In many ways, Dark Dreams: RHN is a flamboyantly terrifying fever dream, an inception-like slough through the underbelly of the psyche smattered with viscera and pulsating tiles.
As a fan of the macabre, the obvious echoes of Giger and Zdzisław Beksiński’s work are not lost on me, a forgotten realm of pseudo-organic papercraft serving as the home to ghostly imprints and hideous dusty visages. Arkhouse demonstrates a sublime grasp of the otherworldly decay that serves as a key element in the genre’s timeless visuals, complimented by the piece’s insightful audio direction. A cryptic codex of visions past, Dark Dreams is a layered piece of work with a vast ambiguity and a haunting presence, a theme that seems to extend deep within the halls of the artist’s overall body of work.
I’m not a fan of Metroidvanias, it’s tremendously difficult to invest the time necessary to map out the extensive spaces, byzantine puzzle design, and esoteric acrobatics that the genre regularly demands of its audience. Dark Dreams manages to turn many of these tropes on their head, lacking a sprint functionality and upping the ante when it comes to pixel precise platforming, I often forget that I’m not playing a rather visually brutal interpretation of Super Meat Boy. Exploding platforms, timed jumps that require extensive prowess with one’s fingertip agility, a severe lack of checkpoints, and slow plodding movement, it becomes quickly apparent that Dark Dreams is clearly not fucking around in the pursuit of conveying the psychic assault one experiences in a tangible nightmare.
And if one were to gloss over the comment sections attached to the itch.io release, they will quickly find that this difficulty is a source of fervid frustration for the audience. As if it were a mistake, they perpetually remind the author that the piece is impenetrable, cryptic, and incredibly demanding. Unlike the gameplay, it isn’t difficult to glean that the authorial intent of the mechanics is to inflict them upon the audience: It’s not just a matter of pacing, it’s a matter of punishment.
The difficulty rings throughout the narrative, one of the first exchanges with a purveyor of knowledge, ‘The King’, a makeshift ruler over this hazy domain fully clad in mummified wraps, informs you that one of their mandates is that in order to do damage, you must take damage.
In a realm where there is no distinction between the material and spiritual qualities of its denizens, it’s a simple law of energy exchange designed to maintain balance throughout this ethereal plane. Despite this, it’s hard to recommend Dark Dreams without warning; if you happen to live at the intersection of people who love playing Mario ROM hacks and enjoy the visual stylings of games like OFF or Middens, you will find yourself gleefully at home.
The most astounding part of Dark Dreams is perhaps not the work itself, but the intensive planning that seems to have gone into it:
The first 4 games are finished and released. Number 5 (D1896) will be released soon. Number 6 and 7 are Work In Progress. 8, 9 and 10 exist only on paper at the moment.– From the Arkhouse Development Blog
Arkhouse is very much so a difficulty enthusiast in every sense of the word; few developers in the medium go to such extensive lengths to plan out their entire catalogue. It’s a methodology oft discouraged within the discourse because of its inflexibility, after all, art in our medium is too frequently subordinate to function- the need for games to be ‘fun’ takes primacy above every other qualifier. Many would argue that this derives from an unspoken profit incentive, a way to maintain sales metrics and keep up engagement throughout the whole experience, after all, countless would likely argue that if you cannot consume it, why bother supporting it? If there is no audience to support it, why create it?
Arkhouse refuses to submit to the profit mandate, to compromise the meaning of their works by muddling the design in order to satisfy outside expectations. It’s an understanding that an artist is content to court the patronage of those who simply enjoy the visual arts, the music, the conceptual design of taking the interactive medium to a higher level. If you don’t like the gameplay, you can still appreciate what is on display, what achievements have taken place, or even that Arkhouse is in pursuit of a production that appeals to their own tastes and sensibilities first and foremost.
In an era of manufactured culture, lootboxes, the never ending quest for financial reasons to produce grand works, Dark Dreams is a reminder that our fantastical visions, as personal as they may be, do not have to justify themselves against market dynamics to exist. Arthouse games will find a home in the hearts and minds of those who engage with the craft, the methodology and distinct vision that they provide, the things found lacking in the level of intimate finite detail in the mainstream.
If recent AA and AAA releases are anything to go by, there may be a day where works like these will no longer linger in obscurity, that they may finally assume their rightful place in art installations to be viewed with reverence equal to that which theatrical productions and roadshow galleries enjoy today. It reaffirms that our dreams, no matter how dark, are still worth working towards.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice