The Dream Machine: Wherefore Art Thou?
Inspired by psychological experiments from the 1950s, The Dream Machine’s reliance on the conventional stylings of adventure games belies its sinister, dark overtones. Players have flocked to the game and its unique cardboard-and-clay aesthetic, eager to discover the secrets of the apartment complex that newlyweds Victor and Alicia now call home.
Critical acclaim for The Dream Machine has been strong, but sales for the game have come and gone, and fans are still anxious to find out what will happen to Victor and Alicia: only three out of the five chapters have been released so far, and it’s been nearly sixteen months since the last chapter was released.
As a fan of the game myself, I found myself wondering not when, but if we would ever find out.
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Anders Gustafsson was working independently making his own games before he met Erik Zaring. By his own admission, Gustafsson was “too slow and undisciplined” to make a living out of making games, but in Zaring he found a partner that he knew could work with.
“Since he’s fast and disciplined we complement each other nicely,” Gustafsson says of Zaring.
The pair formed Cockroach Inc., and a couple of months later Zaring secured funding for the project that would become The Dream Machine. “That changed a lot of things,” says Gustafsson. “Once somebody offered us money, they wanted to see paperwork and proofs-of-concept, so we had to go from ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’ to ‘How do we make it?’”
It turns out the answer was with cardboard and clay. Like the story they were telling, it was an unconventional choice, but not one that was difficult.
“We wanted to make a game for ourselves; a game we wouldn’t have to make excuses for when showing it to other people,” says Zaring. “Both of us are over 30, and we frequently feel embarrassed while playing modern games. Ninety-five percent of them rehash the same escapist, pre-pubescent power fantasies over and over again.”
With inspirations far more insidious than most, The Dream Machine draws from John C. Lilly’s experiments with sensory deprivation tanks and Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, as well as Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience tests. Gustafsson notes, “There’s something very game-like about them, the way they had level progression and goals, feedback, etc.”
Gustafsson and Zaring promise that their game deals in similar questions of morality, asking the player, “How far are you prepared to go?” Unfortunately, no one can be sure: The Dream Machine’s first two chapters were released on December 14, 2010, and the third was released on October 30, 2011, but Victor and Alicia’s saga is slated to be five chapters. Not only has chapter four not yet seen the light of day, it currently doesn’t even have a release date.
The game’s website has little information about the progress on the next chapter, and what information there is has no date tied to it. There are more details to be found by perusing the development blog for The Dream Machine, and the pair’s Twitter account for the game is very active, but the posts all obfuscate the fact that it’s been so long since the last official release.
“We obviously didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” says Gustafsson.
“The original plan was to finish the whole project in six months,” explains Zaring. “Then, we would release it for free and make money off Google ads and ‘premium content,’ such as better quality sound and graphics. That was our crafty business plan back in 2008.”
Shortly thereafter, they decided that The Dream Machine would work better if broken up into chapters. Sadly, even that decision became a source of problems.
“When we were about to release the first two chapters, we were given the advice to put down expected release dates for the last three,” says Gustafsson. “Following that particular piece of advice has been one of the worst things we’ve done so far. We just ended up pissing people off.” “We just ended up pissing people off.”
Scheduling problems were complicated by other delays, which were all further complicated by the already lengthy production times associated with physical media. Fatigue had begun to set in.
“We just ended up pissing people off.”
“We still love the game, but you can’t work on something for this long without momentary lapses into self-doubt,” Zaring admits.
For his part, Gustafsson recalls the frustration he felt completing the ambitious third chapter. “Nothing seemed to gel the way I wanted it to,” he says. “We wanted to draw from a little broader emotional palette for Chapter 3, and the engine just wouldn’t support that. Getting it into a releasable shape – redesigning puzzles, rewriting dialogue, reprogramming the engine – was a painful process that left me feeling burned out. “
Making matters worse was the fact that, during this time, his co-conspirator and motivating force wasn’t even around: Zaring was on parental leave from January through September of last year. In Sweden, paid parental leave courtesy of the government is de rigeur, and even for new fathers can span anywhere from three months up to a year.
Since Zaring had been working on models for the game even when at home, he’d planned to continue work on The Dream Machine during leave. But his usual spark – the yin to Gustafsson’s yang – was nowhere to be found. “I had the ambition to work [in the] evenings after my kids had been put to bed, but I almost never had the energy to make something meaningful, and just hugged the sofa and sat there with a blank expression,” he says.
These are things that are relatively easy to understand- why not just announce that there will be delays?
“Maybe it was a mistake not communicating the situation more clearly, but it always sounded like ‘first-world problems’ whenever we tried to put it into words,” notes Zaring. “A lot of people have worse things to contend with.”
Now it’s 2013, rapidly approaching a year and a half since the release of The Dream Machine’s third episode. But fans’ patience is about to be rewarded: Zaring is long back from leave, and Gustafsson finally took some time off to visit family and friends. The pair feel refreshed and eager to finish what they started.
“We chose one of the slowest ways of producing a game – two guys, building by hand – and so far, we’ve missed every deadline we’ve set up,” says Gustafsson. Knowingly and reassuringly, he adds, “We’re slow, but we’ll get there eventually.”
When will “eventually” be? As Gustafsson remembers their earlier mistake of assigning release dates, he offers up what may just be Cockroach Inc.’s guiding ethos: “Nobody will thank you for releasing a shitty game on time.”