Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Dream Machine - Review

* Read this review as it originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Adventure Lantern.

The most notable aspect of Cockroach Inc's The Dream Machine -- an episodic point-and-click adventure game -- is its animation style. Using the time-honored art of claymation, every scene in constructed from clay and cardboard and animated with stop-motion photography. It looks fantastic. With just a cursory glance, you can already tell that The Dream Machine stands out from the crowd, since so few games have ever used claymation. As great as the visual design is, however, that's not the game's biggest selling point -- it's the quality of the gameplay.

As a point-and-click adventure, the gameplay revolves around solving puzzles to progress through a prominent story. The puzzles in TDM are all very clever and feel rewarding to solve, often because they're well-implemented in the environment and contribute to the pacing of the narrative. Nothing feels obtuse; everything's there for a specific (and convincing) purpose. The puzzles offer a satisfying challenge while always being completely fair to the diligent observer, and the story develops at a consistent pace, hooking you from the very beginning with a sense of mystery before hooking you with another plot element at the climax of each chapter.

You play as Victor Neff moving into a new apartment with your wife, Alicia. At first things are relatively mundane, with your main tasks basically being to accommodate to life in a new apartment. You talk with Alicia about how well each of you slept last night, you meet some of your new neighbors, you set-up a rudimentary dining table from an up-turned cardboard box, you search for the phone and the telephone jack so you can call the realty company, you pick up the spare key from the landlord, the elevator doors get jammed so you try to fix them, and so on. These aren't particularly exciting tasks, but they're surprisingly effective at setting the stage and keeping you invested in the scenario.

For a game titled "The Dream Machine," which will therefore obviously be dealing with the fantastic subject matter of dreams, grounding the gameplay in reality is a crucial first step. Reality, in this case, is very convincing and resonates with a special kind of chemistry. Your conversations with Alicia, using the slightly branching dialogue options, are both witty and charming, thanks to some clever and poignant writing. We only need a few minutes with these two characters to get a feeling for the unique quality of their relationship. They're instantly likable and feel very plausible in this setting, which makes you care about what's going on.

Even though your initial objectives are fairly banal, there's an air of mystery and intrigue right from the very beginning. The game preludes the dream theme with you playing your own quick dream sequence before waking up. Alicia then describes the landlord's bizarre appearance in her own dreams last night, and explains how uncomfortable she now feels around him. One of your neighbors has known the landlord since he was a kid and warns you to be a little wary of him. Looking around your living room, you find a burned-up note from the previous tenant, in which he warns you of some strange device under the bedroom floorboards and how he just had to get out of that apartment.

After solving some puzzles, you discover a hidden camera pointed directly at your bed. Chapter 1 (which you can play for free online in your browser) ends with Alicia calling the police and you making a mad dash to prevent the landlord from escaping the building. From here, you stumble into his office and start uncovering the mystery of what he's been up to, which, as the title suggests, pertains to a dream machine. Thus, you spend the bulk of Chapters 2 and 3 exploring the dreamworld to solve a conflict which, by now, you've become heavily invested in as a player, due to the characterization and atmosphere.

Each chapter follows a pattern that begins with some kind of concrete goal or objective that quickly becomes complicated with some kind of mystery. You solve puzzles and progress until you reach a climax near the end that resolves the events of the chapter while setting up a dramatic event to be continued in the next chapter. The pacing here is very well-done, as it establishes a pretty satisfying feedback loop which makes it engaging to play all the way through.

As far as the puzzles are concerned, they're all well-implemented in the environment; everything makes sense and feels like it should belong where it is. Very few puzzles come off feeling forced, and they all manage to contribute to the pacing of the game in a positive way. Whereas some games throw a puzzle out just to block your path in some obligatory way, and you wonder why it's even there, you sometimes don't even realize you're solving a "puzzle" in TDM because of how clever they are (or if you do realize, you're perfectly content to play along with it because of how plausible they feel).

One of the most remarkable aspects of the puzzles is how many inventory items and things in the environment get used for different puzzles. At one point I had collected a hammer, an anvil, and a stirrup before encountering a talking stone head that couldn't hear. With a little bit of lateral logic, I ended up using those three items as metaphors to recreate the statue's inner ear. Later on, another stone head had a problem with one of his "vocal chords." Thinking that the most straighforward solution would be to bang the metal rod back into shape with the hammer and anvil, I returned to the other stone head and was pleasantly elated that I could take them out and use them again.

Chapter 3 represents the peak of the puzzles to this point, with the entire chapter playing out in a relatively small space that's just crammed with interwoven puzzles. You receive the overarching "quest" of solving the mystery of a recently-disappeared NPC, which ends up being comprised of several "sub-quests" along the way. The great thing is that usually to solve one of these puzzles, you need some item or information that you obtain in another puzzle. It's just great to see how they all relate to and affect one another, because it makes the scenario feel that much more believable -- instead of just solving one fleeting puzzle and moving to the next screen, you're working with complex patterns in a dynamic, recurring environment.

The puzzles offer a satisfying level of challenge, with some of them being simpler and more straightforward tasks, while others are a little more abstract or complicated. The smaller puzzles aren't that involved, but they provide a nice rhythm for progressing through the game, reinforcing your actions by making you feel like you're accomplishing important things. Some of the puzzles can be a little more devious, however, and this is where the real fun starts. Several had me completely stumped for a while, unsure what to do and struggling to make any progress, which made the final "eureka moment" deeply rewarding once I figured out the solution.

The puzzles always offer sufficient hints that clue you into the solution if you pay enough attention. For the most part, the puzzles I got stuck on were only because I overlooked something in the environment or wasn't connecting the dots like I should've been. The two times I had to look up a solution were greeted with an immediate facepalm when I realized I missed the obvious answer. Only one puzzle had me justifiably frustrated. I was supposed to be creating a Bloody Mary cocktail drink, and after mixing all of the proper ingredients, the bartender told me "it tastes good, but lacks in presentation." That was basically what he said about the martini I made earlier, which was all I had to do to complete the earlier puzzle, so I wasn't sure what I was missing in this case.

Eventually, out on a limb I realized I had to mix a parasol with the Bloody Mary in my inventory before the bartender would accept it. This had never even occurred to me because the parasol I had picked up was a full-sized, six-foot tall umbrella that would never fit in a cocktail glass. I was a little indignant over this misstep at first, but after some consideration I realized the game had specifically foreshadowed this solution in the first chapter, and that since I'm in a dream world where all kinds of weird things are happening, and since I'm playing an adventure game where it's customary to fit things like parasols and anvils in your pocket, maybe it's not too far out of place for that to have been the solution.

The claymation visuals add a certain quasi-tangible feel to the atmosphere, while the colorful, evocative designs compliment the whimsical dreamscape setting. A game set in a dreamland is not entirely original these days, but the claymation makes it feel more unique and special, and it helps that the construction and animation quality are both very well done. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is downtempo, subdued, and atmospheric -- not the kind of thing that stands out tremendously, but it's enjoyable enough and adds an extra layer to the deep immersion you can experience.

The only prominent complaint I have regards the episodic nature of chapter releases. It can be a little disheartening to play through a chapter in 90 minutes and then be stuck waiting six months (or more) for the next chapter to be released, but hopefully the wait will be worth it. I'm also not very fond of the game only being available online and in a browser, because that tends to limit how or where you can play the game. Other than that, the constant loading screens between each and every scene might be a bother for people with slower internet speeds. Even with a fast connection, the loads screens disrupt the soundtrack, which detracted from my immersion in at least one critical climax.

All-in-all, The Dream Machine is extremely well-crafted (in this case, literally) and is an absolute treat to play. I enjoyed it so much that I played all three available chapters in a single sitting and can't wait for Chapter 4 to be released. You can play the first chapter for free in your browser, or buy the entire five-chapter bundle for €13.75 on the official site (, gaining immediate access to Chapters 4 and 5 when they're released.

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