When I think of stop motion animation, my brain immediately reels back to my childhood. Specifically, I recall old christmas movies starring Rudolph, Frosty, Jack Skellington, and remember old public television shows about dinosaurs ruling the earth. It was—and still remains—so visually different from other types of animation, that it’s a wonder that video games haven’t attempted to use it more often, though exceptions certainly exist. Magic and Mayhem was a 1998 strategy game that used clay stop motion for its cutscenes. The Neverhood and its sequel, Skullmonkeys, were an adventure game and a platformer that used stop motion at the direction of Douglas TenNapel. And of course, there was ClayFighter, but nothing needs to be said about that game.
To be fair to the games industry, it’s less of a wonder as to why they don’t use more stop motion when it becomes apparent how much precise, hard work it takes to create sets and make still figures come to life. Knowing this, Cockroach Inc.– the developers behind The Dream Machine– deserve a round of applause for doing not only the grunt work of animating and building characters and sets in their game, but also for designing the puzzles and writing the dialogue. And once you play The Dream Machine and experience how well it executes what it’s trying to do, you’ll realize they deserve a standing ovation.
The Dream Machine has been billed by its creators as “a point-and-click adventure game made of clay and cardboard.” I’ve seen the phrase used so much in its marketing, that I’m convinced it’s also possibly the subtitle to the game. It serves well to sum up exactly what the game is though, as the mechanics are very much in the mold of an old adventure game. You move your character by clicking on where you want to go, find items in the world that you can examine and combine with other items, encounter puzzles and talk to people by selecting dialogue from a list of options.
While the game doesn’t make any revolutionary leaps in how an adventure game is played, it serves as an example of adventure game design excellence. The critical path style of design is what pushes The Dream Machine forward, and the game does an excellent job of letting you know what the next step is. That’s not say the game is without flaws though.
For instance, there was one puzzle where I had to move through a set of rooms in a particular order and the game only gave me the information I needed to solve that puzzle once, resulting in me having to brute force the solution. There was also a situation in where I had to pick up a book, but didn’t realize I had to click on it twice to actually take it. This came as a surprise because every other time I could pick up an item in the game I only had to interact with it once. Truthfully, those were the only stumbles I found, as though I did get stuck a few times, it was always because I failed to pay attention to the clues placed right in front of me. And I’m willing to accept those mechanical hiccups because The Dream Machine’s focus and appeal isn’t the puzzles, but rather the world it creates.
The game is divided into five chapters of which only three have been released so far, and take around an hour each. The first chapter opens up by introducing you to your character, Victor Neff, a young husband who has just moved into a new apartment with his pregnant wife. Right from the start, it’s evident how well the writing is done when you read the conversations between Victor and his wife Alicia.
There’s no melodramatic dialogue where they declare their love for each other so the audience can understand that they’re in a relationship. They just have honest, simple conversations about breakfast and dreams in that relaxed manner that only exists between two people who have know each very well. This same understated character interaction exists in most everyone you encounter in the game, and helps establish a relatable environment filled with people instead of caricatures.
That familiar environment makes it all the more striking when Victor encounters the titular dream machine in the following chapters, where you travel with him into the shifting, unstable world of the sleeping mind. I won’t spoil any of those dreamscapes for you, but I will say that they’re engaging and filled with characters that made me not want to put the game down.
Finally, there’s the unique art design and animation of The Dream Machine. You can see the quality of the former in the screenshots, and I can testify to the fact that the animations are smooth and lifelike; devoid of the choppy motions associated with cheaply done stop motion. The best way to confirm whether the game is good or not would be to try it out for yourself, of course, and Cockroach Inc. has made that amazingly easy by letting people play the first chapter for free at the game’s website.
I wrote at the beginning of this review that The Dream Machine executes what it’s trying to do extremely well. What the game is trying to do is create multiple worlds that draw you in, let you explore the unique landscapes with some of the best video game visuals I’ve seen in my life, and use short, engaging puzzles to lead you along the way. It does what games within the point-and-click format should do, and it pulls it off wonderfully.
Here’s The Rundown:
+ Excellent writing
+ Stunning visuals
+ Excellent game design
– A couple of grammar mistakes in the dialogue
– Some puzzles lack good feedback
– The final chapters have yet to be released
9 and 9.5 represent the pinnacle of the genre, a game that defines what that genre should be about. These scores are for games that you not only feel would be worth your purchase, but you would actually try to convince your friends to buy them as well.