By John Walker on November 1st, 2011 at 2:32 pm.
What a season we’re in for adventures just now. With the re-release of Gemini Rue, the gorgeous Book Of Unwritten Tales, impending games from Amanita, and now a new chapter for the utterly engrossing The Dream Machine. The first two were groundbreaking for their remarkable use of claymation in cardboard sets, but how does it fare once it reaches a third part, and we’re used to the design? Here’s Wot I Think.
Nope, the claymation/cardboard thing is still just as effective and affecting. The incredible detail going into every set, the animations of the characters, and that strange inescapable charm of stumbling upon a Ukranian cartoon on BBC2 at 2.30am is just as present. I’m still not used to it.
If you’ve played the previous two chapters, you’ll know the theme here, as perhaps somewhat given away by the title, is a dream that is peculiarly involved in the dreams of those living in a particular apartment. The first chapter, available for free, is a wonderfully relaxed, normal thing. Beginning with a short dream, it’s mostly about settling into your new home with your pregnant wife – a uniquely calm and normal scenario, presented as a great point and click adventure. The honesty in the writing especially stands out, and the whole thing lays a foundation for the more peculiar events of the following chapters.
Avoiding spoiling anything in case you’re new to the series, let’s say that by chapter 3 you’re trying to help your wife out of a strange sleep-based situation, which involves entering the dream she’s trapped in. A dream set on a boat, in which every member of the crew is… you.
Loading itself up with Prisoner references, Victor must try to find his wife, who is apparently the highly regarded and unreachable captain. Everyone else is also Victor, identical in appearance other than a numbered badge. It’s certainly no coincidence that you’re given number 6, and to make sure no one misses the point, the number is within a drawing of a covered penny farthing. (Which makes me slightly confused that the Captain’s mouthpiece is number 3, not 2, but there we go.) So you get to know all the various Victors around the small area of the boat you’ve access to, uncovering a strange, conspiratorial plot after one crew member goes missing.
What this means is a new collection of conversations, inventory puzzles, and traditional puzzles to solve, and again they’re mostly brilliant. There’s a couple of points where prompts would have been helpful, especially as you’re occasionally having to deal with dream logic here, and one particular puzzle involving scraps of paper – while ingenious – really could do with slightly more feedback. But otherwise this is more of the same high standard of writing and puzzling that we’ve come to expect from Cockroach. There are one or two grammatical mistakes, which obviously stand out more in a game presented in text rather than speech (“this months tomatoe rations,” is the low-point), but then my Swedish isn’t really comparable. Overall it’s all to an incredibly high standard, and you can see why each chapter is taking so many months to produce.
It’s perhaps slightly less charming this time out, more because you’re only ever talking to other versions of yourself, most of them quite hostile, so you certainly do miss out on Victor and Alicia’s gorgeous banter. But it remains gently funny, and maintains that peculiarly uncomfortable tone that ensures you remember you’re within a dream here. It’s also not going out of its way to be easy, which is great.
The £4 per episode is perhaps slightly steep, given not only their brevity (there’s a couple of hours of game in this chapter), but also that it will eventually come to £16 for the full game, which is slightly over the indie odds these days. But then at the same time, it’s £4 for something smart, engaging and brilliantly well made. Which is pretty damned good. Oh, and you can of course buy all five up front for £11, so really there’s no excuse. If you’ve not played any of the games, definitely pick up the first one for free, then you’ll be incapable of not buying the rest.