Thursday, October 31, 2013

Charmed to my wits end in the Machinarium

One of my favorite pastimes growing up was playing through Sierra adventure games again and again and again. I used to run laps around the fictional Kingdom of Daventry and its neighboring realms, playing speed runs that weren't really speed runs in the early King's Quest games. I had even more fun ripping through time and space as Roger Wilco in the satirical Space Quest adventures. Back then, it wasn't so much the challenge of the game that drew me in—I'd memorized the solutions to all of the so-called puzzles like the lines of dialogue in a movie. It was fun just going through the motions, triggering the animation sequences and sometimes having fun experimenting with all of the goofy ways to lose or die.

So it's interesting to return to the genre in the present day—even for a title as distinct as Machinarium.

Without a doubt, the game is a visual triumph. Its endearing hand-drawn art direction is the heart and soul of the entire playing experience. As I explored each location of the robot city, it was like peering into the daydreams of a gifted illustrator—someone who probably spent the majority of their high school days doodling away at the margins of their notebook papers.

Unlike the Sierra and LucasArts games of the past, Machinarium tells its story without text or exposition. Characters communicate with body language and illustrated thought bubbles. The protagonist is a down-on-his-luck robot, who finds himself cast out from a towering robot enclave by a band of unsavory robot thugs. After sneaking back into the city and succumbing to further gaffes and blunders, the player must uncover and thwart a nefarious plot against the denizens of the city.

The story and style of Machinarium actually reminds me of the silent movie era—particularly the American comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, etc. I have no idea whether the influence is direct or intentional, but the plight of the protagonist does bear some thematic resemblance to that of Chaplin's tramp. The robot, while plucky and persistent, is clearly on the margins of this cold-hearted, industrial society, forced to navigate his many setbacks through impromptu tricks and disguises.

Those are the things I liked about Machinarium. What I didn't always like was how the game actually played as a puzzle-solving exercise.

It seems to me that the game's puzzles tend to fall into one of two camps. First are the environmental puzzles, the ones that involve finding clickable objects and inventory items to use and manipulate. These are the types of puzzles we typically associate with the classic adventure games genre. The second suite of puzzles were more like logic mini-games and brainteasers. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the latter much more than the former. The traditional puzzles rarely make logical or predictive sense, which means the player will resort to brute-force tactics—clicking the mouse cursor all over the screen in hopes of triggering some sort of interaction. In adventure game terminology, we call this activity “pixel hunting.” It's all the more frustrating in Machinarium, because the player is further restricted from interacting with anything outside of a short radius of the character avatar.

Part of the problem is the lack of visual cues. At one point in the game I had solved a pretty challenging mini-game puzzle, which—in my mind—should have progressed a related environmental puzzle. Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed a small button on a panel, because there was nothing that differentiated that button from being anything other than a simple screw, rivet, or any other pencil-textured circle in the homogenous background environment.

With Machinarium, the developers must have foreseen this, because they implemented their own in-game hint and cheat system. For most locations in the game, the player can click on a lightbulb icon that offers a quick hint. Nine times out of 10, these hints are useless. In that case, the player can click on a book icon that enacts a strange side-scrolling arcade game. By winning the game, the player will gain access to a page that shows a visual representation of the solutions to that particular game screen's puzzles.

At first I hated the very thought of this. But let me tell you, it was necessary to go back to that cheat system more than once. And I guess if it's right there in the game, it's not technically cheating, is it?

By the time I made it to the end of the short game, I was happy that I'd stuck with it. And I'm definitely interested to check out some other games (newer and older) from Czech developer Amanita Design. Based on this title alone, however, I would have to say they are much better at animation and illustration than game design.