Melatonin Preview: Don’t Sleep On This

Melatonin‘s name makes the joke in this preview’s title irresistible, but I am being serious. You need to play this game. The mesmerizing rhythm indie popped onto my radar earlier this year when it served as the Wholesome Direct’s “one last thing.” But, though it lodged somewhere in my brain, I didn’t originally give it much thought. The showcase featured so many amazing games, like recently released A Little to the Left, that I didn’t take notice until I actually went hands-on. Then it shot to the top of my most anticipated list.

This time around, I got a chance to try out a whole new set of challenges. Chapter 2, as developer David Huynh explained, has an entirely different feel to it. Like the earlier level, my job is to enter into the main character’s dreams and complete various musical tasks. The world’s hypnotic, hand-drawn beauty makes staying on the beat all the more satisfying, and failure uniquely jarring.

However, the new demo’s themes all center around stress, whereas the first looked at excess and indulgence. Rather than gobbling up fast food or swiping my credit card shopping for dope swag, I work through wonderfully designed levels inspired by exercise, work, money, and dating. The tone shift is noticeable and all too relatable. Struggling to keep up with a musclebound trainer, grasping for — and often missing — coins rhythmically falling from the sky, and stamping my approval on an unending series of busywork communicates the protagonist’s anxieties remarkably well for a game that has absolutely no dialogue.

“There is a story,” Huynh affirms as we chat about the new demo, and the developer hopes it strikes a chord with players. He doesn’t like the idea that a game’s narrative is in some way tied to its creator’s experience, though the inspiration for his sleep-centric title was influenced by his personal troubles with sleep. Instead, Huynh wants people to engage with Melatonin and come away with their own interpretation of what’s going on. Hopefully, he says, they will pick up on the message of the game, which he is cautious not to reveal while emphasizing its vital role in the story.

The developer doesn’t have a release date for Melatonin just yet, so it will be a while until I can learn where the story will take me. But I can tell you that the gameplay is wildly enthralling. While there are on-screen prompts in the practice round, there’s really nothing visually to keep you on the beat when actually playing apart from the music (which is unfairly catchy). Besides clearing the way for the art to shine, this ensures I feel accomplished when I get the timing perfectly because the design makes me feel like I did it on my own.

The scoring system — which tells me the amount times I got things just right, hit too early, or pressed a button way late — awards me stars that unlock subsequent levels. Each chapter so far has a finale that blends everything I’ve encountered in it. It’s a brutal test of skill that keeps me on my toes in the best way. The game has a total of 5 chapters, meaning I haven’t even seen half of what Melatonin has to offer. And with everything I learned from this demo and talking to the developer, I can’t wait to see what dreams I’ll jump into next.

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