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More than any other artform, videogames are limited by technological advances. In other words: they cost a lot of money to produce. However, there was once a sweet spot when computer hardware was affordable and widespread enough that almost any small team could take a shot at game development without having to invest the GDP of a small country into making the title look “next-gen.” During this brief period, gaming was almost completely untethered by market research and corporate oversight, making it possible for a handful of developers to compete with gigantic companies on equal footing and provide us with some truly weird gaming experiences.

This experimental era was responsible for quirky games like Screaming Mad George’s ParanoiaScape and even Neverhood’s Skullmonkeys, but one of the most infamous projects of the time was Asmik Ace Entertainment’s LSD: Dream Emulator, a one-of-a-kind adventure title that went on to inspire decades of conspiracy theories and spooky online rumors despite being a relatively obscure Japan exclusive. And 25 years after its original release, we thought that this might be a good time to look back on this bizarre project and find out if its sinister reputation is justified.

Originally inspired by a real dream journal kept by Asmik Ace employee Hiroko Nishikawa, LSD: Dream Emulator was actually masterminded by multimedia artist Osamu Sato. Wanting to take advantage of the PS1’s untapped potential for ground-breaking virtual art pieces, Sato envisioned a non-competitive game that operated on surreal dream-logic. This resulted in a unique “walking simulator” where players take on the role of an unnamed dreamer as they traverse imaginary worlds in first person and keep track of their progress via menus and statistics. The dreams are also multi-layered, with walls and certain objects being able to transport players into deeper levels of this simulated reality, often with creepy and psychedelic results.

The strangest visuals you’ll find on the PlayStation.

It’s easy to see how such a peculiar experience might entice players to theorize about the meaning of these strange lands and their stranger inhabitants, so it’s no surprise that online gaming communities embraced LSD as a source of virtual urban legends and even “creepypastas.” In fact, the game even became popular on paranormal forums as users began to suggest that Sato had implanted subliminal messages into the experience, with some going so far as to claim that LSD was literally cursed. Of course, these legends only became so popular because most people hadn’t had the chance to actually play the game, only coming into contact with out-of-context screenshots and often-misleading translations.

That being said, while many of these stories were simply exaggerating surreal moments of a strange foreign game, LSD does in fact boast a series of genuinely spooky elements that gives these claims at least some degree of legitimacy. From random body parts strung over bad neighborhoods to literal giant demons populating low-polygon hellscapes (not to mention a few unexpected references to suicide), there’s plenty of nightmare material to be found here if you’re willing to look for it.

These eerie moments are made even more disturbing by the game’s RNG mechanics, meaning that scary stuff can happen at any moment for seemingly no reason. The levels themselves rarely change, maintaining a consistent architecture, but textures and NPCs can be altered at a moment’s notice, so you can find yourself walking through a pleasant cityscape only to have all the window textures suddenly transform into unblinking eyes.

There’s also the issue of the “Gray Man,” a featureless pursuer that stalks players throughout these dreamscapes for some added tension. Since you can’t actually fail the Dream Emulator, all the Gray Man can do is end the current dream and prevent you from revisiting past ones, but there’s no denying that this ever-shambling pursuer is one of the title’s most horrific elements. Plus, he’s clearly modeled after a hat-wearing shadow-person (supernatural entities that supposedly haunt victims of sleep paralysis), which further fueled online speculation about the game.

Personally, I think the scariest moments of LSD are the result of subtle details like heavily-compressed real world photographs hidden in the textures and the generally unsettling atmosphere surrounding some of these unreal environments. There are no real jump scares or excessively disturbing imagery to be found here, but the constant reminder that you’re walking through someone else’s dreamscape always gets me on edge.

LSD Dream Emulator game

The Gray Man Cometh.

While gameplay is usually accompanied by a phenomenal branching soundtrack comprised of ambient tunes and psychedelic melodies – all composed by Sato himself – I’d argue that the most sinister bits of the title stem from lonely moments of silence as you traverse some of these worlds accompanied only by the compressed sound of your footsteps.

Disregarding the title’s online infamy, there are still plenty of interesting genre elements here that are sure to captivate horror hounds even if this isn’t a bona fide horror game. That’s why it makes sense that the advent of easily accessible computer emulation led to the title becoming more popular in the west, eventually inspiring a plethora of lo-fi indie horror projects (from Yume Nikki to Hypnagogia), as well as larger titles such as Media Molecule’s ambitious Dreams. Not bad for a game that never saw release outside Japan!

Much like a real dream, LSD: Dream Emulator is only as terrifying as you allow it to be, with the simple graphics and non-linear structure letting players project nearly anything onto those simple polygons and low-resolution textures. Whether you’ll interpret these otherworldly visions as surreal art pieces or virtual nightmares is completely up to the player, but one thing is for certain – there’s a reason that this strange little game continues to bewitch and inspire players a quarter of a century later, and I wish modern game studios could afford to take bizarre risks like this one.

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