Some classic game genres stand the test of time on their gameplay and don’t need much else to guide them through to popularity in the modern game market. I’m thinking of FPS, RTS, mano a mano fighting games, and space shooters both vertical and horizontal. Some game genres require a little more originality on the side of the developer to make a title really stand out in an age of AAA titles and rockstar-level game icons. These could be said to be both western and Japanese style RPGs, as well as point-and-click adventure games.
Cockroach Ink’s The Dream Machine is comfortably couched in the latter category as an inventory and environment-exploration based point and click adventure. As such, you’d think the story and atmosphere to be top list priorities and that gameplay would follow a standard that has been utilized successfully in the past. Well, if that’s what you’re hoping for, I have good news for you: That’s exactly what these independent developers aimed for and brought to the forefront of their baby in five parts. I say it is in five parts because, following Telltale Games’ success with episodic adventure games, Cockroach has decided to bring this game to your fevered, shaking hands in five episodes over a TV season-style release schedule. This kind of release cycle offers bite-sized chunks of the (fairly strange) story, along with a new environment to explore in every foray into the incredible minds of the game developers. The length of the adventure seems as if it will be rather short overall, maybe 4-5 hours or so, but I find myself becoming engrossed in the innerverse that is The Dream Machine anyway.
I won’t go into the story much for fear of spoiling the game for those who are interested in purchasing access to the season. Let it be said though, that the influences for this piece of entertainment are varied and respectable. When I first booted up the game, I was reminded of inSCAPE’s The Dark Eye because of the meticulously constructed clay-mation and some of the scenes depicting wild, incredible imaginings from the other side. I was particularly happy with this because The Dark Eye is one of my favourite games and is certainly my favourite point-and-click adventure title. Another influence I see is that of William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch. The story is carried on surreal psychological grounds and has that feeling of, well, being in a dream even when the characters are firmly rooted in the mundane and the everyday. As for the actual atmosphere, I placed a similar feeling of strange foreboding in Pulse Entertainment’s Bad Mojo. Though the environments are more claustrophobic in The Dream Machine, there is still that sense that anything can happen at any time, and that in this dark fantasy world, “anything” probably means something very grim.
Now, that doesn’t mean that The Dream Machine has stolen from or even heavily borrowed from any of these things. In fact, the story in this game stands apart as a subject that I have never really seen explored in the way it is here. The Dream Machine delves into the human collective unconsciousness, a theory proposed by Carl Jung as a means for each individual to make sense of our personal experiences and categorize them into schemes, making those experiences practically useful. Cockroach Ink takes a more supernatural approach to the entire theory and brings us to the brink of science fiction without toppling over into a pit of rayguns and phallus-shaped intergalactic warp-drive rockets.
I’ve gotten to play episodes 1-3 of 5 and I have to admit that the game started out really slowly in the first chapter. With a bit of patience and diligence on the part of the player (and I know that lots of adventure gamers have the patience of a doctor) the story builds momentum in a way that makes complete sense within the circumstances. The main protagonist seems to be falling deeper and deeper into madness, but the worst part about it is that it is not his own madness that he’s experiencing!
The gameplay is fairly simple and works very well for games of this type. You get an inventory which is utilized through a no-click drop-down menu. You use items on bits of the environment and on other items to trigger events. It’s simple and it works, though the hit box for the drop-down menu across the top of the screen seems fairly large and sometimes partially obscures interactive pieces of the background. Most of what you end up doing is exploring the smallish environments, interact with people surrounding you, and solving the puzzles between the more story-driven sequences. Once you’re finished with each sequence, there’s not much incentive to go back and play it again. As is the way with point-and-click adventure gaming, there is barely any replay value at all. It makes for an experience that, while not unique in today’s market, really whets your appetite for more of this classic genre.