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.