What are dreams? Why do we dream? These are questions that have tested our intellect and captured our imagination generation after generation. While no truly definitive answer exists, many believe dreams are a kind of daily maintenance of the memory, clearing out the trash and moving the new memories into long term storage. But if this is the case, what do babies so young they have yet to build memories dream? According to the abstract platformer from Gregory Weir, Babies Dream of Dead Worlds.
In this unique offering, you dive into the dreams of sleeping babies only to find yourself taking on the guise of strange aliens in an even stranger universe. Move your alien about using the [arrow] keys, while [X] is used to jump and [C] can be used to talk to other alien creatures and read signs. The real twist mechanically in the game is that the center of gravity is not at the bottom of the screen (nor, as has become vogue in games lately, the top), but instead runs through the very middle of each level. As a result, you'll also have to familiarize yourself with the slingshot technique, using the [up] and [down] keys to build vertical momentum.
From there, you will find that your forays into this alien dimension gravitate around three different aliens each with their own personal goals. One dreams of being known as the fastest of all time and pushes itself relentlessly through countless runs around the race course. Another is a treasure seeker that scours the world for golden coins refusing to quit until all have been found. Finally there is Mel, an alien obsessed with his research into an anomaly with potentially catastrophic repercussions.
Through the dreams of infants you will explore the lives of each of these aliens, experience their hopes and help them attain their dreams. You will do this despite the encroaching darkness, and the ever growing warnings of a dying world.
Analysis: I'll be up front with you here. Babies Dream of Dead Worlds is what many call an "art game" with a heavy sigh and a rolling of the eye. Like many other so-called art games before it like Passage or Gray, Babies is one of those games you either "get" or you don't. If art games aren't your thing, you may not like Babies Dream of Dead Worlds.
In all fairness to the game, though, it does enjoy a mechanic that may make it more accessible to gamers, especially to those appreciative of the platformer genre. The real star of the gameplay here is of course the decision to place the gravitational focal plane in the middle of the level and the resulting reliance upon the slingshot effect. The controls are tight, and the hit detection, though not perfect, is dependable, but the slingshot effect is what really lets you let loose and have fun with this game.
If I had to point to a flaw from a gameplay perspective in Babies, I would have to say that the level design could have been a little bit better. One often gets the sense that there could have been more exploration with the slingshot technique. Meanwhile there are plenty of other instances where it seems as though the challenges are a little too demanding and frustrating. More than a few times you will need to slingshot your alien into tight spaces resulting in numerous attempts that won't frustrate platforming veterans but may stifle others.
But one could argue that the heart of Weir's game lies not in the physical so much as the metaphysical. One can hardly deny the fact that the concept itself is an intriguing one. The sheer idea that maybe we visit entirely different universes during our infancy is enough to set one's imagination on fire. Weir's vision here is even more intriguing, though, for it implies that at birth we share a kind of inherited universal memory. That inherited universal memory brings us to this world that looks on the surface so different from our own. As we soon learn, though, the differences between us are not all that many. Our new alien friends, like us, have ambitions and fears. And they cope with this in the face of a coming apocalypse.
Thematically, I'm reminded curiously enough of When The Bomb Goes Off. In both games we are given candid peeks into the final moments of life. These glimpses are brief but made all the more poignant by their sense of finality. The differences here is that Weir gives the characters knowledge of their impending doom, as well as explores in more depth their thoughts and relationships. The end result is a loosely woven story that has a capacity for both sadness and comfort.
On this front it's difficult to point out flaws in Weir's effort. Like all art games, it's an interpretive work, and as a result successes and failures are the prerogative of the beholder. No doubt those who don't get it are likely to find the whole work to be flawed. My one qualm is a lack of any kind of ending. I don't need a definitive cut scene clobbering me over the head with all of the game's lessons, but I would have appreciated something essentially saying, "Okay, that's all I got, now go discuss among yourselves."
Overall, though, I find Babies Dream of Dead Worlds to be a success. With strong writing and an imaginative universe, Weir uses the bizarre to redirect a powerful lens upon the mundane. Through that lens we are able to see our own capacity for anger and admiration, courage and fear, and what one can only hope is the best of us at the worst of times. For those who find little value in art games, there's a good possibility this will not be among your favorite. But for those who revel in games that attempt to tackle metaphysical questions with big blocky pixels, Babies Dream of Dead Worlds should not be missed.
Note: There is some imagery that could subjectively be seen as offensive by some people. The developer has confirmed, though, that the visual similarities in this game to inappropriate subject matter are entirely coincidental.