IndieCade 2011: The Dream Machine

By Jeff Mattas, Oct 23, 2011 7:00am PDT

The point-and-click adventure genre has been around nearly as long as video games themselves, so it's especially refreshing (and surprising) to encounter one that takes an entirely new approach. The Dream Machine, an episodic adventure from Sweedish developer Cockroach is one of those games. All of its characters, props, and environments are created from materials like clay and cardboard, and then captured using stop-motion animation techniques.

The game begins innocuously enough. A couple is moving in to a new apartment, but soon discover that not everything is as it seems. In the words of Cockroach's Anders Gustaffson, who I spoke to at the recent IndieCade festival in Culver City, CA: "There is something shady going on in the apartment complex, and they have to find out what it is, and try to stop the persons responsible."

"Being more than 30 years old, I really appreciate the fact that you're not firing a gun in the game, and that it's actually about a real-life relationship at the very core," Gustaffson continued. "It's basically about a guy who's trying to make his family life work, while being put in a very strange situation."

Anyone who has ever played a point-and-click adventure game will immediately feel at home playing The Dream Machine. While it doesn't do much to turn the mechanical conventions of the genre on their heads, the excellent presentation cannot be understated.

When I asked Gustafsson--responsible for the game's writing, puzzles, and programming--why he and co-creator Erik Zaring chose the visually striking claymation style for the game, it turns out that it was a natural decision, given both of their backgrounds.

"Well, first of all, it's love for the medium of stop-motion animation," Gustaffson explained. We both love [Tim Burton's] The Nightmare Before Christmas, and movies like that... and [the works of] Aardman Animations, but we--both me and Erik--have traditional animation backgrounds. He actually used to run a stop-motion animation studio in Sweeden, and I used to do children's animation. I got into computer games a while ago, and then we started talking about doing a collaboration. He's not very technical, but he can build like nobody else."

In adventure games, good storytelling is what makes them ultimately worth playing. As such, I won't spoil any of the twists and turns I've experienced so far in the first couple of chapters. Let me just say that by the end of the first installment (which the developers are letting people play for free), I was both intrigued and unsettled. Given what Gustaffson had to say about the game's narrative influences, I wasn't surprised.

"We've been watching [Roman] Polanski's 'The Tenant' quite a lot, and we're big fans of [David] Cronenberg," he said. "[They both take place in] a slightly off-putting universe that makes you feel guilty by watching it, like a co-conspirator. That's a quality that we like in the works of both Polanski and Cronenberg. I also like the television series Fringe, and some of the more bizarre and trippy Star Trek episodes."

The Dream Machine has five planned chapters. As mentioned, the first chapter is playable for free on the developer's website. Chapter 2 is currently available to purchase and play, and Chapter 3 is planned to release by the end of October. The game's final two chapters will be released sometime thereafter. I asked Gustaffson about the decision to release episodically, as opposed to all at once.

"Reducing the risk is a part of it," he told me. "If we had invested three years into releasing one big chunk of the game, then we wouldn't have feedback from the players. We wouldn't know if anybody liked it, or if we were on the right track, or needed to change it slightly--tonally. So, releasing the first episode into the wild and getting feedback was really critical."

He also shared some excitement about The Dream Machine's upcoming third chapter, due out before the end of the month. "I'm really proud about [episode] number three. It really came together," Gustaffson said. "I was crunching up until the last day--right before I came here [to IndieCade]--but it really came together nicely. I was shocked when I did the first playthrough all the way that it was cohesive and tonally more creepy and weird than I expected."

If you have a soft-spot for good point-and-click adventure games, but are looking for something a bit more adult and creepy than the (also quite good) titles being produced by Telltale Games (Sam & Max, Back to the Future), I'd highly recommend giving The Dream Machine's first chapter a go.

Chapters 2-5 each run €4.69 apiece ($6.52); however, ordering the full game bundle will only cost €13.75 ($19.11)--a savings of 20%. You can click The Dream Machine's official Store tab on the game's website for more information.

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