You’ve Got a Transactional Friend in Me

More thoughts about the Disney Dreamlight Valley game, since I think I’m finished with it

The last time I talked about Disney’s Dreamlight Valley, I said that I was enjoying it well enough, but it felt like waiting for the other shoe to drop, when the game would suddenly reveal itself to be a monstrous pay-to-play horror trying to sneak its tendrils into every one of my revenue streams.

I think the game finally revealed its true nature with a recent update, and… it’s fine. Its shop model seems to have been established, and it involves entire chains of objects and outfits and cosmetic items that can be bought with one type of the game’s many in-game currencies — they can technically be saved up, but it’s all structured in such a way that you’re much better off paying money for them.

But everything else in the game is wide open, and the studio seems to be releasing regular updates — free of charge — that add more characters and quests to unlock them. I don’t have any intention to pay for the cosmetic items, but then I’ve easily gotten my money’s worth for the purchase price of the game. It’s an often-charming game that served as an excellent distraction during a stressful stretch of work, and it’s delivered just about everything it promised.

As a bonus: I’ve realized a few moderately-interesting things over the course of playing it:

Disney-style characters are potent

Dreamlight Valley is filled with messages about cooperation and consideration and the kind of positivity you’d expect from a Disney game, and it’s welcomed. I think the most interesting decision they made was to include villains as unlockable characters, and structure the game so that you’re incentivized to spend time with the villains instead of just the heroes.

It was unexpected, since the whole Disney system of moral justice typically doesn’t include much in the way of reform. I was inclined just to ignore those characters, but the game gently encouraged me to “do the right thing” with the promise of a vague reward at the end of it. I could imagine an interesting game premise where there’s even more of a focus on this, and you’re charged with guiding the villains towards more productive and healthier-ever-afters.

Even more surprising to me was how much of the villains’ personalities came through from relatively little material. Just via some repeated idle dialogue and a few quest introductions, I got the impression that Ursula would be a lot of fun to hang around, Scar from The Lion King would just be tedious and get old quickly, Mother Gothel from Tangled would be the absolute worst.

I only saw Tangled once, and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. But the repeated passive/aggressive manipulation in her dialogue here, plus repeatedly saying things intended to undermine the player and then pass them off as just jokes, made her my most hated Disney villain. I could imagine sitting down for a chat with Maleficent as a dragon, trying to see if we could get to the bottom of her anger issues. But I’d happily stab Mother Gothel through the heart with a sword and then kick her off a cliff into a bottomless chasm.

The Sims series is still the best at encouraging player creativity

Dreamlight Valley is a reasonably-priced game, so I’ve easily gotten my money’s worth out of it even without paying for any of the add-ons. But I’m also finished with it, I think.

The game shares a lot of the same mechanisms as Animal Crossing and The Sims, but it’s catered more for completionism than creativity. Considering how many avid Disney collectors there are, they might’ve positioned it exactly right, but for me at least, there’s not that hook of sustainability that’ll keep me coming back long-term.

There’s not much room to actually customize your house; you just have lots of options to fill it with stuff. The same goes with customizing your character or your wardrobe; it’s more a case of mixing and matching pre-generated content than anything else. It’s difficult to even maintain the illusion that you’re synthesizing anything new from the component parts.

To be fair: I had a similar issue with Animal Crossing, which is probably the game that Dreamlight Valley most tries to mimic. To me, it’s all a reminder of just how much The Sims 2 did to perfect the presentation and level of customization for building a house and building a character. It hit exactly the right balance between control and abstraction, and it remains the one to beat. (Even within the Sims series itself).

Systems working together are more interesting than fetch quests

There are a few systems working in Dreamlight Valley that all cleverly feed into each other — fishing and gardening give ingredients for cooking, digging and mining give material for crafting, etc — but they all end up feeling like they work in parallel instead of being parts of a big, interconnected system. The overriding goal of the design seems to emphasize being able to add new characters and unlockable objects indefinitely.

And fair enough! There’s clearly an audience for that, and that audience often includes me: even after I felt like I’d seen everything the game had to offer, I was still hell-bent on unlocking Mirabel Madrigal as soon as I found out she was available.

But purely in terms of game design, it does feel somewhat like a missed opportunity. The quest assignments will, as often as not, give you a series of special-purpose goals instead of taking advantage of what you’re already doing throughout the rest of the game. You’ll be given a special one-off recipe that you have to craft, or a unique seed that you have to plant and grow in a specific way.

I do have to wonder whether this is a holdover from massively-multiplayer online games, where any quest chain has to have safeguards to prevent players from just going to an auction house and buying their way to the end of the story. Dreamlight Valley isn’t a multiplayer game (as far as I’m aware), so the biggest risk would seem to be a player screwing up the pacing for themselves: if somebody really got into farming, for instance, and happened to have 1000 carrots on hand long before anybody demanded them for universe-saving purposes.

In my game, Minnie Mouse approached me early on and suggested how nice it would be for the village to have a clock tower. This required a huge amount of iron ore, which at least at that point in my game, was a substance even more rare and valuable than gold, literally. So I found myself spending an entire night toiling away in the mines, chipping away at rocks to somehow find enough iron to appease my taskmaster. (When asked about the dreadful conditions for her workers, Ms Mouse answered simply and enigmatically, “Oooh I just love polka dots!”) So I guess that virtual supply chains, much like real-world ones, are difficult to predict.

But for me, anyway, as a player who doesn’t find collecting virtual items all that rewarding, it meant that the suspension of disbelief faded more quickly than I would’ve liked. At the beginning, it was fun to have the diversion of “I’m doing this task to help make a friend’s day!” You can’t fault a game that lets you — no, encourages you to — surprise a friend with flowers or a home-cooked meal for no particular reason, after all. But because the game doesn’t do much to reinforce this, it quickly becomes apparent that no, there really isn’t anything of substance behind any of it. I’m not advancing in any sense, even in the shallowest sense of doing nice things to get points. It’s just playing a sequence of repeated, pre-generated animations.

I’ve always had a belief — not based on any actual data, just belief — in the “fake it ’til you make it” theory of video game philosophy. In other words: I strongly believe that the vast majority of the people playing ultra-violent video games are perfectly capable of distinguishing fiction from reality, they’re not actually acting out any genuine impulses towards violence, but merely manipulating a system. But: choosing to spend so much time on things that deliberately put human faces and voices onto suffering (whether it’s shooting or stabbing them in an FPS, or locking themselves in rooms until they pee themselves and starve to death in The Sims), has to suggest some level of unnecessary sadism, right? Even if you are just flipping bits in systems that are clearly, unmistakably artificial, isn’t it a sign of a healthier psyche if you’re at least trying to do something more positive or productive?

Dreamlight Valley put that theory to the test, and I’m not so convinced anymore. For a while, it was nice and calming to just be doing nice things for imaginary characters that took no real effort on my part, all for the sake of being nice. But over time, the artificiality of it started to take over. Why are you asking me for a diamond, Buzz Lightyear? Do you have any idea how hard those are to find? What would you even do with a diamond? You’re a toy!

When the demands are arbitrary, and the way to satisfy them is arbitrary, then there’s nothing real to the experience at all. At least in a violent game, the player is most often having to demonstrate some level of skill that they’ve accomplished. If I’d had to cleverly use the system, or even take advantage of something I’d learned about the system, then there’d be some level of intrinsic reward to satisfying an in-game goal. As it is, it’s often based as much on random chance as anything else.

Would Disney be able to even market the kind of game I’m imagining? Something like the Anno series, where I have to build a functional chain of interconnected industries all devoted to keeping Minnie Mouse supplied with dresses and Buzz Lightyear supplied with C batteries? Seems somewhat unlikely, but I would’ve thought a decades-long RPG series with Disney characters contemplating the nature of their existence was a long shot, too.

I hope I don’t sound too critical of Dreamlight Valley, though! Like Animal Crossing at the beginning of the pandemic, it came along at exactly the right time for me, and I got a lot of entertainment out of it. I’ll probably check back in on my village occasionally, which is more than I can say for my Animal Crossing island, unfortunately. It’s absolutely not the crass cash-grab I first assumed it would be, and it’s often clever and evident that there are some thoughtful people working on it, who are genuinely dedicated to making something cool.