The Dream Machine
Victor and his recently pregnant wife have just moved into a new apartment. But if I were either of them, I wouldn't be too happy. Whoever built the place clearly never went to hygiene school (if such a thing exists). The bathroom leads straight into the kitchen, and I'm pretty sure there's no door. Which is especially strange when you realise it's not a standard bathroom, but instead a wet room, with no actual shower cubicle and instead simply a drain in the floor.
It works in the context of the game, though. Even when The Dream Machine is rooted firmly in the real world, it has an ethereal, alien vibe to it, a strong sense of aesthetic weirdness that runs through its rustic little bones. Indeed, The Dream Machine's strange half-logic often feels like it belongs in a dream for real: a place of consciousness where everything seems to make perfect sense, until you look at it retrospectively and realise that none of it clicked together quite right after all.
This is an impressive piece of work. It's a point-and-click adventure made by a tiny Swedish development studio, Cockroach. It runs in Flash, in a web browser, as a hundred million low-budget games do. But this one is crafted by hand, with carefully constructed sets populated by stop-motion animated character models. It looks wonderful, and totally unique. It plays about as traditionally as you can get, but it's a point-and-click adventure, so that's to be expected.
The first two chapters are available now, each lasting an hour or two. The first is free, the second is five euros, and you can pre-order the whole series of five episodes for less than 15 euros at the moment. It's a fascinating method by which to deliver a game. I'm not quite sure whether it's a good idea or not. It feels a little like an unspecified rental period: what if the servers end up closing down, for example? Do I lose the game I paid money for? Then again, companies shut their online servers all the time, and while people are inevitably disappointed, no one tends to kick up too massive a fuss.
The first chapter begins in a dream on a small desert island, and features a couple of lightweight puzzles which introduce the game's interface. It's a case of clicking and dragging inventory items onto other items, either others in your inventory or objects in the world. It's definitely a game held back by its form, as other Flash-based adventures are. If there were a right-click option, for example, things would be a lot more intuitive - but it's no bother, really.
Once you're out of the dream, you're free to play the rest of the chapter, all of which takes place in the real world. And it's striking in its mundanity. That's a compliment. More games should understand that an understated, realistic opening makes the inevitable shift into strangeness seem so much more effective. Have no game developers played Half-Life? Still? The technique is so marvellous. So The Dream Machine, like other games which understand this trick, has you spend an hour or more plodding on with the usual chores you might expect when moving into a new house. You need to find the phone in amongst the clutter, so you can phone your landlord about getting a spare key. You need to go and meet the removal men, who are delivering your sofa. You might potter out to say hello to your new neighbours, or have a chat with your wife while you eat breakfast off a makeshift table.
That might sound like needless trudgery, but not only does it help to make what follows seem so much more interesting, but it also gives the characters time to breathe. And this is where I begin to be in two minds about The Dream Machine. Its writing and characterisation are so nearly very good, but just occasionally fall short.
The relationship between Victor and his wife, for instance, is an interesting one. In many ways, they behave as you would expect a married couple to behave. They quip, and bicker, but there's a sense of real love between them that's so sorely lacking from many exaggerated videogame romances. Then one of them says something that sounds totally out of place. No one ever goes with the old Honey, I'm home! nugget, but it's that kind of thing: an unexpected clich that breaks the atmosphere until the next piece of wonderful, mature dialogue comes along.
There's also a tendency for each of them to feel like an infodump, just occasionally, as if the writers were desperate to explain elements of the story but couldn't quite work out how to do so subtly. It's a shame, because much of what makes them such believable characters is the fact that they're often so subtle. It's also why an obnoxious removal firm employee seems so out of place as a moment of bizarrely in-your-face comic relief. Then again, the juxtaposition does lend itself well to the dreamlike state of the game as a whole.
As the title might suggest, by the second chapter you've discovered a device which allows you to enter people's dreams, and the narrative kicks off properly from here. But so far, the story's key component is one of the least interesting things about the game. It's that opening, and how understated it is, that sticks in your mind long after you've wrapped up the second episode - although things do end on a note that leaves things exciting for the start of chapter 3, which is due out next month.
It's a game, then, that so far stops just short of being excellent. The writing isn't consistent enough, and while the puzzles are sensible, there isn't much that offers a huge challenge until a fair way into the second episode. But I can confidently recommend that you try it. For such a low price, and given how ambitious and interesting The Dream Machine is, it's a safe bet to give it a go.