The Games of Christmas ’11: Day Five

By RPS on December 5th, 2011 at 12:13 pm.

Horace finds numbers under 50 billion so small as to not count.

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.

Adam:

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.”

“Hmmm… “

BUMP

“Oof.”

“How do I open the boxes…?

“Just click on them to look…”

“Is something going to kill me if I press the wrong thing?”

“No, it’s…”

“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.

__________________

« | »

, , .

33 Comments »

  1. pipman3000 says:

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

  2. Cooper says:

    “my better two-third’s”

    I’m going to chose to read that as an underhand jibe at the weight of your lady-friend…

  3. EOT says:

    ” Careful animations mean each action is pleasingly realised, and impressively it never ends up looking like a children’s programme.”

    I would play the shit out of a Charlie Chalk adventure game and so would you Mr. Walker. No? Liar. It’s illegal to lie at Christmas you know. Enjoy your gaol time.

  4. airtekh says:

    I must have a look at this after Christmas. I do like a nice adventure game.

  5. Unrein says:

    Getting awesome Grim Fandango vibes from that last screenshot. I imagine it shares much more similarities that are not as superficial.

  6. suibhne says:

    Hmm. The game isn’t on Steam, so it might be nice to have a link here. Also, where’s your earlier coverage? There’s no tag for this one. Will I be forced to resort to…Google?!

    Somehow I totally missed this game, but it sounds lovely.

  7. haowan says:

    I have to agree with the sub-thrust of this article. The first episode has this amazing creepy feel to it that is largely lost as soon as the antagonist appears. I think the mystery of the place coupled with the connection to reality of the newlyweds and their dialogue really help there, but subsequent episodes fail to capture that essence. It is still an excellent adventure so far and worth playing through, but I share the desire for a continuation of the first episode’s themes.

    (edited to change “thrust” to “sub-thrust”)

  8. Tams80 says:

    OK, OK. Enough already; you’ve sold it to me!

    We should definitly define more games by their story and aesthetics rather than how we control them. Both perhaps? The ‘handmade’ ‘point and click’ game?

  9. AmateurScience says:

    I’m not ashamed to admit that I stared at USP for a good wee while before I twigged what it meant.

    Mondays…

  10. Lambchops says:

    I’m inclined to wait until all the episodes are released and play it in one go, even if that does mean waiting a while. I trust RPS shall remind me about it?

  11. malkav11 says:

    Did they ever adopt a method of playing the game outside of one’s browser? If not, well, it sounds lovely but I’m not going to let a small independent developer get away with forcing me to have a continuous internet connection to play a singleplayer game any more than I am Ubisoft or Blizzard.

    • JackShandy says:

      Harsh. Do you take the same policy for games on Newgrounds and things?

    • Urthman says:

      Newgrounds isn’t trying to charge me money for their games.

      I have a bandwidth cap, which would mean that it would only be practical to play this game between midnight and noon. That would be fine if it were free, but if they want me to pay for the game, I’d like to be able to download it and play it at my leisure.

      I’m really glad I read this thread before buying the game.

      RPS! Just because it’s an awesome little indie game doesn’t mean you’re relieved of your duty to warn us about restrictive DRM. Bad John! No Cookie!

    • AngryBadger says:

      I tend to agree, I played the free chapter and enjoyed it but Im not about to play for for an adventure game I cant play offline.

    • Scandalon says:

      I’m not sure I share quite your perspective, but I do think he should have mentioned the platform, both for it’s relative uniqueness and the pros (No install! Pick up where you left off on any machine with a browser and a newish version of flash) and cons. (Requires flash, may be no way to play offline?)

    • malkav11 says:

      Strictly speaking I think it’s possible to download the Flash files for Newgrounds-type games somehow and play them offline. But as has been mentioned, they’re usually not charging for them, either. And I tend not to pay them any attention to begin with because I don’t need cute timewasters when I have a ridiculous backlog of much more in-depth gaming, not to mention books, movies, etc. (This isn’t to say there’s anything -wrong- with them, I just have other priorities.) The Dream Machine is -exactly- the sort of thing I would love to buy and play to death, but the way they’ve chosen to package it is not acceptable to me.

  12. spunkmehard says:

    but this wasn’t released in 2011. You just ruined Christmas. Baby Jesus is giving you the death glare right now.

  13. JackShandy says:

    My little sister loves this game, which means it deserves every game-of-the-year award it can get. Just amazingly appealing.

  14. qrter says:

    It is a lovely game. Highly recommended.

    John and Adam hit the nail on the head – the sheer mundanity of the opening hour is extremely appealing. It’s very gentle, and because of the great art design (and animation) there is still a palpable sense of wonder, without the whole thing feeling manipulative (which is what the opening of Heavy Rain does seem to be, to me at least – to name another game that starts out with relative mundanity).

  15. Just Endless says:

    I’ve never heard of this. I shall take a look.

    And:
    I love the way you guys write. No idea if it’s that the website I’ve started reading is from overseas (I’m Canadian, and probably not), or just the relatively poor quality of a lot of games journalism, but the flow of your articles is phenomenal.

    Along with my recent interest in PC indie gaming (which, as it turns out, there is enough of to take up 100% of my gaming time now that I’m in uni), this site is really shaping the state of my hobby, and I thank you for that.

  16. Grape says:

    I’m glad your girlfriend likes the game, Adam. Because out of absolutely all the sales-arguments and reasons you could have chosen to recommend the game to the rest of the world, that really, really, really was the best reason of them all.

    Urrgh.

  17. Shadrach says:

    Lovely little game this, and indeed worth buying. Especially since you can access it from anywhere (like at work hehe).

  18. The Velvet Ant says:

    This game is a triumph of storytelling and imagination. Total Freudian overtones in the third chapter, what with it’s emphasis on the uncanny and masculine rivalry.

  19. psychoconductor says:

    Anyone else reminded of that other awesome claymation game The Neverhood?

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>