Ginger Nuts of Horror
Strangeness and absurdity weren't exactly in short supply during the days of the Commodore Amiga; back then, video games were a fledgling medium, meaning that the established templates and codifications hadn't yet crystallised, resulting in wild and bizarre experiments, games that belonged to no particular category or genre, but existed in and of themselves. For the most part, such experiments were largely half successful or outright failures, the technological limitations of the era not lending themselves to the weight of vision or inspiration that designers, writers and programmers wished to express.
However, amongst the dross and confusion, certain titles stood out and stand out still, rendered distinct by their strangeness, their intrigue; their will to push the bounds of imagery, subject and gaming mechanics beyond the proscribed and established.
Weird Dreams is definitely an example of that and then some. Like many games in this series, it is an exploration of the sub-conscious; a descent into one man's slumbering mind as he goes under the knife for a life-saving operation. The game opens in the operating theatre, just before he goes under, a series of masked and extremely sinister surgeons gathered round about, before a mask is placed over his face...
Then a descent; an Alice in Wonderland tumble into an abyss of chaos. The player lands in a bizarre situation typical of the game: inside a giant cotton candy machine, in which they must gather as much cotton candy as possible to adhere themselves to the stick by which they might escape. Meanwhile, a heart monitor keeps track of the player character's pulse. If it rises beyond a particular pitch, he is in danger of dying on the operating table, and thus losing the game.
Beyond the cotton candy machine, the player emerges into a strange, dilapidated circus, harassed by a nightmarish giant wasp that they must distract with globs of cotton candy or fend off with a stick. Clutched in its legs, a glowing orb, that the player must trick it into setting down, so that they might claim it. These orbs are essential to the completion of the game, but are very easily missed; if the player doesn't manage to claim it before the wasp chases them into a nearby tent, then they never will, and they will reach the end of the game without the means of finishing it. This is fairly typical of games of the era; they are oblique, bizarre and require a great deal of intuition and imagination on the player's part. Do not expect instructions or tutorials; you must discern what must be done through trial and error, and many, many, many failed attempts.
The wasp and the orb, not to mention the circus in which they occur, are also typical of the game's aesthetic and imagery: like Harlequin, American McGee's Alice and myriad others, everything here has a dreaming symbolism; the wasp an almost inescapable, nightmare horror emphasised by how slow the player character moves across the playing area, the playing area itself a twisted echo of childhood; of innocence corrupted. In that, the game attempts to overcome its own graphical and technological limitations; a generally successful experiment, if only because, as its title suggests, almost everything it contains is so damn weird.
Escaping the wasp, the player finds themselves in a sort of hub-world; a hall of mirrors, each mirror a portal to a different playing area; a different segment of the player's dreaming psyche. One leads to a suspiciously pleasant garden area, a bed of roses blooming, sun shining, while a rendition of “An English Country Garden” plays in the background. Lingering too long in this apparent Eden, however, results in a demonic lawnmower roaring from one side of the screen, chewing the player character to ribbons. Approaching the rose bed with undue haste, however, results in the flowers sprouting mouths and teeth which gnaw on the player as they pass. The trick is to move speedily but stealthily, to beat back the gnawing roses with discarded branches.
Again, the game demonstrates how subversive it is to expectation; how it presents the player with seeming peace and innocence then transforms it into a Jungian nightmare. Images of peace, of beauty; all things redolent of childhood, become monstrous, here.
The next screen is arguably the climax of that theme; a lawn area in which a little girl is playing with a football. Beckoning, she asks you to join in the game. However, as you play, throwing the ball back and forth between you, the ball starts to sprout a tooth-lined maw, which will devour you if you fail to catch it promptly. Meanwhile, the girl begins to brandish an immense butcher's knife behind her back, skipping closer and closer with every passing heartbeat. If you allow her too close, she stabs the player character in the heart, ending the game. The only way out of the situation is to throw the ball so that she doesn't catch it, at which point it will devour her instead.
This is perhaps one of the most subtly sinister scenes in the game; one in which a child becomes a murderer and a child's toy becomes a predatory monster. Again, the imagery is fairly nightmarish, and extremely distressing to audiences of the era, who were generally unused to such fare in their video games.
Returning to the hall of mirrors reveals another distressing element; one of the mirrors pulsing, as though something is attempting to press through from the other side. A quick escape through one of the alternative portals may bring the player to a darkened hallway of flickering lights, various doors and swarms of fluttering bats. Attempts to pass through the doors result in emergence into either the same corridor or back into the hall of mirrors. Sometimes, grotesque sets of teeth chomp down, biting the player character. Avoidance of the bats brings the player to a fully lit corridor in which perhaps the most bizarre monstrosity in the game waits: an immense, animated roast chicken, clucking and squawking as though still alive, its front end ripped wide into a kind of maw, immense teeth gnashing there. The play must swing over the absurdity using the lamps overhead, before it greedily devours them.
Alternatively, the player may emerge walking a giant keyboard that is playing a sinister tune, a jester-like phantasm in the background echoing the performance on its own piano grin. The player must leap as the keys rise or slide away, passing huge ballet dancers that can kick you back across the screen and a slumbering electric eel that can shock you into a heart attack or, if you are stealthy, become an essential weapon.
The order in which the player attempts these tasks is generally up to them, but there are certain items from particular areas that are essential to completing puzzles in others. For example, if you attempt the quick-sand strewn desert area without acquiring the ball, you will be sucked down into the sands (the ball eats a pathway through for the player before graphically bursting apart). Similarly, if you reach the final encounter of the game (a great brain rising from the desert sands, with a central eye that opens and closes, an electron-like system of smaller brains swirling around it) without acquiring all of the orbs, the game is unbeatable and death certain. This can be incredibly frustrating, as there is no save function, requiring the player to go through the entire game again if they die.
A flawed gem, like many in this series: Weird Dreams control system is sluggish and horrendous, requiring pin-point accurate timing, especially during sections that require jumping or platforming shenanigans. It is also obscenely difficult, especially if you've never played an Amiga title before; the likelihood of success is slim to nil.
Even if you manage to succeed, and wake from your nightmare, there is another waiting in the operating theatre...
A game that sustains on imagery and atmosphere alone; that will certainly fray the nerves of many a present day player, but which, contextually, stands as a fascinating experiment.
is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.