From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, a look back on a game that was just plucked from the archives and made freeware. Is its weirdness worth a download?
You're a normal guy. A bartender, in a dystopian future where the evening weather report is simply "Rain" and tomorrow will always be a trenchcoat and shades kind of day. You sleep, because that's kinda something you do. Then you wake up and decide to go and murder several incredibly famous people in cold blood because some guy in your dream told you to. Sounds like a plan, right?
On the plus side, at least now you get to do it for free.
Dreamweb is a weird little game, and the latest 90s 'thing' to make the jump to official, go-nuts, abandonware-no-more freeware. ScummVM has the files you need, and of course, the software to run it. DOSBox works fine too, as indeed might opening the executable in a hex editor and having it processed by the greatest computer of all—the human brain! Definitely try that last though.
Is it a lost gem? In short, no. In slightly more detail, hahahahahahahahaha no. It's interesting though, in a way that suggests it could have been something special had its designers not apparently a) run out of time or b) run out of interest after finishing its first couple of missions. The biggest loss was that at the start, it's kept vague whether or not you're actually saving the world or just a crazy person whose idea of a good night's work is to amble into some celebrity's home and perform head surgery with a shotgun. By even the mid-game, that's gone. It's real. And much less interesting as a result.
Dreamweb was also a controversial game, not for any of this—pfft, as if—but for the far more socially worrying, unthinkable inclusion of a few pixels of hardcore, low-res sex and terrifying, terrifying penis. The world was simply not ready to be exposed to such exposure, and when society finally gets blasted into salt for its sins, it's fair to say that Dreamweb will ultimately be responsible. Or, indeed, not.
Even with that lurking horror in the pants of destiny though, the first mission is worth the download for both its unique style, and its educational value. Do you want to murder the world's most famous rock star? Dreamweb demonstrates that you don't need Agent 47's training, or Corvo's magic powers, or even the common sense to realise that sunglasses are for the day-time. You just need a little moxie. And a gun, ideally. But mostly moxie. And a credit card. In fact, moxie is irrelevant. Screw moxie.
Why are you murdering the world's most famous rock star, and then several other people? As mentioned, you're just a regular guy, a bartender called Ryan, obeying the voices in your head. The goal is to protect the Dreamweb, a magical force that psychically connects everyone together, and is under threat from seven baddies who want to seize its power and cripple the world with nightmares about being naked in an exam or whatever. Ryan heads out to save the world from a future where dictators end up at war after too many tormented nightmares of kissing each other with tongues, and nobody dares leave their houses for fear of the carrot people. I may be underselling the threat here. I'm not sure it matters though, because Ryan just takes it on faith.
A quick glance at the screen shows Dreamweb to be a little odd. It's all seen from a top-down perspective, usually in an area just large enough to house a single Shreddie. Everything under the cursor is zoomed in, but don't think that means this isn't going to be one of those pixel-hunting adventures. Your first objective is to find a key. Where is the key? The key is in the microwave. Dreamweb!
Most of the items you see can be picked up and added to your inventory. 99.9% of them are completely useless. Instead of filling the rest of the screen with atmosphere or detail or indeed, enough space to swing a cat, much of the screen is instead taken up with a giant gormless picture of Neil Gaiman staring disapprovingly at... wait, sorry, that's Ryan, looking into the distance in a way I think we have to assume he's doing in the game proper. Just imagine him wandering down the street with a gun, enjoying a rare day-dream that doesn't end with some half-dressed lady toying with a bra strap and casually asking "By the way, mind killing some dude for me?" Would explain why nobody really wants to talk to him.
Still, it's Ryan's girlfriend, Eden, who you really have to feel sorry for. As Ryan starts his campaign of only potentially justified homicide, she's still curled up in bed with no clue that her boyfriend is about to become the world's most wanted fugitive. Probably my favourite thing in the game is that if you try to "Use" the bed, Dreamweb protests "You only just got out of bed!", as if the mere idea of spending another few hours wrapped in the naked embrace of a loved one is somehow silly next to the far more sensible plan of heading out into a rainy dystopian city and publicly killing a celebrity in a penthouse.
I'm not much of a morning person either, but damn.
This being cyberpunk though, there's one thing that has to be done before any murder or hacking or even breakfast can take place, and I think we all know what that's going to be!
In fairness to Ryan, this isn't the silliest part of living in THE FUTURE. This is a world where everyone's apartment is protected not with keys or biometrics or anything, but by passcodes. It's sad when a bit of talcum powder can get you into anyone's private sanctum—or would, if it hadn't apparently been banned years ago after one too many break-ins. I suspect it's only Cyber-Canada where it's still available, on the grounds that everyone is far too polite to do anything so naughty. Allegedly.
In Ryan's apartment, we get to find out how a would-be serial killer lives. Unsurprisingly, it's 'in filth'. For the record, if I ever decide to go on a killing spree, I'm totally taking some time to leave fiendish clues for the police investigators. A room full of maps connected with red string. Walls painted with things like "THE SLUMBERER HATH AWAKENED" and so on. Suitably soul-breaking music playing on a perpetual loop from a shrine made of some kind of faeces. Just seems like basic good manners.
Ryan's just messy though, and too busy to clean up right now. Instead, he goes straight to his computer to remind himself where his friend Louis lives. Dreamweb being in The Future, it uses a high-tech system designed for convenience, speed, accessibility, and definitely not copy protection.
A good murderer needs allies. Ryan's first is a guy called Louis, who lives in a bad part of town. So bad in fact that Ryan is mugged as soon as he arrives by a guy who knocks him on his arse with some kind of laser whip, robs him, and screams off into the night content at having pulled off The Perfect Crime. Does he take his wallet? His sunglasses? His pockets full of random crap?
Nope. The mugger steals his shoes. And without them, Ryan refuses to go anywhere else. This being Dreamweb, the goofiest cyberpunk game this side of Bloodnet, things then get even sillier when Louis turns out to be slumped on the toilet when Ryan breaks into his apartment and then barges in to ask if he knows where he can get a gun.
Louis does, and for some reason points Ryan to a supplier without so much as adding "Now get the hell out of my bathroom and let me shit in peace!"
To thank him for his help, and render the trainer theft the most pointless subquest in subquest history, Ryan then casually steals his shoes and walks out. With friends like this...
His karma gets even worse when he heads to Louis' contact—a guy called Silverman in a local pool hall. Technically, you shouldn't even be able to get in, this apparently being a high-class kind of dive where everyone needs to show a membership card to enter. The bouncer only cares that you have somebody's card though, shrugging off the fact that it's a friend's by saying that hey, if it's OK with Louis, why should he care? Suddenly I see why Ryan will get away with several murders without even facing much opposition. Everyone's so laid back about security around these parts, doing silly things like leaving passwords on unprotected terminals is the equivalent of locking their secrets in Fort Knox.
"What can I get you?" asks the bartender.
"Er. My friend's name is Louis, Louis King," Ryan tells him. "I need a gun. I don't know much about them, but I need one."
Nothing like both setting up a good evidence trail and dropping a friend in the poop, huh, Ryan? The bartender agrees to let you see Silverman anyway though, presumably assuming that a cop would be way better at this, though warning that you'll need some 'money' if you want to get a black market dealer to supply you with anything more than a broken nose. Slightly problematically though, Ryan is broke, and currently in a state of 'fired like a cannon' due to not bothering with work recently.
Still, this is Dreamweb, where the most mundane shit gets to be a puzzle but actual problems are largely solved by the game itself. A quick trip to said former employer, Sparky's Bar, demonstrates that either this is true here, or Ryan is just the luckiest murderer in the history of psychosis.
"Hey Ryan. Did you get my Mailnet message?"
"No, sorry. I mean, sorry I'm late."
"That's OK, no problem at all."
"Yeah, you're fired. If you'd bothered to read my message you would know that by now."
"You can't do that I really need the money!"
"Sorry Ryan, I can't use unreliable staff."
"Look, I'm sorry. I've been having a few problems sleeping recently, I'll try and pull myself together."
"I'll tell you what I'll do. Take a couple of weeks off, try and sort yourself out."
Sparky. Officially the Nicest Guy In The Future. Anyone with a brain would take this good fortune and leave, bowing and scraping, promising never to screw up again. Ryan on the other hand just has to push things one step further, to the point that Gandhi would clip him round the ear.
"Thanks, I really appreciate it. Do you think I could have my wages?"
The correct answer is obviously "Christ, Ryan, are you from Mars? Get out of here and start counting your blessings before I put away the cannon and fire you with a goddamn flamethrower!" Luckily for Ryan though, he's some kind of Jedi Knight of chutzpah, and instead Sparky decides:
"Well... I guess so, even though I've ended up having to work behind the bar myself."
Good to know that his faith will be rewarded by Ryan using his wages to buy a gun and kill people, huh? That's going to be awkward when his face inevitably appears on the evening news.
With money in hand though, it's time to meet Silverman. I love this conversation. It's the most geeky black market deal in the history of fiction, from the way Silverman may as well introduce himself as "Hello, I am a black market dealer which means I will sell you things you should not have," to Ryan proving it takes so much more than a pair of sunglasses to be a badass. Just... just enjoy.
"Good evening. My name is Silverman. What's yours?"
"Oh, my name is Ryan and I need your help. Louis King is a friend of mine, he said you would have what I want."
"Your friend Louis was right, I can usually help people out, provided they have enough money."
"Oh yes, I have money, I just hope I have enough."
"And you're after a handgun of some kind, yes?"
"Yeah, something that's easy to use. I've never used a gun before but I need to now. I need to kill a m..."
TOP TIP: FOR A SUCCESSFUL MURDER, DO NOT TELL PEOPLE THIS KIND OF THING!
Silverman kindly points out "Please, Ryan, don't tell me any more than I need to know. I can supply you with a gun. What you do with it is up to you..." but is willing to continue the deal anyway. This being The Future, life is cheap and guns are cheaper—two weeks of bartending being more than enough to buy a magic pistol that even a dumbass like Ryan can use. Silverman isn't that much smarter, not just handing an obvious crazy person a weapon, but a fully charged one with his fingerprints on it and everything. He's not a complete moron though, with a heavy on standby in case you immediately pull it out and try and gun him through the face with your new toy. Try that, and this happens.
Ryan's killing urge has to wait a little while yet then, but not long. With a gun in hand, and having left an evidence trail that includes openly confessing his murder plans to people and buying weapons with a credit card, he heads to his target—David Crane. What Ryan's dreams have against the creator of Pitfall goes largely unsaid, though I suspect it may have something to do with A Boy And His Blob.
He's staying at the Regency Hotel, which is so expensive and luxurious that a deranged bartender can afford a whole suite with the change left from two weeks wages and buying an automatic weapon on the black market. Conveniently, most of the rooms are gone. The one that isn't... is right underneath the penthouse where Crane is staying. Ryan somehow manages to avoid telling the receptionist "Awesome! That's exactly who I was planning to murder!"
So, he's learning. Got to give him that.
There's no need to actually go into the suite though, making this pointless. Instead, Ryan stops by a fire point and pinches an axe, and defeats hotel security by sabotaging the lift controls with a knife and clambering up to the top floor. And you know what time that makes it? It's Murder O'Clock!
WARNING: YOU WILL SEE A PENIS IN 2 PARAGRAPHS.
Ryan hacks open the door with the fireaxe and bursts out a on poolside. Two guards are there. One goes for his gun, but Ryan avoids it—not by dodging, specifically, but by spinning round to plant the axe in some guy's chest. Without a moment's thought, he then pulls his gun and shoots the second guard into an exploded mess. Neither is deemed worth a comment, never mind remorse.
In Dreamweb's most controversial scene, you burst in on Crane having sex with a lady. It is possibly the most erotic thing ever to require squinting to see, or, more likely not. Unflapped, Ryan pulls his gun. Crane sees him. The woman screams, climbs off him, and crawls under the bed. And Crane—
WARNING: THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE TO AVOID SEEING PENIS.
Well, that. Luckily for the MORAL HEALTH OF THE WORLD, he immediately grabs a pillow to cover himself with, and has a deeply undignified final conversation with the crazy person. Sadly, his dialogue makes it clear that you are actually on a mission to save the world, with talk of "Keepers" and "Deliverers" and "Killing me will only make the others stronger." This turns out to be a complete lie, as Crane is by far the hardest target. In every possible sense, actually.
"I must kill you," drones Ryan. "Then the nightmares will end."
He shoots. He scores a direct hit. Splattering Crane into goo then unleashes The Quickening, as a ball of blue light explodes from his chest and warps Ryan into the Dreamweb to find out his next mission. After that, he wakes up elsewhere in the city, almost as if he went into some kind of fugue state after his crime and really needs to be arrested for the good of everyone around him. Almost, but sadly, not.
And that's the first hit over. Dreamweb has several more, but they're nowhere near the same level of depth. After a while, your targets even end up bumping each other off to save you the effort, with puzzles descending to "Press Button To Win" level. Time or resources, I don't know. If you're interested in checking out the rest anyway though, head to ScummVM and download it. You may want a walkthrough for the computer stuff. (Ryan's password is "blackdragon".) Alternatively, check out the whole game in less fiddly form, right here. As you can see from the runtime, it's not exactly long.
MEDICAL NOTE: Doing random stuff because people in your dreams said to can be hazardous to your health. Unless they tell you to send me bags of valuable gemstones. Then you are indeed the Chosen One Of Legend, and I look forward to seeing you demonstrate your chosenisity.