This article first appeared on Eurogamer.ro, site which is no longer available. Machinarium is a very dear game to me, so I didn’t want to lose my thoughts on it.
You’ve surely all seen Wall-E, the Disney movie about the shy adorable robot who ceaselessly cleaned up planet Earth in wait of the return of the human beings. Until the end of it all, any sensible soul would have realised that Wall-E was a lot more human than those buckets of lard that he cleaned up after. And this is the same impression that Machinarium leaves you with. This tiny Flash game, which can be safely finished in a couple of hours by any outside-the-box thinker, is much more humane and full of flavour than all super-hero (read:hooters) games of 2009.
So much about the Disney analogy though, because I don’t think the universe in Machinarium has ever had to deal with humans. It seems that in a parallel universe, God put Carbon back on the shelf and decided to create Iron, Copper and Nickel based life-forms. Or He created the world in His own image, only He himself was a huge incandescent lightbulb. Whatever the origins of such a setting, every living (breathing?) thing in Machinarium has some analogue filters under their rusty hood. And that is what makes Machinarium unforgettable – it is not so much of a Steampunk game as it is full of recycled and primitive technology, scraps set aside because to someone, they seemed useless. But it’s as if the scum of the Earth all retreated to their own universe and made a new civilization, which sprawls with life. After all, Machinarium is a simple game, featuring simple, yet clean and pleasant ideas.
Do androids dream of electric sheep?
Even the story is straightforward: you’re an anonymous, invisible tiny robot. Your main quality? The ability to LOVE, freely manifested from the very beginning. After being thrown out of the big city by some scum-bag robots three time your size, you have to find a way to access the metropolis again in order to save your entrapped Dulcinea. Something that will inevitably lead to saving all other inhabitants, it seems. It’s something of a love story that we have all seen and heard before, but never so delicately told through the main character’s dreams and sighs. Even if you won’t have the patience to let your tiny robot day-dream, in a way, the grand finale will be twice as satisfying because it will be even more surprising.
When it comes to game play, Machinarium defines itself as a mere point-and-click game. In a time when the adventure genre is considered dead and only legendary, episodic titles like Tales of Monkey Island manage to float on the surface of the gaming ocean, I can safely admit that Amanita Design really took a risk here. Especially because the game also tries to challenge your neurons and revolutionize the genre. As a relief, the developers throw away the pixel hunting mechanics. Also, while in a classic adventure game the player can interact with everything on screen, in Machinarium they can only use objects in the close vicinity of the artificial hero. It’s freshly different, but sometimes confusing, because your tiny avatar can also stretch vertically and it’s not always obvious when this should be done. Moreover, Machinarium being sort of a silent game, objects have no descriptions or tooltips so you’ll have to do some click-research before concluding if a device can be used or not.
One thing that distances Machinarium from accessible modern point and click titles and brings it closer to the oldies but goldies is the fact that the game has its own internal logic, which sometimes goes way beyond common sense. Some ideas might never cross your mind (like having to electrocute a cat to make a bagpipe sing) and the game rarely explains its internal coherence. And although at first the puzzles resemble the ones in Samorost, with all keys for the puzzle hidden across the same screen, as you discover more of the rusty megalopolis things become so complex that you suddenly realize you don’t know what you have to do to make the game move on.
Fortunately, you can always make use of the game’s hint system, which throws you a maximum of one hint per scene. And if you find you have to develop a rare breed of patience in order to let your logic led by the scarcity of this system, you can also access the journal, which is nothing else than a comic-strip walkthrough for dummies. To access this journal you still have to play a mini-game though, in the style of Asteroids. The aim here is to collect a key, but sometimes the key is so well hidden that you are left with the impression that the developers are actually scolding you for not trying to solve the puzzles on your own.
If some puzzles are absurd or slow, their variety is absolutely impressive, ranging from mixing and matching objects to complex brain teasers. Machinarium is one of the only games in which I actually enjoyed playing a X and O game. Sometimes the difficulty level slides off to children books, with matching colour challenges or finding the right string in a yarn ball. But nothing seems out of the ordinary in this universe, whose atmosphere is unforgettable, a real demonstration of both showing and telling.
The crayoned look of the game is the creation of Peter Firmin, who has fathered many children series, like Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss. The sketches in the walkthrough, together with the robot’s dreams are the work of art of a different artist though, Tim Burton. These two art styles deliciously combine to bring a tiny, disproportionate robot to life, who has the restless air of the hunchback of Notre Dame. Using Flash as the game technology has its advantages and disadvantages: on one hand the game looks and feels awesome at any resolution but on the other, you can’t access your inventory with a right click, for example. And the developers have ignored some aspects which could have made the game pleasantly faster – like the ability to fast travel between scenes with a double click.
I may have mentioned it before, but you have to develop a rare breed of patience in order to enjoy Machinarium to its fullest. Electronic, jazzy and symphonic at the same time, dusty and sometimes unfair, Machinarium leaves the player wanting more. Not only a better world, but maybe a world populated with loving robots, instead of indifferent modern humans who are blind to the wonders of storytelling.