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Infatuation or Love? Machinarium review

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I love adventure games.  I love Monkey Island; I love Grim Fandango; I love The Longest Journey; I love the Sam and Max Episodes; I even love Indigo Prophecy.  It stands to reason, then, that I wanted to love Amanita Design's indie adventure title Machinarium.  As a fan of the once-dying point-and-click puzzlers, I was content with the series resurrections, remakes and episodic content that have marked the resurgence of the adventure genre.  But after a few years of playing the new versions of the same games I grew up with, I find myself pining for something more — something original.  What made all those old adventure games so great was the chance to explore so many brilliant, imaginative and, most importantly, new worlds.  Arguably, there's no genre better suited for rich narrative world building.  I wanted to love Machinarium.  If only it wanted to love me back.

 

To be fair, it certainly tries.  At least, it makes a lasting impression.  As the game opens, you, a spry little-robot-that-could, are dropped, in pieces, into a scrapheap on the outskirts of the eponymous city.  It's up to you to put yourself back together and retrace the steps that led you there, solving puzzles to make your way back into and through the quiet metropolis.  

From that first instant, I was enchanted.  Call me a sucker but take one look at the game and you can see why: Machinarium is a beauty.  With its hand-drawn environments and sprites, it evokes the highest caliber of children's storybooks; it's just quirky enough to be cute and just surreal enough to be slightly unsettling, yet thoroughly enchanting.  The world and its machine inhabitants all look old and broken-down.  The sky is a burnt umber, covered in smoke; the earth is a black, blasted wasteland; and the city itself is rusted and crumbling.  Yet there's an innocence as you wander its sparsely populated streets and squares, watching its machine inhabitants go about their daily lives and helping them with their troubles.  The feeling of sadness that you feel exploring this world doesn't stem from a place of tragedy.  Rather, it's the kind of sadness you feel wandering through an old house, taking in its history, age and mystery.  It's the kind of sadness you could call, 'happiness for deep people.'

Machinarium isn't only visually beautiful-oh no-but aurally, as well.  The sound design in general will blow you away and the soundtrack itself is arguably the best I've ever heard in the medium.  The ambient tunes easily fade into the background, allowing you to focus on whatever adventure game logic puzzler you're currently tackling.  Its more musical aspects are hypnotizing, lulling you into an almost meditative state of concentration.  The individual sounds that make up each song — the chimes, taps, whistles, zips, hums, twangs, and groaning bass rhythms — sound completely authentic to the world.  The music of Machinarium isn't just music, it's the sounds of the city itself coming to life.  Occasionally, the music of the game will be brought to the forefront in the form of radios and a street band.  In these moments, the funkier, jazzier tracks sound more like experimental dance beats; rhythmic, motivating and unwaveringly enthusiastic.  It would have been so easy to match a soundtrack of sterile bleeps and bloops to a game about robots, but composer Tomas Dvorak deserves big propers for lovingly crafting such warm, soulful tunes to do justice to the game's overall aesthetic.  I've never been a big game music enthusiast but this is one game soundtrack I could, and will, listen to on its own without ever growing bored.

The next thing you'll notice about Machinarium is its method of storytelling.  Specifically, you'll notice the complete lack of dialogue or written instruction.  While this is certainly one of the elements that makes Machinarium so unique, it's also one of my most contentious issues with the game.  Aside from menus and the title screen, there are no words in the game.  Dialogue is presented as brief sketched animations that play out in thought bubbles.  Even hints and tutorials are portrayed using sequential images.  In many ways, this approach does a service; cheap voice actors could have ruined the whole experience, and indeed, any dialogue, no matter how well delivered or written, could have dealt serious damage to the whole aesthetic experience.  On the other hand, most adventure games are boiling over with dialogue for a reason: it's a simple and effective way to inform the player. There was a moment in the game where I found a kind of stretchy band of cloth.  At least, I thought it was just a stretchy band of cloth.  In truth, I couldn't effectively tell what it was or what to do with it.  After attempting to use it on random objects in the environment, I eventually discovered its purpose: I used it on a swarm of flies and caught them.  It was fly paper — ohhh.  Maybe I'm just not as bright as I think I am, but I encountered many such moments in the game: find an item that looks vaguely like something familiar and only stumble upon its actual identity through a combination of luck and trial and error.  With no labels, no inner monologue/commentary from the player character and no handy "investigate" or "look at" buttons, I just felt lost and frustrated.  This is why I couldn't love Machinarium like I wanted to: every step of the way, I felt like the game was fighting me, trying my patience to the point of exhaustion.

Machinarium is unfortunately archaic in the way many of its puzzles are designed.  The days of pixel hunting and game-specific moon logic are back…and they're pissed about being (almost) forgotten.  I don't necessarily mind that, in theory, but the problem with pixel-hunting in Machinarium is that you don't notice them.  Everything in the game is hand-drawn, making it a chore of aimless clicking to figure out which objects can and can't be used.  Everything looks like setting or background; there are no indicators to say, "this light bulb is different from all the other identical light bulbs."  You're forced to to just wave the mouse around the screen, waiting for the cursor to change.  

When it does, hope you're actually pointing at the right thing, because the hit detection could use a lot of work.  If I had a dime for every time I tried to interact with one object, but accidentally clicked on another next to it because the two overlapped in some weird way, I'd have, well, at least a few bucks (but hey, that's a lot of dimes).  The confusion is accompanied by the frustration of the game's many, lengthy animations.  The first couple times you watch them, they're great.  They're fluid and thorough; you feel like you're watching a cartoon.  But the fifth or sixth time you accidentally have to watch your little robot guy walk up a flight of stairs or climb a latter, it just becomes a waste of time.

Additionally, many of the puzzles are unapologetically rigid in how they must be solved.  Too often I knew what I was supposed to do but felt stuck because I didn't know how to do it.  I had all the pieces, I just wasn't putting them together in the right order.  No, that's not a metaphor; there are literally arbitrary orders to the way certain puzzles need to be solved.  Early in the game there's one where you need to make a disguise.  I had all the elements for the hat: a traffic cone, a light bulb and blue paint, but I couldn't put them together.  I was convinced I was missing some crucial piece of the puzzle, so I turned to the handy in-game walkthrough.  For every puzzle, the game features a two-tiered hint system.  The first provides an image of your final objective.  The second provides you with a pictorial walkthrough that you must first unlock by playing a side-scrolling shooter mini-game.  Unlocking the guide, I discovered that I wasn't missing anything.  Instead, for no logical reason, I simply needed to put the three objects together in a very specific order.

Playing Machinarium, I sometimes felt that I was at odds with it.  I was infatuated with its beauty and craft, yet infuriated when its artistic qualities clashed with its basic mechanical design.  As much as I love and appreciate its aesthetic, my adoration so often melted away in the face of frustration.  Every new location and character brought butterflies to my stomach and each new puzzle violently killed them.  I felt that actually playing the game was a chore and my reward was the next environment, the next sprite, the next song.  But this is a videogame and playing the game should be its own reward.  Still, I have a hard time arguing that the rewards aren't worth the work.  In spite of its frustration, the worst thing you can say about a game, or about any work of art, is that it's forgettable.  Machinarium is anything but forgettable; it's sights and sounds will stay with me for a long, long time.  While it did anger me at times, the frustration isn't what I'm going to remember.  I'll remember its crumbling stone paths, its rusted pipes and cogs, the innocence and honesty of an antique city populated by antique machines, and, of course, its haunting, evocative and just plain beautiful soundscape.


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