Ever wonder what makes old-time sci-fi shows like Twilight Zone so good? They’re visually dated and lack the flash and special effects of some newer programs, but something about the Zone just gets under your skin and stays relevant as the years go by. I think it has something to do with that aspect of the mundane woven into every episode that really speaks to the diehard sci-fi fan. The idea that just around the next corner in that simple, boring little town you live in you could be transported to a world of wonder and mystery is enough to keep the average viewer paying rapt attention.
This is the essential appeal of The Dream Machine, a point-and-click adventure being serialized for the Internet by Cockroach Inc., brainchild of Swedish developers Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring. For those unfamiliar with the genre, this is a throwback to Monkey Island-style games, where you’re presented with a backdrop and a limited number of items, objects and/or people to interact with. Some combination of the available items will allow you to solve a puzzle, remove an obstacle or progress to a different area. TDM has a little something extra working for it, however, particularly in the art aesthetic and storytelling focus it’s chosen to adopt.
Since I’m such a sucker for it, let’s start with the story. In TDM you play as Victor Neff, for all intents and purposes the quintessential “average Joe” who has just moved into a new apartment with his wife Alicia. While settling down, getting acquainted with their surroundings and unpacking their belongings, Victor makes a disturbing discovery that launches him on a journey from the hidden secrets of one family of scientific researchers to the very fringes of human consciousness that can only be reached through our dreams. See what I’m saying about those aspects of the mundane giving way to the truly extraordinary? This game could be a case study in that principle.
This quality carries through into the art style, a series of backdrops and character models created out of materials like clay and cardboard. The effect is interesting, especially where the characters are concerned. Their models are distinctly human and inhuman simultaneously, leaving you with the impression that as you hop back and forth between the “real” world and the dreamscape, it becomes harder and harder to judge what is distorted by the surreality of your surroundings and what is simply a result of the outlandish art style.
Point-and-click gameplay is far from the most sophisticated way to interact with a game, but it’s an excellent way to enable to player to enjoy the puzzles, characters and settings the developers put so much time and effort into without overstimulating a player to the point of making problem solving impossible. The puzzles themselves are in-depth and engaging. I won’t lie, I had to refer to an online guide more than once in the interest of progressing through the game. It’s nothing I’m proud of, but I had become so engrossed in the story that I was too impatient for trial and error.
The difficulty curve is pretty manageable. If you’ve ever played anything similar, you may find the prologue portion of the game unpleasantly easy, but this is just a tutorial. As you progress, you’ll find that an imaginative mind, a keen eye and a good memory are vital for getting through the game. The simple act of collecting items and combining them in unique ways is broken up by dialogue and exposition sections that cast a foreboding air over even the otherwise mundane aspects of the experience.
Chapter 1 of the adventure is available free-to-play, and you can get the other installments for just under 5 Euros apiece. By my estimation, the game is definitely worth it, a breath of fresh air in an environment dominated by shooter clones, reboots and remakes. An uncharted world of dreams could be just a few clicks away for you, too, so what are you waiting for?