Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Kate dives into the latest Disney game to find out what all the fuss is about...
The gaming world has gone mad for Disney Dreamlight Valley, and I think I want in.
I'll admit, my cynicism for this game — the latest in a string of Animal Crossing wannabes — was through the roof, and I was pretty convinced that Disney's attempt at the genre would be perhaps a touch more polished than most, but with the trademark parade of trademarks that Disney is known for. Hey, look! It's Elsa™ from Frozen™! And her best friends, the mouthy seagull™ from The Little Mermaid™ and that really randy skunk™ from Bambi™! Buy things™!!!!!!!!
Look, I am not much of a fan of the "every franchise we own, mushed together to create a tasty merch-selling gruel" approach to media, as evidenced by the fact that I haven't seen most of the Marvel movies. But I don't want to be a curmudgeon forever just for the sake of it, so I don't mind occasionally partaking of the gruel to see if I've changed my mind — and although I am no mega-Disney-lover, I will admit to really enjoying (and knowing a lot about) all the animated musicals. Especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame. That movie rules.
I guess the thing with Disney is they throw everything at you, so at least one of their properties is bound to stick. Especially since they keep buying more.
So, I wasn't intending to play Disney Dreamlight Valley. Partly because of the way it looked a bit soulless in trailers, but mostly because I was being a grumpy contrarian, refusing to try The Thing Everyone Else Liked.
Except... it was on Xbox Game Pass. I don't mind giving games a go when I'm paying a tenner a month for the privilege of playing them for free. And yes, Dreamlight Valley was exactly what I thought it was — Michael Mouse and Goofy walking around an empty world, occasionally asking me for five bananas to complete a quest, plus the enticing promise of more trademarked characters to unlock along the way — but, I don't know, it was kinda... nice.
I pottered around the world for a few hours, planting peppers, completing fetch quests, and decorating my house, and then I discovered that I could decorate the town, too.
if there's one thing I love, it's min-maxing a game designed for relaxation
I stayed up a couple of hours past midnight making myself a little walled garden, filling it with all the harvestable plants, so that I wouldn't have to traipse around the world to find them all. I made little paths that wound around the town, and placed benches around the place. It was starting to look really pretty, although it was a lot of work — Dreamlight Valley's furniture-placement system is nowhere near as robust and easy to use as Animal Crossing's, and I found myself fighting with UI bugs more than a few times.
It turns out that the crux of my current problem with Dreamlight Valley isn't its bugs, or the fact that it feels like a monetised game waiting to happen (remember, it's currently in an Early Access phase and will be going free-to-play in the future), or that Goofy keeps watching me sleep. It's not even the whispered "™" at the end of every sentence that haunts the game like Minnie Mouse's ghost (don't ask). I can honestly look past all of that, because I'm having a nice time.
No, my problem is that the game wants me to be neat.
You see, once Dreamlight Valley had its hooks into me, I started searching for more. My Google searches started to include things like "scrooge mcduck fortune steal cheat" and "hot reindeer man from frozen how marry", which in turn caused suggestions about how to "be good" at the game to trickle into my recommended videos and articles. And if there's one thing I love, it's min-maxing a game designed for relaxation. Hell yeah.
But what I discovered during my research phase was that games like Animal Crossing and Minecraft have resulted in a generation of gamers leaning hard into Milton Keynesian city planning — which is to say, grids and symmetry.
I recently unlocked the Forest of Valor in the game, and I actually really liked it. It's very clearly the area where the Frozen cast will eventually hang out, and its foliage ranges from a dark foresty green to a scintillating blue-and-white colour palette as a result. It has raccoons running around, blueberry bushes everywhere, and a stream running through it. It feels messy. Like, you know, a forest.
Much like the other areas, the Forest of Valor is full of these beautiful, tangled purple brambles, which pepper the landscape and provide some rather lovely texture. Sure, they're spiky, but who cares? Basically all the mainline Disney characters are a little bit plump and fluffy, so they can handle it. This forest was wild and untamed, like the English forests at home — and, having just visited my home for the first time in three years, taking my time to explore forests, woods, and fields, and plucking just-ripe blackberries from the bushes and tasting that burst of free juice on my tongue, I was happy to see such a place in my game.
But those brambles, those gorgeous knots of nature, were Bad. They're called Night Thorns, and they're the main antagonist of the game for the first few hours, representing the ominous Forgetting that's caused this magical kingdom to fall into ruin. You're supposed to get rid of them. But... I liked the ruin!
All the design tutorials I could find for the Forest of Valor were all about taking this magical wilderness, littered with trees and rocks and brambles and stumps, and bending it to their will. Plazas with trees and fountains replaced the untamed landscape. Neat, straight roads replaced the meadows, bordered with rocks and bushes to hide the somewhat unsightly path edges. The Forest of Valor becomes the Urban Neighbourhood of Valor.
Look, it's not that these players are doing anything wrong. They're using the tools and the mechanics made available to them to create something that looks pretty nice, and for that reason, I'm incredibly impressed (and intimidated). Their designs are a lot more practical for navigating around the place, too — and I would honestly love to live in a neighbourhood like that in real life. But for me, creating these manicured towns in sandbox games feels like wearing a suit and tie. I feel constrained, claustrophobic, and ultimately uncomfortable. I want to express myself untidily. I want to wear bracelets and rings and glitter. I want maximalism.
My Animal Crossing village is a curated mess of items, paths, rivers and houses; I put a lot of effort into it looking organically cluttered and lived-in. Some of my villager houses are grouped together in a sort of suburban American grid right at the corner, but that's mostly because it's the villagers I don't care about; the villagers I actually like live in a place that I've carefully structured to look unstructured, with weeds and flowers everywhere.
I want to express myself untidily. I want to wear bracelets and rings and glitter. I want maximalism.
Likewise, when I build Sims houses, I make good use of Maxis' "clutter" — toothbrushes in cups, folded laundry, teapots, bread bins — stuff that is functionally useless, and your Sims can't even interact with it, but it makes the interiors look real. You have to be alright with the liberal and expert use of the moveobjects cheat and the game's build tools to make sure that things sit at cosy angles and overlap with one another, but it's worth it. My houses look just as untidy as I want them to.
In Minecraft, a game that is literally grid-based, it's tricky, but not impossible, to create a house and a landscape that look realistically overgrown and varied. In fact, many modern Minecraft building tutorials revolve around how to make buildings look more interesting by varying things like texture, size, height, and symmetry to build worlds that look cosy and unusual without resorting to boxy houses
For the past ten years, I have lived in large cities, so like many people, I dream of moving to the rambling countryside and building a tumbledown stone cottage with wonky floors. In real life, that's a stupid idea (I have no car, and I like to have the option of being able to pop down to a supermarket at 8pm if I'm out of milk). But that's the point of sandbox games — I can live my fantasy.
I can't really do that in Disney Dreamlight Valley. Or, more accurately, I can't be bothered. None of the village design walkthroughs I've seen have really inspired me; I don't want to have to wrestle with the design tools to end up with a garden full of rocks that look exactly the same, or a bunch of long, straight paths at right angles. Some of the furniture is nice, but very little of it seems cluttery in the way that I want. And the less said about the stupid path-building mechanic, the better. I just can't seem to achieve that crumbly loveliness that I want.
It makes sense, though. Dreamlight Valley isn't really geared towards maximalism. In fact, as I learned from PC Gamer's Lauren Morton, who's also a big fan of maximalism, Dreamlight Valley actually has a village limit of 600 items, total. Even the items that you do have room for can't overlap, or be placed near pre-existing bits of flora that you can't remove until later in the game, or be placed at angles. I just feel like my town is going to end up looking how the game wants it to look: Neat, boxy, and pretty... but for me, just a bit boring. With lots of Mickey-shaped furniture, and an entire area for dozens of chests, because the storage system needs an overhaul.
But ultimately, this is a game that's still in Early Access, and it could very well change for the better. I want it to be a little more flexible, to let me bend the rules without breaking them, and to provide more options for those (like me) who like things to look authentically, but carefully, chaotic. I think, perhaps, there is a way to achieve this messiness in Dreamlight Valley, but it requires fighting with what the game wants, and I just don't know if I have the energy to be disestablishmentarian in a game that's supposed to help me relax.
So, perhaps I give up. Perhaps this is the moment that I learn that a game about Disney World is all about creating a Disney World-like town. Perhaps I lean all the way into it, and learn to love the House of Mouse as I turn my own house into a shrine to Mickey. Does the cantankerous anti-capitalist part of me feel like I'm selling my soul to Disney Corp. just for a little pocket of cartoon paradise? Sure. Do I have the energy left to care? Absolutely not.