With an unusual art style of clay and cardboard, people might be put off The Dream Machine. What a shame that would be, because between the oddball visuals and the rough-around-the-edges gameplay lies an engrossing story that is both dark and surreal.
Not unlike the popular Machinarium, The Dream Machine (Cockroach Inc.) has the guise of a straightforward point-and-click adventure, yet it has startling aspects that make it well worth your gaming while. Coming out episodically in five chapters of which three are already available, the game’s unusual claymation aesthetic, its eerie atmosphere, not to mention its dark and adult storyline, produce one of the standout experiences of the year.
The game may be on the short side, clocking in at one-two hours per chapter, but playing it is an unforgettable journey full of mystery, both surreal and logical at the same time. It’s as if fantasy writer Neil Gaiman got hold of Christopher Nolan’s Inception script and went to town.
Victor Neff and his newly pregnant wife, Alicia, have just moved into a new flat. You take control of Victor during his first night’s sleep on what is the most logical of dream islands, only to wake up to a rather peculiar apartment block.
Things just don’t seem right as Victor is given such menial tasks as to find the telephone and call the caretaker to bring up your apartment key. Layered with subtle sound effects and minimal music, there is a sense that there is more to Mr. Morton, your caretaker, than meets the eye.
After a strange note left behind by the flat’s old tenant, you find out that most of the block’s inhabitants are housebound and that there’s something strange under your bedroom floorboards. But things get really odd when your couch is delivered only to obstruct the main entrance and you realise that you’re trapped. If people say it’s impossible for a game to make you feel claustrophobic, then The Dream Machine makes a strong case for the opposite.
Not wanting to give too much away, it’s safe to say that Victor must take up a quest, entering one dream at a time, to save the tenants lives and, by implication, the rest of humanity while he’s at it.
So far into the series, Victor has only entered two dreams and fully explored the apartment block. The first dream sequence takes place in a strange maze of clouds where portals navigate between a family of large stone statues that need your help to recover their eyes, ears and brain respectively. If it sounds fantastical, it’s because it is.
Chapter one and two work well to introduce the characters, the over-arching storyline and game mechanics but it’s the somewhat standalone chapter three’s dream sequence that will really hook you with its enthralling crime story. Set on a cruise ship, certain crew members have mysteriously been going missing, and Victor must play detective in a wonderfully interwoven murder mystery.
Keep it simple, stupid
Most of the puzzles are a mix of inventory management, conversations and typical point-and-click staples such as deciphering riddles, matching patterns and basically clicking on everything that you can. It’s not a particularly difficult game but don’t be surprised if you end up using a pen and paper for its trickier segments.
The interface is incredibly simple – you only use Left Click which will get you either a brief description or an action when used on an item. Hovering at the top of the screen drops down the inventory which allows for quick use of inventory items in the environment.
The lack of voice acting meant that the writing had to be excellent, especially to help differentiate the characters and bring the claymation to life. For the most part it’s successful, although the game could use an extra dose of humour from time to time.
The sound and music is scarce but this only serves to aid the atmosphere with sinister creaks and jarring noises that will make you wish there was more music and sound, not for the sake of higher production values, but to ease your nerves.
The game is available through Steam and directly from its website where you can even play the first chapter for free as a browser based demo. But the best way to buy the game is to get all five chapters in a bundle to save a couple of dollars, the upcoming chapters will unlock as they become available. Play the first chapter to get the feel of the game, but bear in mind that the story only really gets going in chapters two and three.
Down we go Alice
The Dream Machine finds itself in the ever more popular niche of the indie episodic adventure. What makes it stand out though is not just its unusual graphical style, but its dark, surreal and quite adult storyline. The game will make you feel uneasy, like a good thriller should, but unlike the many rules of Inception, this dream world is all tangled up and only you can unravel it.
Cockroach Inc. not only proves that indie games have the ability to produce more interesting concepts than their studio-driven peers, but it also delivers one of the most engaging experiences of the year. So forgive The Dream Machine for its lack of voice work and some rough-around-the-edges gameplay and go tumble down the rabbit hole.
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