The Dream Machine – Review
The Dream Machine is an adventure about invading dreams, made out of cardboard, clay and condoms. Is this what dreams are made of? Here’s what we think.
Good art makes you feel something you never knew could be felt. It mixes the chemicals in your brain just so to produce a cocktail of a feeling that’s hard to express and harder to recreate. The Dream Machine, with its off-kilter art and tone-defying storytelling, is good art.
With an endorsement like that right out of the gate, it’s tempting to think that The Dream Machine affected me deeply. Perhaps it made me shed tears, like Bastion did, or it changed my outlook on the world, like Dark Souls did? No, The Dream Machine did neither, but it did tell me a story I will remember for a while, and in a style that I will remember for much longer.
The game follows Victor Neff as he moves into an apartment building with his pregnant wife Alicia. The couple is getting adjusted to its new home when Victor and Alicia quickly discover that something very odd is happening in the building. As one thing leads to another, Victor discovers “The Dream Machine”, an entity that is infecting the dreams of the building’s tenants. To stop it, Victor must enter each dream and drive the Dream Machine away.
Take one look at a screenshot of the game and you’ll be looking at its unmistakeable visuals, which were created by photographing real-world objects. Characters are made of clay, and environments are made out of all sorts of objects including cardboard, broccoli and condoms. Each environment in the game, particularly in Episode 5, is an impressive work of art in itself. To be able to play an interactive game in environments like these feels as delightful as it does unusual.
It’s not just the medium of creation that makes The Dream Machine’s visuals stand out. It’s the way the game’s locations look tangible and yet unreal at the same time. It’s the way the characters pore at you with their empty eye sockets, and the way the game can jolt you right as you’re getting comfortable with its eerie world.
The result of The Dream Machine’s bold art direction is a timeless look that appears as a blend between the realistic and the stylistic. There’s simplicity, but there’s also a level of detail that you simply won’t find in purely computer-generated graphics.
The unusual style of the game’s visuals is balanced by a down-to-earth story that plays out like a psychological fable for adults. Even as Victor invades dreams to try and save the day, we come out learning more about him, more so than the other characters. The game’s flow remains engrossing and engaging throughout, thanks to a well-maintained sense of mystery regarding what strange encounter you’ll have next.
Puzzles in point-and-click adventure games always make me wary. Most such games come from the old LucasArts school of design, where puzzles are made fiendishly hard and often nonsensical. While The Dream Machine also follows that classic formula, the difficulty of its puzzles felt just right for most of the game.
Part of the reason I feel The Dream Machine earns its puzzles is that it makes good use of dream logic without sacrificing comprehensibility. The chief conceit of Victor hopping between dreams allows for discreet inventories, as well as a wildly imaginative set of locations and objects to play with. At the same time, things just make sense, even when they shouldn’t.
The game communicates itself well, thanks to its smart design. It’s always clear what you have to do to proceed, and the game’s delightful visuals make exploration a joy. The game never seems to nudge you. Instead, it lets you breathe in the atmosphere and discover new places, resulting in a game where progress feels steady yet rewarding.
The nature of the puzzles varies a bit from dream to dream. At one point, the game deliberately and refreshingly contrasts a linear set of puzzles in one dream with a more open-ended set in another dream. One episode is particularly expansive and involves an annoying level of backtracking. This was thankfully addressed in the next episode, which included a limited fast travel mechanic.
As the game progresses, the puzzles do get harder, and I had to consult the internet to figure out the main puzzles of Chapters 5 and 6. It’s never fun having to look up solutions to progress, especially when the story has you hooked enough that you want to know what happens next.
The actual act of figuring out a puzzle solution this way adds little to the narrative, so a multi-tier hint system could’ve been helpful to those of us without the patience for traditional point-and-click puzzle-solving. The game does include an option to have Victor suggest hints, but more often than not, he provided hints when it was necessary to me, and remained silent when I did need a hint.
The Dream Machine is not a horror game, but it maintains a consistently unnerving atmosphere that pervades through its tangible-looking environments. The game’s ambient music always verges on the edge of discomfort without quite going all the way there. There are no jump scares, but the game still managed to effectively startle me at moments where it was called for. Not a lot of works manage to blend the whimsically dreamlike with the utterly morbid as effortlessly as The Dream Machine does.
It took over six years for The Dream Machine to be completed, and for a game with such a lengthy development, it remains surprisingly consistent in tone and style throughout. The sole stickler is the technology driving it: Adobe Flash, which is now a relic of a bygone era. Steam’s framerate counter jumped all over the place, and I often encountered some characteristic ‘Flash’ jerkiness when getting Victor to do things. It never really got in the way, thankfully, and I did not encounter any bugs or crashes in my playthrough, so I suppose I shouldn’t knock on Flash too much.
The Dream Machine is a meaty, psychological adventure that looks like nothing else you’ve ever played. It’s a game of surprising balance: surreal, yet familiar; humorous, yet deeply morbid; bizarre, yet logical; subdued, yet striking. Through it all, the game cuts a straight and narrow line of being consistently entertaining. Not unlike the best of dreams, then.
The Dream Machine is now available on PC and Mac via Steam. This review is based on a review copy provided by the game’s developer. The game is available piecemeal at $3.99 to $5.99, depending on the episode. It can also be bought as a discounted bundle at $19.95. Not a bad price if you’re into point-and-clicks.
Stuck in The Dream Machine? Find out the solution in our walkthrough series for the game.