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Article - 'Dream Sequences' by Guest

An item about Game Design posted on Aug 9, 2003


Mr. Y's new article, all about dream sequences in RPGs.


One very popular and useful technique used in storytelling in RPGs is dream sequences. This article focuses on those dream sequences, on their typical traits and how a gamemaker can effectively use them. A ‘dream sequence’ can be one of many different things. It gets its name from the fact that most of these sequences are carried out during a character’s slumber. However, dream sequences also include other types of lesser-used cinemas, including hallucinations, flashbacks, faints, and other such affiliated sequences. Before I explain these further, however, I wish to clearly define two distinctly different kinds of dream sequences.

Type 1- Cinematic Dream Sequences
Cinematic Dream Sequences, hereafter abbreviated as CDSs, are exclusively controlled by the game itself- the most the player may do during a CDS is move dialogue along. These are the most common kind of dream sequence, for two reasons. Firstly, they seem to have an added storytelling punch, lacking in action yet providing thick storyline. Thus, CDSs are often used to mix up the gameplay, especially after a massive dungeon or series of long boss battles. Secondly, CDSs are incredibly easy to make- the simplest and worst ones just incorporate text and message boxes, while the more complex may show objects or pictures moving about- still, nothing difficult to make, especially for an amateur gamemaking engine. However, though CDSs may be heavy plot hitters that are easy to construct, they are much too overdone, even in the professional gamemaking industry. If executed carefully and completely, the second type of dream sequences may be much more interactive and better.

Type 2- Interactive Dream Sequences
Interactive Dream Sequences, hereafter abbreviated as IDSs, are controlled by a combination of both the game and the player- the player may move the hero character about and perform other functions, but the game still handles some cinematic features such as small movies, while still maintaining the overall dreamlike state of the sequence. Unlike CDSs, IDSs are much more leaned towards action, keeping the players interested by putting a limited amount of control in their hands. Thus, this type of dream sequence usually does not contain the same kind of heavy plot information as that given from a CDS. Plot is what drives the dream sequence, so IDSs can be very bland to the player. Also, IDSs are much more difficult to build than CDSs, because the gamemaker must also account for the player’s actions and guide him/her along a path to learn everything possible from the IDSs and not encounter any bugs. So, if an IDS is difficult to make interesting and just plain difficult to make, what makes it a better choice than the CDS? Simple- action and freshness. By using a majority of IDSs in your games, you the gamemaker can keep player’s hooked. Also, IDSs feel very foreign to most game players, as the action can feel chaotic, like the game is fluctuating between being in the player’s control and in the game’s own. If you believe you are ready enough to make an IDS, try to focus on the plot given out most of all. Secondly, make sure you emphasize the foreign feelings of ‘chaotic control’ by giving the player plenty of control while including many short cinemas that can be triggered. Better yet, include one or two ‘hidden’ or ‘extra’ cinemas per an IDS that are only triggered in special conditions, and the game will become more interesting and come closer to the goal of achieving a replay by the player to pick up everything.

Dream Sequence-Affiliated Cinemas
I’m going to go over all of the common dream sequences, mentioned at the top of the page, with a detailed description of each.

The most basic and commonly-used dream sequence, which lends its name to the entire library of options just because of how popular it is. The Dream seems to have lost favor in more recent games that lean closer to technology and true medical conditions, but it still maintains its authority as the most common type of dream sequence. The Dream is a fantastic tool with which you can hint at the most hidden parts of the plot, preferably those revealed near the end. However, it has been used so much that it may seem a bit cliched to experience game players.

I honestly haven’t seen this type of dream sequence implemented often, but it can be quite effective when performed correctly. The hallucination is especially common in RPGs within great deserts, magical towers, and (more recently) in hospitals and medical wards. However, have you the gamemaker considered using hallucinations throughout most of your dream sequences? Hallucinations can bring into question the player’s own views of perception and reality, but they must be practiced accordingly. Usually, hallucinations only occur if a character is suffering from a medical problem, usually dehydration or a curse. But hey, the idea of hallucinations occurring throughout an entire game’s story can throw in a healthy mix of both intrigue and surprise- what is real and what is not?

Flashbacks seem to be enjoying a rise in popularity and use, especially by amateur gamemakers trying to imitate their favorite RPGs. Flashbacks fit in especially well in mature or futuristic games, where more fantasy elements are generally forbidden or left out. Typically in a cliched fashion, the character experiencing a flashback may collapse on the ground or show signs of pain, and his/her companions will try to help the character but fail as the character remembers vague memories of the past. As the character slips into a state of semi-consciousness, pictures and dialogue containing information about the character’s back story will appear and disappear. Within a minute or two, the entire sequence is finished as the character reawakens! Flashbacks are especially good at the beginning of the game, when you the gamemaker need to be especially cautious not to let the player know enough to guess some of your story or plot. However, you need to accomplish two things with flashbacks. First, try to make everything appear quickly- nothing will flare up the player’s desire of the storyline like not giving them a chance to take in all the vague story bits! Also, make sure you strike a healthy balance between being too vague and telling too much- if you’re unsure about this, you should always lean towards being vague. It’s better to leave the player clueless than to ruin the story for him/her. Finally, I suggest you try to make your flashback sequence as original as possible- make your own ideas on how to implement this, darn it!

I’m surprised that the Faint isn’t that popular, as it is both very unused by gamemakers and very adaptable. Perhaps it just portrays the character/s in a faint as weak? In any case, the Faint can be very effective. However the Faint starts doesn’t seem to matter, at least to me. Also, the Faint may be used to display the same kinds of information as that within the Dream type, except it is not as cliched! A very fantastic option for those that feel they need a Dream-like sequence, which you the gamemaker should try to implement before it is also overused!

Some Dream Sequence Cliches
Like all other sorts of manner of gamemaking and stories, there is a section of dream sequences that can be clearly labeled as being cliched. Are you afraid of screwing up now? Whether you are or not, I’ve made a short list of dream sequence cliches I have noticed in games, both professional and amateur.

1. Obviously, the Dream dream sequence can be viewed as very cliched. This was made popular by the old NES and SNES classics that older folks at GW had probably embraced at an early age. I would much sooner recommend a substitute for this sequence, probably the Faint.

2. By now, the famous Cloud Strife breakdowns of FF7 infamy can be seen as cliched as well. This character’s breakdowns were built admirably, but it would be a shame to see them done again and again by amateur gamemakers.

3. Try to stay far away from CDSs and use IDSs instead. CDSs are getting old, and players are now enjoying more control during the dream sequences. Although you’ll have to put more work in for an IDS, the overall product can be improved.

4. Dream, Flashback, and Faint have all gotten cliched in various degrees. However, the Hallucination dream sequence is extremely unused, and when implemented properly will yield an exciting array of dream sequences. Try them out!

What Should be in a Dream Sequence?
That is mostly up to your own wisdom. I cannot teach you how much of your storyline and plot should be given away, but I can make some small recommendations to help you out, at least a bit.

- Strive to involve the player in the dream sequence as much as possible.

- Maintain a healthy balance between too much plot and vague ideas.

- During a flashback sequence, try giving the player too little time to absorb all the information.

- Surprisingly, the more bizarre and chaotic a dream sequence may be, the better.

- Remember, the greatest element that drives a dream sequence is plot, not action.

Final Notes
Thank you for reading my article on dream sequences. I hope you’ve picked up a thing or two from all of this, or at least feel more rejuvenated to work further on your project.