Day 18: LSD – Dream Emulator

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Have you ever listened to the Talking Heads’ “Seen and Not Seen”? It’s a pretty deep cut, the kind you can cite to friends when you want to show off your knowledge of obscure Brian Eno tracks. I know for me, personally, that’s a situation that pops up several times a week and it’s a good go-to to have in your back pocket. For some reason, I thought it best to write this whilst having it on in the background. I recommend doing the same while you read for the ideal experience.

That’s not a complete non-sequitur on my part. You see, I’ve been wanting to write about LSD for the better part of five years, but could never really formulate my thoughts into something coherent.  So when trying to find the words today, I kept thinking about the oddities of my music collection and how much I value them, despite being pretty hard to recommend to others. When this happens with video games, it’s typically due to a genre barrier, or a complex narrative or exhaustive gameplay mechanics that may seem daunting to newcomers. In the case of LSD, it’s because the game is just too damn weird.

I love the age we’re in now, where anyone with a copy of Unity and an idea can put it into practice. It’s a worthy trade-off for the less frequent, but considerably more expensive mainstream output we get now. But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when you had to look to Japan for the more experimental, surreal experiences. Importing unknown games captured that same sense that you’d get from a record store dive, coming out with something you never knew you wanted in the first place. In a world where Steam curators and wikis have kind of eliminated the idea of a “hidden gem” in any modern context, the only real uncharted territory left remains in older games, and much more specifically, older import games.

For over a decade, artist Hiroko Nishikawa kept a dream journal. Along with an album, LSD was an attempt to document the things he saw and felt through the lens of complete beautiful madman by the name of Osamu Sato.

The result is equal parts confusing, fascinating… and horrifying.

As you’d expect, there is no clear objective, other than to explore the different areas, trying to make sense of it all before you’re whisked off to another location. Sometimes you’re in a bright field, watching purple elephants float through the sky. At other points, you may be in a dark alley, watching over your shoulder for a grey figure that will jolt you from your nightmare. But that’s not the strangest part. If you play LSD long enough, you’ll start to see areas repeat themselves, only now, the textures have changed, often giving off a completely different mood. It’s entirely possible to play LSD for so long that the game eventually runs out of new textures to render, replacing everything with a black nothingness.

Regardless of where you may fall on the silly “games as art” debate, it’s difficult to deny LSD as anything but a surrealist masterpiece from a man who is still kind of an enigma. Games and even other media have portrayed dream states and sequences before but rarely has something so perfectly encapsulated the sheer “anything goes” irrationality of our dreams; the sense of being in a world completely bereft of rules.

As someone that’s suffered from insomnia most of my life, sleep science and the hows and whys of our dreams have always interested me, even moreso after I first played LSD about ten years ago. It’s an experience that may only last an hour for most people, but, like any great piece of art, that experience sticks with you, whether or not you may want it to.

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LSD is an extremely rare game for the original Playstation. Luckily, a pretty faithful remake has been made in Unity, which you can find here.

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