Picture this: you’re trapped on a desert island. All you can see is a fishing rod, a fireplace, three pieces of wood, a couple of rocks, and two palm trees. What do you do now? Standard adventure fair, would you agree? You’d be totally correct – put wood in fireplace, lift rock, find lighter under rock, start fire, lift other rock, find worm, bait rod with worm, catch fish, kill fish, cook fish, eat fish. I’ve got to admit, this introductory segment had me a little disappointed at first – surely it couldn’t be so simple, right?
Quickly, the scene is turned upside-down as you’re introduced to the key concept of the Dream Machine – what else but dreams. An alarm clock rudely awakens the protagonist, newlywed Victor Neff, as we shown his sparse bedroom, including a painting above the bed that mirrors the desert island setting from Vic’s dream.
After waking up and inspecting the room, you’ll immediately be hit by the intentionally sinister, unnerving sensation brought about by every square inch of the rooms. The Dream Machine weaves its magic by presenting you with a banal, domestic lifestyle, before very discreetly filling this world with tiny, subtle details that will send a shiver down your spine without allowing you to put your finger on what’s going on. You’ll begin by setting the table, eating breakfast, and calling the landlord, finding oddities and strange happenings along every step of the way.
Giving away any more of the story would ruin half of the game’s charm, but the other half of the game’s value comes down to its fantastic art style. This really should have been the first thing I mentioned in this review – there are not enough claymation games, and the style lends itself to point-and-click adventures so perfectly that it makes me wonder why it hasn’t been done before (apart from the Neverhood, an absolutely amazing fantastic masterpiece of a game). The Dream Machine’s aesthetic style drives home the pure, simple creepiness of the entire thing – dark, twisted, and often macabre, an atmosphere is developed that would be simply unobtainable using traditional graphics. Every object, every environment, and every character in the entire game carries with it a sinister feeling, lurking in the background.
As with any good point-and-click game, the other pillar on which the Dream Machine rests its weight is the puzzles. Seasoned adventure gamers from an era well past might find the puzzles a little on the easy side, but speaking for myself, the puzzles were at a fantastic difficulty level, requiring about 20 minutes of headscratching before releasing an internal “ahhhh” followed by a facepalm and a grin. Such is the beauty of these puzzles – nothing is handed on a silver platter, as we see far too often in games these days; the player is expected to pick up on subtle hints made by characters in order to progress, and is rewarded by a true feeling of earning progression and satisfaction.
Chapters 1 and 2 were released in 2010, with the first essentially acting as a demo, being free to play on the developer’s website. Chapter 3 was released in October 2011. Are you starting to see the issue with this? There’s a big time gap there. While I understand the time and energy that goes into every frame of claymation media, a time period like that is inexcusable in an episodic series, especially one in which each episode ends on (perfectly crafted) cliffhangers. This could all be made okay with a small “previously on” section at the beginning of each chapter, but at the moment, I can imagine going into chapter 4 totally confused. Part of me also wants professional voice acting rather than on-screen text, but again, I understand the difficulties with finding the right voices – and so, the other part of me is happy with imagining the characters’ voices myself.
The entire series is the work of two Swedish men – Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring. It’s hard to believe that a two-man dev team could release a work with such finesse, such ambition, and such confidence in their abilities – with only their debut game, no less. The Dream Machine is a great point-and-click adventure that dares to reach to the stars, propelled by its fantastically unnerving aesthetics and brilliantly written story. Now it’s my job to trust that the self-confidence of the creators will do the story justice and bring it home in the final two chapters. And hopefully they won’t come out too far down the track.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of the Dream Machine by Cockroach Inc.