Here is the thing that not a lot of people know about me, Alice in Wonderland always has and will continue to seriously creep me out. On its surface Alice was bright and happy, it was childish and fun, and it was also dreamlike and otherworldly. But it was also dark and oppressive at times and that was just what made it disturbing as a story (that and Lewis Carrol was probably a weird pedophile). Dreaming Mary, a game lead by developer accha, seems to take this otherworldly feeling and firmly cross a line. Before we actually go into what makes this game so fantastic I want to give a quick warning. This review is split into two parts, the first part is mainly a critique of the game’s mechanics, art, music, and atmosphere (nothing new there). But the second part is an analysis of the story and themes of Dreaming Mary. There will be spoilers, and you will be warned ahead of time if you want to avoid them. The game can be found here.
There was a point during Dreaming Mary where I questioned just what type of game I was actually playing. Nothing matched up, the images on the screen weren’t corresponding to what I was feeling. Everything just seems a little off and that uncanny feeling of weirdness couldn’t really be pinpointed early on. This can be (and probably is) my overreaction to the theme and general feeling Dreaming Mary provides. Mainly, I don’t trust things that are overly happy. An individual or place that is always happy is not necessarily “real” or “right” and often is the opposite of what is surface level. This atmosphere of uncanny uncomfortableness that the game provides is phenomenal. Something that is even more impressive when you realize that the game was coded using the RPG Maker VX engine (an engine that has a reputation of putting out more crap that gold, see Kickstarter anything). From a thematic and artistic standpoint the character sprites are detailed and bright, if not limited in animation. Dreaming Mary’s color pallet ranges from the bright and very simple and very pink of Bunnilda’s room to the warm red complexity of Foxxanne’s room. Additionally, the characters are obviously heavily influenced from Japanese anime and western story books. Each character is well designed, and the hand drawn art for dialogue boxes is very well done.
Musically, Dreaming Mary’s soundtrack does its job extremely well. As a music nerd, I love seeing games follow a specific motif throughout its entirety. Generally, I won’t go into detail as to why this is so great, but needless to say the music fits the theme perfectly. But the standout of this games soundtrack is its title theme. The title theme brings a sense of sadness and foreboding, there is not a single note in its entirety that can be construed as happy. It is as propulsive and extremely out of place for what you are getting into. This is starkly contrasted with the menu screen which is smothered with the color pick and cute animals. The song’s vocals are, well they serve a purpose, let’s leave it at that. If Dreaming Mary is to be at fault for something (let’s face it, there is no “perfect” game) it is in its gameplay. At its very core, Dreaming Mary is a horror adventure game with puzzle elements thrown in here and there. You are given tasks or puzzles in the three rooms, you solve the tasks, you move on. It gets, stale as you progress forward to the end game. The steps to get all of the endings, are extremely vague at best. Normally vague is good, particularly when working out puzzles. But not when hidden doors are found but just randomly checking down a hallway or when keys that are traditionally used once and only once can be reused. At many points I had to use a guide to find the “true ending” out of frustration with the game’s pacing. Eventually however the gameplay elements can be forgiven, it is free after all (which coincidentally is always a good price).
**Below is where the spoilers are. But it is also where we get into what makes Dreaming Mary so great. If you haven’t played the game yet, and wish to do so, do it now. Slight disclaimer, below is my interpretation of events in the game. It is an interpretation that coincides with the general consensus of both the game makers and forums I have read, but it is an interpretation nonetheless. Take it with a grain of salt**
Dreaming Mary’s surface level narrative serves to uncover a disturbing truth underneath the thick layer of happiness. Let’s get the story out of the way first, Mary (or Mari in the real world) is a girl whose family have the ability to create literal worlds when they dream (it’s heavily hinted that this ability comes from her mother’s side). Mary creates a world populated by friends every time she dreams. There is Boaris the boar, Bunnilda the bunny, Penn Guindel a penguin, and a fox named Foxanne (go figure). As her mother dies from an unnamed disease and she is left with her wealthy father, his two servants, and an uncle who often visits her. Thematically, each of those characters coincide with characters in the real world, Bunnilda is the maid, Penn Guindel is Mary’s beloved uncle and so on. The eventual end game is to gain access to a door inside a tree at the end of the hallway. To do so you have to gain the “red seed” from each of your friends in a sort of final challenge sequence. If you fail a test the player is still given the “seed” but you also lose one of four white lily pedals received at the start of the game. You then proceed to the tree, the tree opens, you receive end credits, and are asked if you want to try again. Simple game, simple in premise, simple in execution.
Except that it isn’t. We won’t go into detail as to just how exactly you get to this point, but the player eventually ends up in an alternate world, only this world is dark, brown, and terrifying. But it is also identical in layout to the world you just finished exploring. A journal simply tells the player what button allows them to “run” and simply that “if you keep moving he can’t catch you”. Threatening messages aside, the next room is just as unsettling. On a torn couch are the physical representation of your friends, a fox pelt, a skinned rabbit, and a stuffed penguin. At the end of the hallway a head of a boar that just stares at the player. Excluding the boar head, each tells you how to successfully complete the final challenge (something that is pretty much impossible without this guidance). As the player successfully gets the “seeds” from her friends you return to the dark room and hallway to see the representations of your friends ripped to shreds with three brown keys. As the player picks up the final key a voice starts chanting “he is here” and a shadowy figure quickly starts chasing you. Of course, the only way to get away from it is to run back to the safety of the dream world. If this is your first time playing in this area more than likely you will run directly into the shadowy figure on accident. The player is then treated to what is possibly the most disturbing ending of this game, or as disturbing as these things can get. A grainy static picture of a face appears on the screen, only it’s not static it slowly (and I mean slowly) comes towards the screen. The game over screen simply states “sweet dreams” and you are booted out to the menu. It’s with this ending that the player finally realizes just what this game is about, the rape and molestation of a child.
Rape is a difficult subject to cover in any medium. Let alone video games (or a horror video game for that matter). There are points in the game’s narrative that are a little too on the nose. The “seed” is literally seed in the biblical sense (and we’re not talking trees here). What is probably the most depressing aspect is that Mary’s “friends” are more than likely complacent or completely unsympathetic to Mary. Each time you “fail” one of the challenges, and are forced to give up a white lilly pedal (the symbol of innocence in this game) your friend’s demeanor changes. Bunnella who is mainly sweet and airheaded suddenly becomes mocking and malicious, Foxanne who normally is cool and collected suddenly becomes aggressive towards you. Which would make sense under the assumption that these two are the servants of Mary’s father. There is one friend that is probably the most tragic of all, Penn Guindel. Mary’s uncle is the only person who Mary loved to be around in the waking world, he is the one who reads to her and teaches her like her mother used to. Additionally, it’s hinted in the radio broadcasts that he genuinely cares for the girl. But he is also either restricted by family loyalty or is blind to what is happening to his niece. As a result Penn Guindel is the only character who is saddened if you fail at the test, he is the only one who’s portrait does not become aggressive like Bunnilda or Foxanne. Boaris is a different story, he is the only character who offers his “seed” without you needing to complete a challenge, and he’s the only one who you can refuse to accept it from. All the player has to do is give him a lily pedal as payment. If the player refuses him he gets more and more aggressive until you eventually accept to progress to the ending. Boaris is the only friend whose evil world counterpart gives you nothing, and it’s the only location where the shadow appears. Boaris (and by extension the shadow) are heavily implied to be your father, a point that is only driven home during the “true ending” when Mary is locked in her room by her father.
In the disclaimer for Dreaming Mary there is a trigger warning. For those who are not aware, a “trigger warning” is warning that there could be content that could trigger a PTSD like response from someone. This is a warning that has lost its meaning in recent years, so much so that it is hard to take seriously when used on the internet anymore. In Dreaming Mary’s case however it is clear that the warning was not needlessly thrown around. Given, recent events, the topic of rape has come up quite a bit and is uncomfortable regardless of who you talk to. But that is what makes Dreaming Mary’s story necessary. It brilliantly uses the horror genre as a way to make the player empathize with rape victims. Even I have to have to admit, for a brief moment, there was a feeling legitimate terror as that grinning face slowly advanced toward you. You can’t escape it, it comes at you slowly and relentlessly. There is however, no victim complex in Dreaming Mary. Mary actively searches for a way to escape both her dreams and her father, and as a result she tries to take control of her life. The game’s narrative does not pander to its user base by creating a skin deep progressive narrative that ultimately does no good. Under its vainer of saccharine sweetness there is a very real terror. Something that many rape victims must feel on a regular basis as they move on with their lives. But it does not blame those who had no part in it and shows the tragedy of those who are cannot help as well as the villainy of those who can, but choose not to. In the end that is what makes Dreaming Mary so important to the narrative of video games as a whole. Dreaming Mary tackles a very real and very touchy subject in near perfect subtle narrative execution. And subtle is what is key here, the execution is both smart and powerful, something that cannot be said about other titles covering similar subjects. Unfortunately, it will more than likely go ignored in the sea of other mediocre “progressive” titles and agenda pushing. An aspect that simultaneously saddens and infuriates me. In the end, the public wants what it wants.