Twenty years ago, point-and-click adventures were arguably the most respected and popular videogame genre. I attribute my own passion for the medium to LucasArts classics like The Secret Of Monkey Island and The Day Of The Tentacle, and there are countless more who would say the same. Fortunately, many of the young minds who fell under the spell of Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer are now developers in their own right, and so we have studios like Cockroach Inc., quietly developing a long-forgotten genre with wonderful games like The Dream Machine.
Finding new ideas in such a tried-and-tested structure is far from easy, and for every beautifully crafted success story like Amanita Design’s brilliant Machinarium, there’s a host of well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing efforts. As any student of point-and-click adventures will tell you, when you find the good stuff you let the world know about it, you shout it from the rooftops. So I’m shouting, right here and now, about The Dream Machine.
You take control of Victor Neff, a former slacker struggling to come to terms with a looming future of domesticity and kids with his doting girlfriend. The first episode begins on a desert island, which is revealed to be an unusually vivid dream when Victor wakes up in the bedroom of his new apartment.
The rooms are stacked with boxes of vinyl records, old clothes and misguided eBay purchases, and the first handful of puzzles are strikingly humdrum tasks like finding a phone to call the estate agent, or locating a surface that can act as an impromptu breakfast table. Then Victor finds a half-burned note from the previous tenant in the trash, and things start to get very strange indeed.
Revealing any more of The Dream Machine’s intriguing plot would spoil the surprise, but it’s worth noting that dreams, and the psychology that underlies them, is central to the narrative. That’s not to say you’ll end up caught in endless loops of dream logic; the puzzles I encountered in the first two episodes were firmly grounded in cause-and-effect and common sense, so there was never a moment where I resorted to combining every item with every other item in the hope of finding a solution.
Very few point-and-click adventures manage to find the right balance, and that The Dream Machine does is testament to the skill of its writers and designers. Indeed, the writing is unusually strong, mixing discussions of Freud and Plato with wisecracks and affectionate banter.
However, the pleasures of The Dream Machine run deeper still. Yes, it has a fascinating premise and interesting characters, and yes, the puzzles are thoughtful and never feel unfair, but Cockroach Inc. has a secret weapon that sets it far apart from its peers: The Dream Machine is stop-motion animated.
This places it in the less than salubrious company of Clay Fighter and Cletus Clay, but where those games used animation principally as a gimmick, here it adds a striking new aspect to the fantasy. Put simply, The Dream Machine is a wonder to behold, fitting perfectly with the themes at the heart of the story.
The knowledge that there’s a small, dedicated team out there patiently working on the next episode fills this embittered old critic with something approaching joy. It seems only fair to reward such effort and originality, and at little more than £10 for all five episodes you'll be lucky to find a better deal all year.
Next page: Our expert verdict