This week's Free Game is a point-and-click adventure with Claymation visuals that got some positive attention at the Independent Games Festival. No, not that one.
I really like the way this game starts. You're dropped on a tiny island with limited resources and left to fend for yourself. It isn't difficult to see how the folderol strewn about the island fits together, but the process of exploring this manageable space and combining your bric-a-brac serves as a fine tutorial for anyone who hasn't tried this type of game before, without being dull and insulting in the way that experienced players so often find tutorials.
It's a wonderful scene, teaching you everything you'll need to know with hardly a word of explanation, and it's over much too soon.
The rest of The Dream Machine: Chapter 1 is good, but it never shows the same level of skillful game design. The opening scene is pure interaction and logical puzzle-solving, but that's quickly tossed aside in favour of narrative. There's nothing wrong with a narrative-focused adventure game, of course, but it's an approach that demands stronger storytelling than what's on hand here.
It must be noted that only the first chapter of The Dream Machine is free, and it's the only chapter (of five) that I've played. I don't know where the story will end, but from what I've seen, we have a tale of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances whose lives are shaken by an extraordinary twist. Unfortunately, any suspense or weight that said twist might have carried is undercut the second our hero leaves the island. Right away, the haunting music and grim, dirty visuals conspire to say, "Watch out! Weird, creepy things are going to happen!" And then weird, creepy things do happen, but who cares? Without a baseline for normal, it's hard to feel any empathy for these sad characters and their bleak little world.
Meanwhile, the puzzles which were so sensible at the beginning (use a fishing rod to...catch a fish) fall into the trap of ridiculous dream-logic that plagues so many adventure games. Why do I have to rub baby oil on an elevator door? Because the game designer said so, that's why.
Once again, The Dream Machine: Chapter 1 is good and worthwhile to the end, but there's a swift dip in quality after an opening whose promise is never quite realised. Occasionally you're treated to some silly dialogue or a throwaway reference to another game, and the bits of levity might keep you playing, but then the soft piano music strikes up and the developers fall back into taking themselves too seriously again, and you'll sigh and think twice about buying the full version.