Every now and then, an experimental game comes along that aims to do something a little bit different. Sometimes ‘a little bit different’ means playing with game mechanics. Sometimes, ‘a little bit different’ means ‘throw the player into a surreal world with no aim or reason and let them explore’. And, that’s exactly what LSD: Dream Emulator does and excels at.
Link Speed Dream
Contrary to your first impressions from the title, it wasn’t just a bunch of developers who did a bunch of LSD and then said, “Hey… What if we made a game!”
Instead, the game is based on a dream journal of one of the employees of Asmik Ace Entertainment, the company behind the game. For an idea of what kind of things the journal contains, here’s one of the entries, titled ‘Oysters With Eyes’:
Raw oysters are on a plate. They are a couple, and both have eyes. They are still alive and it looks like they are mating on the plate. After a while, I come back to the plate. The oysters are still there. This time, I grab them and put them in my mouth, but I cannot swallow them, as I feel like their eyes are watching me. With the raw oysters in my mouth, I can’t even chew, and I’m feeling sick in a greasy sweat, but I can’t do anything but to keep just standing there.
They’re all pretty much like this, some are a little wilder than others. You can see for yourself here, where someone’s made the effort to catalogue all the entries.
The origin story
But the person behind the actual concept of creating a game like this was Japanese artist Osamu Sato who. While he was uninterested in and even rejecting the idea of traditional games, he saw the platform as something that could be used to create art.
He had a history of using games for art, creating the perhaps even more obscure Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou in 1994. But, 1998’s LSD is perhaps his best-known work. Gamers are still playing it to this day and are trying to uncover its secrets.
While Sato had no direct hand in the coding of the game, he did produce and compose the soundtrack to go along with his vision. His vision, of course, was to create art rather than a game as he had no real interest in video games. Sony, at the time, was embracing ideas that were a little more obscure as opposed to companies like SEGA and Nintendo who tended to play it safe when it came to making games.
The idea itself came about when Sato was playing a racing game, which he found positively dull because he was absolutely terrible at it. But, while playing it, he found himself thinking, what if he could crash the car into a wall and be teleported to another dimension?
And so the gameplay of LSD came to be.
Lovely Sweet Dream
Gameplay in LSD is… odd, to put it simply. The game places the player in a first-person perspective, then drops them into a room. The only controls involved are those used to move around. I think the best way to describe how the game functions is to give an example.
So, you begin in a house. The house looks fairly normal for a Japanese homestead. You decide to explore and again, things look pretty normal. You run into a wall and you’re teleported to another area. The areas themselves are static, ranging from a dark and gloomy city through to rural Japanese villages and wide open fields. Where you find yourself is entirely random, and again, things might look pretty normal.
The dream will last roughly ten minutes in which your experience will be given a rating ranging from ‘upper’ and ‘downer’ through to ‘static’ and ‘dynamic’. For example, wandering around the house environment and not running into anything bizarre might be considered an ‘upper’ and ‘static’ dream. Though, if you actively seek out oddities and as you go through more dreams, things will begin to change.
Again, you’ll still be in the same environments, but with changes. The textures on the walls and floors will change to increasingly psychedelic shapes and colours. The familiar becomes surreal and unsettling. The world becomes populated with objects, animals, and all manner of bizarre things. Sometimes, the player doesn’t even get to play through a dream and a surreal video will play instead.
There are countless combinations and it ensures the player will always be finding something new, and to this day, players are discovering new things and still trying to understand exactly how the game works.
In Limbo, the Silent Dream
The game, while relatively obscure at its time of release, quickly gained traction as a cult classic. Then, from there, entered the peripheral of Let’s Players and game fanatics alike. However, due to its incredibly limited release, prices for a physical copy of the game skyrocketed. Copies started at around AU$500 on eBay and only went up from there.
Though it certainly left its impression on the minds and hearts of gamers. It got a re-release on the Japanese PlayStation Network and even made its way to pop culture. For example, the indie rock band Alt-J used an image from the game as the cover of one of their albums (with Sato’s blessing).
There are also modders around the globe trying to re-create the game. Some have created entirely new games inspired by the themes and ideas it used. One such remake is LSD Revamped, a free, fanmade faithful remake that also promises additional content. So, if you’ve ever wanted to try this surreal experience yourself, now’s your chance.
Either way, LSD was a landmark in blurring the lines between game and art. It was something entirely new, entirely unique, and we’ll still be talking about in another 20 years.