I only purchased Disney Dreamlight Valley for my child. I will swear to it.
It seemed like a good idea. The appeal of creating her own virtual space via games like Roblox and Minecraft was reaching my daughter through peers and family, but–not to be a Pollyanna–the things she glimpsed in her cousins’ Roblox games were haunting her after lights out. It was child me and leering, whispering VHS box art from the horror section all over again. But hey! Here was an Animal Crossing: New Horizons clone where she could pal around with her beloved Minnie Mouse, Moana, Elsa, et al, stimulating nascent reading skills and maybe inspiring her to watch a couple Pixar films. It couldn’t hurt, right? Plus, unlike the majority of life simulation games on the market, especially ones targeted to kids, Disney pinky swore that Dreamlight Valley would never be a pay-to-play model,* trading in-game currency for real world ducats, and like Animal Crossing, it would be better protected from random jerks who would use Roblox to recreate scenes from Salò. Perhaps most importantly, it would keep her from further wrecking Mama’s Animal Crossing island. Dreamlight Valley would be her place for her virtual world, where she could stomp around a world literally made for kids.
Except that isn’t what Disney Dreamlight Valley is at all.
Let’s talk about the gameplay first. Dreamlight Valley is absolutely an Animal Crossing clone, and I refer you to the Gutter’s own alex’s excellent essay on how Animal Crossing crosses low art and high art to forge an alternate “lo-fi virtual reality, created at the intersection of technology, virtual interaction, and imagination,” one where the grind of life in a capitalist system is recontextualized by a world that offers inexhaustible resources, a world where you are not motivated by the threat of poverty or hunger or a raccoon breaking your knees, but only aspiration and creativity and friendship. Sounds like a dream or maybe the United Federation of Planets. But also, a great addition to the Disney brand, especially with that friendship bit. Though still in what they’re calling early access, i.e. you pay us to be our beta testers, Dreamlight Valley already replicates most of the gameplay of Animal Crossing, including resource gathering, farming, cooking, crafting, and a shop with daily rotating inventory of furniture and fashion. You can change, rearrange, and upgrade nearly every building in Dreamlight Valley, including your own home, expanding it not only with more rooms but several floors. Once multiplayer is part of the game in wide release and players can presumably trade and visit each other’s versions of Dreamlight Valley, there won’t be much in terms of core Animal Crossing gameplay that Disney’s left on the table.
What Dreamlight Valley has left on the table will be a deliberate sacrifice. I shouldn’t compare it only to Animal Crossing–other cozy games/idle RPGs/life sims exist, and Disney has ruthlessly copied off everybody’s paper one way or another–but the contrast between the philosophies underlying Dreamlight Valley and Animal Crossing is too significant to pass unremarked upon, and it’s key to why Dreamlight Valley will absolutely own hordes of adults once it’s in wide release. Animal Crossing is quiet and intentionally slow. Neither is it as saccharin as you might assume; it can be very witty and even subversive. A lot of your Animal Crossing experience depends on you–your sense of humor, your priorities–but gameplay is intentionally structured so that you quite often just have to stop and wait. Pay off your loan and contract Tom Nook to build you a bigger house? Okay, but you’ll have to check back tomorrow to start moving furniture. Need an item so you can build a huge robot guardian statue for your island? You’re going to have to wait until that one guy with the item gets shipwrecked. Periodically one of your neighbors will want to move on, and if they do, you have to wait for them to move out before you look for someone to take their place. And then wait for that person to arrive. And then wait for that person to move in. And then, finally, you can start to get to know them. These are full real world days we’re waiting, too. That turning of the wheel, the ceaseless, graceful yielding of season to season is integral to Animal Crossing’s world. It can be frustrating sometimes, but it rewards patience. In a way, it rewards putting the game down.
This doesn’t happen in Dreamlight Valley. If you’ve got the money–sorry, star coins or dreamlight or moonstones–everything happens instantly. You grease Scrooge McDuck’s feathery palm, and you have a three-floor townhouse within a 15-second construction sequence. Some neighbors may have set waking hours, but shops don’t close, and there is always so much to do. Where Animal Crossing leaves you more or less in charge of your day, Dreamlight Valley is quest-based, and there might be as many quests as there are drops of water in the ocean. Quests to unlock characters, quests to unlock new areas, quests to make friends, quests to make landmarks, quests to build buildings, quests to improve buildings, quests to progress the story. There’s a story! And that’s not counting the seasonal events, the Star Path, where you can earn special themed items. Dreamlight Valley is a dopamine-fuelled Honey Do list that would rather keep you busy than lose your attention.
I’m not necessarily implying that Disney’s approach is nefarious, own your soul though it will. It’s a game, so giving you things to do is sort of what you signed up for. Not to mention, every creative ingredient Animal Crossing offers is also present here. You can choose your own adventure. Maui wants coconuts? Why should I care? I’m focusing on building picnic tables for this park in the spooky Forgotten Lands. But I do see the quest structure and the pace of the game, built on a far more diverse and forgiving economy than Tom Nook’s, influenced to capture the kind of players who found Animal Crossing too slow or aimless. Animal Crossing is the granola mom letting her kids poke around with tinker toys without comment or guidance; Dreamlight Valley is the helicopter parent directing their child through the diagram of how to make a working ferris wheel. And with the inclusion of an overarching story amid all of these smaller, irresistibly achievable quest goals, helicopter mom Disney hopes they keep you so focused on the tinker toys that you’ll never wonder if you would rather play with the Lincoln logs instead.
This returns me to my original point, that this game, based on children’s entertainment franchises, is not really for kids and is in fact coming for you, sweet reader, coming for you and all your free time. In wide release, the game will be free to play, but it will require an investment from you nevertheless. Not only is the game itself about as addictive as meth, but the story driving the game is quite mature–not in a Witcher Geralt trading card sex romps way, but, funnily enough, in a bittersweet acknowledgement of the passing seasons way. I won’t give too much away, but the default protagonist, the woman you see in the game art and the intro movie, gives a little bit of it away all by herself. Do you notice? She’s a grown-up. Pretty, smiling, casually, even sloppily, dressed. This is a Hallmark heroine waiting for her embarrassing meet-cute. And while it’s certainly not unusual for an adult audience to empathize with a child protagonist, children’s entertainment rarely centers a human character past childhood. Our adult hero/ine is not just defaulted to adulthood; while you can customize virtually everything else about yourself, the story requires you to be an adult returning to a place where you once felt safe and happy, a place that has, in your absence, fallen into ruin amid a terrible plague called the Forgetting. This is the script from the intro movie:
Our story begins with an ending, as you decide it’s time to leave the city behind.
Yearning for a pause from life’s responsibilities, you arrive at a familiar place.
A quick stroll along a nearby path leads you to a spot where, as a child, you found that life was simpler.
And with a touch of imagination, all your dreams would come true!
Finding the perfect place for a rest, you begin remembering these long lost dreams…and drift off to sleep.
That’s not a call to adventure. It’s a call to the screen’s warm glowing warming glow. It’s a call to pablum.
The story itself is not actually too dissimilar from that of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, Disney’s inscrutable crossover with Squarenix’s Final Fantasy series, or its Mirrorverse mobile game. In those games, a nebulous dark threat has swept the realms of Disney’s many worlds, giving key characters selective amnesia and a dark something something to prevail against. Dreamlight Valley doesn’t feature fighting, but your character will use magic to dispel the Night Thorns that have overtaken the valley itself and prevent access to adjoining biomes and Disney-themed realms, where you can meet your famous, yet forgotten, friends and bring them back to live in the valley. Well-trodden as its outline is, centering an adult character in Dreamlight Valley, and an adult specifically motivated by disenchantment with adult life, gives its sparkly cozy sim a distinctly different feel from other games of the genre or Disney’s games in other genres. And then you remember that Toy Story, whose characters will join the game in an expansion this winter, was released in 1995. It’s true that some of the characters featured are from recent films, but these films–Ratatouille, Moana, Frozen–were also big feature hits all on their own, certainly not restricted to the direct-to-video kids movie ghetto like Monster Family 2.
I want to give Dreamlight Valley credit where it’s due. Early access is buggy, but it still offers a full game that will only get bigger and better, and it’s legitimately fun. It gives me, harried adult person, an engaging sandbox with enough rules that I don’t have to think too hard, but enough freedom that I don’t feel constrained. That’s quite a tightrope walk. I didn’t want to like this thing. I do not have great attachment to any of these characters, the story is almost offensive with its sugary “don’t you regret letting go of your dreams?” take–YOU DON’T KNOW ME DISNEY–and also, I don’t have time for video games. (Resident Evil 3 Remake, I’m coming, baby, I promise.) And yet, once I started playing around with it, the satisfaction of cleaning up Dreamlight Valley, first making it better and then more to my personal liking, then finding more elements that delighted me, like the ridiculous variety of fashions available even before I started customizing, I couldn’t stop playing. It was and is continually giving me reasons to log on and to play and to keep playing.
I believe video games can be art and achieve collaborative narratives in truly laudable ways unique to the medium. At its best, Animal Crossing does that. Dreamlight Valley does not, however superficially similar its gameplay, and Disney probably doesn’t want it to. Dreamlight Valley is less art, more Skinner box. The thing is…it’s a good Skinner box. And especially when times are tough and stress is high, maybe the simple pleasure of dressing my character like Marlene Dietrich and mining emeralds for a few dopamine hits is self care. Disney Adults always take a lot of flak for the way they enjoy what they enjoy, and this game is a stunning refutation of the haters, but it’s not only for them. Show me any adult who doesn’t occasionally “yearn for a pause from life’s responsibilities.” That’s the promise of Dreamlight Valley, a promise that implies a return to childhood, but in actuality is more about embracing simple pleasures as a grown-up.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to check on my pumpkin crop with Scar.
* I do appreciate that this unblinking assurance comes on the heels of Disney introducing the game with a “Founder’s Pack,” which costs real world money and undoubtedly gives early access players a head start on players who start the game once it’s in general release in 2023. It remains the case though that I couldn’t just buy my Plague Doctor’s mask from the Halloween event. I had to earn it by making small talk with Ursula.
Meanwhile, Angela‘s daughter has forsaken Dreamlight Valley for Mario Party.