Daddy Issues? There's a Contemporary Arcade Game for That

A conversation with Xalavier Nelson Jr., director of arcade game “Dreamfather Loves You” inside Meow Wolf Grapevine in Dallas-Fort Worth, TX.

Acceptance from peers and family members is a driving factor in our daily decision-making. It doesn’t matter who you are, gaining the trust and admiration of others is a part of our core. Inside Meow Wolf’s The Real Unreal, there is a game that completely encompasses that idea called Dreamfather Loves You.

Located in Lamp Shop Alley is a simple-looking arcade machine that simulates the feeling of trying to gain that approval from a father figure. However, the game isn’t as simple as you think. You are thrust into the role of a player trying to gain the favor of Dreamfather, picking ways to interact with him which vary from moment to moment, depending on Dreamfather’s mood. Taking place in what seems to be a minimalistic plane of existence, your focus is on the fatherlike-being, making sure you can please him before time runs out or he becomes tired of you.

Dreamfather Loves You

The game is the creation of Strange Scaffold, the development label founded by Xalavier Nelson Jr., Dreamfather Loves You is a game you can only play at The Real Unreal that’s new, yet feels incredibly nostalgic. From its gameplay to graphics to sound design, everything about it reminds you of your own childhood to create an immersive gaming experience within an immersive experience. 

a black and white screen capture with text “DreamFather Loves You. Press Start”
Screen capture from Dreamfather Loves You inside Meow Wolf Grapevine

Its relatability and use of negative space – in look, feel, and sound – creates an addictive and haunting experience for the player. Gameplay may be on a timer, but the drive to please Dreamfather gives it high replayability. Even if playing video games isn’t your cup of tea, Dreamfather Loves You is engaging and can be a communal experience.

Q&A with the game director:

How did the idea for Dreamfather Loves You come together?

I think that the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion persuasion mechanic is one of the most neurodivergent and interesting mechanics in video games. It is quite literally the breathless task of saying, "Okay, if I coerce and joke and boast and threaten [the person your character is talking to], but in the right way and in the right order, someone will love me." And that fraught, formulaic relationship with assembling a way of relating to the world, to address a fundamental human concern, which is "Do people like me?" has stuck in my head ever since as a really interesting foundation for mechanical consequence. So I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that Strange Scaffold is working on something pretty big, based on that overall interface. 

When Meow Wolf came knocking, I realized that this technology we had already been building for this bigger thing would let us build a nugget of the game. You don't get to build a nugget of a game pretty often, at least in games nowadays–the idea of a small tight experience that says one specific thing and gives you one specific window into your own experiences–almost too small to be able to make. I connected with the Meow Wolf team and because they're just as crazy as we are, suddenly we have the sign off to make one of the most meaningful and weird things I've ever built.

a black and white screen capture of a king character
Screen capture from Dreamfather

You have Dreamfather within a Meow Wolf installation –The Real Unreal – and you're going to have people coming through, and you want them to experience the game you’ve created, but at the same time, things have to keep moving. What was the balance to make sure you're having people engaged but also to make sure that other people have a chance to have that shared experience?

Joyful stress? I think a lot of game design can come down to knowing where and how to apply joyful stress. One of the first things we thought about was, “How do we make sure that engaging with Dreamfather is something that even the people who don't play the machine, people who will never touch the controls or are just watching, still understand the core concept or might be able to point out something on the screen that the player themselves is missing?” Because they're in the middle of joyful stress. So thinking about the timer, thinking about the theme, thinking about the late-in-development, introduction of an active visualization of your relationship with Dreamfather – because each player's mechanical interaction with Dreamfather can be different based off of set parameters that were happening behind the scenes. 

We thought that the people could intuit it, but they were like, “No, it becomes so much more performative.” If you're standing there with your friends, and the game tells you that your relationship with a Dreamfather is complicated, everyone either does a knowing laugh or an uncomfortable look around the room. Meow Wolf gives you the opportunity to make things that– even if someone does not directly engage with them at nest – can tangibly, emotionally interact with them. So we really jumped into that design space. And the game's themes made it very natural for dealing with that balance.

The game as it’s presented in The Real Unreal is contained within an arcade machine. It can be very nostalgic for many people over a certain age. When you see the graphics, the look of the game, it's still very nostalgic: “Oh, I remember  Asteroids. I remember Centipede.” I don't want to say stripped down, but that look and feel is more engaging that way. How did you come up with that design, and secondary, the mechanics for that design?

The visual design was inspired by, as you noted, things like stripped down computer systems, Asteroids in its design of a starfield was a literal inspiration. Things like the ZX Spectrum and color banding and finding ways of making high resolution assets, but then applying– outside of the game environment– chromatic aberration, to introduce color banding that shouldn't exist or in internally cohesive ways that evoke the same feelings but did not conform to the imagery at the same time, so it felt slightly uncanny. Those were all really key pieces. From there, it was a matter of taking this '80s /'90s computing aesthetic, mixing that with modern day illustrative techniques that we see. Another key piece of art we looked at was the art for the Magic Circle. The cover art for that game has this really stark, painterly, almost children's book aesthetic, but it looks complicated and dark, in ways you don't typically see game art appearing. We mixed that with some good old Y2K imagery, and suddenly, we've got visualization and little elements moving everywhere across the screen that are not directly relevant to gameplay, but nonetheless, support the feeling of it. 

That's another thing I'll point out about the collaboration with Meow Wolf, when you are designing and developing a video game, you have to explain to development partners, why something is relevant to the construction of the video game and justify its presence, and Meow Wolf, whenever we brought introduced it, had an instant connection. We didn't have to explain shit. They saw meaning and things we hadn't even necessarily thought about that were just  normal game design affordances because the prism through which they saw the game was as this artistic art embodiment that is about feeling first, in ways that you typically don't get the opportunity to see or explore or that you have to justify in games.

an 80s style arcade game with graffiti on it against a wall with posters and more graffiti at Meow Wolf Grapevine
Dreamfather arcade game inside Meow Wolf Grapevine. Photo by Kate Russell

I feel like Dreamfather is a perfect fit within Meow Wolf’s world because I had this very eye-awakening and sometimes haunting experience with it. It felt too real and completely unreal at the same time, in so many different ways. What do you hope players get out of the Dreamfather experience? 

I want people who touch the game to feel like a piece of The Real Unreal is stuck in their head. Now, I think one of the key things about The Real Unreal is this idea of distortion. And so the idea of this game is that it feels like a memory, like you've played Dreamfather Loves You before or seen it in a magazine or in an old book about arcade games somewhere, but it  doesn't exist. You feel a little bit changed by that. I think that's a core piece of the feeling I want people to have. Because family trauma, that's a secondary benefit. [Laughs] But the idea of no matter how good your relationship with your parents is, there is an arcade game that struck that chord. There is a small doubt in your mind of whether or not that dynamic existed before you even walked into the room. I love that Meow Wolf evokes those types of feelings regularly, and that our game can exist as a piece of that overall artistic landscape.

When you're collaborating with Meow Wolf, what was the first moment where you realized, "They get it. They get what I'm trying to do. They understand what I wanted to accomplish with the game.”

I think it was when we got our first major round of feedback from them, after we sent in the initial version of the game. They noted that the team had very divisive opinions about the game because of their own relationship with their parents, or because they didn't understand the game, or they understood the game very keenly or quickly. They noted how everyone had really different opinions and interactions with the game. In the very next sentence, they said, “By the way, that's great. And we would ask you not to change anything based off of that input.” In the world of video games, the idea of divisive impact, being a game that someone can adore or hate, is a little bit of a fearful object, which drives you towards this comfortable middle where everybody kind of tolerates you. Meow Wolf saying, "Internally to our team, some people love this game, some people hate it and there are other people who don't understand it. And all of that means that your idea is working," was one of the most validating moments I've ever had as an artist.

a black and white screen capture of text from the Dreamfather
Screen capture from Dreamfather

I know there's a lot of pressure to put an arcade game inside of a giant, permanent installation. But did you feel it was less pressure than working on something that was going to go out publicly for people to purchase?

I think it had the pressure of making it really good and really effective and very accessible. Despite being a video game for people who don't typically play video games, it relieves the very specific stress I noted before of, “Well, everyone has to kind of somewhat like it because if our Steam review score is not above 70, we're fucked.” All of the typical commercial concerns are removed. At that point, working with Meow Wolf on a video game, we can just think about the emotional impact, and the experience of the player, which is what most game developers would like to primarily do. I would say in most cases, the pressurewas relieved compared to a typical video game.

It seems like the amount of creative freedom you had compared to doing anything else was much greater. And I'm sure for you, that's a breath of fresh air within that industry of gaming and game developing.

I think “breath of fresh air” is a perfect way to put it. Meow Wolf introduced video games in a more active way into their installations: What form that takes is "tell a story with us," as opposed to fitting an algorithmic slot. We didn't make Dreamfather Loves You because a game like Dreamfather Loves You recently blew up on the Steam charts, and we got funded to do a fast follower but in 3D or something weird. In games, you have very strange commercial trends where no one may even believe in the concept of a genre until someone opens that door. Everyone who goes through that door afterwards has to do a more expensive, polished version of it– or present one at least in order to get it funded and then to be able to bring it to life. For Meow Wolf, we got to make a game that was one of a kind. It was entirely for the players.

I do want to talk about sound design a little bit. I've mentioned haunting I think like four or five times. I think the effect for people playing the game is going to be different for whoever touches the game. But for you, what was most important about sound design for this game?

There were several people who worked on this game, first and foremost, from Yousuf Hasan (UI and 2D artist) to Rea Koehler (co-designer). RJ Lake handled the sound design and the music. One of the really important things we connected on was the idea of an audio landscape that did feel like it was coming from an empty space. Like a full creative void was silently speaking into an empty room that you happened to be in, almost ignoring you. So from the start screen, where you have the eerie echoing sound of a digital artifact in a space where no one is there to when you start interacting with the game. The music, especially when your timer starts to run out starts to literally play you out. It feels like it's telling the story of you – whether or not you are there – in this very strange way that sees past you. That was sort of a core principle of a lot of our sound design and music design. I'm really glad that you picked up on the fact that  it's meant to be haunting in the way of empty spaces in general. 

When I visited Meow Wolf for the first time evoked all of this stimulus coming in and it having this very strange detaching effect, where it was so holistic, and built for and around me, but also was  like a full orchestra playing for an audience of one. I love that sensation of experiences that do not align with their environment. That's where a lot of the sound design and music came from.

And even when you get done with the game, you step away from them, you're still not back in reality, you're still in The Real Unreal. So you have multiple transitional layers to get to this game before you can even get back to like, what is reality? Where am I?

And how does my dad feel about me?

a black and white screen capture of text “Assessing Parental Relationship” with a loading circle symbol
Screen capture from Dreamfather

He has no time for me. How do you feel about developers like yourself having a voice within Meow Wolf, within installation, within a place that people that typically aren't going to see or play video games and having that chance to kind of speak to them?

I think it's an amazing opportunity to break someone's idea of a video game which is, again, why I'll call out the Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion, which has this very weird human shard inside of it. I really appreciate the game in a number of aspects. In the AAA games industry in particular, there is a pressure to reduce a game to being a product. How many hours of playtime does it have? How good are the graphics? And a lot of the human voice can even get lost, which is why I'd actually go back to the start of the question and say indie developers have an unfortunate habit of dehumanizing people who work on larger games with large budgets and their own very distinct pressures. What I love about Meow Wolf is that a game developer of any stripe has an opportunity to show people who have a set idea of what a game can be in their heads and break it. 

The people who walk into the installation who believe that games are just murder simulators, or who haven't really played a game since Asteroids, or the people who think that games are just stuff like Minecraft or Call of Duty and that's the only angle through which they see video games. No matter what your image is of a video game, I can confidently say in that arcade, every single one of those games breaks that idea. That feels cool and necessary now, as so much art of pretty much every category is getting nailed down into a product. Meow Wolf gives you the opportunity to speak to people as real human beings and as an artist. That's what we're always trying to do, regardless of our constraints. We usually have to go through way more steps to focus on it.