Off to strange worlds in The Dream Machine
“I long for a kind of quiet where I can just drift and dream. I always say getting inspiration is like fishing. If you’re quiet and sitting there and you have the right bait, you’re going to catch a fish eventually. Ideas are sort of like that. You never know when they’re going to hit you.” – David Lynch
I think we can reach consensus on a few common ideas that attract us to dreams. Subconscious thoughts, inaccessible during waking hours, spring forth and manifest in bizarre facsimile. The complex organization of the mind begins to disintegrate, conjuring a random succession of images from the conscious world, warping and distorting as they translate into the unconscious. It’s a wonderful stew of the familiar and alienating, framed within surreal, inconstant environments. Such is the topic of discussion for Cockroach Inc.’s The Dream Machine.
The Dream Machine is an episodic point-and-click adventure game. The game sets itself apart from contemporaries with a clay-and-cardboard, stop motion aesthetic, which even at its most banal, conveys the symbolic and surreal qualities of dreams. Everything is somewhere between beautiful, ugly, grotesque, and whimsical.
Haunting dreams evoke emotion through strong mood and atmosphere; The Dream Machine is no different. Levels drip with rich texture, imagination, and the charming imperfection of real materials. Environments like a dingy apartment building , a cloudy dreamscape, and the mysterious cruise ship—as well as some other nightmarish sections—ooze with depth and dimension. Walls show off stains and smudges, layers of paint more opaque than others; floorboards meet, but without fitting, some raised above others. The use of real materials imbues the world with a unique tangibility.
Just like its subject, The Dream Machine is at its best when blending the real and surreal. The story starts with husband and wife, Victor and Alicia Neff, getting accustomed to their new apartment. After a discussion of the previous night’s bizarre dreams—involving shady landlord, Mr. Morton—and the discovery of a mysterious, half-destroyed note, the game takes a David Lynch-inspired turn for the strange. A generational-spanning sleep experiment and the exploration of the dreamscape (a sort of collective, existential puzzle that uses every mind as a piece) lie at the heart of an intriguing, surprisingly sinister, plot. The balance of dream and reality is where the game shines and the third chapter falters slightly by eschewing the main narrative and becoming engrossed in one dream’s own crime-novel-inspired fiction.
Despite unique subject matter, The Dream Machine doesn’t introduce any novel mechanics to the point-and-click adventure genre. Players navigate series of rooms or environments, full of objects to be examined and others to be obtained. These can be combined to complete puzzles and progress through levels. The Dream Machine perfunctorily satisfies all the requirements of the genre. This may sound like a complaint, but rather, simplicity is The Dream Machine’s strong suit.
Victor interacts with the portentous apartment building and its inhabitants through exploration, objects, puzzles, and dialogue. Dream worlds are equally interesting to explore though they feel more limited in virtual geography, leading to some backtracking.
The game does a fantastic job not wasting intelligent players’ time. You will probably never pick up an item that won’t be used in some fashion. No matter how obscure a puzzle’s solution may seem, Victor is always equipped to solve it. Solutions sometimes require creativity and box-free thinking.
The game mostly adheres to the realistic interaction of objects (allowing players to apply their everyday knowledge in this surreal setting), but a few instances seemed prone to ‘dream (see: loose) logic’. In one case, I garnished a cocktail with a parasol, which, when combined, shrunk from four feet tall to a few inches in order to fit neatly within the glass. It wasn’t the most obvious interaction, but it’s hard to fault within the setting of a dream- itself a plane of existence predicated on fluid boundaries.
Objects also help to build nuance into the narrative. Examining objects is standard practice but, especially in the early chapters, objects convey additional characterization. A box of records and a guitar in the Neff apartment both speak of a Victor who may not be ready for his child’s impending birth. Alicia says as much in her discussion of his dream, involving Victor’s adventurous isolation on a deserted island in the sea. Objects and narrative lend themselves towards developing a nebulous but compelling protagonist.
When objects and objectives are kept minimal, the strength of the game’s ideas and aesthetic shine through. Unfortunately, the third chapter loses sight of its goal, representing the longest, most intensive, most complicated, and the most frustrating section of the game. Instead of tackling one or two objectives at a time, the third chapter unloads too many tasks onto the player, making it convoluted and tedious. Your inventory nearly reaches capacity while five different dream versions of Victor direct your actions or request your assistance. At times, I was trapped in a nightmarish loop, walking back and forth along the decks of this imagined cruise ship, trying to figure out which Victor could help me solve the chapter’s central mystery (inspired by Alicia’s love of crime novels—according to a box in their apartment).
Dialogue also plays an important role in puzzle-solving. Victor may elicit cooperation through dialogue choices, which may provoke action or simply provide necessary information. The game even features some binary dialogue options along the spectrum of temperament. Unfortunately, after replaying some sections, I realized it didn’t matter whether you chose to be asshole Victor or good husband Victor. Your dialogue with characters, especially Alicia and Mr. Morton, reaches the same conclusions regardless. Dialogue can also become frustrating when, like a missed interactive object, you neglect to exhaust some dialogue branch and miss out on the choice required to progress. It didn’t happen often but the experience was frustrating when encountered.
Point-and-click adventure games are about details. If you scroll past something of note, you may miss out on a solution for another ten minutes. During that time, you might find yourself pacing back and forth between areas, looking for some minute solution. Often times, after stressing for a few minutes and giving up, I would come upon the answer to a puzzle. This experience not only reinforces the game’s insistence on providing you with the right tools, but also that sometimes patience is a good thing. If you’re open to finding the solution and you don’t spam your screen with mouse clicks in an anxious panic, you’ll likely solve the puzzle. This is to say the game is best taken at a dream-like pace.
I was smitten with The Dream Machine moments after escaping the deserted island dream and waking up in the dingy Neff apartment during the game’s introduction. The effectiveness of the handcrafted aesthetic and its accompanying atmosphere; the pulpy, philosophical narrative; the simple but solid mechanics; the thoughtful puzzles that beg serious consideration; the moody, poignant score; The Dream Machine is off to a great start. Though the game stumbles a bit during the tedious third chapter, its overall charm should overcome any frustration experienced.
In dreams, you’re meant to get swept up. Pick too much at any one thought and you’ll turn dream to nightmare, brought on by obsession. Keep a level, open, patient mind and The Dream Machine Chapters 1-3 deliver a genuinely original and fascinating world married to familiar gameplay. There’s bound to be frustration when a puzzle’s solution seems far at hand; just remember: you never know when an idea—or in this case, a solution—is going to hit you.