Machinarium Makes Robots Cool Again

Machinarium is a great game. But seeing as it’s by Amanita Design, the creators of Samorost, this should be self-evident. You never played Samorost, you say? Well you should! They’re short and beautiful and haunting and free. Go and play them. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Are those jerks gone? Good riddance. We don’t need no Samorost-not-playing fools around here. They’re not like you and me. We know the score. And having experienced all the wonders of Samorost you know that Amanita Design games are something special (if a tad short). Well you’re in luck because their new game is full length and fully wonderful.

Machinarium is the story of a little robot lost in a robo world he never robo made. To go any further would ruin the fun. The plot reveals itself slowly over the course of the story. So let’s skip it and talk about what’s important: the presentation.

Remember a few days ago when I was talking about how story told through gameplay is preferable to cutscenes or dialogue? Machinarium is an adventure game with no words. It’s as compelling as any LucasArts adventure but without any tedious dialogue trees or copious amounts of spoken word. Instead it is simple and elegant. The story is told through action and character and occasionally speech balloons with charming cartoons.

The absence of dialogue creates a haunting enviroment that pulls you into the world. Inhabited only by robots (and robot bugs, and robo birds) Machinarium’s world is a crumbling and falling down place. Nothing is new. Everything is old and rusted. But it is far from desolate. Despite its age it is full of life. Robot life anyway. Despite the few characters you meet the world feels full and fleshed out and alive. This is quite the trick as the world is literally sketched out. Machinarium’s enviroments are hand drawn and gorgeously rendered. And in the expansive city scenes the further back elements are in the shot the less definition and rendering they have. They resemble drawings in a moleskin sketchbook. This is in contrast to Samorost’s visual style which was composed mainly of small natural elements made big.

I can’t praise the visuals of this game enough. They’re unique and beautiful and clever and wonderful. The game would soar on them alone even if it was crap to play.

Which is doesn’t. Machinarium plays like your typical graphical adventure. Though here, the genre is refined to near perfection. The game has a few LucasArts type inventory puzzles but mainly it’s divided between puzzles where you have to affect the enviroment and straight up brain teaser logic puzzles. The environmental puzzles shouldn’t be anything unfamiliar to you all, seeing as you played Samorost. Except there you often were working as an invisible entity who was helping the main protagonist instead of as him. For example, you might need to click on a key to unlock a switch that would activate the ski-lift the protagonist had to ride to proceed. He would wait at the bottom of the lift while you clicked the key, which would then move on its own to the lock. The protagonist waited for you to act.

In Machinarium you can’t click on anything unless it is within the robot’s reach. If there’s a switch on the other side of the room then you have to move the robot over to it first. This creates more immersion into the game world. You play as the robot rather than helping him. This also creates some unique puzzles where you have to figure out first how to get the robot in the right position to manipulate the world. To prevent the game from devolving into a fiddley position-the-robot-in-just-the-right-place-to-proceed affair Amanita has designed it so that the robot can only move to set hotspots on any given screen. There’s enough of these spots that movement doesn’t feel constrained or restricted. And if the robot can move to a place you can assume that there’s something there you can tinker with. It’s an elegant solution that removes a lot of needless wandering and streamlines the game.

As for the brain puzzler type puzzles Amanita has done their best to ingrain them into the world at large. So while you might be trying to solve a slider puzzle what you’re really doing is connecting the circuits of a light switch. And perhaps one of the tiles will fall out of the puzzle where it will be eaten by a robo bird. The intigration of these puzzles into the world isn’t always so smooth (who locks a safe with a complicated geometry puzzle? Robots I guess) but overall Machinarium does a better job of it that most games of this type.

I must admit getting that slider piece back from the bird stumped me. The solution ended up being very clever. Too clever for me and I had to go to the walkthrough. Here’s another place where Machinarium shines. The robot protagonist caries with him a walkthrough of the entire game. However, it is locked with a tedious shooter game. To access the walkthrough you have to play a few minutes of the game. So when you become stuck the answer is available but you have to make the choice between working with the puzzle some more or playing through a boring and long game. This is ingenious because even if you do choose to resort to the walkthrough you are still involved and playing the game. You’re not being pulled out of the world to browse to Gamefaqs and you still have the feeling of accomplishing something (unlocking the book). You’re even rewarded for your efforts as the walkthrough is presented as a silent comic strip that shows what the robot must do to proceed. It’s worth it alone just to see the comic. And never once does resorting to the walkthrough feel like you are cheating yourself (which looking up the answers on the internet often does).

If you’ve ever bemoaned the loss of the graphical adventure genre then you owe it to yourself to get this game. Machinarium is as beautiful and compelling a title as you’re likely to play all year. Only an unfeeling, soulless automaton would pass this one up.

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