Blood, sex, and point & click
"Dreamweb" was released during a great epoch of game-making. Right at the peak of the "multimedia revolution", it was the time when game developers experimented with everything, paving new ways in many genres. The discovery of new technologies also led to an outburst of creativity. Games became much more atmospheric, more sensual and physically immersive. It was the time in which 3D shooters were defined, full-motion video technology with live actors broadened the horizon, and adventure games were entering an age of absolute maturity.
The golden age of comedy adventure was already behind, and developers were working on new concepts. Some of the greatest and most ground-breaking adventures were born at that time. Under a Killing Moon
were released in the same year as "Dreamweb".
What is different in "Dreamweb"? Not its "Blade Runner-like" cyberpunk setting, which has been already done to death. Not its gameplay system, which, beside some minor interface innovations, was not really innovative. "Dreamweb" was similar to "Noctropolis" in the way that both games were highly atmospheric and valued style above everything else. But what makes "Dreamweb" decidedly different not only from "Noctropolis", but from nearly every other adventure game, was its very unusual approach to some of the most basic concepts of story-telling.
Classic adventure is the most non-violent of all story-driven video game genres. The protagonists of adventure games can lie, cheat, use hyperactive rabbits on NPCs, have sex with gum-chewing whores, insult swordfighting opponents, and perform other morally questionable actions. But pure physical violence is not something you'll see much in an adventure games. Especially not when it is performed by the protagonist.
But here comes "Dreamweb" and changes it. "Dreamweb" is definitely the most violent, bloodiest, most disturbing adventure game I've ever played. There are many gory scenes, pictures of explosions, mutilated bodies, etc. But the really shocking part is that most of those violent actions are committed by you
, the protagonist of the game.
At first sight, it looks like yet another quest for the Earth's salvation: you are contacted by some higher powers, who tell you to kill seven influential people because otherwise humanity will die, blah blah blah. But very soon you realize that it's not exactly "blah blah blah", there's something decidedly fishy in the whole scheme. First of all, you obey those mysterious high powers only because they seem to have taken control over you by sending you terrible nightmares. Second - and that's the most striking distinction - the way the hero dispatches of the evil enemies is not particularly heroic. The word "murder" comes to mind.
Indeed, perhaps the most original and captivating trait of "Dreamweb" is the very thin moral rope its protagonist walks on. The line between salvation of mankind and murder is very blurry in this game. In order to kill the seven big villains, you'll have to kill other people as well. The more the game continues, the more brutal the murders become, the more you begin to question the whole thing. And the tragic ending sequence is fitting from this point of view.
The protagonist of "Dreamweb" comes very close to being a true anti-hero. His goal might be just, but the means he has to use to achieve this goal are dubious at best. What's more, the hero doesn't really react to all that; during the course of the game, he becomes more and more similar to a real murderer. We know that he wasn't an evil man before, and realize that he is acting under some kind of an influence. The game's unique power lies in its ability to completely immerse the player through this very bizarre and disturbing identification with a nearly deranged, psychopathic person.
The violence and the blood in the game is anything but gratuitous, it appears as an inseparable part of the game's world, and adds a lot to the heavy feeling of despair that accompanies us throughout the game. "Dreamweb" was also famous for having an explicit sex scene, not just softcore stuff like naked breasts (although there is a bit of that, too), but an animated depiction of two people actually having sex. At that moment the tiny viewing area of the game bothered me particularly.
But that's not all, of course. "Dreamweb" has extraordinary atmosphere. Despite the flawed perspective, the world of "Dreamweb" does come to life. The darkness of this world is akin to the darkness that surrounds the hero and his deeds. The atmosphere of "Dreamweb" is depressing in an enchanting, magical, and sometimes strangely comfortable way. Looking at this grim world, at the never-ending rain, at the atmosphere of hopelessness surrounding everything, you feel cozy in your room, a hot cup of tea in front of you on the table, just you and "Dreamweb" on the computer screen...
The world of "Dreamweb" is designed in a nearly meticulous way. The amount of detail is astonishing, even for an adventure game of the early nineties, which were so rich on interaction. "Dreamweb" continues the noble tradition of adventure games that react to the actions of the player, giving him feedback in the form of text descriptions. I absolutely love the way those games immerse me through this text, make me feel I am exploring a believable world. This ability is sadly absent from most adventure games of later years.
Even though "Dreamweb" doesn't differentiate much between interaction commands (they are context-sensitive and are mostly described as "use"), it provides plenty of good old text comments, with a good variety in the responses. For example, if you try to use an object where another object is required, the game will not always dismiss your actions with a generic comment (such as "you can't do that"). Instead, it will sometimes react to your attempt, referring directly to the object in question and telling you concretely why it wouldn't work in this situation.
"Dreamweb" is all about interaction; there is an insane amount of items you can pick up, most of which are not required to complete the game. All those items have text descriptions, can be examined in the inventory, etc. You can find CDs and put them in CD players, use the computer, watch the news, and do many thing that are there just to enhance the game world.
Lastly, I want to mention the excellent soundtrack; the dark electronic tunes fit the setting perfectly, and come just in the right amount to provide a great musical background to the game.
The most obvious flaw of "Dreamweb" is its perspective. For some reason, the designers decided to show the game's world entirely from a top-down view. This would have been a good decision for an RPG, in which it is important to view large areas due to their size. But it was quite unnecessary in an adventure game.
The matters are made worse by the tiny window in which the game world appears. There is a smaller area to the left in which everything appears zoomed in, but wouldn't it be a better idea to make the main window bigger in the first place? The rest of the screen is occupied by a huge face of the protagonist, which makes little sense and just bothers the player. In fact, it took me several attempts to actually start playing "Dreamweb", because the perspective and the tiny size of the playing area prevented me from being immersed in the game.
The world of "Dreamweb" is fascinating, but very small. Instead of connecting all the areas, creating at least a district of a city, every area just ends abruptly after one screen of the street outside, and you are taking into a menu with traveling options. I'd much prefer navigating through a continuous world, which would me a much better borrowing from Ultima VI
than the top-down view and the tiny screen.
Also, there aren't really many characters in "Dreamweb", and those that are there don't talk much and are generally not very interesting. For example, the seven villains, which look cool in theory, have nearly no personality. There are no multiple dialogue choices, the conversations are very brief and begin to repeat themselves very quickly. I couldn't get rid of the feeling that "Dreamweb" could have been expanded more, including a larger world, more characters, and more dialogues.
The Bottom Line
"Dreamweb" is one of the few adventure games that deliberately tries concentrate on dark and disturbing themes. It is a stylish adventure that appeared at the time when games were particularly creative, and when new ground was broken everywhere, both on artistic and technological levels. It is not the most advanced game in terms of characterization and dialogues, and sometimes it feels more like a cool experiment than a polished product with equal attention paid to all its aspects. But it has an exceptionally strong personality, and is undoubtedly one of the most atmospheric and unusual adventure games of all times.