Reviewing episodic adventure games is no easy task, especially when it comes to storytelling. Graphics and sound might not change a lot (despite some tweaks) and the overall game design might stay the same, but who is to say what the series develops into? Cockroach Inc’s The Dream Machine is one such case where it seems to evolve into something quite unexpected, so to convey this change, it’s best to explain what the episodes share and then dive deeper into their individual parts.
The Dream Machine (PC)
(Sweden 2009-2013?, developer/publisher: Cockroach Inc., platform: PC)
Moving into a new apartment does not only bring a change in their relationship and life styles, but for the couple Victor and Alicia Neff, it brings a mystery which is connected to the building and the dreams of its tenants as well.
Games like a dream
Dreams in games have always been a part of the storytelling process, it seems. The Longest Journey and particularly Dreamfall made it their most integral part, but also other titles, not only in the adventure genre (like Alan Wake or Max Payne) play with the idea that in these few hours of sleep there is something in these sequences which is not only about the organization of events of the former day, but premonitions, insights into the personality of a character, his fears and hopes laid bare before the audience.
In that way does the The Dream Machine chapters tread familiar ground then? Even if its presentation and character design is quite different (even if it’s not the first and original, as this type of modelling has been done in games before, like in The Neverhood), the storytelling doesn’t seem to be the selling point, or original ideas. What it does tremendously well is to make the player immersed in this world, probably because the main characters and the setting in the real world are something people can relate to. They don’t come across as forced or overdramatic. They feel natural, and the dream sequences add to that level of involvement on the part of the player.
Looks and sounds more like a living dream
The presentation is of course essential for conveying that dream-like state. Made with clay and cardboard, it has its own visuals set apart from handrawn characters and settings so abundantly in use these days, and with a minimalistic electro soundtrack (something Sweden seems so familiar with), it all looks and sounds as if one is transported to another world which is strangely similar to the real one. There are no cutscenes to interrupt this trance-like feeling and even if voice acting is absent, the texts feel alive due to a well-written script and believable characters.
It’s interesting to note that the options menu offers quite a lot of helping devices for people with ear or eye problems. All text can be read out loud (even if it’s a robot voice with the inability to pronounce the words according to the context; which might also form a weird effect as well), visual clues for crucial sounds can be activated and greyscale can be used on color puzzles.
Linearity in puzzles and dream-like states
Puzzle design is something which will be discussed for each individual chapter, but suffice it to say that they are seldom as innovative or unique as the world in which they are implemented. Long-time adventure fans will most probably have no problems, even if the difficulty level gets higher with each instalment, something which a wider audience will have problems with.
What’s also worth mentioning is that the locations of some objects or puzzle solutions are random, so walkthroughs for impatient players aren’t that helpful. It’s of course questionable in how far this adds to replayability. The main idea how to solve a problem remains the same, so it doesn’t really add anything to the proceedings other than to create a bit of frustration for players who just want to enjoy the story, characters and game world.
Which version to get and when will it be finished?
Currently the game is available via the website’s own store, either with individual episodes for download or the whole package when it’s complete, which of course is an entirely different question as it took quite a while for the three episodes to be released. But according to the developers, it’s only a few months til the final two chapters will be available.
Additionally, a version on Steam is on offer with Chapters 1 and 2, Chapter 3 or the full game. The Steam version brings with it quite a lot of improvements and changes which are too many to list here, but can be checked on the developer’s website. Despite the bugfixes, there still seem to be some problems with the engine, as I had a few crashes and freezes, so hopefully these will be taken care of as well.
Without further ado… the chapters themselves
With so much prefatory talk about the game at large, let’s find out what each chapter has to offer and how the series develops its storyline, without spoiling too much.
Like most first episodes, this one serves to introduce the characters and gives a sense of place and atmosphere. It has a high degree of depth to the protagonist(s)’ personalities and succeeds remarkably well with the mystery surrounding the new apartment and building the couple moved in. The relationship between Victor and Alicia is handled well, i.e. the dialogues convey their hopes and fears, something which is best reflected in their individual dreams which are vividly described or even, in the case of Victor, visualized.
Story progression is slow and also reflected in the gameplay. The puzzle design is an interesting mix of mundane tasks (setting up the table by finding the appropriate replacement for furniture, talking to the renting firm on the phone which has to be found and installed first) and exploration, even if the latter comes a bit short. Maybe the word puzzle has different connotations for adventure gamers, conjuring up situations in which obscure object combinations or making intricate machines work are involved. This actually only happens once, and the game is all the better for it.
The first chapter has a very short playtime of less than an hour, the puzzles and their solutions are not that imaginative, but it’s still an atmospheric introduction which comes to quite a suspenseful conclusion, which is directly taken up in the second chapter.
The mystery loses some of its intrigue as the player finds hints in diaries describing in poetic language someone’s dreams. These are a joy and a nightmare to read for different reasons. Without taking too much away, but the vividness of the descriptions is something quite special. Maybe as more explanation with a philosophical or psycho-analytic touch is done with expository parts in the story, the plot also becomes a bit conventional and predictable.
The same holds true for the gameplay and puzzles. The presentation of the dream is still hauntingly beautiful to behold, but progression is hindered by some obscure puzzles which in a way make more sense in this weird setting. The only problem is that these have been done countless times in other games, and the dream sequence itself in terms of gameplay seems strangely familiar to other point-and-click-adventures, even if they’re an integral part of the gaming world the player explores.
Playtime of the second chapter is a bit longer (even if it doesn’t break the two-hours mark), and this has mostly to do with its puzzle design. Story progression gives a glimpse at a more epic plot than the mystery of the first chapter implied, but it also takes a step back because of the gameplay. Seasoned adventure gamers will have no problem solving the small puzzles, but as these aren’t anything special, the title loses some of its identity in the translation of these old game mechanics.
Being the longest part in the series with many characters to converse with, the question is if the storytelling has finally come to fruition and is more in harmony with the puzzle design. The answer to that is both yes and no. There is a mix of more exploration, investigative work and an emphasis on puzzle solving, making progression much more interesting and gameplay much more varied than the first two parts. A higher level of involvement when talking to each NPC (even if he seems to be a part of Victor’s own psyche or mirror image) and finding out what mystery the ship holds, leads to some more variety in the gameplay as well.
It’s too bad then that the first section of the episode feels like a fetch-quest ordeal and is less challenging and intriguing than the later sections are. More inventory puzzles become necessary and even if they don’t break new ground (like mixing a certain drink and getting all the ingredients for that), they’re usually well implemented in the game world. Some puzzles are actually quite original (compared to the rather unspectacular second chapter) and are difficult enough for more advanced players. Only a few more hints would have been nice in some instances, as frustration occurs a bit too often.
The third chapter is one of the best in the series so far, even if it’s less than perfect when it comes to the puzzle design. It almost feels as if the point-and-click mechanics stand in the way of a unique gaming experience. The tasks and their solutions are more varied than the former instalments, but compared to other titles in the genre, they can’t really keep up with the overall story and presentation which are still the most important selling points. Looking at the plot on its own as a separate episode, it offers much more suspense and some surprisingly nasty scenes, so it remains to be seen if the remaining two chapters will live up to the well-written dialogues and the dream-like atmosphere.
Some final words
It’s difficult to say how the game will be when it’s finished. As the transitions between each chapter are fluent (no teasers for the next one) and the plot has to be seen as a whole, a rating would make no sense at this point. During the playtime, there were some answers Victor could choose, but they didn’t really influence the linear structure of the game. It remains to be seen if they will actually have a moral effect on the ending or if characters react differently to one’s decisions. So far consequences of one’s actions didn’t alter the course of the story.
So far the game has proven to be quite a unique experience despite its gameplay flaws. This is mostly due to its graphics, soundtrack and good script. As is so often the case with episodic content, it’s difficult not to be a bit disappointed with the story only slowly developing and the attachment to the characters taking a backseat when they’re overshadowed by a puzzle design which is inconsistent.
Overall The Dream Machine can be recommended for both adventure game fans and people who appreciate the medium as an art form and self-expression, no Freud or other dream analysts knowledge needed.
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