Dream logic is a distinct entity from the rational thinking we encounter in everyday life. For our most recent project, the prototyping team explored the prototypical dream experience in order to exploit this unique thinking for a dream-based game.
When we last left off, I had just introduced our nameless super market clerk, a poor boy stuck in a nightmarish world where customers speak in gibberish and the aisles sob with loneliness. We wanted to be able to implement some of the more abstract concepts into playable mechanics. One of the things we had discussed in length was the role of objects in dreams. Nouns often appear in place of complex ideas. Often, people have reoccurring nightmares about their teeth falling from their face. This is generally interpreted as a manifestation for anxiety or worries in the dreamer's mind.
To examine this idea, we came up with a fairly straightforward scenario. The set up: the customers have run into each other, spilling the contents of their bags every which way. You, the clerk, must return the proper items to each customer, but which items belong where? The player is cued to the customer's 'theme' by the objects that are still left in the bag (a horseshoe and a rabbit's foot, for example). Once the player determines the relationship between these items (they represent 'luck'), they can easily identify the final element that lies amongst distracter items on the floor (a four-leaf clover).
Here are some early combinations we proposed:
- Horse Shoe, Rabbit's Foot -> Are Lucky -> 4-Leaf clover
- Slugs, Butter -> Are Slippery -> Soap
- Pita bread, Pants -> Have pockets -> Kangaroo
- Donuts, Swiss Cheese -> Have holes -> A tire
- Balloons, Ice -> Do Float -> A rubber ducky
- Mentos + Coke, Baking Powder + Vinegar -> Do Explode -> Dynamite
- Donuts, Swiss Cheese -> Holy -> A cross
- Honey, Bubble gum -> Stick-y -> A stick
- A Door, A Can -> Things you open -> Your mind
- A Train, An Orchestra -> Things you conduct -> Electricity
It's important to mention a couple of things about the grouping here. I've mapped them here to 'Are', 'Have', 'Do', Wordplay, and Abstract Wordplay. Only the first category is truly representative of dream logic. Here, items are characterized as prototypically lucky or slippery. The second group is classified by properties- kangaroos, pants, and pita all have pockets. The third group is based on word play. Donuts are 'hole-y' and a cross is 'holy'. The final group is based on more abstract wordplay. You can open up a door, a can, or your mind. These groups are purposefully ordered by difficulty-level as prototypical traits are necessarily more readily identifiable than abstract associations.
Each item was represented on a game board with two sides: one for items in the bag and one for items on the floor (See Figure 1). Each 'target' item on the floor was mixed in with two 'distracter' items. The player was only given one guess in order to avoid random guessing. Because of my impeccable artistic skills, players were allowed to ask about the identity of the objects. This became important particularly for some ambiguously drawn items. A bag of ice (what I drew) does not necessarily cue 'floating' as well as a single ice cube (what was intended).
Figure 1. Implementation of the 'Objects-as-Metaphors' Mechanic. (Top) The player was given a pair of pants and a bag of pita on the left hand side. From this, the player was expected to deduce the relationship of 'has pockets' to items in the bag. The player could then apply this expectation to the right-hand side of the board to pick out the 'has pockets' object, the kangaroo. (Bottom) The player was given a bottle of honey and a piece of bubble gum. The player was expected to deduce a relationship of 'is sticky'. From this, the player could identify the stick as itself 'stick-y'. This argument required the use of word-play, which was not accepted by some players as consistent with dream logic.
Test players performed much better on characterization tasks involving 'is' or 'has' than 'does'. For instance, the 'has pockets' condition was immediately identified by all testers. Neither of the testers were able to identify the ice and balloon as 'do float'. There are a couple of potential reasons for this. I already discussed the first possibility, that I am not much of an artist. This was more or less compensated for by a re-drawing of the ice so that it was not contained in the bag (which confounded the first trial, wherein the player focused on the bag as a container for ice and the balloon as a container for air) and by allowing testers to ask questions. Interestingly, both testers also identified the objects in this trial as belonging to a 'set', wherein one object is similar to the other in some ways, but different in a particular other way and thus the third object should follow this pattern. For instance, one tester identified the balloon as containing a gas, the bag of ice as containing a solid, and guessed the distracter item, vinegar, as the item belonging to the bag because it contained a liquid. This was a valid guess (though not the one we were looking for) and should be considered for future design. This also raised the issue of object selection for the distracters. Our secondary tester grouped the balloon and ice with a top hat, because all three belonged at a party (also a valid conclusion). One tester also rejected the logic behind the word puzzles because he doesn't "dream in homonyms" (again, a valid point).
Regardless of logistical implementation issues, we determined this prototype was not necessarily the direction we wanted to proceed in with the dream-based game. The logic, while intriguing, did not lend itself to a story and did not directly involve the personality of the supermarket clerk. While the use of metaphor was acknowledged as relevant for future prototypes, it was determined that the mechanic could be put to better use in an adventure-game type setting than on its own. Furthermore, it was stressed that we should be taking a deeper look at the goals, desires, and motivations of the individual dreaming the dream, a notion to which this prototype did not lend itself.