Music scenes can pop up anywhere, be it a hub-like venue in your local town or by finding your community in an online space like Tumblr or Twitch. Though a physical or virtual space can be the genesis of a band, collaboration or scene, it’s rarely able to become the entire existence of the project – until Dreams, that is.
Since its release two years ago, Dreams has spawned all manner of weird and wonderful creations and pretty much cemented itself in a lot of people’s minds as the greatest game engine we’ve ever seen. It’s the, ahem, dream, right? No-one’s got around to making the video game you’ve wanted your whole life, exactly the way you want it? Here, build it yourself!
With music, it’s a little more difficult though. With the game creations inside of Dreams, getting you to stick around until it’s finished is easier – the game can only exist where it’s created – but for the music, you have to provide quality tools from beginning to end to avoid artists getting their spark of inspiration in Dreams and then seeing the project through elsewhere.
As it celebrates the two year anniversary of the game, Dreams‘ creator – Media Molecule – has been showcasing the best audio creations within the game through its annual Impy Awards, and it presents a portrait of a musical subculture unlike any other.
Music and video games melted together in new ways during the pandemic and lockdowns, with virtual festivals held in Fortnite, Minecraft and beyond. They all featured music brought in from the inside, though – in Dreams, this stuff is created from the ground up inside the game, and it gives the music a distinctive joie de vivre that’s integral in forming and setting apart any music scene. After being pioneered at the turn of the century with the PS1’s Music (and follow-up Music 2000) music creation tools within video games have caught up with music creation in general – you can make an entire acoustic album on a laptop, so why not in a video game?
Discussing the wildly ambitious, unexpected, groundbreaking creations and collaborations they’ve seen in the game, senior principle audio designer Ed Hargrave tells NME: “Dreams, I think, really allows creators’ unique voices to come through in their work – especially music. And when you watch the output from the community, you’ll start to recognise and follow the voices that stand out to you. It’s the most indie of indie scenes, and one of my favourite things about this is when the creators you love, team up to produce something amazing together.”
He references ‘DreamsFest 2021’ as an example, a virtual music festival put on by creators working within Dreams. “As creators find their niche, they’re also finding their people, and we’re seeing bands, game studios and teams of movie makers group up to share their passion for new creative digital arts and build increasingly epic things together,” Hargrave says.
He describes this as a “razor balance” to tow: the mix of “ease-of-access vs total creative freedom was applied everywhere, and led to many difficult but brave design stances,” he says, adding: “To really empower people to create anything, the tool had to let creators employ the sound of anything.” The minds of musicians are limitless, so the game had to honour that and not stop it short.
Among the nominees at the 2022 Impys include Fragments (up for Best Audio Design), a ‘Dream’ about a protagonist with autism, created by an autistic player. Elsewhere, whole bands have met, formed, made and released music on Dreams, such as One Ton Radio, who are nominated for Music Track of the Year.
Rifling through the music spaces within Dreams, it really does feel like a vibrant, living organism, as any group of teenagers sharing 7”s and copies of NME in the ‘80s did, or ‘00s kids bonding on Tumblr. Creators send each other mixtapes of their favourite new discoveries, make synth patches out of any weird and wonderful noises they can think up, and many create music videos for the songs within Dreams too, building an entire visual, sonic and aesthetic world to immerse yourself in.
“The goal was, quite frankly, ridiculous!” Hargrave reflects now of what they have built. “Every slice of game audio development had to not only be possible, but FUN in Dreams, on a console,” he adds, touching on a vital point: making music has to be a vibrant process full of fun and exploration, and for Dreams to not hold that up – conversely, it encourages and facilitates it – is a real feat.
“The genre is so broad but there is so much untapped potential in how games can involve players in a creative process,” Hargrave adds of potential expansion of both Dreams and the games industry at large.
“Dreams can only be a hobby – for now,” one NME writer said earlier this year when talking through the process of making their own spy game inside the creator. With the music tools inside the game though, it’s building the foundations for real, tangible, brilliant music careers. “However the technology advances, it’s the players & creators’ imaginations that will bring about the most exciting leaps forward,” Hargrave says, and for musicians, the limits of Dreams only stop at the edges of your curiosity.