Wot I Think: The Dream Machine

By John Walker on January 7th, 2011 at 6:22 pm.

All hand-made. Exactly.

The Dream Machine is a unique-looking point and click adventure – handmade sets, and animated with claymation – that is being released in chapters. The first two are now out, and I’ve played my way through them, meaning I’m fully qualified to tell you Wot I Think.

Wow. That’s what I think.

The point and click adventure is certainly my first love in gaming, and of course my greatest source of disappointment. To play something like The Dream Machine, so exquisitely constructed, so smartly designed, and so atmospherically unique is a singular pleasure.

Just to play an adventure that doesn’t frustrate you with ill-thought-through puzzles, or witless dialogue, is a treat. But The Dream Machine doesn’t stand out because of its lack of messing up. It stands out for being such a fine example of the genre, one of the most interesting I’ve experienced.

And that’s before you factor in the presentation. Hand-made sets, populated by stop-motion animated plasticine figures, like nothing I’ve seen before. Here’s the development studio:

But what I love the most is how much of this game is set in the real world. The entire first chapter, beyond the opening scene set in a dream, is about a married, recently pregnant couple settling into their new apartment. Surrounded by boxes, and without their furniture having arrived yet, they improvise a breakfast around an upturned box.

You play as the husband, Victor, who has various chores to complete while his wife, Alicia, completes her own. You must get the spare key from the caretaker, which involves finding the phone, then his number. You need to talk to the movers, say hi to your neighbours, and investigate what the strange note you’ve found is referring to with regards to something hidden in the bedroom.

Sure, these seem mundane tasks, but it’s the combination of the mundanity of real life set in the beautiful cardboard-and-clay world, with the honesty of the central relationship. And the latter is thanks to some brilliantly understated writing.

That’s the real key here. There’s no voice acting, so the dialogue is text on screen. And it’s written with a rare precision. The relationship between Victor and Alicia is immediately believable, in a way gaming almost never offers. They talk like people. To quote The Longest Journey developer Ragnar Tørnquist, their marriage is “grounded, not melodramatic, not overly romantic, just… simple. Real.”

Your elderly next door neighbour is equally convincing, as is everyone you meet. The only concession to exaggeration is the furniture mover, who has your couch stuck in the front doorway to the building, and doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. But he’s a fun parody, and again, calmly presented.

And that occupies the whole of the first chapter, around an hour or so long. There’s a surprise at the end, intriguing enough to make you quite sure you want to play Chapter 2.

In the second chapter, and don’t worry – I won’t spoil anything the game’s title doesn’t give away – you encounter the dream machine. A device that allows you to enter dreams (and let’s give credit to two-man Swedish developers Cockroach Inc. – this idea was in the works before Inception). And so of course here we leave the regularity of our own world and delve into the fantasy.

But it’s because we just spent an hour in the real world that the diversion from it becomes so much more meaningful. It’s a lesson so many developers need to learn, taught to deaf ears by Half-Life, and still mostly ignored to this day. As Victor explores the unconscious world, he carries with him his identifiability (if you’ll forgive such a word) developed in his apartment, bantering with his wife.

But yet again, here things are so gently downplayed. A lovely multi-part puzzle across a number of screens is calmly delivered, and intelligently solved. There’s no loud fuss, no “look at me!” delivery. It’s a sedate game, delivering imaginative ideas without showing off.

Beyond presenting its central fantastical story, it grounds everything with a questioning nature, asking about the morality of the machine, and those who use it. And indeed the consequences of the practices behind its use for those who live in the apartment block.

Mention should be made of its music, too. Ambient, delicate, and dreamlike, it perfectly matches the setting.

The game will be five chapters long in total, the first two lasting around an hour each, and of course longer if you get stuck on a puzzle. There’s no release date for the remaining chapters, arriving as they are finished. But you can buy the whole lot now for €13.75. Based on the quality of the first two parts, this seems a wise investment to me.

There’s nothing else out there that looks like this game, and there’s precious little out there that plays like it. It’s a real treat. A moment toward the end of the second chapter, another surprise, had me gasp in a way that surprised me – I already cared enough about these characters to be emotionally involved. That’s the best recommendation I can think of.

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44 Comments »

  1. TimA says:

    Looks amazing. Guess I’ll have to go and buy it right now then!

  2. rei says:

    Oh, I completely forgot about this game. I loved the free chapter and this is definitely high on my to-buy list, whenever I feel compelled to get new games again (my Steam library says “not very soon”).

  3. Xercies says:

    Oo very interested in this and when i complete some of my other games i might buy this, hopefully by then it will be completed.

  4. grasskit says:

    reminds me of grim fandango, probably because it was one the few (maybe the only one) games that made me emotionally attached to characters and story. ah the memories..

  5. Will Tomas says:

    There’s some awesome indie games coming out of Sweden right now, there really are.

  6. Buttless Boy says:

    “It’s a lesson so many developers need to learn, taught to deaf ears by Half-Life, and still mostly ignored to this day.”
    Just like every lesson from Half-Life other than “wouldn’t it be nice to switch weapons with the scroll button?”

  7. Vague-rant says:

    Hm, I’d be interested in buying but is it possible to download the game to play offline if you buy it? Or is it only available to play in browser? I couldn’t seem to see if it said anywhere on the site.

    • TimA says:

      In the “About the Game” section it says that you have to be online to play it. That really puts me off, not sure if I’m buying it now.

    • Vague-rant says:

      Ah. Thanks. Thats put me off it too.

      Just out of curiousity, how is this different to UbiDRM?

    • Nogo says:

      Doesn’t seem unreasonable for them to require an internet connection especially because it ties your progress to an account so you can continue your game on any computer.

      I’m sure DRM is a part of it, but the entire design philosophy seems to be ease of use and accessibility, which would be hampered by having multiple forms of distribution.

    • TimA says:

      Well, sadly, I find it unreasonable enough to not buy it because of this. I dunno, I just don’t feel comfortable buying a web-based game, I want something to download. It isn’t necessarily logical, and I’m disappointed to not be playing it, but I can’t justify that money in my head right now.

    • Lugg says:

      Well, it plays in a browser, and all the content is streamed directly. I suppose that’s a good enough reason to demand a standing internet connection. I just bought it after reading this article and trying the demo, and played chapter 2 – I can only recommend it. Don’t be put off by the requirement for a connection – at least it isn’t installing any malware – not anything, actually – on your computer!

    • Acorino says:

      Just out of curiousity, how is this different to UbiDRM?

      Practically, it isn’t, even if the intention from the developer’s side differs.

    • godgoo says:

      i consider this ethically different from ubisoft’s online drm as well as practically different in subtle ways. practically speaking this is less aggressive as it does not limit who can install the game on what machine, on the contrary it allows you to play the game anywhere with no installation. Ethically it is less aggressive also as i feel less uptight towards an indie developer who has crafted such a beautiful and well executed work pulling this kind of stunt (although this is somewhat subjective, my ethical stance on such things is not nearly as black and white as some of my peers). on top of that the blow is somewhat softened by a free first episode and a small price tag of 13 euros. whilst i still prefer to ‘own’ the things i buy (a subject discussed in these pages only this week) I don’t feel so inclined to write off such a wonderful creation by a small indie dev whose financials aren’t backed up by big corporation or buffered by mass console sales, or mass pc sales for that matter, this being a rather specialist genre these days.

    • dadioflex says:

      Well that is a shame. I don’t like onerous DRM and the last thing I want to do is encourage indie developers to adopt it. I COULD take the point of view that they’re a small studio and setting aside my objections would simply be an act of kindness to encourage them, but frankly I don’t want to embarrass them with that manner of unasked for charity.

  8. pipman3000 says:

    you maniacs! you blew it up! damn you! god damn you all to hell!

  9. Dyst says:

    Any word on a Steam release?

    • Feet says:

      Not getting at you personally at all since your stance isn’t isolated, but having this sort of comment on every single indie game WiT is really irritating.

      [rant]
      Why does it being on Steam make any difference as to whether you’ll buy it or not? Why have a Steam only policy? It just makes no sense at all. None. No, really. It doesn’t.

      Buy it direct from the developer as they’ll get more money, add it to Steam as a non-steam game and it’ll appear in the list just like the rest. Your library is still complete.

      They take Paypal, and that’s just as safe and established as Steam (if you’re relying on someone elses credit card to buy these games, and they might not necessarily be trusting of unknown third parties. That I could understand).

      There’s no reason for it at all.

      I love Steam as much as the next person, for the record I own over 100 games on Steam (which isn’t alot but it’s enough), and I bought loads in the sale. That’s no reason to be “loyal” specifically to Steam as a content provider, or to judge a games worth based on it’s availability on Steam.

      This kind of attitude really stinks of that tribal “fanboy” attitude that console-land has been accussed of having over the years to me, (PEE ESS 3 SUX, 360 ROX U NOOB) whether you meant it like that or not. It just tires me out to keep reading things like that.

      [/rant]

      Sorry, I’m done now.

    • qrter says:

      Personally speaking, a game being available on Steam (or GamersGate, for that matter) means I can actually buy it – I don’t want a credit card, I don’t want to use Paypal (have had some really bad experiences with them – saying Paypal is as reliable as Steam seems ridiculous to me).

      Steam and GamersGate (and some indie devs that use Plimus to sell their games) give me the option to use direct online banking to buy games.

      I’d buy this bundle in a heartbeat where it not for the Paypal-only option.

    • Springy says:

      I don’t know if this is something Dyst shares, but for me, Feet, even with all those other (entirely precise) arguments you’ve made, there’s still an appeal to asking/waiting for a Steam release.

      The more my collection has slowly migrated to being Steam-centric, the more I feel compelled to continue building it on that platform. For most people it’s probably not a compulsion shared, but it’s the same reason I can’t sleep right if I think my kitchen cutlery draw isn’t perfectly in order: it’s just… nice to have everything neat and tidy in one place.

      It doesn’t have to be Steam, of course. It just has to be a single place. That used to be my shelf, full of boxes, but as digital download has begun to take over, it’s become harder to keep my collection in order; games come from various sources, not to mention taking more varied forms than they used to. Episodes, bite-size indie mouthfuls, DLC and heavens knows what else. Steam is a nice place to try to file them and categorise them, for me at least.

      So it’s completely horrible, irrational and unhealthy, but it’s the genuine reason I’d say something similar to Dyst, to answer your original query.

    • Xercies says:

      Don’t you fear that all those games could be dissapeared at any moment because Valve took them away for some reason? I know i fear that a bit

    • Dave says:

      @Feet

      “Why does it being on Steam make any difference as to whether you’ll buy it or not? Why have a Steam only policy? It just makes no sense at all. None. No, really. It doesn’t.”

      If you purchase a game on Steam, you can download it again whenever you want. Steam is like having an automatic digital back-up of all your games.

      I really, really don’t get your rant. There are many reasons to prefer Steam that have nothing to do with fanboyism.

    • Indraco says:

      The benefit of having your collection on steam is not just having a single place to launch all your games, but also being able to use a single utility to re-download all your games onto a new machine and keep them all updated.

      Plus, once something is on Steam, you’re usually guaranteed that it will be 50-75% off within the next six months. =)

    • malkav11 says:

      For my part, it doesn’t -have- to be Steam, although Steam is the most convenient, elegant, and accessible of the digital distribution platforms I’ve used. But I am generally loathe to buy directly from a developer (unless I can register with Steam or another distributor) as there is no consistent point(s) of access, no consistency as to policies, and in the further case of a foreign distributor, currency conversion and payment options become issues. Well, unless the developer uses an intermediary like Plimus or Digital River, I suppose, but I particularly dislike that because I absolutely require that a digitally purchased game be redownloadable indefinitely and Digital River, at least, not only won’t guarantee that but will charge you extra if you want to be able to redownload at all. It’s not an ironclad rule – Spiderweb Software’s games are not reliably accessible in total anywhere but from them (there’s a single game here or two there, but not the whole series) and ultimately nowhere else has the pricing of one of their bundle CDs. Furthermore, they specifically guarantee replacement registration keys as and when needed (though I doubt I ever shall given that the CD copies are preregistered). And DROD is only really available through Caravel Games, and is sufficiently awesome to be worthwhile. Same with Vic Davis’s games. But I’d still have much preferred to get them on Steam, if I had had the option.

    • Urael says:

      I’m with you, Feet. I hate this comment, almost as much as the monolithic “I’m waiting for the Steam sale”. While Steam does bring recognised benefits it has its fair share of drawbacks, too. The PC Gaming world should most assuredly NOT resolve around this one entity. Variety is the spice of digital life.

      Your point about paying more to the developers buying it directly and STILL being able to add the game to the service is also one that more gamers should think about.

    • dadioflex says:

      http://www.impulsedriven.com/explore/search/drod

      I THINK I heard about DROD on RPS but never followed it up.

      I’m another who doesn’t really like dealing with small developer’s websites, not least because the last thing I want to hear is that my account details have gotten leaked or their wacky payment system is now billing for something spurious – that last thing isn’t such a problem now with ubiquitous Paypal, or preferably Google Checkout, but in the past I was a merry young soul handing my credit card details out hither and yon with gay abandon to every small developer I stumbled across. Did not end well.

    • cliffski says:

      I can vaguely see why people are ‘wary of small websites from indie developers’when buying games, but get this:

      Firstly, as a small developer selling games, I *NEVER* see your payment details. The most I get is that you paid by card, or paypal. That’s it. i never have access to your credit card data, it never hits my server. It never leaves the secure part of bmtmicro.com.
      Secondly., my payment company (BMTMicro) have been around longer than steam. For that matter, so has my company. hardly fly-by-night dodginess.
      Thirdly, if you use a debit or credit card, and the company does a runner with your money, you can phone your bank and get them to refund the money.
      You literally cannot lose, and there is no risk. Big companies try to convey the impression that they are mroe secure than small ones, but frankly, thats just incorrect.
      /advert :D

    • malkav11 says:

      I’m not worried about you stealing my credit card details. I mean, really. I’m worried about not being able to download my game again, or you deciding arbitrarily to stop supporting your games (not you, specifically, cliffski, admittedly), or, with foreign companies, tripping some flag for my bank that has them decide something irregular is going on.

      And I just noticed that DROD is on Impulse, but apparently that dates to sometime in 2010. I bought into DROD back in like ’06 or ’07.

  10. Navagon says:

    This is one of the reasons why I like this site. I get to find out about games that would have otherwise been cruelly overlooked.

  11. Swabbleflange says:

    You should check out The Neverhood, an adventure game with a similar style.

  12. de5me7 says:

    fyi i think neverhood is abandonware now

    i rate machinarium, as maybe the best game of last year, so i might check this.. is it better?

    I liked Grimfandango, but man the puzzles were so damn hard.

  13. Magrippinho says:

    “A device that allows you to enter dreams (and let’s give credit to two-man Swedish developers Cockroach Inc. – this idea was in the works before Inception)”

    I’m not saying they took inspiration from “The Dream of a Lifetime”, it’s a cool concept and I’m sure many people have independently dreamed up stories with such a device. In fact, Don Rosa himself got the idea from a fan, but I’ll take any chance to point to a Duck comic.

    So, Don Rosa’s Scrooge McDuck story from 2002, The Dream of a Lifetime, totally has a machine that lets people enter dreams. It is perilously used by thieves to invade the dreams of a billionaire.

    But seriously, adventure games & claymation are two of my favourite things, so I’ll definitely check this one out.

  14. Lambchops says:

    An adventure game reccomend from Mr Walker? Rest assured I will be buying this in due course.

  15. JackShandy says:

    Bought this just before this review – you’re right, it’s fantastic.

    I really loved the down-to-earthness of it. All the puzzles are these tactile things – getting an elevator to work. Logical stuff. And how you could go back and talk to your wife all the time, about the various problems you were facing, and choose how you react to different situations.

    I just hope it hasn’t spilled all it’s secrets by chapter 2.

  16. BiggerJ says:

    Actually, there are release dates for the other episodes. The chapter select screen says Chapter 3 comes out in March, Chapter 4 in June and Chapter 5 in August.

  17. laddyman says:

    I was watching a stream of the first chapter of this game earlier today. It seemed interesting enough.

  18. BobsLawnService says:

    In case the kind folk at Cockroach Inc. are reading this. Please, at some point down the line release this in a stand alone format. This sounds like a game I’d love to while away a few hous with on the road on my laptop when an internet connection is not always available.

  19. New Player says:

    The first chapter might simply have been the best adventure experience I ever had. I understand the charm of classical adventures, but they don’t blow me away with their cartoon style, random or clichéd storytelling and gimmicky gameplay. Although this wasn’t totally exciting, it felt absolutely believable as an interactive story, and in a subtle way was very engaging. Machinarium might be equally good, but this one is not so creaking under the burden of having every screen crammed full of puzzle mini-games.

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