Version tested: PC
Dreams are a cheap currency in gaming. If they're not being used to dump exposition into a JRPG, enabling the amnesiac hero to learn that he's destined to save the world and may actually be an old friend of the effeminate villain who has been swishing about after him, then they're being used to annoy the tits off you by allowing developers to throw common sense out of the window. Yes, Max Payne, that means you.
Ye olde point-and-click adventure, it turns out, is one genre where mucking about with dreams actually works really well. Elastic logic that allows unlikely combinations to make a weird sort of sense, seemingly inconsequential obstacles that force you into an obsessive feedback loop of trial and error – this is part and parcel of adventure gaming, just as much as it's the stuff of late night cheese-binge fever dreams. This is all very fitting, as The Dream Machine plays very much like the nocturnal result of an ill-advised slab of mature 11pm cheddar.
A low-budget episodic browser game, it's most immediate hook comes from the handmade models that make up its cast and sets. Straight away, they lend proceedings an eerie and off-kilter aspect, even when the start of the game is deliberately banal. It'd be nice if the game gave us a few more close-ups to better appreciate the texture of this tactile world, but the effect is captivating all the same.
Most adventure games struggle with their introductory sections, forcing players to puzzle over things that the characters should already know. The Dream Machine has a simple and effective way over that hurdle. Our hero, newlywed Victor Neff, has just moved into a new apartment with his pregnant wife, Alicia. So, following a foreshadowing desert island dream that almost works as a parody of obvious inventory puzzles, your first task is to improvise a table for your first breakfast in your new home. Then you need to rummage around in unpacked boxes to find the telephone, and work out where the socket is, so you can call the landlord about a spare key.
These are all simple tasks, but deliberately so. Much like Heavy Rain set up a purposefully banal baseline against which to judge the more outlandish events that followed, so The Dream Machine starts in domesticity and then seeds its curious world with things that are just not right. The investigation of these odd happenings, and the discovery of their source, takes you up to the end of the first chapter, playable for free.
To say much more about where the story goes would spoil much of its appeal (even though the game's rather on-the-nose title gives too much away already). Suffice to say, the exploration of dreams is at the heart of the game, though the result has more in common with the off-kilter work of Jan Švankmajer and the Bolex Brothers than anything Inception ever suggested.
And it's here, in the division between reality and fantasy, that the game really dives in and swims around the point-and-click gene pool. Puzzles in the real world are mechanistic in nature – fixing things, working out keycodes and so on. In the dream world, the thinking required becomes more lateral than literal, especially since items can have multiple uses in different contexts. One memorable example involves a hammer and an anvil. There's something very obvious you can do with these tools, but they're also integral to one of the cleverest puzzles in Chapter 2, one that relies on vaguely remembered school biology lessons for the penny to drop.
Perhaps most importantly, the puzzles make narrative sense. An early circuit board puzzle is justified by what it reveals, while just-out-of-reach keys and jammed lift doors feel like a natural part of the ramshackle block of flats where the game takes place. The game never drops random obstacles in your path just to keep you clicking, and the pace strikes a welcome balance between relatively simple inventory sequences and the occasional evil headscratcher.
When the game does break out the hardcore puzzles, it doesn't hold back. Solving one dream world problem found me reaching for paper and pen to put together a map, something I hadn't done since the 8-bit era, while the final puzzle of Chapter 2 had me completely stumped, until I realised that I'd seized on what seemed like the obvious solution, and in doing so managed to completely miss the actual solution, which was just as obvious in its own way but far more clever than the kneejerk response my ageing synapses came up with. When that happens, and the answer becomes clear, the thrill of solution remains one of gaming's greatest pleasures.
Throughout, progress never feels artificially slow, and the story benefits from a light touch that keeps things moving forward without patronising the player. Many point-and-click games shove their story to the background, using it as an abstract hook to hang the puzzles on. The Dream Machine wants you to care about its weird, lumpy characters, and the puzzles are the means to that end. Both chapters so far have ended on pitch-perfect cliffhangers, where you're engaged by the implications for Victor and Alicia, not just by the prospect of a new location and more logic conundrums.
In fact, it's so cohesive in its oddball DIY universe, and so confidently strung together, both in terms of narrative and gameplay, that it's easy to forget that it's the work of just two indie developers. It's not polished, as such, but its rough edges feel organic and deliberate. Each chapter offers a few hours of gameplay, and though die-hard adventure gamers may find some of the structure a tad easy, there's a nice balance between encouraging newcomers to the genre to keep going while throwing in some fiendish brainteasers to maintain a worthy challenge.
Telltale has made the online episodic adventure its own, but The Dream Machine suggests it won't have the field to itself much longer. It's quirky and memorable, but most of all it's a classic point-and-click game at a pocket-money price.
8 / 10
The first two chapters of The Dream Machine are available now. You can pre-order all five chapters for €13.75.