The medium of the video game is a one-of-a-kind artistic form. There is still monumental potential for experimentation in interaction and narrative redefinition.
While there is the potential for video games to reinvent the storytelling wheel, very few have done so. The best and most common examples of these baby-steps are most often seen in the realms of indie development over those of the triple-A space. That’s not to say that this creative evolution cannot take place and has not taken place in the lands of the big-budget gaming experience, it’s just that the developers behind such works are more often hamstrung by those in charge of the money, averse to taking risks they don’t understand or can’t see returning a probable profit.
In the indie space though, as long as you have the time and the tools, you can potentially do anything.
Dreaming Sarah doesn’t make monumental strides in the indie development space on a technical level, and what it does do narratively is not going to cause a monumental sea change in storytelling, but it does show signs of a fascinating creative imagination that I might say encourages keeping an eye on the creator’s future output.
On its surface level this is a simplistic, but pleasant-looking platformer with light adventure puzzle elements. You traverse a small number of unique locations, collecting a handful of items that do one of two things. The first subset of items allows you to unlock new areas and connections to seemingly disconnected areas. The second set of items add little gameplay wrinkles to your character’s skill-set.
Some of these are pretty standard, like pointing you towards a new item or allowing you to move over larger gaps in levels. Others though are less… traditional. Progression is very Metroidvania-lite with each item unlocking new areas and events previously seen but inaccessible. Where Metroidvanias tend to lean more into skill-based ability upgrades, the items here feed into the more narrative-based dream logic taking place.
Where this little gem shines is in its wild imagination and surreal creativity. Too often a game, even a less creatively constrained indie title, will adhere to many of the expected tropes of the medium and genre it is playing with. Here there are flourishes of creative freedom that, while not groundbreaking, do leave a mark.
The deliberate and enjoyable application of surrealist dream logic to tell a clear story is a delight to experience. Going in blind Dreaming Sarah does little to hold your hand or spell things out, but over a short space of time, it easily paints its picture with minimalist brush strokes.
That’s not to say that the more experimental experience isn’t without its flaws or conversely, is truly breaking new ground. The visuals are perfectly pleasant for the budget that the game seems to have had, and its 2D platforming isn’t the most refined you’ll ever have seen. Jumps aren’t satisfying in the tactile sense like a Mario or a Rayman game. To be fair, they don’t have to be to do what the game is attempting to do in this case. There are some issues around the item management system, with items selected occasionally not wanting to work as expected or the item used as a glide often feeling out of your control and also seemingly deselecting itself between areas.
The more surreal and creative game space also leads to a moment of confusion which can leave you not sure of what to do next. This isn’t on the level of a classic adventure game asking you to use a pineapple to open a door at all, but the disconnected logic does sometimes prevent clear understanding for progression.
There are some items that seem not to do anything, or more accurately, aren’t obvious about having done something. Most times you do know what’s happened to allow you to progress though so this is an issue that is less of a lynchpin for the enjoyment of the experience.
The game’s dream logic extends to NPC interactions instead, with the protagonist meeting a wide range of, surreal and sometimes disturbing characters as she makes her way through the experience. Much like the items you pick up, many are there to move you forward through the worlds you traverse, but others don’t seem to be there for any clear reason at all. Some interactions had here also bordered on the disturbing, one side character and item combination suggesting narrative interpretation that could potentially cause some more sensitive players to feel uncomfortable.
To be clear, this isn’t a groundbreaking game, but it is a creatively curious title that suggests its developer Asteristic Game Studio could be one worth watching.
Dreaming Sarah is out now on Xbox One and Series S/X, PlayStation 4 and 5, Switch, and PC via Steam and other digital storefronts. There is also a very different style mini-sequel available now on Itch.io that bridges the Dreaming Sarah experience and the planned sequel.
- Fun and original experience
- Simple but pleasant visuals
- Smooth gameplay
- Some fun and one-of-a-kind characters
- Can feel very short
- Some slight glitches with item management can be annoying
- The music is nice but repetitive