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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Yummy. I played the first episode/taster when it was released for free – and moved from unimpressed at frustrating puzzling for the first five minutes to truly fond. I have the protagonist on my facebook friends list, and very few other people. I’m not sure whether this shows my devotion to the game or just how sadly antisocial I am around real human beings.
Drawing more attention and custom to this fine little project is a good deed, Gregg. You’ve earned good karma this day =)
Great stuff Gregg. I instantly thought of Coraline and the text system sounds rather similar to Love actually. I’m definitely going to pick this up. It’s a good job Hailey is on hand to rescue you! 🙂
This looks like a beautiful approach for a game. A great way for traditional art to merge with digital storytelling. Stop action and stuff are so hard to do precisely, but when done well they are really adept at evoking worlds.
Plus any game that makes people think of both Aardman and Dave McKean has got to be worth attention. I hope Cockroach gets some good sales out of this!
Great series (so far). I love the fact that such meticulous art as stopmotion animation is now employed in indie adventure games and used to tell a mature story for a change (not that Neverhood’s story didn’t have some powerful threads).
Igor, I was expecting a shameless plug of the recent interview Jan did with Erik and Anders!
I’ll do the honours 😉 There’s a great interview with the developers of The Dream Machine over at A Hardy Developer’s Journal, it’s well worth a read if you’re at all interested in this little gem.
“It feels like the [adventure] genre is surfacing again, gaining more fans… I don’t feel like a necrophiliac nowadays enjoying adventure games. Thank you Amanita/Telltale for rejuvenating the genre.”
Big thanks for the not-at-all-shameless plug! 🙂 Jan did an excellent job with that interview.
As for me, I’ve become unbearably shameless with plugging my own game everywhere recently, so I’m recuperating from that before I can plug anything connected to myself again. 😉
Igor! Haven’t seen you around in a while, great to have you back. 🙂
There is no shame in being shameless. It’s how you get noticed.
Did you ever finish this game, Gregg? Would be great to hear your final thoughts!
The third episode is due later this month so what I wrote here is where I left off. I’ve been eagerly awaiting it for the last seven months! Here’s hoping there are no more delays.