The Dream Machine‘s episodic structure has been… sporadic. Chapters one and two came out in January 2011, with the rest promised soon after. Chapter 3 appeared in November 2011, taking longer than expected. Which was nothing compared to chapter 4, which finally appeared in August 2013. It was quite a wait, and rather a short entry. It’s been slightly over a year since, and now we have Chapter 5 – the biggest part of the game yet. Here’s wot I think.
With far more to do, many more locations than previously, two dreams to explore in an elaborate fashion, and a much more fleshed out feel, TDMC5 is a splendid episode in an already excellent series.
Let’s start with a negative, though. Inexplicably, much as with chapter 4, there is no attempt at all to give you a “previously on” at the start. The idea that people are supposed to remember the intricacies of a story going back nearly five years, with such massive gaps between, is daft. Just a screen of text reminding you of the story so far would be enough, but once more you’re dropped in at the exact second the last chapter ended, as if you’ve been in a coma since the last release. For your sake, I’ll give a quick non-spoilery summary: Victor and his pregnant wife moved into a new apartment building, and quickly learned something very peculiar was going on regarding their dreams. It seems someone is spying on them, monitoring them. Victor finds a way to enter the dreams of the residents of the block, in an attempt to undo some dangerous damage being done by a peculiar machine that’s embedded in the residents’ unconsciousnesses.
By chapter 5 you’ve helped three of your neighbours, and this time you’re helping two at the same time. Or separately. Or is it at the same time? There’s the switched-off-holodeck-like world of Mr Willard, which is stark, laser-filled and filled with oppressive, concerning voices. And the fairytale-turned-sour woods of Selma, in which the villagers are finding their organs being stolen in the dead of night. Victor needs to figure out who this organ thief might be, as well as puzzle his way through the video-game-like confusion of Willard’s mind.
All the games so far have played as very welcomely traditional point and click adventures. Inventory items, dialogue choices, and plenty of tricksy puzzles, are combined with some really surprisingly good writing. I say “surprisingly” because, well, adventures seem to be so buried in drossy one-liners or overly-solemn self-importance, neither of which are present here. From chapter 1’s remarkable presentation of ordinary life, before the unordinary seeped in, to some noteworthy honesty in all the entries since, the quality of writing has consistently stood out.
Alongside, of course, the look. Entirely hand-built locations, created from cardboard, clay and paint, and claymation characters animated within, it has always looked stunning. And it is equally so here, not least because there’s quite so much variety. Forty-five locations appear, which is no mean feat when each is hand-crafted and exquisitely detailed. And that effort goes all the farther thanks to a chapter that features an awful lot of size-changing.
As well as being bigger than before, it also feels busier. There are a lot of puzzles to solve, often running alongside each other, ensuring you’ve plenty to do. I certainly did hit a couple of brick walls (not just those made of television screens), but invariably I was being dumb. There’s nothing ridiculously obscure or unfair in here. And with size-changing made possible for Victor, this also leads to a smattering of puzzles more familiar from the faster-paced world of platforming (don’t worry – it’s neither fast-paced, nor platforming).
However, this is also the chapter with the most mistakes, too. For example, there’s a peculiar abundance of mushrooms in Selma’s dream, none of which you ever do anything with, despite their having detailed individual descriptions. Try to dig some up with a shovel and you’re told, “I don’t want to smash them.” Whether this is more reflective of the authors’ danger with gardening equipment, or a lack of thinking how players will approach the game, it’s a shame, and it’s indicative of a trait in the game. Not a huge deal, certainly, but there are a few too many occasions when something seemingly obvious is rejected. There are also a bunch of typos, and a few glitches with conversation options not shutting off, or inventory objects misbehaving. Nothing game-breaking at all, but it’s scrappier than the series has been before. Perhaps that’s simply down to the scale of this episode, which they say is as big as the previous four combined. I’d argue it’s a little smaller than that, but certainly by far the hefiest slice so far.
Another slight issue this time out is I felt like the chapter had slightly less to say than previously. Whereas earlier on people’s dreams have been much more starkly revealing of their nature, this time things are muddled by the overall tale of the run, leaving you unsure what’s commentary on that character, and what’s simply the Machine’s interference. As the story draws to a close it makes sense that its main arc should become more dominant, but since that’s a tale of impossible science fiction, it’s a shame that the more personal is a bit less present. Not a huge gripe, again, but worth mentioning.
The series was extended to six chapters earlier on, and the set-up for the final entry is superb – I’m dying to know what it’s going to be like, now knowing what it’s about. Whether I’ll remember that when it eventually appears (once more described as “a slew of months”) I’m not sure, but I’m hoping it will be before 2015 is through. Meanwhile, chapter 5 is an excellent entry in a really wonderful game series.
You can pick up the whole game for €16 directly from developers Cockroach, or buy the individual chapter for €4.70. Or you can get it all on Steam for £13. Both bundles include the unreleased chapter 6 too.