If you were running a commercial website, the most important thing you could do would be to make sure you put the game name in a prominent position in the post, and of course in the title, to ensure the maximum presence on Google. What would be ridiculous would be an annual massive feature in which you hide the name of the games in question, even from the tags, in order to maintain an air of surprise. But then as Saint Cliff taught us, Christmas is about giving, not receiving. So what are you – who is getting it ALL wrong – receiving today?
Heavens to Betsy, it’s… The Dream Machine.
John: Technically TDM (which sounds like “tedium” when pronounced, which is very unfair) was released in 2010. But it was late in 2010, and I didn’t review those first two chapters until Jan 2011. SO IT BLOODY WELL COUNTS.
And it’s something pretty special. You’d imagine that the game’s USP would be that it’s entirely made out of clay and cardboard, filmed and animated using stop-motion, then magicked into an adventure game. It’s pretty unusual. And it’s done extremely well, with a distinct artistic style to the models, all lending toward a unique atmosphere. Careful animations mean each action is pleasingly realised, and impressively it never ends up looking like a children’s programme.
But that’s not what’s special here. The really special thing – because in the end the gorgeous design can never ensure a good adventure – is the writing.
The first episode, despite beginning within a dream on a tiny deserted island, is mostly set in the new apartment of a recently married couple. And that’s it. It’s about settling in, improvising a table out of cardboard boxes for breakfast, getting the phone hooked up, meeting the landlord. Which is enough. I really wish more games could get to grips with this. Of course it’s heading toward discovering the dream-controlling mega-machine in the apartment block’s basement, and all the fantasy madness that ensues, but for now it’s content to be real life. And it’s such an important thing! I know I bang on about this far too much, but still too few are listening. If you want to take us into your fantasy, first ground us in our reality. The bending of the known is so much more effective than just being dumped in Fantasy Location 7F.
A third chapter finally reached us later this year, and delved further into the peculiarities of the dream space. After chapter 2’s purely abstract strangeness, 3 goes for a more traditional dream, set on a boat. Except that every member of staff on board is you. And they’re all living in fear of their captain, your wife, who is currently trapped inside the machine. Which is, yet again, a brilliantly original idea delivered in such a calm, down-to-earth manner. Made of clay and cardboard.
Cockroach, the Swedish team behind it, don’t leave it alone, either. Constant fixes and tweaks are added, including adding more opportunities to interact. On playing Chapter 3 on release I was pretty happy with quite how much I could look at and do, but since another 200 interactions have been added! The whole project is a work of passion, and it bursts through. Goodness knows when we’ll see chapters 4 and 5, but I doubt the latter will be before next Christmas. In the meantime, this is one of the most exciting things to happen with adventure games in years, and not just because it looks rather lovely.
For me, the most important thing about The Dream Machine is the fact that it’s the only game my girlfriend has played to completion (or at least, to the end of the three chapters released so far) since The Secret of Monkey Island. Among all the games that I have enjoyed this year, which span all manner of genres and styles, her reactions broke them down into three types.
There are those that elicited a mild negative response or no response at all, primarily Serious Sam 3 and anything that involves me staring at a strategic map for hours on end. Then there are the games that she will gladly watch me play because they are more exciting than the dross being served up by the tellybox – Portal 2, Batman: Arkham City. And then there is The Dream Machine, which involves me being dumped out of my chair and onto a beanbag from where I watch and lend advice.
So, you see, by some measure I haven’t actually played The Dream Machine. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I haven’t personally clicked the mouse button in the correct portions of the screen when required to do so. I reckon I have played it; I was there, I had plenty of input. Discussions were entered into.
What is it about this visually intriguing point and clicker that caused my good lady to unceremoniously dethrone me? It all happened rather quickly but thankfully my journalistic instincts kicked in and I immediately began to document events.
The oddness of the graphics played a huge part. From across the room, its clay and cardboard construction meant that it didn’t look like a game at all. It’s not unusual for me to spend my evenings watching stop motion animations on Youtube and The Dream Machine looked like another sterling discovery in that department.
“Is it some Czech horror thing or A Cat With More Hands?”
“No. It’s a game.”
“How do I open the boxes…?
“Just click on them to look…”
“Is something going to kill me if I press the wrong thing?”
“Who is that woman?”
“She’s your wife. You’ve just moved into this apartment together.”
And that was that. I couldn’t have reclaimed the mouse if I’d wanted to. The apparent mundanity of the scenario was paradoxically thrilling, with the meandering and believable dialogue a far more compelling hook than the spectacle of yet another apocalyptic sideshow.
We were both a little disappointed when the titular device made its appearance. All the mysteries of dream could wait a while longer as far as we were concerned – we wanted to put our apartment in order and find out if the tension bubbling beneath the surface was anything more than ordinary stress. But the fantastical awaits just beyond the threshold of home and maybe the dreamscape primarily exists as a mirror to this couple, their history and their future.
One of the things that strikes me about my better two-third’s view of the game is that she doesn’t think of it as a point and click game. It’s the ‘handmade’ game, or the ‘dream’ game, just as Monkey Island is a ‘comedy’ game and Still Life is a ‘crime’ game. The method of control doesn’t define them, the story and the aesthetics do, and The Dream Machine succeeds beautifully on both counts. The writing is superb, not only imaginative but proficient. Characters, even when they are clones, have personalities of their own, a fact probably helped by the absence of voice acting.
If The Dream Machine had been released in the nineties, people would sit around moaning that “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. Part of me still wishes there wasn’t such a pressing, overarching quest but I’ll concede that it gives the game a structure that suits the gradual release of chapters, and while the wait between those chapters can be long, the quality makes it all worthwhile.