I'm not part of the audience Disney Dreamlight Valley feels designed for. The games I enjoy ordinarily are shooters or action games. Things I can win or lose at, with badass trailers, character skill ceilings, and multiplayer capabilities. I'm not a Disney obsessive, though I like the odd Pixar movie well enough. And yet, I'm hooked on Disney Dreamlight Valley and it's taking over my brain.
It's the perfect cosy little adventure I wanted without knowing it. I play it on stream, off stream, while talking to friends on Discord and even muted while watching YouTube videos in the dead of night. There is something so brain meltingly good about Disney Dreamlight Valley that I'm yet to understand, while also acknowledging that I despise a handful of its design decisions and want to boot Mickey Mouse off a cliff with a ceremonious "ah-ha".
I didn't know what to expect from Disney Dreamlight Valley. I hadn't heard of its development, which is odd considering I'm so invested in games, and couldn't imagine how a Disney game could work so well that my colleague Lauren Aitken called it the "perfect Stardew Valley/Animal Crossing life-sim hybrid". So why did I start playing Disney Dreamlight Valley? It's because I wanted to try and understand it.
Life-sims often have a short and sweet honeymoon period. It's the way Animal Crossing: New Horizons operates when you first land on the island and know you have so much to do, so much to achieve within a short time commitment. Eventually the days get harder to feel like I've progressed, and I give up because my island will never be as pretty as the ones I see on TikTok.
Disney Dreamlight Valley starts off in the same way, where you can see an entire village snarled up in thick purple Night Thorns and the houses of many residents that you're bound to meet after your introduction to Merlin from The Sword in the Stone. Life-sims plop you down in the centre of something you recognise the potential of, and give you a little push to start to make that potential a tangible reality.
While Animal Crossing's honeymoon period slows significantly so that you have to wait for fruit to grow over a couple of days and fossils to replenish, Disney Dreamlight Valley's timing is significantly accelerated. Most features you encounter in the game, with a few exceptions, replenish within an hour or less, and that means I can just keep going. With Animal Crossing there is a natural limit to my playtime but no such issue exists with Dreamlight Valley because it knows it's got you snarled up in Night Thorns too. And it's surprisingly comfortable in that spiky underbrush.
Meet your maker
Disney Dreamlight Valley removes the limits that can sometimes feel like they're holding you back. The constant replenishing of crops and naturally occurring resources is pretty great, especially when you play it as I do, as a background game while you're focusing on something else. I can do loops and loops of the area with always something to do and keep my brain occupied. Also manipulating the island to your taste is far easier in DDV than it ever has been in Animal Crossing, allowing a birds eye view of the entire island when placing furniture and plants.
The character creator is among the best I've seen in recent years and I felt actually represented as a mixed-race woman with natural hair. The hair options are better for DDV than they are for Elden Ring, who would have thought? Additionally, you can change these aspects on the go, you're not locked into how you look, and physical attributes like facial hair aren't locked into what body type you've picked for yourself. There are hijabs for people who may want to wear them too which makes this creator far more aware of the whole spectrum of people who will play the game from the very beginning. As a kid I often didn't feel like it was me I was playing in games with character creators. In fact Animal Crossing didn't have options for Black people until very recently so the character creation in Disney Dreamlight Valley was surprisingly appealing.
But DDV comes with its own annoyances like the energy system, which is a drag, the annoyingly difficult task of approaching animals to feed them, shoddy targeting, and sometimes quests that lock you into shit you can't avoid. Two examples of that include WALL-E wanting to feed animals and following me until that happened, which was impossible because that task is one of the few things you can do once a day. And the other is the time when I accidentally helped curse the entire valley and didn't have enough Dream Shards stored away to fix it instantly.
There are undoubtedly issues with DDV, but I just gloss over them as if they don't exist at all. It's hilariously bad at explaining tasks. Actually I had to use my knowledge of what goes into the dish ratatouille to make it in the game, but otherwise people have to look for guides on how to make it. That feeding animals once a day mechanic is never mentioned and almost seems like a bug the first time it doesn't work. I've been trapped in geometry here and there, and sometimes my character model's hair sticks out at a 90 degree angle. And yet the fact it still needs some fixing makes it all the more fun. I'm enjoying its jank as much as the inane gameplay loop of mining, farming, fishing, and shaking trees and I don't understand why.
Every time I end up playing Disney Dreamlight Valley, I question myself a little bit. Why am I here? What am I doing? Why aren't I playing something else right now? Mickey's cold dead eyes creep me out, and I occasionally have some weird bugs where my perspective blips across the screen for a second, but actually none of that matters when my rice and sugarcane crops are ready to be harvested and sold to Goofy.
I'm not sure what's nestled in the code of DDV that makes it just so appealing and yet I kind of resent it for being this fun right now. I don't quite understand why I'm enjoying my time as a magical pastel princess so much, but it's calling to that little part of me that wanted my wall pink as a kid and played with Barbies. I don't want to enjoy this game quite as much as I do, yet here I am, having a wonderful time helping WALL-E with his garden, wishing Goofy would shut up when he fishes, and chasing a rabbit to throw it a carrot, over and over again.