the serious developers be seen.
It’s also been criticised as a popularity contest, so I’d be interested to know how big your fanbase was going in and how much work you had to put in to get into that first cluster of successful games?
Sam: Greenlight went live, I think it was the 30th of August. Our website and Facebook page went up on the 29th of August and we’ve been working on the game properly for three months and shown no one. I understand with games like Project Zomboid that people might say it’s a popularity contest because they’ve got a large fanbase voting for them. But for us, we went in with no fans.
You talk about making it more like a traditional game, including incorporating elements of horror into the game. How do you go about working horror into something like Dream?
Sam: You haven’t seen it here but there are going to be three nightmare houses and they come at the end of each level and it’s going to be… ‘can you physically get through this level?’ because it’s so scary. Still the same mechanics but more, ‘can you actually do it?’
What’s your opinion on horror in games at the moment?
Ash: I’m not a huge fan of horror. Some have a deep story that I get immersed in, and then some try too hard to scare the player. I don’t like being made jump. I think the nightmare scenes in Dream will be rewarding once you overcome your fears and nightmares, but if you don’t it could leave a scar in Howard’s [the protagonist] life.
It’s a beautiful game. How important are graphics to Dream? Would it have worked eight years ago?
Ash: That’s a good question. Dream was inspired by Yume Nikki and LSD – Dream Simulator. After playing those games we wanted to modernise the concept so from that perspective no, Dream couldn’t have worked eight years ago. We wanted a sense of realism, but we didn’t want to make everything look real. The art style we have helps make the worlds seem dreamier, but it also gives the game a sense of realism so that players believe what they see while allowing us to be more lenient and experimental with some of the worlds.
On that note, there was the story of the 2K guy saying we need the new generation because we can’t create truly emotionally engaging games with current technology. We need photorealism for that, he said. Do you think technology has helped create more emotionally engaging games or are other factors more important? [Fair warning: Fable 2 spoilers in this one.]
Ash: Tough question. I have mixed feelings with this one. Games at the moment look gorgeous and feel great to play, but don’t always do emotion that well. I think if the player hasn’t made a connection with the character then the emotional experiences aren’t going to work. But so long as there’s that connection between the player and the game, I don’t think photorealism is necessary. Like, when the dog dies in Fable II, I felt partly responsible and when I didn’t revive him, I felt horrible.
You’ve promised five different endings to the game. Is that a lot of work on your behalf to create five endings that are equally rich or rewarding?
Ash: Not all of them are equally rich and rewarding. It depends how you play the game. If you just run straight through you’re going to get the bad ending. No matter what ending you get, even if you do rush through it’s still going to be rewarding. Just not as rewarding as the other endings.
Sam: The game’s all about creativity and finding yourself so if you find yourself and find everything in the game you’re going to have a really happy character at the end, but if you rush through it you’re going to be disappointed. We’ve tried to play up to how you choose to play.
This interview was originally published on BeefJack.