Indie Anal: Machinarium

Amanita Design’s “Machinarium” snatches us up and dumps us (literally) into a fantastic scribbled world of silly, questionably functional robots where dark black oil not only spills into massive pools at the city’s base, it is also the drink of choice. Though the point-and-click adventure was originally released in 2009, I only just got the chance to play it when I picked it up as part of my Humble Indie Bundle. As these fellows are lightyears ahead of myself, it would be silly to “review” the game, but it did inspire me to start a new section in which we’ll look at successful indie games and see what we can learn from them.

What to copy: Machinarium‘s most wonderful and memorable aspect is its amazing artistic design. The unique style takes elements you’d think would clash and combines them effortlessly, overlaying roughly drawn, messy but extremely detailed linework and high resolution, carefully textured paintings all in a stark, sepia world. The scenes are expertly lit as well, with glowing bronze interiors, drab smoky skies, and cold metallic blue and green lights. The overall effect is beautiful to look at, and more than slightly humbling, as it’s immediately clear that the artists had a vision when attacking this project. You may find yourself suddenly wishing you’d paid as much attention to your own game’s visual style. You may want to go back and take another look at the texture and lighting on that matte background, and wonder if you’ve spent as much time on it as you probably should. But that’s good, because that’s why we’re here.

Even if your art skills are still in their infancy, there are several places in which Machinarium accels that anyone can learn from. From the moment you begin playing, you’ll notice that every screen oozes with attention to detail and the designers’ pure love for constructing the game’s world. Nothing has been ignored or rushed, or lazily completed with disinterest. Everything’s been purposefully crafted by the fingers of a creator who truly cares for the work being created. This fact grows more and more evident as you progress through the game, and find notebooks full of sketches detailing the complex mechanical workings of a single machine, notice that altering the positions of an array of wrenches or activated lights during large zoomed-in puzzles actually accurately changes their tiny real-world counterparts, scan through entire slide reels of graphs and blueprints of richly designed plant and insect-bot species, and watch with glee as a sweeper robot scales the side of a giant pipe in the far foreground, trying in vain to polish out those pesky rust stains while your robot runs past in the background. It’s truly inspiring how much attention has been given to every detail, and it’s something we should all strive to mimic ourselves.

The characters are completely lovable as well, instantly charming in their questionable function (there are old granny robots? and grumpy housewife bots?) and their refusal to speak in anything more than sparse squawks or deep honks. Despite relatively simple designs, they’re quite memorable for their quirky character – the bullying villains of the story are comically ill-natured, regularly stealing from and depriving decent citizens of any sort of joy, a big old ventilation unit presents you with pop quizzes and fumes when you make a mistake, and a muscled guard bot steps harmlessly aside when his toy doll’s batteries are replaced and she can walk again. The game’s completely free of dialog and basically free of any words at all, and it’s amazing how the designers are able to convey so much about the characters with simple gestures and sounds. Although… I guess the evil laughs are kind of a giveaway…

What not to copy: My biggest complaint with this beautiful game has to do with the controls, and one aspect that the designers seem to have thought was a feature, which in fact ends up being a detriment. At the beginning of the game you’re told you can only interact with objects within the robot’s reach. This is presumably to force you to use that worthless lump of gray crap in your noggin, and keep you from using the standard point-and-click tactic of running the cursor across the entire room. To really think about what you could grab and manipulate with your robot arms, because the robot also has the ability to extend his (yes “his”, and there are girl robots too) body and become slightly taller, or compact it to become short and squat. Instead, I found myself consistently frustrated because on each screen there tend to be only a few things with which you can actually interact. You can’t look at anything, or touch things that have no purpose but perhaps comedic value, the way you’d expect in a point-and-click. Not only that, you’re also limited in where you can stand on each screen. If you try to move to a spot that’s not one of the game’s pre-programmed standing positions, the robot will simply do nothing. That, or he’ll far overshoot where you’ve clicked, navigating to an acceptable position on the other side of the room. This all has the unfortunate side effect of keeping you from ever truly inhabiting the world because you feel the game’s design limiting you at every turn.

For me, this frustration was compounded by the facts that my goal for each puzzle was often unclear and that in general the robot gives little or no reaction to anything. Even if you manage to find something with which you can interact and possibly use, it’s very common you’ll click and he’ll simply shake his head, telling you no. What does that mean? you’ll think. In one instance I was presented with an outdoor area that contained a repair robot with ladder legs, a sleeping cat just above him on a roof, an owl that flew around following me, and a door with some sort of slot that looked to be keycard activated. When I clicked on the slot, the robot shook his head and did nothing. When I climbed the repair-bot’s ladder-legs up to the top to touch the owl, both did nothing. When I tried to touch the repair bot itself, my robot shook his head. After finally resorting to using the provided hint feature, I was told I needed to electrocute the cat. Questions about “how” aside, why on earth am I supposed to electrocute the cat? Even if I’m not allowed to interact with everything I want to play with, I should at least have a clear objective. I do understand that it’s a point-and-click game and these sort of vague puzzles kind of come with the territory, but I’m supposed to be saving my girl-bot and disarming a giant bomb. Right? It was rarely clear how the puzzles I was solving were getting me any closer to those goals, and when I suddenly was closer to them, I was surprised.

In summary: Machinarium‘s a gorgeous game that should be admired and studied for its artistic and creative design. Every screen is beautiful and immaculately detailed, and the cast of characters is simple but charming. I feel like its technical design is lacking however, and compared to the visuals, the limited control focus and few possible interactions with the amazing world put the gameplay in at a distant second.

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