According to the Oxford English dictionary, the definition of the term “dreamlike” is “having the qualities of a dream; unreal”, and quite literally, there is simply no better way to describe Nights into Dreams than in this fashion. Developed by Sonic Team under the stewardship of Yuji Naka and Naoto Ōshima, Nights was released on the Sega Saturn in 1996 to generally positive critical acclaim, and strong enough sales in Japan to see it climb to the top of the charts, but largely it has gone unnoticed and more often than not, it has usually been misunderstood. The saddest part of this being that Nights into Dreams is not only the finest game crafted by the once magnificent Sonic Team, but one of the most original and breathtakingly beautiful video games ever created.
Much like UGA’s Rez, the basis for the creation of Nights stems from a more cerebral inspiration than is usually expected, the writings of the esteemed Swiss psychiatrist, Dr Carl Jung-one of the most established contributors to the field of dream analysis. According to Yuji Naka, the central characters of Claris and Elliot actually stem directly from Jung’s anima and animus concept, these two form typical archetypes of the collective unconscious into which Jung directed a large proportion of his studies. Jung founded the sphere of analytical psychology (this field of study focused on the personality development of people who were primarily in the later stages of their lives), whose central idea was the concept of individuation (a psychological process of integrating opposing forces whilst still maintaining independence from one another), in the case of anima and animus, we see the merging of female and male psychological archetypes. Typically, every human being has both male and female characteristics, and in dreams we can witness tell-tale signs articulating our need accept or express the other side of ourselves that we have perhaps consciously repressed.
Of course, the references to Jung don’t end there, the fears that the two main characters are tormented by stem directly from the concept of “the shadow”, wherein aspects of the human character are subjugated in an attempt to hide them from the rest of the world, characteristics that one may deem to be embarrassing, these typically symbolise our fear and weakness. However, in the dream world one is forced to confront these and that, naturally, is where the character of Nights originates from. One could interpret Nights as Jung’s “trickster”, a mischievous character that forces both Claris and Elliot to confront their own weaknesses, and in this case, to help them overcome difficult transitory periods in their lives, giving the dreams within the game an archetypal character whose impact will live long in the memory of the two characters, and indeed, the player too.
For, putting its cerebral foundations aside, Nights is a video game of the highest order, a genre busting excursion through seven levels of mind bogglingly brilliant game design, stunning visuals and a lot more besides (I’ll return to this later). It is difficult to categorise Nights as a game, to shoehorn it into a single genre, as it combines elements of both platform and racing titles to brilliant effect, and one that sees players striving to compete for high scores, a nod to Sega’s arcade heritage. Each level, or dream, is divided into four courses through which the player must guide Nights, collecting enough blue chips to destroy the ideya capture and return a positive characteristic back to either Claris or Elliot, once all four have been regained, the dream is complete and the player is then tasked with defeating one of the brilliantly designed bosses; these creatures are otherwise known as Nightmaren. They are deployed by the game’s antagonist, Wizeman the Wicked, to steal the dream energy from the realm’s unconscious visitors so that he may use it take control of the world of Nightopia and eventually, the real world too. Nights was originally one of Wizeman’s creations, but having rebelled after learning of his nefarious scheme, Nights was imprisoned, only to be freed by Claris and Elliot who both possess the only positive power that their enemy cannot steal, their bravery.
At the beginning of each level (each character has three unique levels, whilst sharing an identical finale), Wizeman’s minions attack the character and steal four “ideyas” (hope, intelligence, purity and wisdom) before sealing them away in the ideya captures, these being the devices that the player must remove by collecting and depositing twenty blue chips in each. The game is a tantalising hint at freeform flight and supersonic speeds, whilst keeping players upon what are essentially 2D levels, of course, there are times though when the level diverges into alternate sections that see it stray from the traditional side on view, one of which occurs when the player runs out of time before completing a course. At this point, Nights tumbles towards the ground and changes back into either Claris or Elliot, who must complete that particular area on foot, during these sections, the player finds themselves followed by an alarm clock that will awaken the character from their slumber should they be caught by it. This, naturally, results in the game ending prematurely. Whilst in flight, as Nights, players can boost their speed and perform certain aerial tricks with the character, these assist players striving to put together high combos (or links, as they are known) across the levels, these are, as one would expect instrumental in earning high scores, as maintaining high combos results in improved point scoring for performing actions such as collecting blue chips or flying through hoops. Upon the completion of the fourth course in the level, the player’s score is tallied up and a rating is given, and then the Nightmaren enter the fray. The player is then tasked with defeating the end of level guardian as quickly as possible, the reward being a score multiplier that is awarded depending on the completion time, which offers the possibility of doubling the score carried over from the main level.
Given the desire to create such a fast and fluid experience, a new controller had to be developed to ensure that the player had the highest possible level of control, the result of which was the 3D control pad. Sadly bested as the first console based analogue controller to appear on the market by Nintendo (their N64 launched prior to the Japanese release of Nights by just one month), the 3D control pad was still something of a step forward, combining a comfortable analogue stick, six action buttons, two triggers and a d-pad, it was the foundation upon which the Dreamcast controller would eventually be based. Whilst in development, the team experimented with various prototypes, before finally settling upon what would become known internally as the “Spielberg controller”. On a visit to the Sega headquarters in Japan, Steven Spielberg was allowed to play an early build of the game with a prototype controller, he was the first person outside of Sonic Team to do so.
Nights into Dreams also features a fairly revolutionary artificial life system that sees the console keep track of the mood of the residents of Nightopia (referred to as “pians”), which then encourages the system to alter the soundtrack to each level accordingly to reflect any changes. There are both negative and positive actions that alter the mood of the creatures to one of four variable states, therefore giving four possible musical accompaniments to each course throughout the six main levels. And given that the soundtrack to Nights, composed by Naofumi Hataya, Tomoko Sasaki and Fumie Kumatani, is one of the greatest scores ever created for a video game, simply trying to hear every possible variant is reason enough to extend the game’s longevity, which, based on its brilliant mechanics and the endless search for high scores, is more than sufficient.
Like so many other great games, the general idea of Nights is simple enough to be picked up quickly, but there is depth to found lurking behind the colourful, family friendly façade, both in terms of its inspirations and its gameplay. It is a truly wondrous experience, a defining moment in the life of the Sega Saturn console, in the careers of Sonic Team and its talented staff, and indeed, for video games in general. Summarising the feeling of playing Nights is somewhat difficult to put into words, so instead, I shall opt to let Dr Sigmund Freud have that particular honour: “what is common in all of these dreams is obvious. They completely satisfy wishes excited during the day which remain unrealised. They are simply and undisguisedly realisations of wishes”. So, quite literally then, Nights truly is a dream come true.
-James Paton @theblackpage81