Dreams of Clay and Cardboard

I had just about completely forgotten about the indie adventure game The Dream Machine by Cockroach, Inc.  A demo of part one of the five part game series was released back in 2009 and while it seemed visually amazing, the demo was too short to really build a solid opinion on the game.  Later I saw that a beta version of part one with more game play had been released but continued to ignore it, wanting my experience to be with the final product.

Recently, I learned from The Dream Machine’s development blog feed that part two of the game was about to be released and that the entire series could be preordered.

From the start it’s apparent that The Dream Machine has a unique art design.  Rendered from clay and cardboard and polished digitally later, the game has a stop-motion feel to it.  It’s a video game and yet this sort of approach creates a tactile experience in the game world where surfaces have perceptible texture and you very much feel like you’re playing around with a diorama.

I won’t go too much into The Dream Machine’s plot to avoid spoiling what is an interesting story so far.  Victor and his pregnant wife Alicia are a young couple who have moved into an apartment in the city.  After their first night (which features odd dreams) the couple starts to settle into their new, unpacked home.   

The Dream Machine does a wonderful job of slowly unwinding a sense of unease, giving you the feeling that something isn’t right, but not letting you find out until the game is ready.  You find an odd note from the previous tenant but you can’t investigate further until you’ve built an impromptu breakfast table from a moving box and sat down to a meal with your wife.  The game makes you first play the role of a young husband starting a new chapter in his life before it breaks that world down.

After preordering The Dream Machine I was stunned to find out that the game was entirely browser based and that you must log into an account to play.  I thought for sure that even though it was programmed in Flash the game would be downloadable, especially after paying a $19 price.  I was a little miffed but after some thought the possible reason for this approach dawned on me; I remembered an article on Gamasutra where the indie developer of Machinarium, Amanita Design, talked about how their game was heavily pirated.  Cockroach, Inc.’s methods certainly avoid that problem. 

Cockroach, Inc. also states that since The Dream Machine is browser based they’re able to analyze statistics about what puzzles players are getting stuck on the most: “If we note that we have a significant drop anywhere, we can add clues or re-think the problem entirely.”  Further, the developer will also be on the look-out for different interactions players attempt that Cockroach, Inc. didn’t think of: “If enough people try to use, say, the baby oil with the apartment key, we go in and write a response for that.”

This fluid and responsive approach to The Dream Machine and its customers is definitely fascinating to me as I’ve never heard of such a thing for an adventure game (or really any game).  I’d love to find out later what was discovered and what they ended up changing in the game. 

However, I can’t help but be a little skeptical about how realistic and practical the developer’s aim really is.  They’ve been working on The Dream Machine for almost two years and only the first two parts have been released – will they really have time to make changes as they go? 

Ultimately, except for a few load times caused by my internet connection dropping out, The Dream Machine being browser based wasn’t a big deal for me.  I’m enjoying the story so far and am definitely interested in where it goes from here.  The game is obviously hand crafted with love and care so it wasn’t a purchase I regretted.  Be sure to jump on the lower pre-order price while you still can.

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