By Marty Mulrooney
The Dream Machine is a point-and-click adventure game in five chapters created by Cockroach Inc, a two-man Swedish independent game development studio. The studio consists of Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring, who make each chapter by hand using materials such as clay and cardboard. The final result is enchanting and surreal, the stop-motion style animation perfectly complimenting a story that delves into a world of dreams, both figuratively and literally.
The Dream Machine centres around Victor and Alicia, a young married couple who have just moved into a new apartment. As the game begins, Victor appears to be stranded on a desert island. The controls are a simple one click affair, ensuring that adventure game veterans and newcomers alike will quickly get started on their new adventure.
After catching and cooking a fish, Victor digs for hidden treasure on the tiny island until he unearths an old-fashioned alarm clock. As it rings within a freshly dug hole in the sand, a sense of the surreal prevails. Victor then awakes in his new apartment with his alarm clock ringing beside him on the bedside table. At this point, the game begins proper.
As previously mentioned The Dream Machine is split into five chapters, three of which have been released so far. Chapter 1 is mostly set within the real world, with Victor exploring his apartment building and slowly uncovering a conspiracy involving his creepy landlord, Morton. Chapter Two delves more extensively into the dream world – saying how would be to spoil the surprise – and explains exactly what is going on with Morton, who has been monitoring the building’s residents with hidden cameras. Chapter 3, released near the end of 2011, proves to be the longest and most enjoyable instalment so far, with Victor trapped on a boat in a dream where everyone looks exactly like him.
No matter how good an adventure game looks and sounds, it often lives or dies on how good its puzzles are. Thankfully, The Dream Machine has few complaints in this department. The puzzles can be tough, but most of them feel fair and perhaps most important of all, they always feel fully integrated into the game world. It’s always refreshing to find an indie game that gets this important aspect of adventure game design right – it’s even more refreshing when said indie game has the production values to match.
The graphics of The Dream Machine are at times reminiscent of both Grim Fandango and The Neverhood. Everything in the game has been made for real, creating a strong sense of tangibility that is truly delightful. It’s incredibly impressive to play through each chapter and note that the environments continually vary and continue to delight.
Although the characters themselves don’t offer much in the way of facial animation, they are animated well enough otherwise to bring them immediately to life. There is no voice acting, but the writing is fantastic and the small cast all feel like individuals with their own unique thoughts and emotions. Completing the experience, the appropriately dreamy music ties everything together to create an adventure quite unlike anything else recently seen within the genre.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of The Dream Machine – even odder than the dreams themselves – is the method in which the game is delivered to the player. Each chapter is accessed via the official website and played within the web browser using Flash – the first chapter is free to play so players can try before they buy. This means that you need to be online to play, which will no doubt be seen as an inconvenience by some gamers.
However, this unique distribution method does offer some benefits – Cockroach Inc. can monitor player statistics and make adjustments to the difficulty and puzzles as required. This also allows them to add new interaction responses if enough players try the same action. It’s an experimental decision that largely pays off – the game can still be played full screen like an offline game and save games are stored both online and locally so progress should never be lost.
The Dream Machine has a moment near the end of its third chapter that pretty much sums up why adventure games are still alive today. A simple hug between Victor and his pregnant wife, beautifully animated and heart-warming to the extreme, signals the end of one part of the adventure and the start of another. It’s a simple moment that nonetheless resonates strongly – many other game genres bypass such emotions entirely. The Dream Machine embraces the relationship between Victor and his wife and as a result, the player does too. It raises the stakes and makes you care.
Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring have taken clay and cardboard and crafted them into something real and alive. The Dream Machine lacks voice acting and the puzzles, although well-integrated, can sometimes feel slightly unclear. Yet in every other department, this is not only a game about dreams, but a dream come true for adventure gamers. Chapters 4 and 5 will no doubt continue an impressive track record of inspired point-and-click storytelling from a small indie studio with big ideas and even bigger dreams.
9 OUT OF 10