Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We believe they deserve a wider audience with the Joystiq Indie Pitch: This week, Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring explain how hallucinogens and Roman Polanski are making their award-winning PC and Mac title, The Dream Machine, "better than sex with Jesus."
What's your game called and what's it about?
Erik: Our game is called The Dream Machine and it's essentially a point-and-click adventure game, but we've handcrafted all the graphics using materials such as clay and cardboard.
Anders: The story revolves around a young, pregnant couple that's trying to establish a new life in a new city. While they're getting familiar in their new home, they uncover a seedy mystery involving the other tenant's dreams.
What inspired you to make The Dream Machine?
Erik: Believe it or not, back in 2008 I was driven by some kind of altruism. I sincerely wanted to give something back to the world rather than being on the consuming end all the time. I had a passion for games, handmade objects and lots of pent up frustration to fuel the development of this endeavor.
Anders: While at animation school, I read a lot about John C. Lily and his experiments with LSD and Ketamine. He had this notion that he was visiting an alternate reality during his drug-induced hallucinations, a place he thought had a coherent geography. Once he regained consciousness, he would draw maps of what he had experienced, noting down things like landmarks, geographical features and coastlines. He thought that if he had enough map pieces and then spliced them together, he would be able to slowly chart this new reality. To me, that idea just sounded so naïve and beautiful. In our game we approach dreams in a similar way.
Why did you choose to use clay and other physical materials to build The Dream Machine, rather than animating graphics digitally?
Anders: Prior to working on The Dream Machine, Erik used to manage a stop-motion-animation studio in Sweden, so he already had the knowledge and equipment required to build these strange and skewed miniature worlds.
Erik: I remember getting inspired to use other materials after playing Samorost by Amanita Design. I was longing for a different expression and for the qualities inherent in making stuff by hand. I convinced Anders that it would be a great idea to have hand-made stuff in our game.
Anders: I was reluctant at first, since building a game world physically just sounded too time-consuming. Just to prove it could be done, Erik knocked out four or five miniature sets literally overnight. When he showed me what he had done, it was love at first sight. There was no turning back after that.
Erik: You succumbed to my sweet talk.
Anders: I sure did!
Do you feel that the graphics add a unique layer to the game?
Anders: For sure. We can tell quite a lot of story purely through the visuals. We don't have to launch into expository dialogue about the state of the apartment complex because you get a pretty solid grasp just by looking.
Erik: The hand-made locations and the story fit really well together. The story gets progressively creepier as you go, and these skewed and strange environments really play to that. It's very case-dependent of course. For our next hypothetical game we might go in a totally different direction.
Anders: It was important to establish an unsettling mood early on. The game starts quite mundanely, but there's this slightly unsettling atmosphere contrasting the mundanity. That would've been hard to achieve without these strange graphics.
How do you think most people react when playing The Dream Machine – scared, disgusted, excited...?
Anders: When we tried to establish the mood for the game, we looked a lot at Polanski's "apartment trilogy." The game revolves around a pregnant couple and a strange apartment building, so Rosemary's Baby seemed like an obvious starting point. But it wasn't until we rediscovered The Tenant that things started to click.
There's something about the universe in The Tenant that we really loved. It's dark and dirty in a distinctly European way. Moldy, dank and old. You can sort of smell it. As a viewer, you get caught up in this feverish conspiracy in a way that makes you feel more like an accomplice rather than an observer. The strange involvement you feel watching movies like The Tenant and Peeping Tom is something we're aiming for. How do we get players to feel something like that?
What's the coolest aspect of The Dream Machine?
Erik: You'd think the hand-made game graphics, but I think the story and the puzzle design is what makes our game quite a treat.
Anders: The hand-made graphics draw people in, but that's luckily not the only thing we have going for us. It certainly adds a distinct layer to the game, but it's not totally unique. There have been other hand-made games before us, even though they're very rare birds. The pioneering works, like The Neverhood, The Dark Eye, Skullmonkeys and Blackout, all came out 15 years ago. We hope the world is ready for another one.
The Dream Machine has been nominated for numerous indie awards – describe your experience with first entering indie competitions, and how the attention has influenced your design style or perspective on the industry.
Anders: I don't think it's changed our design style, but I'm often daunted by how high the quality bar is for these competitions. You've got to bring a lot of polish to the table in order to be considered. But that's a good thing. It forces you to go the extra mile, and at the end of the day the players get better games to play.
Erik: About being nominated for the IGF and other happenings like that: Since I work from home, and really don't have the time to digest the occasional industry newsletter, it's the only opportunity for me to hear/talk about what's really going on in the world of gaming. Suddenly you find yourself talking to someone from Sony or EA and that can be a very healthy experience and often puts your biased opinions about these dinosaurs to shame. The truth is that most of them are really nice and supportive. And to meet up with fellow indie devs at these occasions is wonderful since it's a very welcoming and sharing community.
Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?
Anders: I used to work for a game company, and within a week of starting they pigeon-holed me into being a GUI guy. If I hadn't resigned, I would probably still be doing interfaces for them. That's the problem with most established companies. You end up doing the same little thing over and over. Your voice is never heard.
Erik: Sometimes I fantasize about being a corporate drone again, but we would lose our hull integrity, thus destabilizing the entire project, and that would eventually compromise the entire mission. So no, we need freedom and integrity this time. Ask again next year and maybe I'll have had a change of heart (you hear that, EA?).
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
Erik: Maybe Anders has a better perspective on that, since he spends more time abroad than at home? But it certainly feels that way.
Anders: To me, the word "indie" stands for the movement to democratize tools and distribution channels for smaller, independent operators, and the very loose collection of terrific people in similar situations, who congregate a couple of times each year at festivals and conferences to hang out and share stories.
Erik: We're proud to consider us a part of that, for sure.
It seems you have a large cast behind the scenes. How did these people all get involved?
Anders: The core team is still just Erik and me. Along the line we've been aided by lots of gorgeous, sexy people, helping us out with things like database programming, 3D-animation and testing. But we're still a two-man team at the end of the day.
Erik: For long-haul projects like this one, motivation can be tricky to keep going. We've found that getting a fresh pair of eyes to look at what you're working on helps a lot. So we try to show the game off any chance we get.
Sell The Dream Machine in one sentence:
Erik: "An adventure game for grown-ups set in a world of clay and cardboard with a Cronenbergian twist."
Anders: "An old-school point-and-click adventure game about voyeurism."
Erik: "We are The Dream Machine, resistance is futile."
Anders: "The Dream Machine: It's better than sex."
Erik: "Better than Jesus."
Anders: "Better than sex with Jesus."
Erik: The dull answer is that chapters 4 and 5 still have to be released.
Anders: After that, I think we deserve a hefty amount of Mai Tais on some faraway beach before we launch ourselves into other projects.
The Dream Machine has three chapters up for PC and Mac on Steam and via Cockroach Inc.'s own site. The first chapter is free, so feel free to give it a go without any fear – at least in this world.
If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.