|When I Dream (2016)
Imagine playing Dixit. It’s good, isn’t it? A beautiful design. Elegant systems. Gorgeous art. You’re happy with it. You’re satiated. But you know – the more you play, the more familiar it becomes. It stops being exciting and starts being comfortable. Now imagine that one night you’ve got an arm around the Dixit box. It’s companionable. It’s straightforward. Simple. But slowly it turns to you and asks, with a mischievous grin, ‘fancy getting a little bit exotic tonight?’
‘What do you have in mind?’, you ask.
It opens its cardboard contours to reveal a blindfold. It slips it out and presses it into your hands. The silk is cool and inviting against your skin.
‘Put it on’, Dixit whispers into your ear.
‘Oh… okay’, you quietly mumble. Your heart beats faster. You fasten the straps behind your head. This is unexpected but… it’s nice. You reach out. Dixit takes you by the hands. You can feel electricity sparkle through your fingertips at the contact.
The baby that was the mistaken outcome of that night of that night of welcome but unplanned experimentation goes by the name When I Dream.
When I dream is Dixit with an eye-mask. It’s that simple. Alternatively it’s what happens when someone takes Mysterium and aggressively cross-breeds it with Eyes Wide Shut in an unsanctioned laboratory. At least – that’s 90% of what the game is. The other 10% is the hidden traitor mechanisms of The Resistance wedded into the mix. The whole scenario would make for a compelling bit of day-time viewing with questionable DNA tests and unreliable lie detectors taking the place of worthwhile discussion.
Here’s how it works. One player takes the provided eye-mask and places it on their face in a weirdly intimate act of vulnerability. They plunge themselves into darkness as they become ‘The Dreamer’. Their friends have randomly been assigned secret roles. They might be fairies, who try to guide the Dreamer to correct interpretation of the dream cards everyone else can see. Bogeymen try to guide the Dreamer to incorrect interpretations, and Sandmen try to balance the dreamer between correct and incorrect interpretations. The point system is designed to incentivise this.
The dream consists of as many cards as can be interpreted, as quickly as possible, according to the erratic functioning of an incredibly poor quality hour-glass. One by one, all the non-dreamers provide a single word clue that isn’t derived from the word on the card. The imagery in the game is often stunningly inventive, occasionally dove-tailing into exquisitely creepy. Each card has a top and bottom part, and the bed provided as part of the game components is used to cover one of these up so everyone is working from the same playbook.
Consider the card above. Here a fairy might say ‘Dig’. Another might say ‘Implement’. A bogeyman might say ‘Delicious’. The dreamer has to grab hold of these suggestions, with no idea of who is a bogeyman, fairy or sandman. ‘Knife!’, they might say – reasoning that a knife is an implement used to cut delicious things. The card is removed, assigned to the correct side of the board, and the next one starts off a new cycle of clues.
‘Journey’, says a fairy, ‘Road’, says a bogeyman, clearly hoping to drive the dreamer towards the idea of a car. ‘Steering’, says the next bogeyman catching on to the idea. ‘Wind!’, says the second fairy.
‘Truck?’, asks the dreamer. The card is again assigned to the correct side of the board and the next card begins a new cycle.
When time’s up, the dreamer is challenged to remember their dream – they’ll get points for each card they guessed correctly but also for a dream sequence that incorporates all of the things they correctly guessed. ‘Uh… I was stabbing some truck tyres with a knife’, they say. ‘Then we were in Paris and a giant dog turned into a panda before melting into a puddle of oily liquid stars. In the stars I saw pinwheeling flames and contorted, tortured flesh. Within that were the red, vicious eyes of a dark spirit that shot from the abyss into my soul and infested me from within. BEHOLD, I AM YOUR NEW GOD, AND I WILL BE AS DARK AND AS TERRIBLE AS THE PERVERTED, CORRUPTED SOUL OF HUMANITY’
‘Well, you didn’t get any right so you don’t get any points. My turn now’
Once the dreamer has had a go, points are distributed, new roles dealt out, and the next players puts on a somewhat distressingly damp eye-mask to have their own attempt at a dream sequence. Largest number of points at the end, in the usual fashion, wins the game.
Unfortunately When I Dream is a lot more fun in your imagination than it is in action. It has such a great aesthetic and clever setup that it’s instantly endearing. The art, as I may have already mentioned, is gorgeous. I often remark in games like this that I’d happily buy prints of many of the cards and hang them from my walls. When I Dream is absurdly generous in that respect – every card is double sided and the juxtaposition of the words create some astonishingly evocative imagery. It’s as enticing as it is bizarre. Since the art is the first thing you see when you open the box your first impression will put you in a very agreeable state of mind.
Unfortunately there’s a massive dichotomy here from how the game sounds to play (Whimsical! Adorable! Charming!) and how it actually functions (Alarming! Confusing! Vaguely upsetting!). Let’s consider how it feels from the point of view of the dreamer as they put on the blindfold and begin the game.
The card that was on top of the bed is discarded immediately, so you have no context for what’s about to follow. You settle into the darkness. You centre yourself. The hour-glass is flipped. And you get a set of chattering syllables barked at you, with no way of determining their authenticity, for a good one hundred and twenty seconds of bafflingly disconnected word-association. See if you can guess this word:
What’s your guess there? Mine would be ‘shuttle’ because a space vehicle? Dinosaurs is obviously from the bogeyman because of the consistency of everyone else. Fiery? Well, I’m old enough to remember the Challenger disaster. As far as I’m concerned every astronaut is a god-damned hero for strapping themselves aboard a tube filled with optimistically controllable explosions as they’re hurtled up into the empty infinity of an uncaring universe. Shuttle. Yep. Definitely.
Haha, right. The bogeyman is getting smarter – trying to latch onto meaning to steer my thinking. It’s definitely ‘milk’.
Of course, neither of those guesses end up being true. The first was meteor. The second was cheese. But the one I thought was a bogeyman was a fairy and one I thought was a fairy was a sandman. And it’s in this unknowability of intention that the flaw in When I Dream becomes apparent. It’s too damn hard and it’s a not a game that’s particularly fun to fail.
When we spoke a while ago about Decrypto I discussed the ‘semantic orbit’ of words, and how weaponizing that in game design was a really interesting and effective concept. It turns out that trying to get those orbits to intersect with precision is challenging and absorbing in exactly the right kinds of ways.
The thing that makes it work in Decrypto though is that you have an authenticity you can assign to each data point. You know whether the source of a word is trying to fool you or illuminate you. As such you know how to work out the motivations of a player. ‘Ah, my enemy said ‘Semaphore’, but that’s with intent to mislead me’.
You don’t have that in When I Dream and it means that you have no way of knowing, absent a feedback mechanism, whether you should trust the next thing a player has to say. The rules stress you never get to know if you guessed correctly. It ends up being two minutes of intensely uncertain information applied to an unseen goal with no feedback until it’s too late to correct your path. You may as well sit there in the dark and have someone scream random words from a dictionary in a foreign language. You’ll find a word that connects all the information you think you can trust but who knows if you’re trusting the right information. Not you, certainly, because you have no idea. There’s no way to know. That gets worse in larger games where multiple bogeyman can corroborate the definitional misdirection employed by the other.
As a result you get rounds where someone says ‘Reptile’, ‘Venomous’, ‘Tamer’, ‘Nose’ and you can think ‘There aren’t enough bogeymen or sandmen to give any consistency so it must be snake’. As soon as you start guessing correctly though any sandman present wants you to start failing so you still can’t trust anyone. Two minutes just isn’t enough to get your mental fingers into the information economy of play and gather some actual evidence. If you were doing this for an hour you probably would be able to deduce which players had which roles. You don’t have an hour though. Honestly you’ve got enough to be worrying about when it comes to guessing a word without adding shifting allegiances to the docket of your concerns.
You might think ‘Okay, so that’s a problem for a dreamer but at least their dream is a useful benchmark for other players when it’s their turn’. But no – each player gets a new role dealt out every round and therefore every new dream is equally as baffling.
Good clue-giving can help alleviate this, but the random allocation of roles and the slant these are given in the deck mean that sometimes sheer force of numbers will be what drives the dreamer. In a six player game there will be three fairies, two bogeymen and a sandman in the deck. It’s possible to play a game then with two fairies, two bogeyman and a sandman in play and the dreamer has almost no hope of success there. Even if the fairies and bogeymen take two completely different directions with a card, neither has a force of authority. The sandman is too erratic to be an obvious anchor point in the dreamer’s reasoning. Cunning bogeymen will be more subtle about it too. They’ll aim to be latching on to the fairy definitions with the intent giving them a bit of malicious top-spin. The word might be ‘lamp’. ‘Light’, says a fairy, ‘Bedside’, says the other fairy. ‘Wax’, says the bogeyman. ‘Flickering’, says the other bogeyman. ‘Candle’, says the dreamer. There’s just no way to know what to trust and not long enough to work it out. It’s like a light bondage version of a Rorschach test except you never find out if it really is showing two bears high-fiving.
Okay, so it’s not a game where skill is well emphasized. The real question though is ‘Despite that, is the game fun?’
Alas, not really.
When I Dream is… interesting. It’s unusual. The pantomime of slipping on that sleep-mask is a little odd and transgressive. It’s an act of assuming vulnerability and that’s a seductive element of what it brings to the act of play.
The originality of a gameplay mechanism is in many ways a kind of currency of innovation. When you spend it in a game, you lose its value. The next game that comes with an eye-mask is always going to be compared to When I Dream, at least until our collective memory fades. There may have been games with eye-masks before this but I’m working on the assumption most of them were sold in discreet unmarked packages by Ann Summers. That eye-mask then is, at least to the best of my recollection, meaningfully innovative. It’s a shame that such an original idea was attached to a game that absolutely does not give it room to shine.
Even ‘ludonarratively’ (urgh) the game is a weird mess. The dreamer can’t see the dreams. All this fantastical imagery and weirdly disjointed symbolism is never something the dreamer experiences. Instead all you get are the ranted cryptic crossword clues that are inspired by the imagery other people get to see. The pace of play is so rapid that you never really get to appreciate the cards. You’re too busy trying to work out something to say – if you don’t give a clue in five seconds play passes on to the next person. So much love and attention here has been lavished onto entirely the wrong things.
The thing about games like Dixit and Mysterium is that you get to become familiar with the art in ways that are aesthetically and mechanically satisfying. You get to consider them in terms of colour balance, of symbolism, of metaphor and of implication. You get to take the evocative art and convert it into meaning through a translation idiom of your own design. Here the art isn’t necessary in the slightest – as wonderful as it is, it’s just flavour. Some fantastic work is wasted on the fringes of a game that should be positively reveling in the resource it has.
And it’s here that I think I find my largest disappointment in the structure of When I Dream. This is a great premise backed up with a great production, but it never rises to be what it could. There’s little room for player creativity in here. Little reason to engage with the fantastical imagery. A game about deceit and dreaming should be filled to the brim with collaborative confabulation and there’s absolutely no room for it here. There’s nothing you can do with the images and imagery. Dixit gives you room to be poetic. Mysterium lends itself to menace. When I Dream is a game about the utilitarian listing of perfunctory synonyms. It’s not something I can particularly recommend your way when there are games that are so much better at dealing with whimsey and dreamlike fantasy.