What's this trenchcoat guy doing up there? Why is the dog dreaming of this? It's up to us to find out!
Sleeping With Spooks. What does that name make you think of? I personally think of a cozy night in a graveyard, or maybe me and my ghouliest girl at one of our favorite haunts. It does not make me think of a pleasant afternoon in the park. Maybe that's my problem, maybe it's not, the long and short of it is this isn't a ghost dating sim, and I'm a little bit grouchy at getting out of my grave for it. If the rest of the review is just curses and sobs, now you know why.
The game starts with a brief explanation of what you read when you downloaded it: This is good, it reiterates the experience and reminds you what you're in for. Ghost. Can't sleep. Invade people's dreams. Great premise. It seems like you're in a park, with 4 people (well, three people and a dog) just waiting to be explored. None of them are asleep though, which is a little weird. Nevertheless, marching into them will put you into their dream realm. The dreams are very simple, in a way that lets you wonder what they're supposed to mean without giving you a lot of boring facts or information to get in the way of imagination. Is this not the very nature of dreams?
When you touch the object of the person's desire, the dream is over and they are gone, turned into a heart in the upper left corner of the screen. Hopefully this means you've helped them quit dreaming and start living, but maybe you're a bad ghost and something bad has happened? Again, the game doesn't get in the way of your imagination. Once you've seen all four dreams, a fog lifts and you're free to leave the park, perhaps able to dream on your own again.
The joy of simple games like these is writing the story for yourself, it's like cloud watching in a way. I'm going to use the rest of this review to say what I see in the clouds, but I highly recommend playing for yourself and forming your own opinion before reading further. It'll only take a few minutes, and at the very least you'll hear a nice song from the 70's that maybe you haven't heard before.
Back already? Perfect! Let's see if we saw the same thing. This might get PG-13.
Dream One: The Dog
At first glance, it seems we're in a parking lot. That isn't quite right. In a parking lot, the lines are on the outside, the cars go between. Here, the cars are straddling the lines, driving down a road, and I don't think it's a coincidence that we have to cross the road. The dog is dreaming of returning to his owner and successfully navigating a confusing maze of traffic to do it. Maybe the dog wasn't successful in his life? Maybe the dog is also a ghost. He's not just dreaming of any man, though. He's dreaming of the blue man from the park. Curious, but not enough information to go on here.
Dream Two: The Bluecoat
The man in blue dreams of a little girl sleeping in a classroom. It would be easy to say he misses his daughter, that she's growing up too quickly and he feels like he's losing something, but I don't think that's the case. For one thing, he's watching her fish in the real world, they aren't separated at all. For second thing, there's a phallic fountain next to him and if that isn't a subliminal hint as to his nasty intentions for this girl, I don't know what is. Oh wait, maybe it's the fact that he himself looks like a giant penis, and you can argue whether he's aiming directly up like the fountain, or down at the girl. It all depends whether or not you think his shoulders are the testicles, or the little line at the bottom of his coat is the testicles. I subscribe to the former theory. That the girl is sleeping in his dream is curious, maybe even unsettling, but again, it's not enough information to go on.
Dream Three: Green Girl
Green girl dreams of a bus stop, and a woman in red sitting there waiting. She wants to go home to her mother? An older sister? Just a family friend? This seems likely as we appear up the road and not on the bench with her, whoever she is. This red lady is also the most joyous looking character we'll see in the game, which does lead me to believe more of a maternal figure. Who would be happiest to see their little girl home? There's nothing to say specifically why she hasn't returned home, though the bus stop sign does look a little bit suggestive and could be our clue. One last dream to go.
Dream Four: Lady In Red
This is the first dream in the game that actually features the dreamer. The woman in red sleeps in a tiny bed, a child's bed? The previous rooms stretched the whole screen but this one seems to force a perspective to show us just how tiny the room actually is. Is she grieving for her lost child? Outside, sitting by the road is an orange dog. Could this loyal creature have protected her daughter? Hell, the dog dreamed of getting to the man in blue. Maybe it wasn't a happy reunion the dog was thinking of. It also seems to answer that no, the red one did not have a boner. Unless you think they were harboring unnatural affections for the dog, and let's face it, the hole in the wall does look pretty suggestive. Someone is really obsessed with weiners and I think we all know who it is. In the "real world" I think the woman is painting, but I don't know why that would be.
Conclusions and Lingering Questions
I do believe that this game is telling us a tragic story without words. At its best, we have a bunch of people (Or a few people and a dog) who are sitting in a park with the object of their desire, unable to make that final little connection to get where they really want to be, and at worst we have a man who got what he want at the expense of someone else and we're left to explore all the brutal what-if's. Or maybe I've been reading too much creepy-pasta and am looking to put a sinister spin on everything. Maybe it's a happy family dreaming of each other. Maybe they're not dreaming at all and are dead. It's impossible to say for sure, but fun to speculate.
Games like this have to walk a very narrow and treacherous path. If the game is too long, the novelty wears off. If the game is too short, there's no point. Too many details and you should've written a book. Too few details, and again, what's the point? By letting the player walk from scene to scene you create a pace unable to be replicated by flipping a page or watching at 60 frames per second. They get to take things at their own pace, on their own terms, but with just a little bit of authorial control. It's what makes games a unique medium for story-telling.
Sleeping With Spooks obviously won't stand up to long-term scrutiny, or replayability. It is what it is, and then it's gone. It's good while it lasts. That reminds me of something, but I don't know what. Couldn't be too important. Back to bed!