In limbo, the silent dream

LSD Dream Emulator (99)

Video footage of pigeons flapping around an urban environment.

Untextured horses running on thin air over to floating islands.

A giant stone foot.

The kanji for moon written on the surface of the same celestial body in reverse.

Paper-thin sumo wrestlers locked in an endless contest.

Touch any surface and these scenes will fade away: Now you’re watching a train pass by, standing before a miniature sphinx, or watching a psychedelic peacock flash it’s tail feathers at you.

It’s all very weird, and LSD is great if you all you’re hoping for is to see strange things next to other equally absurd objects – the game will merrily run through its limited rolodex of low-poly locations decorated in a small pool of unrelated texture variants and smothered in coloured fog all day long if you let it.

But LSD bills itself as a dream emulator. And here’s the problem: It’s a dream emulator that doesn’t understand dreams.

You don’t need to believe nocturnal adventures are fragmented glimpses of the great subconscious of the universe or mystical windows into your soul where every object found within has a clearly defined and decipherable meaning to realise there is more to dreaming than having a lot of oddball things dash before your mind’s eye and then waking up to the sound of your alarm clock. Dreams are strange, yes, but they’re always intensely personal even when they make no sense at all: There is if not meaning then at least emotion in seeing your favourite teacher from twenty or more years ago trying to write a letter in an empty amphitheatre and desperately wanting to help them find the right sort of paper for the job. The fear welling up in your stomach when running away from an unknown monster down a childhood street you haven’t even thought about for decades is palpable even if that event will never come to pass. In dreams you might stand across the room from a person you’ve never seen in your life who’s never said a word and know in your bones you will follow them to the ends of the earth if they ask you to. Maybe you’ll hear a clock in a hotel lobby that impossibly sounds just like the one your grandma used to have hanging above the kitchen table or be forced to relive an old fear that wasn’t buried as deeply as you hoped it was, tears falling from your eyes as you wake. Dreams tease out forgotten desires to draw, dance, or sing… or sit you down for a cup of tea with talkative lions and the thought of that moment will keep you smiling the whole day after.

LSD’s “dream emulation” doesn’t even attempt to offer anything close to those experiences, reducing dreams to nothing more than a gaggle of eccentric objects drawn in discordant colour schemes.

The only  way “you”, silent detached camera that you are, can interact with things is to walk into them, and all that does is (mostly) randomly warp you to a different setting where you can repeat the process until your day runs out of time – and when that happens you’re taken back to the main menu so you can do it all over again. You can’t stop a car from plunging into water even if you try to put your invisible self in harm’s way, you can’t curtsey to a toy-like king and queen as they dance around their brightly coloured throne room, you can’t touch a single handle in a corridor lined with doors or show any care towards the sick person who sometimes appears in the apartments. You’re a passive observer in your own private world: the only times the game notices you at all is when it optionally kills you inside a waterfront warehouse (read: your point of view tilts to the ground and you briefly see a grey human standing to the side) – which only results in you appearing elsewhere anyway, completely unharmed and your disinterested anonymous murderer gone forever unless you actively try to seek them out… in the exact same place they were in last time. The other instance is when a grey man appears at random and then floats slowly towards your starting location (he doesn’t actually pursue you, which is an obvious opportunity for some chase-themed nightmares sorely wasted). If he gets close enough to you he’ll vanish and take the flashback option from the main menu (this is a brief digest of previous dreams) with him – until your later wanderings cause it to return.

Reducing you to the role of a hands-off wanderer only highlights the flaws of this virtual space: If all you can do is stand and stare then LSD has an obligation to provide something worth you spending the time standing and staring at but there is just nothing to engage with here. It’s not the questionable draw distance or the clearly blocky models that are the issue – the PlayStation has plenty of artistically impressive games bearing that sort of look – it’s how unbelievably shallow it all is. When you revisit an old area (and this will happen so often you may even see the same place two or three times in one dream) and find this time writing’s covering the floor or there are vivid swirls where concrete walls used to be it only takes seconds to realise these changes make no difference to your virtual roaming at all, they’re just Texture Set 3 loaded in place of Texture Set 1. LSD suffers from a very “flat” sort of surrealism: one single night can take you from the normal version of one area directly to one of its more colourful variations but there’s no sense you’re uncovering a newfound understanding of the dream, yourself, or the creator’s intent – the only difference is the coat of paint on top.

And as there’s no predefined character or even a generic avatar for yourself present in the game there’s nobody to worry about even on an abstract level when dream-reality decides to go on holiday: You don’t become concerned for your virtual stand-in’s mental wellbeing when plain buildings are covered in neon pink text, have no reason to rejoice if they get to spend a relaxing night walking across lush green hills, or feel any guilt if you decide to throw “yourself” off the nearest bottomless cliff because there’s nobody there to care about or project yourself onto – as far as the game’s concerned all a fatal fall does is bring you back around to the title screen ready for the next night, which is precisely where you would have ended up anyway.

LSD’s silence is deafening: The lack of any context or commentary (even the manual fails to offer any guidance) on anything greatly damages the chances of those playing finding themselves connected even in a superficial way to these “dreams”. One trip might see bright green kanji reading “footsteps” replacing the usual illumination from an urban street light or “corner” written on the wall next to an actual corner. Even the more scrawl-heavy walls fail to reveal anything more meaningful, the tiled textures being too small and repeating too often to form even a short sentence, leaving you staring at visual noise. There’s no reason why one day you may see an FMV of some industrial pipes or a colour bar test instead of a regular dream, and these visions don’t relate to what came before or what comes after. Empty bird cages are presented without any follow up: No singing birds outside to signify freedom or release, no hint of any dangers to protect newly-freed oblivious feathered friends from – they’re just another static object to look at and then move on from. During one dream I accidentally ran into a wall with “Furinkazan” written on it which took me to a new area where I decided to deliberately walk into a giant drum, before finally standing still in “Happy Town”, alone and ignored, as everything abruptly faded to red. That was it, that was the whole dream. LSD tells me this was an extremely “Upper” sort of experience, leaning slightly towards “Static”.

To claim these incidents must have a deeper meaning because they’re found within a rare, expensive, and experimental PlayStation game feels a lot like insisting the emperor is wearing some rather fine new clothes.

It’s maddening because people are predisposed to looking for meaning and personal resonance in the strange and unfamiliar – there’s a very good reason why even controversial artists most famous for pickling ungulates give their work thought-provoking titles – but it’s impossible to empathise with or relate LSD’s mishmash of items to either your own life or the game’s creators when nothing is ever said. The closest the game ever gets to truly expressing itself is when it displays a single screen’s worth of dream-story in lieu of the usual haphazard 3D trekking but these tales have no relation to anything you can witness in the game and their order as well as their frequency are entirely random.

Considering they’re something humans have done for as long as there have been humans around to do it it’s clear dreams are a difficult subject to communicate at the best of times and LSD should be commended to a certain extent for even daring to try, but even so there’s no getting away from the fact the game fundamentally fails to show any worthwhile understanding of or insight into its only subject. Dreams are stories – a raw tangle of emotion and memories so intensely personal we might not even want to admit some of the things we feel during them to ourselves. In contrast LSD is a look-don’t-touch museum free of any context where everything is strange for strange’s sake, which only serves to make it all seem so very ordinary.

LSD is available to buy and download on the Japanese PlayStation Store for use with PSP/PS3/Vita for a mere ¥628 however you will need to search for it using compatible hardware as the web version of the store no longer supports browsing or searches for “legacy” content. The good news is at the time of writing this awkward method does still work – it’s the only reason I was able to afford a copy of the game – but I’d recommend getting it sooner rather than later if you’re interested.

[Ko-fi support brought this post to life! Thank you!]

9 thoughts on “In limbo, the silent dream

  1. You make a really good point that dreams are inherently personal, and it makes me wonder if it’s even possible to make a satisfying dream game when they must, by nature, be generalised (or at least personal only to a fictitious character, which is kind of the same thing).

    I find it interesting that fiction never ‘gets’ dreams. In most tv shows and films, dreams are weirdly realistic. Characters dream about real places and people in a way that could be interchangeable with reality (I’m a big dreamer, and my experience has been that while dreams can feel real at the time, they rarely bear a convincing resemblance to reality in retrospect). LSD goes the other way, and treats dreams as just haphazard parades of non-sequiturs. Neither of these approaches has much to do with what dreams are really like.

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    1. Having said that, I think dreams can be very different for different people.

      When I hear people at work (or wherever) saying “I had a weird dream last night” it’s usually something like “I went to the shop and saw my old maths teacher, how bizarre”. Well…I once dreamed about chasing a little LCD figure around a garden while an orbiting spaceship shot a portaloo at me, and then the portaloo popped open to reveal an enormous lemon which started peeling itself in a long strand which it used to try and entangle me. We have different criteria for “weird dream”. XD

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      1. We certainly do! For what it’s worth, mine are much more like yours than the tame example you opened with.

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    2. It’s a tough one for sure! I almost want to say the best game-dream wasn’t actually a dream at all – Silent Hill: Shattered Memories’ subtle swapping of character models and certain objects depending on your own behaviour and responses to questioning found a good balance between personal meaning, player influence, and maintaining a coherent story.

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      1. I haven’t played that (the original Silent Hill remains the only one I’ve played myself). Thinking about it, the closest I’ve encountered to something that feels dreamlike is the insanity effects in Eternal Darkness. The way they can range from normal with a jarring touch of not-quite-right to completely unhinged.

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  2. Actually, the two best dream games are NiGHT’s into Dreams and Swagman, both Saturn titles :D

    Having said that, LSD sounds like something half finished? Maybe there was meant to be more but they gave up, ran out of money, couldn’t be bothered, etc? Although while I hope that is the case, it sounds more to me like many examples of art, that someone has had a personal experience which they then try projecting on the world but it falls flat as it means absolutely nothing to anyone else.

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  3. Yeah I had the same reaction to the tame. Played it ten or so years ago when everyone was like “wow look at this crazy fascinating obscure JP PS1 game”, did one ’round’ through a dream, shrugged, and went on to play Yume Nikki instead xD

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  4. I always thought the “dream emulator” bit was a flimsy front for what was actually supposed to emulate, or complement, an LSD trip. Not sure if it does a better job at that though!

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