I Don’t Know How I Feel About Dreamlight Valley

Disney’s new “kind of free-to-play but also not really” game is confusing the heck out of me and I can’t stop playing it

A collage of "selfies" from the Disney Dreamlight Valley game, with different Disney characters

Disney Dreamlight Valley is like if you took Kingdom Hearts, removed all the traces of a Japanese RPG, and replaced them with The Sims and Animal Crossing. Or, if you want an unfairly uncharitable interpretation: if you made an IP-synergy game mashing up most of Disney’s characters, applied free-to-play mechanics, and then sold it as a retail product.

To be clear, it’s not actually a free-to-play game, and its mechanics don’t feel anywhere near that exploitative. It’s more like the Sims 4 model, where there’s an endless supply of purchasable content, except you can get much of it just by playing the game normally. Even though “normally” does often feel like doing fetch quests or variants on “collect these 3 things” or “cook these 3 things,” or waiting for timers to expire.

It’s odd, is my point, which might be entirely because I’ve largely been out of the whole “casual games” environment for the past several years. Maybe this is just how these types of games work now, and I’m unfairly equating the mechanics with the types of free-to-play games that I absolutely hate?

Whatever the case, the end result is that I’m absolutely hooked on it, even as I’m constantly wondering whether it’s “okay” for me to be hooked on it. I keep wondering whether I can just enjoy it in perpetuity until I get tired of it, like Animal Crossing, or whether the other shoe is going to drop at any moment, and I’ll find the seedy underside of the business model. I suspect that I’m either just paranoid, or too set in my ways, where you paid your 50-60 bucks and got the entire game until the sequel came along a few years later. I get nervous when I see any sign of the business model in the game design itself.

Which isn’t entirely fair, because Dreamlight Valley is charming as hell. I’ve played this kind of “let’s throw all of our IP together in one place” type game a few times before, from cheaper mobile games to more ambitious stuff like Kingdom Hearts and Disney Infinity, and the art direction and production value of Dreamlight Valley is some of the best yet. It feels aimed at a mid-range, widely accessible game engine, instead of being thrown together on the cheap. The characters and locations I’ve seen so far all stay close to their on-screen versions — without radical redesigns to give everything a common art direction — and I think it all works pretty well.

I’m also very happy that they’ve continued the trend of the Disney Animation Studios 3D character designs for humans that started around Tangled or Frozen, which allow for customization and skew towards cartoons, but are all inherently appealing. I can only dream of hitting the level of Daddiness that my in-game avatar pulls off effortlessly, even if I do still wish that the game had representation for people like me, i.e. those whose hair and beard are completely different colors.

It looks like they’re ready for a full suite of dozens of different characters, so they’re not all exhaustively animated, but each has a set of standard animations that’s still full of character. Merlin does his happy dance, Maui slaps his chest, Remy acts enraptured by what he’s smelling, and so on.

Also, for all my uneasiness at the systems and “compulsion loops” seemingly laid bare, the systems do all fit together in clever and frequently satisfying ways. I’m too much of a Gen Xer to ever be completely comfortable when Disney starts laying it on thick with the power Dreams and Magic and Imagination, but I still am extremely pleased to be playing a game where you level up by doing nice things for your friends. It’s just a really nice, comforting suspension of disbelief to be able to ignore the fact that you’re looking at a semi-randomly-generated list of craftable items, and instead tell yourself, “I’m going to take the time to make Mickey Mouse a vegetable casserole, because I know it’s his favorite.”

I’m playing the game on PC with Xbox Game Pass, which might be part of why I can’t quite get comfortable with it. I still don’t fully understand the business model of subscription services. At least with free-to-play games, I had a vague understanding that they were exploiting “whales” who contributed more money than the average player. I hate it, but at least I understand it. Playing a game like Dreamlight Valley — with its roped-off hallways suggesting near-infinite expansion packs and downloadable content in the future — might feel more relaxing if I’d paid for it up front.

At least for now, though, I’ll keep doing favors for Scrooge McDuck (more or less the Dreamlight Valley version of Tom Nook) and trying on different outfits and cooking meals for Mickey Mouse to take on picnics and do my best to ignore the feeling that the rug is going to get pulled out from under me.