Review: The Dream Machine

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If we’re being honest here, I don’t always finish the games I review. Sometimes it’s because they’re too awful, sometimes because I know how I feel about them early on, and sometimes because they’re just not for me. But I made a point to finish The Dream Machine and I’m very glad I did, because what happens in that final chapter feels like the real game, with everything that leads up to it a long prelude in retrospect. That’s not speaking ill of the early chapters, mind you, that’s giving the impressive final act the recognition it deserves.

Victor Neff has moved into a small apartment building with his pregnant wife Alicia. They’re trying to prepare for their new arrival, but a chance discovery by Victor reveals a dark plot lurking within their home. The titular dream machine holds the power to invade dreams to nefarious ends, and Victor gets wrapped up in a struggle against it that has greater stakes than anyone could imagine. What starts as a quest to rescue his neighbors becomes a battle for life and understanding of the secrets of existence.

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The stakes are sky high here, which makes the decision to portray them in clay and craftwork all the more remarkable. The Dream Machine does a pretty good job of hiding what its characters and backdrops are crafted from but this comes at a cost, usually with a lack of detail or animation to cover for the shortcomings of budget stop-motion animation. Don’t expect a lot of expressive movement or dense scenes to explore, but expect plenty of atmosphere from everything you encounter. Even pleasant scenes are given a sinister, off-putting feel by the black-eyed stares of people and waxy sheen on common objects. And you’d better believe this aesthetic is used to full effect when needed.

It’s the tone of The Dream Machine that’s most noticeable about it, starting off rather innocuously with breakfast and chores, and then dropping hints at darker things and strange plots. By the time you’re dream-hopping through unfamiliar landscapes the atmosphere has turned plenty creepy, and this unease ramps up exponentially to the conclusion. Throughout it all the characters involved will take the incredible events unfolding around them in stride, adding to the appropriately dreamlike feel of the whole affair. This mastery of tone is what keeps the game deeply affecting even when wrestling with puzzles or wandering about wondering what to do next.

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As expertly as the dream motifs are used here though, you won’t need to worry about any loopy dream logic to the puzzles. You’ll find a fair number of items as you point-and-click your way through your quest but most have perfectly reasonable uses. The hardest threads to follow are when characters ask you favors or instruct you to handle something, because the solution usually involves some improvisation outside of the expected solution. I got stuck on a few puzzles for awhile, such as trying to find a substitute for tomato juice for a drink and locating bait for a fishing rod I didn’t realize I needed. You may very well need to consult a walkthrough from time to time, because while the puzzles make sense they don’t always make it clear how to do what you realize you need to do.

That would normally be a knock against an adventure game but the puzzles in The Dream Machine are extremely clever, and sometimes the difficulty comes from how clever they are. You’ll come across a few gimmicks that are used to incredible effect, like one where you can rearrange rooms in a house and another where you can shrink or grow yourself. It’s entirely possible you’ve seen these in other games but I promise you they weren’t used as well as they are here. That uniqueness makes them harder to solve but seeing where the puzzle and associated plot go are more than worth the hassle.

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Now, the plot is probably the strangest part of this game, and also what makes it so brilliant in the end. I gave you the opener up above, and it should be no surprise that this hook leads you to explore the dreams of the building’s other residences. In general the chapters of the game are divided by dream, with each resident having a different theme to their dream realm. That means most of the game is occupied with working through the puzzles of a realm until you reach the goal and somehow free something up in the real world to allow access to the next. There’s a clear progression here that feels like a proper quest, with little to distract from going through the motions.

All that changes in the final chapter. Suddenly the game takes a sharp philosophical and metaphysical turn, ejecting the clear reality/dream divide and dredging up a whole mess of pathos for your avatar Victor. It was off-putting at first, and not in the appropriate way that the art style is. I wondered if the final chapter had even been made by the same people, the gulf was so great. But then the puzzles started back up, even more involved and clever than before, sending me through colorful new areas and revisiting old ones. It built to a conclusion kicked off by a shockingly unpleasant scene, one that can hardly be called a happy ending but is maybe as perfect for the game as is possible. A lot of symbolism and subtext I hadn’t really noticed before came to light and I started to reconsider how I felt about the game as a whole. As in, I started to wonder if I loved it instead of just liked it.

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It’s a lengthy journey of ten to twelve hours, and not all of that is going to be smooth sailing. You might have trouble connecting to the strangely alien characters at first, or you might get stuck on one of more involved puzzles each dream tends to have. But the foundations are solid and the atmosphere is great, and I assure you it all builds to something that’s worth experiencing if you have the stomach for it. Fans of games that challenge them on many levels will find their match here, between the clever puzzles and the volatile story. I didn’t think I was one of those fans, but as it turns out, The Dream Machine showed me a great many things I did not expect.

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