In 2008, Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring decided to collaborate on a weird new idea: a video game built using real world materials and stop-motion animation. Called The Dream Machine, the plan was build all of the sets and finish the game in around two years. Things didn't quite go as planned. The first episode of the game launched in 2011, but delays saw later episodes spread out over a long period of time. The fifth and penultimate episode launches today, six years after work first started.
"I can hardly remember life before The Dream Machine," says Zaring. "I have moved four times and raised two kids during this period. When this is all over I will feel a great relief, as well as terrible nostalgia."
The game starts out with a young couple moving into a new apartment. It's a slow burn through episode one, as you learn about the couple's history and how they're expecting a child. You'll also discover their new neighbors, some of whom are a bit strange. But then something weird happens when you discover a huge machine, the titular device that lets you explore people's dreams and view their subconscious. The gameplay is simple, reminiscent of classic PC adventure games like Monkey Island, but the visual style is what helps differentiate it, and bring the dreamscapes to life.
And that look is built not with polygons, but with a huge range of real world materials — the designers used everything from cardboard and clay to broccoli and coffee grounds to build the characters and locations. Those materials also came with their own set of challenges. Stop motion is a time-consuming process, and that doesn't change when you're making a video game. The first two episodes of The Dream Machine launched simultaneously, and the third episode was available later that year, but it took a full two years for episode four to come out. According to the developers, fans have been mostly patient when it comes to delays, but the protracted development has taken its toll on the duo. Without the funds to add any more staff, it's been up to Gustafsson and Zaring to complete this massive undertaking. "Keeping the motivation when times are rough is always a challenge," says Zaring.
But that's not to say it hasn't been rewarding. "Experiencing the organic process of creating the game, the way happy accidents have lead us down strange and fruitful paths, that has been amazing," says Gustafsson. "Seeing some new artwork by Erik, getting unexpected ideas from it, being able to execute on whims without some gigantic production machine grinding to a halt. Following a plan, but being open to change should better ideas come along. Letting the game tell us what it wants to be. That’s been a lot of fun."
That experience is nearing its end, however. The series has already taken more than six years to build, but it's almost done; after today's episode there's just one more to finish. And when that happens, neither is quite sure what they'll do.
"Initially I’ll just re-read all reviews over and over again until I fall asleep," says Zaring. "Then, hopefully, I’ll start dreaming about new beautiful things to come."
You can check out The Dream Machine right here.