This isn’t a new game: it was one of those impetuous sale purchases that had been languishing unplayed in my Steam Library for too long. I’m glad I finally got round to entering its strange, beautiful and often frustrating world. “It’s a work of art” is one of those phrases that tends to get overused in positive reviews, but in the case of Machinarium – an indie puzzle game from Czech Studio Amanita – it really is the correct description.
The most impressive thing about this point and click adventure game is its aesthetic. The incredibly detailed hand-drawn backgrounds depict a world of metal, oil and rust, a towering city of gears and pipes inhabited by strange robotic creatures. The sense of charm, intrigue and sadness evoked by this cityscape is perfectly complemented by the game’s eerie ambient-industrial soundtrack. Even from the gently animated title screen it is apparent that Machinarium presents a rich and fascinating, mechanical world, one that I couldn’t wait to start exploring.
Point and click puzzles always demand their players become explorers, but this game really takes this notion to the next level. As a graduate of the Sam & Max Academy, I’m quite a fan of the genre, but Machinarium felt much less story driven than most point and click adventures I’ve played. The game does have a plot: its unassuming robot hero is never formally introduced but apparently his name is Josef. However since I didn’t know this when playing the game I thought of him throughout as “Little Bot” which is the name I’ll run with here. Little Bot has been unceremoniously dumped in a rubbish tip outside the city. Players must aid his quest to find his way back inside, rescue his girlfriend and foil a sinister bomb plot he discovers during his journey. Such a story could be played fast and tense, but – like its persistent yet pedestrian protagonist – instead it is more of a slow-burner. Indeed, it was the game’s landscapes – specifically the desire to experience more of them – that kept me puzzling. I wanted to experience the next room or level of the city rather than to advance the plot per se, which felt like quite a departure in terms of point and click gaming experience.
Machinarium also challenges generic conventions in terms of its interface. Unusually, there is no “cursor casting” here. Rather than scrolling across the screen looking for an item that can be clicked on, Machinarium reduces interaction to the immediate vicinity of its robotic player character. You can only click on things he can directly reach, and although he is able to expand this range slightly, stretching or shrinking in height are his only abilities. A super-powered killbot blast ’em up this is not. Such restrictions bring both pros and cons. Increasing the sense of direct interaction with the landscape feels more realistic and certainly aids player immersion. It was also quite refreshing to have a sense of scale and to have to advance by making tiny adjustments rather than rushing in guns blazing. Machinarium is certainly a game that evokes sympathy for the underdog or “under-bot” I should say. But on the other hand its interface also means that the act of randomly clicking around the screen is replaced by that of walking around the screen, and – since Little Bot’s movements are somewhat slow and clunky – this can be no less frustrating.
Of course, frustration is part of the experience of any decently challenging puzzler. But I have to admit it’s an emotion I experienced perhaps a little more than usual playing Machinarium. The game offers a variety of puzzle types: from remembering combinations, flicking switches and moving tiles to the more esoteric manipulation of other characters and collected objects. Light bulbs feature heavily as usuable items but sadly I never quite experienced my own light bulb moment. In other point and click adventures I’ve played there usually comes a point where the logic of the game’s world suddenly makes sense and the way to approach its puzzles becomes more clear. That’s often the point at which the player learns to think like the game’s protagonist – and if that game happens to be Strongbad’s Cool Game for Attractive People (one of my all time favourite puzzle adventures) then it probably means you’re going to hell. But that never quite happened for me with Machinarium – the moment of clarity I mean, although there was one puzzle involving the manipulation of a robot cat that made me wonder if I was going to hell. Some puzzles seemed logical even if they were tricky to execute but others just didn’t, and a couple I would never have figured without help.
Fortunately the game offers a two tier hint system so help is on hand (and I needed it!) First of all, you can click the light bulb which gives the Little Bot a thought bubble showing part of what he needs to do. Frequently this was enough to get me moving again but with the most convoluted puzzles the thought balloon’s hints were too general, showing the overall objective (which I’d usually figured) rather than one of the steps to achieving it. Cue the second tier hints, which could be unlocked by playing an arcade style scrolling shooter mini-game. This provided a change of pace and focus which proved extremely welcome when I was stuck and frustrated enough to be resorting to level 2 hints. But as the game environments are randomly generated each time unlocking the hint could sometimes be a challenge too! Once you complete the minigame you are treated to a comic style diagram that breaks down more precisely what needs to be done. Even if you’re smarter than me and can figure out all the puzzles unaided it’s worth unlocking a few of these just to enjoy the art.
It should also be noted that communication in Machinarium is entirely wordless, including on the hint diagrams. The game employs no dialogue or written text and yet achieves surprising emotional depth purely through sound, vision and symbol. It’s quite an achievement.
Overall I would have to say that I enjoyed the game’s style a little more than the substance of its puzzles, which simply didn’t feel as mentally coherent or satisfying as some other games of this type that I’ve played. But despite these criticisms, Machinarium remains a welcome addition to my Steam Library. It truly is a visual delight, and I game that I found best enjoyed in small doses, making regular short excursions a room or two at a time through the charming peculiarities of Little Bot and his world.