In a bid to shake off the weariness induced by Grim Fandango, Hailey and I decided to play the first two available chapters of Cockroach Inc.’s The Dream Machine, a gorgeous point and click browser-based adventure game split into five chapters.
The Dream Machine tells the story of Victor and Alicia, a young couple who have just moved into an old apartment block. After spending their first night in their new home, the two begin to feel that something isn’t quite right when Alicia discusses over breakfast the strange dream she’d had that night…
The first thing you’ll notice about The Dream Machine is just how beautifully presented it is. The whole thing is lovingly rendered using sets, props and characters hand-made entirely out of materials like clay and cardboard — it just looks stunning. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jan Svankmajer’s work, that of Aardman (of Wallace & Gromit fame) and, to a certain extent, The Neverhood. Hailey also astutely pointed out that there were shades of Dave McKean (illustrator of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline) in the warped character designs.
The game’s appearance — as well as the accompanying soundtrack — imbues each area with a distinct atmosphere and sense of place; the environments feel intimate and three-dimensional, often busy with clutter and things to examine. The dreamy ambient soundtrack that hums, glistens and yawns as you explore the apartment block is understated and quietly beautiful; there were moments where it reminded me and Hailey of the Jami Sieber music that features in Braid.
There’s no voice acting to speak of so text dialogue simply fades in and out above a character’s head and is colour-coded depending on who’s speaking. Text driven dialogue is a sensible and wise move as far as I’m concerned: voice acting — for how difficult (and expensive) it is to do well — can easily cheapen the whole experience if done badly. It’s ultimately cosmetic and I’m glad Cockroach Inc. are concentrating their efforts on what’s important: the core game. The added bonus of text driven dialogue is that it’s naturally more accessible too.
Speaking of accessibility, The Dream Machine comes with options to enable greyscale colour puzzles and have audio cues for crucial sound effects. This sort of functionality should come as standard for most games but unfortunately it rarely does.
Perhaps the thing that perked me up the most with The Dream Machine was its straight forward point and click controls which — while being nothing particularly special — were a welcome return to normality after my infuriating time with Grim Fandango. Left click somewhere and Victor will walk there, left click on something and he will examine or interact with it. If you want to use an item on something you simply move your pointer to the top of the screen, left click, hold and drag the desired item over to what you want to interact with and let go. Quick and easy.
Most points of interest are fairly obvious and emit a faint glow as you roll over them with your mouse pointer, so sweeping environments is a breeze. I only recall a single instance where Hailey and I had missed something but thanks to the game’s economy with locations, points of interest and items, it was easy to deduce that we’d made an oversight somewhere and before long we’d spotted it and were back on our way.
On the gameplay front it’s the usual adventure affair; exploring, talking to characters and solving puzzles to progress. Exploring is a pleasure thanks to the lush environments and simple interface, but it’s the dialogue and conversations with the handful of characters you encounter that really impressed us. If Grim Fandango’s script was as sharp as Manny’s scythe then The Dream Machine‘s is as unassuming as Victor and Alicia’s apartment. The conversations are organic and down to earth, with the odd dash of humour and grit — there’s a particularly funny exchange between Victor and a delivery man quite early on.
It was a great relief to find that, on finishing chapter 2, we hadn’t encountered a single crazy puzzle solution. The game flowed very comfortably, never stalling in any spot for too long thanks to the clear direction and logical solutions, and yet it still offered a satisfying degree of challenge. There was one puzzle involving an ear that I wouldn’t have been able to solve on my own because I lacked the (presumably basic) knowledge to work out the solution — and as far as I know there were no clues in the game to help — so that may pose a problem for other dumbos out there like me. As it stood, Hailey spotted the solution straight away and on understanding the logic behind it I was impressed by just how inventive it was.
The Dream Machine‘s story is unusual, suspenseful and fascinating, and despite having only played the first two chapters I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the next three. Due to each chapter’s relatively short length (it took us a few hours to finish both), and with the first chapter being free to play right here, it’s not worth revealing much because, well, that’d sap the surprise and sense of discovery out of the experience. Suffice to say, there comes a point where things suddenly get a lot more intriguing and from there you’ll be just as hooked as we were. Though a trailer for the game exists, I wouldn’t recommend watching it if you’re sensitive to spoilers because it reveals a few too many of the locations for my taste.
Whether you’re an adventure veteran, a newcomer or somebody jaded with the whole genre, like Stacking, The Dream Machine is a welcome breath of fresh air, and clearly a labour of love undoubtedly worthy of your attention. If Cockroach Inc. can maintain this level of quality for the remaining chapters then we’re in for a real treat.
Chapters cost €4.69 each while the whole lot can be bought with an early bird discount for €13.75 (roughly $20/£12) from Cockroach Inc.’s store.
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