Thu 3 Mar 2011
I don’t know about you, but I love dreaming. There’s just something magical about exploring that world inside your mind, that you created and that creates you at the same time. It’s almost like a game, really, and games and dreams are almost inextricably intertwined, as this study for example suggests. It’s a bit surprising then, that more games haven’t explored this fascinating territory. At least The Dream Machine is making an attempt, but is it a good one? There’s only one thing for it: play it and find out.
If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge yet though, let me take you by the hand to guide you through this dream world. Speaking of guidance, The Dream Machine had scored some brownie points with me before I even started playing it, merely because of two options in the settings screen. The game offers the option to have colour puzzles appear in grayscale, and to display text cues for audio that’s essential in solving a puzzle. All too often, accessibility is ignored or added as an afterthought, so it’s nice to see that the developers have thought of those gamers who are sometimes left out in the cold.
Another revolutionary feature of The Dream Machine is that it’s released as a browser game. Now, this has pros and cons. An obvious advantage is portability – it’s playable across various platforms, as long as they have an Internet connection. And that could be a problem if you want to play it when you don’t have online access. But this is not the place for a discussion about online versus offline games (you can always do that in the comments). We’re just going to separate medium and message here for a bit (sorry, Marshall McLuhan) to focus on the game itself.
When you actually start playing, you may find it hard to believe that this is ‘just’ a browser game. It looks fantastic, even in full screen. That’s because the makers of The Dream Machine have taken quite a novel approach to set design. They have built all the sets in the game by hand, not unlike Aardman do with their Wallace & Gromit shorts, for instance. The result is a level of charm and atmosphere that just could not have been achieved otherwise. And since this is a game about dreaming, that organic feel fits perfectly. The game’s backgrounds alone speak directly to your feelings. It’s almost as if the game doesn’t need a story at all, just walking around in the sets is a very enjoyable experience.
But fortunately this is a game, so you’re not limited to just walking around; there’s definitely a story here, and it’s very strong. The premise is that a young couple have just moved into a new apartment, and they discover that something fishy is going on. A nice touch here is that we learn various bits of backstory about the couple just from looking at the moving boxes. It’s a clever way of introducing the story, which has the dream theme weaved through it. As I’ve said above, the subject of dreaming is a fascinating one, and I can safely say that after playing the first two chapters of The Dream Machine, it’s become even more fascinating for me because of the way it’s used as a central theme.
Another aspect of the writing, that might easily be overlooked in a game that at times tackles quite dramatic subject matter, is comedy. Even the most depressing and grim stories (not that this game is either in particular) improve with a joke or two. And comedy is a hard thing to get right, but it’s used to great effect here. This game is a product of imaginative minds, which shows through in the writing – comedy and otherwise – as well as in the design of the characters, who are well thought out, with their own specific motivations and flaws that aren’t always easily guessed at first glance.
In the audio department, things are looking – or rather sounding – good as well. The music adds a lot to the atmosphere, as do the sound effects. Sadly though, there are no voices in the game. Now, I must admit that I didn’t even notice that after getting into it, but the addition voices could be a nice bonus if done right. This is where the browser-based nature of the game could come in handy: updates can be easily distributed, so perhaps we can one day look forward to voices being added, although the game is good enough without them.
As with any game, there are some points of criticism, but they are minor. I’m not really fond of the drag-and-drop interface for instance. It’s a bit cumbersome, and for some gamers it may make the game less accessible. There are some minor bugs and glitches, but they can be easily patched, as opposed to, say, Grim Fandango, which had a couple of notorious and serious glitches, but that didn’t stop it from being a masterpiece. And if Cockroach Inc. can continue to deliver on the promise that these first two chapters give, I don’t see why The Dream Machine couldn’t be right up there with the great classics of adventure gaming.
Jan’s Score: 4 out of 5 starks
The ” ” is for the unique experience the game offers.
Note A: The Dream Machine was nominated in IGF Awards 2011 in the category of Excellence In Visual Art.
Note B: chapter 3 is to be released later this month.
Note C: playing the first chapter doesn’t require any sort of payment and it’s available on the official website.