"Another drop in the vast ocean of point-and-click adventure games, The Dream Machine stands like a beacon signaling a reinvention of the worn genre."
Another drop in the vast ocean of point-and-click adventure games, The Dream Machine stands like a beacon signaling a reinvention of the worn genre. With landscapes and characters created entirely out of clay and cardboard, Erik Zaring and Andes Gustafsson helm this unexpected foray into our subconscious. Though only four of six chapters have been released so far in this episodic series, the game has already carved its own spot on a mountain of expectations.
Our protagonist, Victor, finds himself trying to survive on a desert island before waking up and realizing it's only a dream. The simplicity of the introduction quickly establishes familiarity with the gameplay. Simultaneously, it serves as a self-mocking, dual-layered parody that plays on the typical gameplay, story, and scenery found in the genre. Not only does it offer comfort to those who can't help randomly combining items together, but it also presents a mundane entryway that juxtaposes things to come perfectly. Before one can tut-tut the seemingly clichéd title and send it on its merry way, the unnerving reality of the apartment Victor and his newly-pregnant wife, Alicia, have just moved into beckons a second look. As they go about settling into their new abode, it appears that there's something not quite right with their new landlord, Mr. Morton.
Without giving away too much — though the title itself does a poor job of that — the game's key premise seems ripe for overused ideas, yet it manages to not only steer clear of them, but also develops an innovative plot with nuanced details. Excellent dialogue develops each character well, whom we get to know more intimately as the game progresses.
Interacting with objects is fairly straightforward. Items can be analyzed, combined, or used on something or someone. For the most part, the game flows smoothly. Occasionally, when trying to move to a different area, however, Victor will walk a lap around the room before heading out the door. Depending on Victor's location, some objects may be hard to select as well. I haven't kept a close eye on this, but it seems like some clickables are only available after certain events have passed. It's hard to say if this is a good or bad thing, but these are simply nitpicks anyway. Everything that needs to work functions as it should.
The puzzles get progressively harder throughout chapters 1-3, eventually establishing a wonderful method that relies more on narrative details and hints rather than random combining. In fact, almost all instances in which items need to be combined are pretty obvious — the trick is which items to use. The game gives just enough clues, either with effective dialogue and/or from intricate elements in the objects/background. There was only one puzzle I felt was a little unfair, but still deducible. Most importantly, none of them feel contrived and each adds to the plot in some way. In particular, chapter 4's treatment of storytelling, gameplay, and puzzle-solving really blew my mind away.
Aesthetically, the game appears rough at first due to its clay and cardboard roots, but upon exploration, the intricate yet imperfect crafts endear the viewer to them in a subtly disturbing manner. The flaws add a realistic touch to the scenes, even if ship portholes aren't quite full circles, setting the tone that nothing is quite what you expect it to be. Perhaps this medium is the exact blend for transitioning between dream and reality without detracting from either. The music complements its graphics; never intrusive but quietly disconcerting. The sound effects fit their purpose, and like the environment, carry just a tinge of tension. A heavy, foreboding atmosphere hangs over Victor's every action, creating an edgy anticipation towards further developments.
Thoughtful in execution, The Dream Machine avoids falling for clichéd pitfalls oft seen in point-and-clicks. The characters grow alongside the story as Victor gains a deeper understanding of their histories and circumstances. With the plot unraveling at such a calculated pace — giving just enough to answer existing questions while arousing more curiosity — combined with clever puzzles, I can't wait to see what the final two chapters have to offer.