“Everyone’s view on nostalgia is different,” says John Beech, creative director at Media Molecule. “We’ve all had different childhoods, some people are older than me, some are younger… so with Tren, we were trying to evoke that feeling of nostalgia. Let you remember what your childhood was like, rather than tell you what it was like.”
As you guide your little toy train around the tracks and begin to solve physics-based obstacles and tricky logic puzzles, you’ll begin to see elements of a life well-lived. Maybe it’s the old-school TTRPG manuals placed just-so between the tracks. Maybe it’s the old PlayStation 1 you can see off to the side. Maybe it’s the record player, riffing its own impressively on-point Kraftwerk knock-off, soundtracking your little train’s adventures. Whatever it is – and whatever era of gamer you are – Tren has this wily way of appealing to your inner child. And so much of that is because of how much it makes you play.
“Have you seen Ratatouille?” Beech asks me as we talk about nostalgia. “There’s that point where Anton Ego eats the ratatouille and there’s that camera dolly zoom and he’s immediately taken back to being a kid… that’s what we were aiming for with Tren.”
This isn’t just lip service. After a couple of hours of playing Tren, there was a long list of single-word notes in my draft document: sincere, nostalgic, personal, artisanal, tactile, curated, loving, authentic, gorgeous. A game that delights in all the modular, moving parts it's made up from, Tren simply asks you to play. Figure things out. See how it all works.
Like Media Molecule’s previous projects (namely LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway), you understand Tren as soon as you look at it. A little plastic train, wooden tracks, the way your wheels fit into the grooves, functional-but-weak magnets that hold cargo in place, how far momentum will carry you after a helpful little push… it’s all obvious, intuitive, tactile.
Per Beech, the world has been designed “to make you want to poke your head in, and keep it there.” Aside from the ingenious level design of the train – sorry, tren – tracks, there are gorgeously curated little moments littered about the place, brought to life with little train set figures of people. One sees a nude man, traffic cone over his family jewels, being painted like one of his assumed wife’s French Girls. It’s a moment of silly fun, something to look at if you’re struggling with one of the physics puzzles and going through a level for the ninth time. Media Molecule calls these ‘micro-moments’; they’re sad, happy, funny – all placed to keep your nose in the world (and you can use Photo Mode to really get up close and get your face in, if you so desire).
And it is tough. You will be playing some of these levels a few times each, at least. Each task is split into gold, silver, and bronze, and getting the gold on some of the levels is going to require real skill and determination – it’s that easy-to-pick-up, hard-to-master balance realised with aplomb. An example of that Media Molecule pedigree working at full capacity.
Lucky for you, there’s as much joy in things going wrong as there is in things going right. Listening to the clatter and rattle of your little toy train break into pieces as it hits the deck is a delight, provoking the same little tiny microdose of serotonin that actually crossing the finish line with a burst confetti conjures. Sat there playing the game, I heard other media around me giggling in delight – laughing and grinning when they derailed. It’s a special game that makes you do that.
And for those precocious kids that were always a few pages ahead of the class when they were doing group reading, each of the worlds contains an Expert Spur; a small selection of brainteaser tracks designed to really make sure you understand the tools you’ve been introduced to. Think of them as extra-credit assignments for the MENSA-bound. Shout out to Tren Nevis, in particular: a proper example of artisanal, intelligent level design that you can tell was as fun to make as it is to play.
And that’s the point of Tren, really, isn’t it? As well as the game itself, Media Molecule is releasing a massive asset pack into the software-cum-engine it’s built within, Dreams, so that you can play around with the pieces and make your own little tren sets. It’ll be Dreams’ biggest creation kit ever (by multiple times) with over 550 elements. Paired with the 95 Tren tracks, a ‘five to six hour’ runtime for standard players, and the endless replayability this game has for kids of all ages, Tren is a delight. And well worth the price of entry to Dreams alone.
Tren releases on August 1, and is playable within Dreams on both PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. It will be free for anyone that already owns Dreams. Better yet,Dreams will be part of the PlayStation Plus Essentials package as of August 1 – so you have no excuse not to play this charmer of a game.