Machinarium is a point and click adventure game for the PC by Czech independent development studio Amanita Design. I still dimly recall playing Amanita’s debut game Samarost in 2003, and thinking at the time that I’d pay good money for a full-length, commercially released game with the same gameplay style. (Samarost was more of an interactive picture book than a traditional point’n’clicker, having more in common with the Gobliiins! games than those of Lucasarts or Sierra.)
It’s taken them longer than I expected, but then Machinarium is more than just a graphically polished retread of Samarost.
Machinarium tells the story of a small tin robot who seems to be on the bottom rung of a robot society that inhabits a mysterious decaying city. The game opens with the protagonist being unceremoniously dumped (in pieces) in a landfill out in the wilderness, with the immediate task being to find his scattered limbs and get back inside the city walls.
The game has no dialogue, with all relevant plot information being conveyed through the actions of characters, and the occasional ‘thought bubble’ flashback detailing the robot’s past experiences. Without giving too much away, the cause of the robot’s predicament is a plot by a gang of robot ne’er-do-wells (the Black Cap Brotherhood), who have kidnapped his girlfriend (oh god no, what a cliché, how terrible, shut up) and are building a bomb.
Samarost’s mixture of photo collage and microscopic vector animations has been replaced with a spidery, richly-textured hand-drawn art style. (The vector stuff still makes an appearance in the form of water, smoke, cables and other spot effects.) You could make a vague comparison to Beneath a Steel Sky, but a better reference point would be Raymond Briggs’ illustrated story books. I found myself pausing for a couple of minutes in new areas just to take in all the little details. It’s no exaggeration to say that any location in the game would look good framed.
The music (by Tomas Dvorak) completes the “analogue/robotic” atmosphere, incorporating vinyl crackle, radio static, mournful saxophones and incomprehensible vocoder rapping (of all things).
The Samarost influence is apparent in the design of the puzzles. The majority of the puzzles involve figuring out a series of actions in a single screen location. Many inventory items are used in the same location that they’re picked up, and are always discarded once they’ve been used in a puzzle, keeping inventory clutter to a minimum. The game is expertly paced, drip-feeding the player minor victories and new objects to poke at.
The game has some slightly unconventional rules regarding player movement and interaction with the environment that help to regulate the pacing: there are only a few hotspots in each location where the robot can stand (and you can be sure that there’s at least one useful action that can be performed in each one), and the robot can only pick up and interact with things within arms’ reach. Some reviews have been critical of these decisions. I think they work well – they make the player formulate a coherent strategy instead of sweeping the screen for hotspots and dumbly trying to use every inventory item with everything on screen.
You may be thinking that an adventure game with no conversation trees, a smallish game world, and mostly single-screen puzzles can be rattled through quite quickly. To address this, Amanita have incorporated a second type of puzzle in many of the game’s locations. Most of the controls panels, locks and computers in the game feature 2D logic puzzles (of the sort found in puzzle magazines and Christmas crackers) which have to be solved to progress.
The game has a comprehensive hint system that allows the player to cheat their way past these puzzles if they want, but they’re still leant on too heavily. The fact that there are none of these kind of puzzles in the first few screens of the game (used in the demo) suggests that Amanita were aware that they weren’t as much fun as the ‘adventure’ style puzzles.
Trying to dissect Machinarium into a series of puzzles with discrete amounts of gameplay value misses the point. The experience is as much about the response that it provokes from the player. The protagonist, who says nothing and expresses himself with the tiniest of gestures, is more sympathetic than any of Telltale’s characters. You genuinely want him to win out against the Black Cap bullies.
The puzzles have a child-like logic that anticipates how adventure gamers think, and riffs on the simple-minded nature of the robots. Brute force often works, as does silly or physics-bending (but never unguessable) substitution of objects. (Of course some dried out grass and a sheet of toilet paper make a serviceable roll-up cigarette.) On more than one occasion I laughed out loud when I realised what the game wanted me to do (for those who’ve played it, the room with the ‘fan monster’ is a stand-out).
There’s no denying that Machinarium is a short game. The determined player will be able to get through it in a couple of sittings, much like Portal (or Modern Warfare 2’s single player campaign, apparently). While I was disappointed that the game wasn’t longer (I wanted to explore more of the robots’ world), I didn’t feel short-changed.
It’s a ‘coffee table’ game that warrants replaying purely to soak up the atmosphere, and it also includes a great album-length soundtrack (conveniently provided in MP3 format). It would be nice if they managed to port it to the (HD) consoles, as I’d imagine it would work well with a group of onlookers throwing in suggestions.
If I was reviewing Machinarium for a PC mag I’d end with something cheesy like “an adventure game solely populated by robots that has more humanity than any other entry to the genre in the last decade.” Because it’s kind of true.