The Dream Machine is noteworthy because of its unusual graphics -- everything in it is made of clay and cardboard. At first, I wondered if this game would be at all like The Neverhood, an adventure classic from 1996 that was also created in clay. Does The Dream Machine fit the same mold?

Moving In

As The Dream Machine: Chapter One opens, Victor Neff is stranded on a tropical island. He awakens to discover that the island was part of a dream, and that the exact image of the dream can be found in the painting on the wall of his new apartment.

Odd, that.

Victor's wife Alicia is pregnant with the couple's first baby and their new home -- an apartment in a large downtown building -- has the additional space they need to start a family. They've moved in and managed to set up their bed, but everything else is in boxes. In these disorienting circumstances, a clue left by the apartment's previous occupant reveals a surveillance camera in the bedroom wall.

Alicia calls the police as Victor goes downstairs to confront their landlord, Felix Morton. Victor manages to enter the landlord's apartment; once inside he can hear Morton's voice, but cannot see him. This mystery leads to some serious snooping and a hidden elevator. Casting away caution (who waits for the police in this situation anyway), Victor takes the elevator and finds something entirely unexpected in the basement.

Between a Cloud and a Rocky Space

Chapter Two is my favorite part of the game. It's a surreal landscape (skyscape?) with rocky islands rising above the clouds. These aren't at all like the island in Victor's first dream. Victor works as a healer of sorts. He learns the motivation behind some of Morton's odd behaviors, but he uncovers stranger secrets as well. And he learns that the threat to his family is unimaginably worse than he ever suspected.

The Dream Machine is a third person point-and-click adventure game, played online in a browser. Most challenges involve inventory items (including item combinations), but much ruminating also goes toward understanding patterns, connections, and the meaning of symbols. The imaginative logic found in the dream sequences is quite enjoyable. The "real life" challenges are more mundane, but function as a down-to-earth contrast to the tasks in the dreamscapes.

The clay environments convey a sense of concreteness; shapes and details are stylized. Many of the locations are intriguingly lit. Character movement is a bit stiff, but the characters themselves are expressive enough to carry the gripping storyline. Dialogs capably establish character (the game is not voiced). The story involves a significant amount of reading. The background music is intense and uncanny, with unusual sounds, rhythms and voice effects.

Back to the Hood

The Dream Machine is ultimately completely different from The Neverhood. The two games may be similar in their underlying substance, but are almost polar opposites in plot and atmosphere. The Neverhood generates an aura of oddball nonchalance and goofy charm. The Dream Machine has a much darker landscape to traverse, a more nuanced view of sentience and its fallibility, and a deeper mystery.

This game is releasing in five episodes; three are currently available. Since environments and character animation involve modeling everything in clay, the development process is painstaking. Consequently, several months have been passing between the online release of each chapter.

You can play the demo and find out more about The Dream Machine at the game's website. The Dream Machine has been selected as one of 10 finalists in the 2012 Indie Game Challenge.