An ambiguously moody and “mature” adventure for 1994 Amigas/PCs featuring guns, violence, and sex starring a twenty-something guy in a trenchcoat? Spare me.
Actually – please don’t. While it’s true to say Creative Reality’s Dreamweb really does possess the usual checklist of supposedly grown-up subject matter and is unapologetic for the graphic nature of these scenes when the plot calls for such visceral actions this grimy cyberpunk point-and-click tale quickly proves itself to be more than another teenage boy’s power fantasy or a one-note regurgitation of the usual misjudged round of “adult” themes. The first playable segment of the game may see Ryan, troubled nightmare-having “streetwise” man that he is, wake up in bed next to his beautiful girlfriend Eden after a night of passion but the conversation they have as she lies there is kind, sensitive, and demonstrates air-quote-free levels of maturity and longstanding familiarity often lacking in digital recreations of personal conversations – they clearly care about each other, and Ryan is not oblivious to the effect his erratic behaviour, blackouts, and sleep-screaming is having on their relationship.
The game’s top-down point of view is extremely detailed even within such a small flip-screen window layout; taking the time to give the genre’s typical near-future backdrop a fitting dystopian sheen and a shocking quantity of smooth one-off animations for a game that spans a mere four floppy discs. Pipes and wires cross overhead as Ryan walks to a friend’s flat, the otherwise uniform grey pavement broken up by fine cracks, vents, and the dim reflections of glowing neon lights. Life is as normal as can be expected given the cyberpunk circumstances: Ryan has a dead-end bar job he almost gets fired from due to continued poor attendance while in contrast Eden, even though she only plays a minor role in the story (and for once this isn’t because she’s been swiftly fridged for plot-pushing purposes), is unfailingly portrayed as the successful, intelligent, and more “together” one – she’s got a good job, a pocket organiser stuffed with important contacts, and car in the garage of her spacious home she’s fixing up. There are TV stations, takeaway food boxes, microwaves, and the most futuristic of media devices – flat screen TVs. Ryan’s killing spree takes him to places even the most sci-fi averse player would recognise – plush hotel rooms, subway stations, a-
No, not killings. Not murders. Murders are what bad people do, and Ryan’s not a bad person. He’s The Deliverer. Yes. The Dreamweb has revealed the truth and the Keepers have given him the most important mission. He is to hunt down the Seven evil ones who would join forces and unravel the Dreamweb. He must execute them before their evil plan can come to fruition. It’s not murder. These people aren’t innocent victims. It’s like killing Hitler. And it must be done.
That’s what he tells himself in the handwritten journal that accompanies the game, the one Ryan scratched “Diary of a (Mad?)man” into the cover of with his own bloodied fingernails.
For what is inevitably an easily-lost and/or ignored companion piece it’s a relatively weighty book: Forty-three pages worth of tightly handwritten text, the neatness of which often reflects the current state of its author. It doesn’t offer any answers – it’s not supposed to – but it does directly build up to the beginning of the game, fleshing out not only Ryan’s descent into madness – or perhaps his elevation to a higher level of understanding – but also a few key people and places that otherwise get little screen time within the game itself (it also serves as a handy copy protection tool too: The password to Ryan’s computer is written neatly in the back, and a scrawled symbol that haunts his recurring nightmares turns out to be the solution to an end-game puzzle.).
Perhaps you’re now imagining a scenario along the sort of lines Silent Hill puts its tormented protagonists through, a self-inflicted trial switching between an eerie faux normality and a clearly-defined “Otherworld” made of flesh and nightmares until either a price has been paid or a festering issue has finally been addressed – if only it were that simple. Everything in Ryan’s world behaves as if life is carrying on the same as it always does – because it is – the only change we ever see is in him. He’s the only one who ever finds any evidence that a pop singer, a military leader, a businessman, a serial killer, and a few other apparently disconnected people are working together to destroy a place nobody else has ever heard of to the detriment of all mankind.
He’s the only person you ever see kill someone.
And so you can’t help but wonder: Is Dreamweb an intensely private tale of the battle for cosmic balance, or an uncomfortable interactive ride along one man’s personal unravelling? The game provides little solid indications either way; Ryan only ever speaks to two of the seven people he
murders in cold blood tries to stop from reaching Entropy all game, and the one place he uncovers that offers raw physical evidence his extreme actions are justified is buried within the depths of a ruined church and never visited by any other living creature, leaving you wondering if anyone else would see what Ryan saw if they were stood in the same spot.
The beautiful thing about being forced to wade through this quagmire of unanswered questions is that it puts you in exactly the same position as Ryan: Everything you’ve seen and been lead to believe makes his task seem important and real, and yet you have no concrete proof, no way of being absolutely certain, that you’re making him do anything more than murder a random selection of people because some robed beings he sees only when he passes out tell him to. Ryan himself is set up as an easily distrusted man who’s either in the middle of going crazy or becoming inhumanely sane, as one of his entries in the Diary of a (Mad?)man so beautifully puts it – making him simultaneously the most unreliable narrator in gaming history, or perhaps the only person in the whole world who can see what’s really happening. For all the woolly possibilities and what-ifs the story never feels like a hollow bloodstained meandering of misery: Ryan’s grisly task is always clear even if you can’t be sure it’s based in reality, the finer details expertly dancing between some reality, waking nightmares, and the slightest brush with the hidden workings of the universe.
Sadly the only way to experience this accomplished web of deliciously dark fuzzy thinking is via adventure gaming’s ancient nemesis, pixel hunting. Sweeping visually busy rooms for objects not even half a dozen pixels high is not my idea of fun, but there is at least an optional zoomed-in window to make the searching a little less painful. Even so, there are still times when without a FAQ to hand or a wall-sized TV it can border on the ridiculous. The good news is that of all problems the genre could bring to Dreamweb, this is the only one that made it through.
In fact for everything else the game makes a real effort to be actively helpful, with lots of unsubtle hints sprinkled throughout the text ranging from the more general “I’m forgetting something important” when you try to leave the first area without a crucial magical key to specific commands such as “You need to use the monitor” or “Try opening the wallet” and “You should probably use the card scanner now”. Puzzle solutions are treated with the same kindness: Early on in the game Ryan needs to find a gun. At this point Ryan knows three people – his wonderful girlfriend, his dodgy drug-taking mate, and his grouchy boss who needs just one more excuse to fire him. It doesn’t take a genius to work out which one of these three is most likely to know a guy who knows a guy. After that hurdle’s been overcome – and even right up to the point where you’re given directions to the gun dealer’s door – you’re reminded several times that guns are expensive, and you will need money, like the money your boss owes you, to buy one. Even I can piece that kind of puzzle together, and I once put a teaspoon in the bin and a teabag in the washing up bowl.
Appropriately enough the most difficult part of Dreamweb’s puzzles is learning to put your trust in the game’s design, to trust it won’t suddenly make you do something nonsensical like merge chewing gum with loose wire and a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle (combining items is impossible here, saving you hours and hours of “That doesn’t work” tedium) to distract a dog because it’s sitting on something you need, and to believe the game when it promises it’ll never make you revisit somewhere you’ve already cleared out for the sake of a fake “reveal” moment as Ryan spots something “obvious” both you and the area designer damned well know wasn’t there before. Dreamweb wants to be interesting and challenging, but it takes no pleasure in catching players out: The constant cursor-sweeping may be annoying but it only ever occurs in places of real significance, not Generic Pavement #12. Of all the interface cartridges littering your messy flat it’s the one marked “Important!” that you need to use. A screwdriver is going to a helpful tool, a roomy coat (you’ll never have any trouble carrying around the items you need in this game) stuffed full of random stolen CDs, the remnants of a tube of cheese paste, and a can of beer are not. You won’t know this for certain on a fresh run – and the game doesn’t help itself by including vast quantities of useless objects for Ryan to examine and drag around with him (did you know Ryan has a toaster in his kitchen, and it contains two pieces of hard-as-rock toast you can carry around all game?) – but it’s one point-and-click that really can be solved purely with some careful thought, common sense, and a steady mouse hand.
Dreamweb’s a brief but grim tale that ends on a plot twist too good to spoil even twenty-six years later, and best of all – it’s now free! That’s properly freeware-free, not it’s-really-old-so-I-guess-it’s-OK-free too. SCUMMVM has the CD and PC versions available to download here: https://www.scummvm.org/games/ both of which feature superior graphics and additional effects when compared to the Amiga version you’ve seen on this page (I can’t help it, I’ll always be an Amiga woman at heart). So go grab a copy, sit down in a comfy chair, and decide for yourself if Ryan’s humanity’s saviour or just a confused, merciless, killer…