Game Design Document: Variations on a Dream

Variations on a Dream

Game Design Document

Variations on a Dream

1. Introduction

Variations on a Dream is a first-person music experiencing game, with music-based light gameplay elements from puzzle and platform adventure genres. The player plays as a dreamer travels across and explores the fantastic variations (levels)[1] of the dream teeming with music, looking for the entrance to the next level of dream under the guidance and challenges of the harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, dynamics and music style of the music which is also of the musical form of variation and constantly playing in the background, but functioning as the core mechanics. The player doesn’t respond to the music directly but the music affects the environments in the dream as well as the player avatar’s properties, leading the player in the dark dream scenes; however tuneless, ominous sounds may lead the player to the nightmare and he/she might wake up. There’s no winning or losing in the game, but just the unique way of music experiencing as a journey.

1.1 Unique Selling Points

  • Unparalleled Interactive Music Appreciation Experience: The game features this experience that immerses the player in the game world and gameplay which are totally based on the game’s ludic interpretations and the player’s appreciation/perception of the music.
  • Puzzle and Platform Adventure Revolved around the Music: The game draws classic gameplay elements from puzzle and platform adventure genres and connects them with the basic elements of music.
  • Interrelated Level Design and Music Variations[2] on the Theme of “Dream”: Both the music and the essential game have one enchanting theme—”Dream” and based on it variations of the music and the interrelated levels of dream are composed, designed and unified.
  • Unlit Environments and Sparse GUI Highlighting the Audio: The environments of the game are largely unlit to emphasise the player’s own exploration with the avatar’s dim light under the guidance of audio clues in the environments and enhance the experience of the music.

1.2 Design Goals

  • Unified Experience as a Journey: The music will be unified with and integrated into the gameplay, creating a whole experience of music-driven adventure emphasising on the process itself but not the results.
  • Highlighting Audio Signals: In the game, visual signals will be properly reduced to highlight the audio signals which contribute to the music-oriented experience the game aims to convey.
  • Moderate Difficulty: The game’s difficulty, on both aspects of the perception/appreciation of the music and the gameplay will be moderate and with an immersive tutorial to appeal to a potentially larger audience.
  • Various Emotions: The music will vary to express and convey various emotions related to the levels of the dream.

1.3 Gameplay Overview

Variations on a Dream conveys a linear experience of variations of dreams, in terms of both the game levels and the associated music with each level. As the player travels across and explores a level of dream, the player will discover entrance to the next dream or the nightmare version of the current dream. The player, as well, can fall to the nightmare as the avatar’s light dims out or simply fall off from edges. See Section 2.1 for more detailed explanations.

In the dream, the player will experience these gameplay elements:

  • Exploration: The player explores the largely unlit dream scene with the avatar’s own light under the guidance of audio clues in the scene which produce different harmony effects together with the music to indicate the good or bad events/situations ahead in general. There will also be various consumable items distributed in the scene to be collected.
  • Puzzles: The puzzles in the game will be totally based on music, containing challenges of musical pattern (melodies, rhythms and music styles) recognition, memorisation and inference related to the music playing in the current dream. Puzzle solving rewards the player with light and unlocks passage or secret area.
  • Action Platform Adventure: There will be various traps activated by the rhythm of the music. Also there will be challenges of platform jumping and the player’s speed and height of jump are affected by the tempo and dynamics of the music.

1.4 Target Audience and Platforms

As a game focusing on music experience, Variations on a Dream aims to appeal to players who enjoy music games and potential players, including true music lovers (especially classical music lovers) and people who have some basic knowledge about music theory (e.g. music students). The game may also attract indie game lovers who would like to try out something new.

As a music game that requires hearing for directions, playing with headphones on is recommended. Therefore, the game aims to be developed for and released on platforms of PC, Mac, iOS and Android.

2. Game Settings, Mechanics and Structure

2.1 Game Settings

Variations on a Dream begins from the title scene, where the theme of the music “Dream” is playing and the player can see the painting as the dream’s motif which will appear at every entrance to the next level of dream and indicates that the dream is about the three trees in the painting. As the avatar closes the eyes, the dream begins.

Dream is the level/scene where the gameplay takes place. It is composed of adventure game’s level elements (e.g. terrain, rooms, passages, traps, puzzles, platforms, etc.) and depicted in a fantastic, dreamlike way. There’s one entrance to the next dream in every level of dream and in some levels there are also entrances to the nightmare. Each dream has a title suggesting the environment and settings of the dream as a variation but there’s no explicit narrative content in the dream/nightmare but the environments should increasingly stress the implicit environmental storytelling as the game progresses. The music in a dream is one variation of the theme music, working as the basis of the gameplay in the level, and also should increasingly stress its narrative characteristics as “ballades”.

Figure 1. Screenshot of Dream Variation III: Little Maze

Nightmare is the distorted version of the current dream with the discordant version of the music in that dream. In a nightmare, the player is limited to look around and feel the uneasy music as the avatar keeps falling. The nightmare is the transition between dreams and serves no purpose of gameplay.

Figure 2. Screenshot of Nightmare Variation III: Little Maze: The player is falling

Figures 1 and 2 show the example of the dream and its corresponding nightmare.

As an interpretation of the dream about falling in real life, the transitions between and progressions of dreams and nightmares in the game happen along with the avatar’s falling from high places to the level and falling off the level.

Figure 3 illustrates how these processes work. As described, when the player reaches the entrance to the next dream, the avatar falls off the level to the next dream; otherwise when the player reaches the entrance to the nightmare, the avatar falls off the level to the nightmare and then to the next dream. There are other cases where the player will undergo the nightmare and then fall back to the current dream for retrying, including situations of losing all the avatar’s light (see Section 2.2 for further details) and accidental (though usually it is part of the action challenge) falling off the edges in the level. However, the player’s avatar will wake up to the title scene if the player has experienced too many nightmares, but the player can restart the last dream later at no penalty. Section 2.3 will introduce the progressions on the whole game’s structure scale.

Figure 3. Flowchart of the Transitions between and Progressions of Dreams and Nightmares

2.2 Core Mechanics

This section outlines the core mechanics the gameplay is built on. Specific designs will be exemplified in Section 5.

2.2.1 Avatar Actions and Properties

As introduced in Section 1.3, the gameplay elements are considered as challenges to be overcome by the player on the journey. The player’s avatar is enabled with actions described in Table 1 to deal with the challenges. These actions are all related to and affected by the musical elements of the music and the player’s perception of the music is the key to use these actions to overcome the challenges.

Table 1. Avatar Actions

Avatar Action Description Control Scheme
Movement and Observation The player can move and look around to explore and venture forth into the dream scene. Together with jump, the player can collect consumable items, avoid traps and jump between platforms in the level. PC/Mac: WASD keys and mouseiOS/Android: Slide on the left/right part of screen
Jump Applied with movement, the player can jump towards a certain direction. PC/Mac: Space keyiOS/Android: Tap on the bottom of the screen
Interact The player can interact with puzzles in the dream to solve them. PC/Mac: E keyiOS/Android: Tap on the puzzle object

Besides these actions, the player can choose to wake up at any moment in a dream.

Associating the actions and the music, the player’s avatar has properties listed in Table 2 below.

Table 2. Avatar Properties

Avatar Property Description
Light The light is the “Health” property in a conventional game context. It is not displayed as an explicit GUI element. The avatar itself is a spot light source to light up the area around. The light increases as the player collects the consumable item of light or solves the puzzle while it dims as the player gets hit by the trap of light or makes a wrong attempt in puzzle solving. When the light dies out, the avatar falls off from the level of dream automatically to the nightmare.
Speed The speed is how fast the avatar moves. It is instantly affected by the tempo of the music and increases/decreases with it.
Height of Jump The height of jump is how high the avatar jumps. It is instantly affected by the dynamics of the music and increases/decreases with it.

2.2.2 Design Elements:

Musical Elements:

Since the gameplay revolves around the music, the musical elements therefore provide rich ludic potentials for core mechanics to be designed and developed from. Table 3 lists and explains the musical elements utilised in Variations on a Dream and the interpretations of their ludic properties as the design elements of the core mechanics.

Table 3. Musical Elements and Their Ludic Properties

Musical Element Ludic Properties
Harmony An audio clue of harmony is an audio source in the dream scene. It plays a clip of sound to produce a certain harmony effect together with the constantly playing music to indicate the good or bad events/situations ahead in general. Concordant sounds (positive) indicate the way out, safe passages, hidden areas with items or entrance to the next dream. On the contrary, discordant sounds (negative) indicate dead ends, edges, passages with traps or entrance to the nightmare.
Melody Mostly, the melody is implemented as a type of pattern in puzzles.
Rhythm All traps are activated by the rhythm of the music. Additionally, rhythm can also be implemented as a type of pattern in puzzles.
Tempo (speed of the music) Tempo of the music affects the avatar’s speed.
Dynamics (volume of the music) Dynamics of the music affects the avatar’s height of jump.
Music Style Music style is implemented as a type of pattern in puzzles. An audio clue of music style plays a clip of music of certain music style in the dream scene as a cue for puzzles.

The following design elements are presented in the game as interactive objects.


All clues to the puzzles exist in the music. The puzzles in the game are mostly optional as part of the rewarding system. Solving them will reward the player with light and unlock secret areas and even music as rewards. There will also be some mandatory ones to be solved to unlock the entrance to the next dream. When the player looks at a puzzle object (a small light spot) at a close distance, it plays an audio clip as the cue and then the player can interact with it to make puzzle solving choices. When the puzzle is solved, responding music will be played.

Types of puzzles are shown in Table 4 below.

Table 4. Types of Puzzles

Type Description
Melody/Rhythm match The player will hear a melody/rhythm clip related to the current music. Several options of responding melody/rhythm clips are presented. One or more need to be chosen as the correct match that fits the music (usually in the order of the music playing).
Melody/Rhythm completion The player will hear an uncompleted melody/rhythm clip related to the current music. Several options of music note/rhythm value are presented. One or more need to be chosen to complete the melody/rhythm.
Melody/Rhythm composition The free version of the melody/rhythm completion type. The player can choose any number of the options and adjust the order of them to “compose” the music clip. In some harder puzzles of this type, melody and rhythm compositions need to be done at the same time.
Music style match At the first puzzle of this type in a puzzle group, the player will be presented several music clips of different music styles (which are also variations of the current music) and any one of them can be chosen. At the following puzzles, the player has to identify and choose the music clips of the same music style. The choices from the current dream can affect puzzle solving of this type in the following dreams.
Puzzle as audio clue of music style Some puzzles also function as audio clues of music style as part of the music style match puzzles.

In later comprehensive levels, any of the puzzles can form a puzzle group as a continuous puzzle challenge. Puzzle objects can become collectable and usable and increasingly hard to be located, which increases the difficulty of the challenge of exploration, involving less passive choice and more generative creativity.


Generally, there are two forms of traps. One is the projectile trap which is launched across the dream scene and the other’s position is fixed. Traps of both forms are activated by the rhythm of music, usually when a strong beat or an accent appears. The types of traps are listed in Table 5.

Table 5. Traps of Puzzles

Type Effect
Light Decrease the avatar’s light.
Tempo Slow down the tempo of the music and thus decrease the speed of the avatar for a period of time.
Dynamics Decrease the volume of the music and thus decrease the height of jump of the avatar for a period of time.


As with traps, there are consumable items distributed around the dream scene to be collected. They are instantly consumed upon contact with the avatar and last a much longer period of time than traps. Table 6 lists the types of items.

Table 6. Types of Items

Type Effect
Light Increase the avatar’s light.
Tempo Speed up the tempo of the music and thus increase the speed of the avatar for a period of time.
Dynamics Increase the volume of the music and thus increase the height of jump of the avatar for a period of time.
Dream Increase the upper limit of the how many nightmares the player can experience in a single dream journey.

2.3 Game Structure

Variations on a Dream takes a circular linear structure shown in Figure 4, which means that after the player finishes the very last dream, the game is reset to the initial state and no past progressions can be reloaded. As what will be exemplified in Section 5, the replay experiences can be different as the player chooses to solve certain puzzles differently. Together, the structure and the dream/nightmare transitions and progressions introduced in Section 2.1 form the two layers of the game loops.

Figure 4. The Circular Linear Game Structure

In total, there will be 10-15 levels of dream, each lasting 5-10 minutes. A single journey will take about 1.5 to 2 hours to experience (and that’s the average duration of a concert).

In terms of the content of gameplay, the levels can be grouped into two parts. One is the tutorial levels featuring the musical gameplay elements progressively and the other is the comprehensive levels featuring all the elements through various designs (that’s what the word “variation” means here!).

Table 7 outlines the content of gameplay in each level.

Table 7. Gameplay Content in Each Dream

Variation of dream Musical elements featured
Tutorial levels I: Two Paths Audio clue of harmony
II: The Garden Melody puzzles
III: Little Maze Traps, items and rhythm puzzles
IV: Broken Bridge Mechanics of tempo and speed
V: The Mountain Mechanics of dynamics and high jump and music style puzzles
Comprehensive levels VI: The Waterfall The first comprehensive level with various recurring gameplay elements
Variation n The last dream to conclude the journey

3. Audio Design

All the sounds in the game are diegetic and stereo so the environmental sound sources can be located by hearing.

3.1 Music

As the music is associated with the level of dream and integrated with the gameplay, the length (2-10 minutes in general) of a variation needs to be relative to the scale of the level. To make the musical elements clear to perceive, concise and minimal music style is recommended and thus the music in the prototype takes the form/style of string quartet and minimalism. However, the music should also meet the design goal of “various emotions”. In later comprehensive levels, one variation can be divided into several sections and played separately to be associated with the player’s progression in the level.

3.2 Sound Effects

All sound effects are short clips of music to be coherent with the overall game’s musical feel. Besides various audio clues and puzzles, there are also expressive sounds for the effects of traps and items (e.g. a crescendo scale for the item of dynamics). In turn, these ludic effects also affect the overall audio experience (see Section 2.2).

4. Visual Design

4.1 Perspective

The game takes the first-person avatar perspective model all the time. There’s no extra point of view as the whole game experience is to be delivered in the most direct and uninterrupted way.

4.2 Visual Style

The visual style should always stick to the low lighting but high-contrast style to highlight the audio clues and overall music experience. In general, the lighted background and interactive objects contrast the unlit environments. Example scenes delineated in this visual style are shown in Figures 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10.

Figure 5. Screenshot of Dream Variation I: Two Paths

The visual style of interactive objects in the game is mainly musically thematic and symbolic. Figures 6 and 7 show some of the textures for the traps and platforms.

Figure 6. Music Themed Textures


Figure 7. Music Themed Textures Applied to In-game Objects

In addition, white screen fade-in/out is used for the transitions in the dream and nightmare (See Figure 9).

4.3 Environments

Skybox is used as the background (not light source) for the dream and in the nightmare the background becomes mingled with the motif painting. In outdoor scenes, white light shafts are used to depict the dreamlike feel of the environments. According to different scenes of dream, various visual effects such as fog, stars, etc. can be used to help portray the environments. Although the dream scene is largely unlit, vital light clues for directions and interactions are usually shown (See Figure 10).


Figure 8. Screenshot of Dream Variation II: The Garden, showing the high contrast skybox, light shafts and a puzzle


Figure 9. Screenshot of Nightmare Variation II: The Garden, showing the mingled skybox and light shafts (white screen)

Figure 10. Self-lit platforms, puzzles and items and fog effect

4.4 GUI

Sparse, concise GUI also contributes to the more immersive game experience. Figure 11 sketches out the layout of the title scene (main menu). There will be no more GUI elements besides this one and a simpler in-game pause menu. There will be prompts for puzzle interaction for the first time and a small amount of music information.


Figure 11. Layout of the Title Scene

5. Prototype Design

5.1 Variation I: Two Paths

Variation I introduces the audio clue of harmony and also the controls. It is set in a dark forest with three-colour lighted T-shaped paths which the player is confined to. The music is a simple piece with only one chord. As the player walks towards the negative audio clues, the avatar’s light and forward speed will decrease but the backward speed will increase as a signal to notify the player of the different sounds on the two paths.


Figure 12. Layout of Dream Variation I

5.2 Variation II: The Garden

Variation II introduces the melody match puzzle. It is set in a mysterious open “garden” fenced by walls. The music features repeated patterns of melody. As the player solves the puzzles, specific walls become unlocked. The audio clues also indicate what’s behind the walls.

Figure 13. Layout of Dream Variation II

5.3 Variation III: Little Maze

Variation III introduces traps, items and rhythm match puzzles. It is set in a maze of small scale for the player to explore. The scherzo music features different patterns of rhythms. Traps of light are projected across the level and items of light are also disturbed around. The hidden item of dream becomes unveiled after the more difficult second rhythm match puzzle is solved. And after the final puzzle is solved, the entrance to the next dream finally appears.

Figure 14. Layout of Dream Variation III

5.4 Variation IV: Broken Bridge

Variation IV introduces the mechanics of tempo and speed. It is set in the outer space in which a broken bridge floats. The music has a looping pattern of different tempos. As the player progresses, the gap between two platforms (bridge segments) becomes wider, requiring a more precise perception/control of the tempo/jump. There are items of light to be collected between the gaps, accompanied by danger of traps of light and tempo. By solving melody completion puzzles, items of tempo will become available to help the player make further jumps.


Figure 15. Layout of Dream Variation IV

5.5 Variation V: The Mountain

Variation V introduces the mechanics of dynamics and height of jump. It is set in a mountain scene with stairs of platforms spiral up to the top. The dynamic music has a looping pattern of different dynamics. As the player climbs up and solves the music style puzzles, the secret platform will be revealed and a piece of music of the same style of the completed puzzle will be played as a reward there.

Figure 16. Layout of Dream Variation V

5.6 Variation VI: The Waterfall

Variation VI is the first comprehensive level as an example for design of later levels. It is set in a valley scene with a waterfall. For the first time the player has to refer to past gameplay experiences to proceed in this level. The serene music is also comprehensive on all aspects of the musical elements.

Figure 17. Layout of Dream Variation VI

6. Technical Specifications and Development Cost

6.1 Technical Specifications

The game should be able to run smoothly at most scenes with default settings on most mainstream devices.

Basic PC system requirements:

OS:      Windows XP Service Pack 3 / Windows Vista / Windows 7

CPU:    Core 2 Duo 2GHz or equivalent


VGA:   ATI or NVidia card with 1024 MB RAM

HDD:   700 MB Free space

6.2 Development Cost

The game will be developed using Unity 4, which brings a cost-effective multi-platform development and distribution solution. Considering the scale of the game, the development will likely take 120-150 man-months. The estimated development cost then will be around£300,000. Funding from art foundations and organisations and crowd funding are possible and worth considering.

[1] In the document, “level”, “scene” and “variation” are constantly used as synonyms.

[2] “Variation” in the game as well as the document has two meanings:
1. The different design and implementation of a level of dream;

2. One piece of music based on the theme, and is associated to the level of dream in which it is played.

Download the GDD: Here or Here


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