I sometimes dream about jumping. I am running – the first clue that this is a dream, as in my day to day life I rarely exceed a shambolic lope – and then without even a bend of my knees I launch into the air, propelled upwards by a gentle unseen force. I ascend smoothly, feeling like a cork in rising water, until I reach the apex of the jump and can survey the dream terrain around me – perhaps just ten or twenty feet in the air, but maybe fifty or more with a panoramic view of the surrounds. I hang here, not flying or floating, but momentarily untroubled by gravity. I usually descend with a strong forward thrust that propels me towards a particular point in the distance; sometimes gently and at a perpetually declining velocity that allows me to defer the point of contact for as long as I can concentrate, my feet treading air some inches off the floor.
“It seemed unlikely that a small Canadian game developer would use MK Ultra dream implantation techniques”
I have been dreaming of this jump for as long as I can remember, a decade at least. Then in the summer of this year it showed up in the trailer for first-person platformer Valley. I was surprised – delighted, I suppose – but exceedingly confused that my oneiric gymnastics should appear in an indie game. It seemed unlikely that a small Canadian game developer would use MK Ultra dream implantation techniques on a house-husband from Yorkshire, and if Blue Isle Studios has been plagiarising my unconscious mind they would surely have found spicier options than the mega-jump. How did that dream jump get into their game?
Valley is a low-combat adventure game with a simple but pleasant enough sci-fi story, told through audio logs, that takes place in a beautiful if prosaic setting of Appalachian mountains and 1940s military installations. This isn’t a review so, to give a brief opinion on Valley, it’s an enjoyable if unexceptional distraction with occasionally kickass music and a good-enough plot. But what it nails – nails to the fucking wall – is movement. There was one level in which all I did was run down a single corridor, occasionally turning through 90 degrees and every so often pressing the jump button, and I highly recommend you play Valley just for that level.
Traversal is a foundational element of avatar-based videogames. In almost all first- or third-person games moving a character is at minimum a requirement to access the other content of the game, and has the potential to be a whole, delightful realm of play in itself. Super Meat Boy, Super Mario 64, and Titanfall demonstrate how navigating a single jump over a single pit can be a satisfying marriage of input and feedback, a challenge of reflexes, timing, and judgment. In these games the movement system is as expressive and beautiful as an instrument and the levels are music to be played and improvised around.
“How strange then that this game should so neatly match my unconscious experience”
Valley has many movement-based tricks, of which two are realised to perfection. When you run downhill you accelerate, so fast that if you hit a natural ramp in the landscape you will lift off the ground. Then, when you jump, you jump high and move in a way that does not quite correspond to gravity – you linger around the apex of the parabola just a little longer than seems real, allowing you to savor the environment. Combine the acceleration of a downhill run with the great arc of a jump, and add huge slalom levels that offer little challenge but plenty of opportunities to leap your magnificent leap, and we have the kind of aerial movement I had hitherto assumed was only possible in dreams.
How strange then that this game should so neatly match my unconscious experience. I had always associated dreams with fantasy, with a kind of Freudian rummaging through the untidy cupboards of the brain, yet for years my mind had been working on a physics simulator not that different from the Unity engine.
I knew that I sometimes flew in dreams, and fell from the sky, and zoomed around underwater without needing to breathe, but a sample size of one seemed a bit small, so I polled a Facebook community of gamers and moral degenerates that I’m part of, asking if people experienced other forms of unusual movement in their dreams. Among the joke answers (“is this political”, “BOATS AND HOES”, “Chungus”) there were some that were surprising – and unnerving.
One answer I’d suggested for the survey was ‘Floating around like you’ve got a no-clip cheat on’, which was a more common dream than ‘Full soaring through the air flying’. Four people dreamt of ‘Uncontrollable, increasing inertia coupled with decreasing gravity’, an awful lot like an NPC in a Bethesda game launching into the sky at 200 miles per hour. Three people suffered from hideous nightmares of ‘Having no control over your actions or movements and you’re helpless as your body walks itself into the ocean and drowns’, worryingly similar to a game’s controls locking up. Then there were the two people who appear to have server lag in their dreams – they dreamt of ‘Teleporting, but with a delay equal to walking pace of the same distance’.
“our brain runs a simulation of reality that uses sensory information to keep it up to date and reasonably accurate”
Notwithstanding that the people I was polling are (as I mentioned) moral degenerates and might have just been writing up videogame glitches instead of their actual dreams to troll the survey, this was starting to get pretty weird. Reality-is-a-simulation, our-dreams-are-full-of-computer-viruses weird. As a sacrilegious man I couldn’t turn to a priest to guide me through this epistemological quandary, but I knew a philosopher.
Dr. Wolfendale is a bit of a polymath, and at the edges of his various investigations he’s been studying theories of cognition. One, predictive coding theory, says that our brain does not directly represent the world as it perceives it. It might feel like we’re staring out directly into the world, but there are clues that suggest this isn’t exactly the case; our brain instead runs a simulation of reality that uses sensory information to keep it up to date and reasonably accurate. Consider the objects that are behind you right now. You can’t perceive them (unless they’re really noisy) but you know that they’re there. You can probably recall extra information about them, their position, their shape. You might even maintain a sense of “awareness” that they’re right there even if they were to be removed from behind your back without you realising it. They’d stay loaded in the simulation your brain was running until you checked on them. Or think about walking up the stairs – you (probably) don’t need to watch your feet while you’re doing it. But how do you know where the stairs and your legs are if you’re not watching them? You don’t need constant information because your simulation can fill in the blanks with a high degree of accuracy. There are cases where your simulation of the world adds details that you simply don’t get information about. Your peripheral vision, for instance, seems to be in colour – but your eyes don’t have colour-detecting cells in the right place to actually provide this information. If an object in your periphery were to change colour you wouldn’t notice it – but neither do you notice that you don’t actually know what colour it is. Your mental simulation simply tells you “Yes, that’s in colour,” without any data to back it up.
Our brain runs constant, ongoing simulations of the world which are also constantly corrected by information sent by the world – a bit like the local client for an MMO receiving data from the server. The client is capable of running a simulation of Azeroth and can even predict to a very limited extent what the other objects in the world are going to do during a network drop, but without data from the server it will become increasingly inaccurate. Thankfully when we’re awake the amount of local simulation that must happen to cover a dropped connection to the server (such as when we blink or turn our head to face the other way) is pretty small.
“What remains fascinating to me is that some of the same glitches in the simulation should show up in both formats”
When we dream there’s no connection to the server; we’re not being fed any information from the world. The simulation engine starts making predictions about what will happen as a result of inputs it invents for itself, and without feedback from reality it will accept whatever the results are. Which is why things get weird. Your brain can load up incompatible simulation modules (such as the ‘sitting an exam’ module and the ‘being naked’ module) and there’s nothing to tell it that they don’t belong together. It can adjust the gravity variable down to zero and the result it gets is that you start floating – if it tried that when you were awake the best it could generate would be a daydream, as it cannot ignore all the data telling it that your body is still stuck to the ground.
The similarity between dreams and games is no coincidence. Dreams are simulations of a world unconstrained by the facts of reality – what else are games? What remains fascinating to me is that some of the same glitches in the simulation should show up in both formats. I’m still curious about that poor soul who dreams of a bodily controller-lock, or the person whose dreams seem to have lag. What’s going on in those mental simulations and what does it have in common with a videogame input error or high network ping? The art of videogames is hardly brain surgery – but it might yet have something to teach us about neuroscience.