I wanted to love this game so much more. I truly did. After a recent escapade back to my old point-and-click adventure roots with The Night of the Rabbit, I’ve had a fervid desire to mix this genre back into my routine much more often: this title, the special editions of Monkey Island—plus other Lucasarts’ classics if Disney knows what they are doing, and hopefully many more. It was rather easy to opt for Amanita Design’s Machinarium next just because of the sights and sounds of the game. And despite those qualities and my newfound affinity for this old genre, I’m regretful to admit my ambivalence towards this title due to it containing such polarizing qualities that either act to enhance or work against the gaming experience.
The protagonist is a small robot named Josef (dedicated after the person who coined the term “robot”) who’s been dumped into a scrapheap and is attempting to get back into the city from whence he came. How he wound up in this predicament and the over-arching goal of the story is rather typical but also delivered in such a careful way that it’s better to be understood via the player’s experience.
What provides Machinarium with a different kind of storytelling atmosphere is how there is no spoken dialogue used, or any text outside of the drop-down menu and the beginning tutorial. There are no dialogue choices to be made, no discernible speech to be conveyed via cut scenes, and no lengthy conversations to be heard. Instead, all communication between robots and pieces of backstory are exposited through thought bubble animations. This method lends a heightened sense of inhabiting an otherworldly locale and fits in perfectly with the oddball characters and tone. I suppose the easiest, yet most-fitting, way to describe this method is it just fits so well with the unique atmosphere without having any sense of artificiality; it's not just there to “be unique.” This little tyke of a robot is able to convey the comedy of his innocence through pantomimes that’s woven in such an organic way.
As mentioned before, the visual and audio presentation of this game is the star here. Embodying a surrealist style, the amount of visible detail to this lusterless steampunk location is rendered with such great éclat. The art is going for cuddly while also depicting the dilapidated array of buildings and robots that seem fastened together by old radio parts and rusty metal nuts. The most interesting aspect on the technical side of the animation is the game being powered by Adobe Flash (the format Amanita’s done their previous Samorost games as well, I’ve heard). Despite there being limitations to that option, with a very minor gameplay annoyance or two coupled with it as well, it’s nearly impossible to tell with the sort of animation techniques that seem to be used: combining bitmap character models and hand-drawn backgrounds, among other sleight of hand methods in making the environments attached with the meticulous animation feel so natural. In a world where immersive 3D titles constantly capture this extraordinary sense of realism, it’s amazing to see a different kind of 2D artistic standard that feels no less inhabited then those AAA-budgeted titles.
The soundtrack and pervading ambience also heightens the off-kilter appeal the world contains. Ranging from retro mood swings to electronic beats and…everything in between that, Machinarium’s soundtrack is constantly varying to adequate tunes that work for each specific moment in the ongoing story. Sound design also receives an attentive focus as it’s essentially pulling double duty for basic clatters, jangles, thuds, and more expected in this type of world and working in tandem with the animations in order to convey the fitting tone for the story.
With most of the gameplay elements I find myself at ends with in this art game there seems to be one reoccurring word that comes to mind: connection.
Initially, Machinarium seems to maintain the simple point-and-click adventure interface and logic of collecting accoutrements framework quite nicely, with a couple of wrinkles to the formula like Josef being able to extend or shrink the torso portion of his body. The feature is interesting enough and is mixed in sparingly with the rest of the puzzles so as to never get tired of it. Also, how you affect items is dependent upon whether or not they’re within your radius. The rest of it will at first look like your standard fare of pixel hunting and making your cursor scour over each environment until it detects an interactable object.
Aside from the simple tutorial level, the rest of the first half of the game quickly becomes about attrition to your patience rather than logical puzzle solving. For starters, many of the challenges just aren’t well-designed: some don’t have very sound logic behind them, a few moments nonsensically demand very quick timing in completing a puzzle, and some seem to have tedium in mind, such as when changing the big-hand and little-hand dial on a clock tower demanding you spin the mouse cursor in a circle over and over and over in order to set the correct time.
Most of these frustrations are compounded early on by what’s also the great nuance in Machinarium’s storytelling: omission of dialogue. This method undoubtedly maintains an endearing charm of this alien world and elevates the wonderful sense of discovery throughout, but the amount of information disinterred to players in the beginning is far too scarce. On top of the problematic means of uncovering early puzzles, this also makes it hard in understanding their importance with the preliminary lack of a tangible story pushing you forward, drastically harming the pacing and sense that these conundrums are all coupled together. There can be no greater frustration to someone like me then seeing a point-and-click bogged down by so many issues upon beginning a quest. Despite all the toils and stresses that can be put on a player so early on, the latter half certainly provides a wealth of great “a-ha” moments . Once the over-arching narrative is much clearer, the puzzles show superior design to their precursors and the story’s pacing is improved, making every action feel more urgent.
The visual component in looking for the right objects also presents its own frustrations. The specificity in making this coffee-colored landscape and the items within it that have such similar color palettes makes it rather hard to spot many objects you need in order to progress. I couldn’t believe how angry I was for missing a simple, dark-colored plunger mere feet away from me in a claustrophobic room. I’m more than happy to appreciate the locations and thoroughly examine their brimming detail, but this feels so similar to the maladroit pixel-hunting of olde.
By far, one of the greatest annoyances here is the morass of a two-tiered hint system. The first-tiered help button is a simple picture displaying a task you need to complete within that area rather than what could be the current task at hand, but if that’s already been completed then the walkthrough book is the adjunct to it. The usefulness of it depends on whether or not there’s only one puzzle in the area you’re currently in, so if a brainteaser is parceled out across multiple areas you need to remember the instructions shown in one area and hope the next area you attempt to use the book has the rest of directions required to press forward. Then again, it’s better to hope you don’t have to use that book at all to save you from having to play a clunky shoot-‘em-up each and every time you want to open it up. There’s sense behind challenging players not to just jump over to the cheat book every time, but the improper design present practically demands you receive some help, accentuating the aggravation in using it.
Whether it’s minor grievances such as frustrations with the color palette making important items blend in so well with the background or major ones like pacing or the arbitrary nature of certain early puzzles, there’s just so much stuff in the way from me being able to connect with what the game’s logic wants me to do. And even though several hindrances do pass with later puzzles, which is probably to be expected when they’re more minigame-esque in nature anyways (like a Space Invaders knock-off), it’s not as if you get to revel in the story clicking together for very long time. The runtime for the game is only in the ballpark of 3 to 4 hours and there’s really no replay value outside of seeing the sights all over again.
In the end, Machinarium is classified as a title that contains a wealth of pros and cons causing this sort of rift in my capacity to enjoy it as much as I’d like. In one hand, there’s a sense of history of a developer dedicating so much time on a limited multimedia format to create one of the most atmospheric art games of this generation; in the other, a poorly-constructed infrastructure that despite getting easier to bear over time results in a fusillade of complications to my enjoyment from the start. The former measure certainly outweighs the latter, making it a title I believe many will enjoy while another healthy sum just won’t be able to shake off the rust.
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