Exploring the slow-burning surrealism of 'The Gateway Trilogy'

Gateway existed before, during and after The Dream Machine.

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A screenshot of The Gateway Trilogy
Cockroach Inc.

There’s something uniquely fascinating about a pitch-black room. Being blanketed in darkness is simultaneously terrifying and thrilling -- a duality that’s been expertly exploited by Spirit Halloween stores and the haunted house industry. The reason behind both of these reactions, however, is the same. We’re afraid of the dark because it could contain anything, and we’re excited by the dark because it could contain anything.

The Gateway Trilogy thrives in this gray area. It’s a minimalistic adventure game that places players in a black void populated by a rotating cast of mysterious rooms. They’re filled with logic puzzles and unsettling messages, and the vaguely malicious sense that someone is watching everything. 

“I definitely enjoy exploring ambiguity,” the Gateway Trilogy creator Anders Gustafsson said. “Not necessarily dark ambiguity. But when people don’t know how they’re supposed to react to something, interesting things happen. Especially in a live audience situation. Some of them cringe in horror, some of them burst out laughing, some of them look around nervously.”

A screenshot of The Gateway Trilogy
Cockroach Inc.

Gustafsson released the first two Gateway installments as freeware in 2006 and 2007, back when he was just getting started in Sweden’s independent game-development scene. He describes them as the first “real” games he ever finished, aside from Snake clones and idealistic projects that were far beyond his actual skill level at the time. 

“I wanted them to have it all -- an immersive atmosphere, a great story, fetching visuals and engaging puzzles,” Gustafsson said. “But once I tried to make those games, one or more of these aspects would just come up embarrassingly short, which led to me eventually giving up in shame.”

With Gateway I and II, he stripped away the dreams of grandeur and focused on building something he could actually complete. He included the essentials: clean graphics, sound effects and self-contained puzzles with clearly defined goals. It worked. 

A screenshot of The Gateway Trilogy
Cockroach Inc.

The games came out and were recognized for their particular brand of uneasy, puzzle-based ingenuity. Gustafsson even ended up winning an award that included access to Adobe’s Creative Suite. It was exactly what he needed.

“I’d just quit my day job and wasn’t making much money at the time, so that was like a boon from the gods,” he said. “It really spurred me on to continue making games.”

Gustafsson went on to form an independent studio, Cockroach Inc., with fellow developer Erik Zaring. Over the following decade, they built The Dream Machine, a point-and-click adventure game inspired by the LSD trips of philosopher John C. Lilly, made entirely in stop-motion. Gustafsson and Zaring built physical characters, sets and props out of standard materials like cardboard, clay and food items, but also used unconventional things including animal skulls, condoms and pubic hair.

Cockroach Inc.
Cockroach Inc.

There are six episodes in The Dream Machine, all released between 2010 and 2017. It feels like the game that Gustafsson used to fantasize about building, mechanically complex and narratively rich. It's infused with surreal imagery and paranoid conspiracy, following a newly married man on a journey through the psychedelic landscapes generated by his neighbors’ sleeping brains. The game was introspective, gritty (though that might just be the hair) and beautifully tangible. It earned Cockroach Inc. a handful of award nominations, including a spot as a finalist at the 2011 Independent Games Festival.

Cockroach Inc. has been fairly quiet since closing out The Dream Machine in 2017. That is, until last week.

Gustafsson released Gateway III on March 31st, 2020, alongside revamped versions of Gateway I and II. Fourteen years after its debut, the Gateway series is on Steam for the first time, with the entire trilogy priced at $10.

“I’m a very different designer now,” Gustafsson said. He actually had the ending of the third installment in mind when he began working on Gateway I 14 years ago, and he’s proud to have finally wrapped it all up in a shiny black bow.

“I want the player to look back and feel that there was an oddball cohesiveness to the entire piece,” he said. “Even though I started the first game back in 2006 and finished the last one in 2020, I really tried to interconnect the parts together as tightly as possible, down to minuscule details that no one will ever notice.”

The Gateway Trilogy
Cockroach Inc.

The Gateway Trilogy feels like the polygonal manifestation of The Adventure Zone’s Wonderland, pockmarked with logic games, spatial puzzles and the echoes of 1960s psychological experiments. Playing the original two episodes, Gustafsson’s penchant for mind games and surrealism is clear, and it’s easy to see how these ideas eventually transformed into The Dream Machine.

Visually, the Gateway Trilogy is simplistic, especially when compared with the claymation aspects of Cockroach Inc.’s tentpole franchise. Perfectly animated environments were out of the question when Gustafsson started the series, so he instead relied on audio cues to build its tense and eerie atmosphere.

“Sound and music sneaks under your guard in a way visuals and text doesn’t quite manage,” he said. “That’s been my go-to trick since animation school. I was too lazy to animate things like doors opening and closing, but I learned that I could get away with fairly limited animation as long as I put a good sound effect over the images. The viewer’s brain filled in the rest.”

Gustafsson prefers to linger in the spaces between concrete ideas. He has a distaste for obvious cues like laugh tracks, instead asking his players to interpret his scenes and react individually. Honestly.

“[Laugh tracks are] like serving a cake on top of another cake, as the Swedish saying goes,” Gustafsson said. “It’s too much. Settle for one delicious cake and serve it with a rattlesnake, just to keep people on their toes.”

After one week on Steam, the reviews for Gateway III are mixed. Plenty of players have fond memories of the first two titles, but some think the third installment is bogged down by too many tile puzzles. Essentially, these folks walked into Gustafsson’s pitch-black room expecting one thing, only to find it contained something else.

Now that the Gateway Trilogy is complete, Gustafsson wants to revisit The Dream Machine, adding things like achievements and “other knick knacks.” Probably not a laugh track, though.

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