Interview: Exploring the surreal storytelling of The Dream Machine with director Anders Gustafsson

The Dream Machine is a quirky point-and-click indie project by Cockroach Inc. What makes it so special? Well, the aesthetic, for one. The game is painstakingly hand-made out of cardboard and clay by two men, Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring.

But it’s more than just visual appeal. The Dream Machine is a dark, surreal story that does some unexpected things and stays with you long after you finish playing it. It leaves you with a lot to think about, crawling into your subconscious and sort of taking it over – not unlike the game’s titular Dream Machine, actually.

Currently, four chapters are available to play, Chapter 4 having just launched, and there are two more to come before the story is finally complete.

I recently had the chance to talk to Director Anders Gustafsson a bit about the work he’s been doing on the game, and, since my college background is mostly in literature and film, I was thrilled to have him spend most of our time discussing the game's storytelling elements.

GameZone: Okay, first up, how do you feel now that Chapter 4 is finally available to the masses?

Anders Gustafsson: I really wish I could just kick back and take it all in, but there's no time for that. We're really chuffed about the chapter and so far the reactions have been overwhelming, but I have no time to let it sink in, unfortunately.

GZ: Okay, we've talked about this before, but I wanted to bring up something that happens in Chapter 3. Without spoiling too much, I'll say there's a fairly gruesome scene toward the end of the chapter. I really appreciate you taking this storytelling risk, but I'm wondering how other players reacted to it.

Anders: The reactions have been very diverse. Everything from loving it, to not being able to complete the chapter because of it. It's a very divisive scene.

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GZ: It's intense. I feel like there have been little hints peppered throughout the story that this isn't exactly a game for kids, but it becomes pretty obvious at that point.

Anders: Yeah. Masturbation is referred to in the first chapter and there's a repeated theme of voyeurism going through the entire game. That type of scene is pretty unusual for adventure games as well. They normally take place in very safe fairy tale universes, populated with comedic creatures. I think the genre needs to grow up if it’s to retain relevance.

GZ: Before we move on to Chapter 4, I did just want to mention that I've always thought it was an interesting choice for the game to focus on Alicia in Chapter 3. It goes against a lot of typical storytelling patterns. Alicia is the character, besides the protagonist Victor, who we have the most invested in, and a lot of storytellers would have saved her chapter for last. I can't speak to the final context, because there are still two more chapters to come, but having her chapter so early on was kind of a refreshing surprise. Was this an intentional thing, or did it come out of the fact that fans had already been waiting so long to see what was going to happen to her?

Anders: That's great! I've read reviews that tried to argue that Chapter 3 was a waste of time since it didn't progress the story of the machine in the basement. They saw the boat dream as being this parenthesis in the middle of a sentence. I'd argue that they've misunderstood what the story is about entirely.

We haven't changed the main storyline at all. And we won't either. The big plot points have been established since the very beginning. The ending of the game was one of the first things I wrote and it still holds up. For me – and I'm sure Erik agrees here – the dreams are the meat of the game. The story – a malevolent machine is threatening a group of people in an apartment estate – is more a framing device. A pretext to explore character's dreams.

GZ: To me, the relationship between Victor and Alicia seems like such a core element to the story, and being inside Alicia's head really solidified that and showed us how deeply she cares for Victor. We know how much Victor cares for Alicia, because he's the character we play as, but now we can see how mutual that love is. The scene of the two of them kissing on the cruise ship punctuated that really well.

Anders: And I don't think that kiss would have been quite as strong if the preceding scene wouldn't have been quite as gruesome. The dramatic contrast is amusing.

"Would you still love your partner if you could see what they dream every night?" is one of those questions that made us want to create the game in the first place. Chapter 3 is where we explore that notion.

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GZ: Chapter 4 was released about two years after Chapter 3. That was a painful wait for fans. Could you explain what took so long, and should we expect a similar wait before we see Chapter 5?

Anders: Yeah, that was unfortunate. Not exactly the ideal way to follow a game. Speaking for myself, I felt a bit burned out after Chapter 3. I didn't really expect the detective mystery to be quite as much work as it ended up being. The script for Chapter 3 is only slightly shorter than a feature film. And it took a lot of effort to get it up to that quality. It left me a bit exhausted.

Erik went on parental leave as well for a good chunk of a year (courtesy of the Swedish government). So that slowed things down considerably as well.

All that time wasn't spent on Chapter 4 exclusively either. We've worked on 4 and 5 in parallel over these last two years, so I'd say Chapter 5 is much closer to release. (No dates yet.)

GZ: You were originally planning on there being five chapters, but you've broken the final chapter into two. Was part of this due to the delay in Chapter 4, or did the story just get bigger than you had initially planned for?

Anders: In the very beginning we'd planed six chapters, but we realized that combining two of them solved some tricky design problems. But once we started implementing that, the sheer weight of all those assets started to cause performance and stability issues, so we had to split them. The scope and ambition of the game has grown as well. The dream sequences have a tendency to grow as we build them. We usually think they'll be quite short affairs, but then we start having too much fun with them.

It's very liberating to have this loose framework to fall back to. That gives you the opportunity to go off on a tangent and explore whatever types of story and mechanics as you feel like.

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GZ: Well, you guys are doing fantastic work so far, and I'm definitely hungry for more! Is there anything else you'd like to add before we finish up?

Anders: Just a thanks to everyone who's had patience with us during this crazy rumble, and to everyone who's spread the gospel about this weird little game. The support means a lot to us.

We'd like to thank Anders for taking the time to chat with us. Show your support for The Dream Machine (and play the free demo) at the official Dream Machine website. You can check it out on Steam as well.