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The Music Machine (PC) artwork

The Music Machine (PC) review

"In this game: characters who are holy and characters who are holey. "

The Music Machine (PC) image

"I want something different," I said to myself as I pored over my Steam library's horror collection. "I want something that doesn't involve checking out obviously haunted spaces or running away from monsters or dealing with evil cults. And no more twists or backstories that involve car accidents. Geez, I get it already. Trauma bad."

And then I remembered I bought The Music Machine for an occasion such as this, when I longed for an unconventional experience.

It did not disappoint...

This title whisks you away to a nearly abandoned island that used to be a bible camp. The cabins stand bereft of occupants, and some of the buildings have deteriorated to rubble. You're here because an unknown assailant has been "putting holes in people," and you apparently want to find out why.

I say "apparently" because one of the game's protagonists hatches this scheme and doesn't make his motives entirely clear. You see, you take two roles for the price of one here. You control a thirteen-year-old girl named Haley, who's possessed by the ghost of a man she once knew named Quintin. From the get-go, they make one thing clear: Quintin does not like Haley and means to kill her. She doesn't believe that he does, though, and speaks to him as a kind of companion. Still, he reminds her throughout their journey that he means to end her life at some point, and you wonder almost immediately if you're only trying to solve the bizarre murders so you can offer Haley up as the next victim. The implications here aren't merely disturbing, they're almost heartbreaking. The idea that the main objective of your mission could be to assassinate a youngster doesn't sit right, and it shouldn't.

The Music Machine (PC) image

Granted, Quitnin has reasons for this mission, but you can't shake the feeling that what he may be planning is awful, especially when you discover who it is that's perforating human beings...

The first thing that should grab your attention (besides the murder plot) is the presentation, which consists entirely of sepia and black. There are no other colors here, and the lack of a palette creates a very lonely, foreboding atmosphere. Initially, you don't want to enter any of the cabins to investigate because you're sure someone or something remains among the ruins and rubble. Light shines through the trees in the middle of the island, and yet a downbeat vibe cuts through the sunlight and tells you this quest probably isn't going to end well. Yet, you advance and continue your investigation anyway, knowing that Quintin is up to no good, knowing that there could very well be a murderer nearby, feeling that the drab coloration is a letting you know not to get too gleeful.

As you advance, you read the ramblings of a madman who apparently appropriated the grounds and declared the island his kingdom. At first, you're inclined to believe he's the killer, but then you come across a strange apparatus while checking out a makeshift church. That's when the entire face of this adventure changes....

With the strange machine, you travel from one world to another. The dull tans from before give way to an angry red, and you're surrounded by a mock cityscape. You check out the digs and discover that it isn't a true town, but a model of one. You fear at first that there may be creatures hiding in the myriad structures, watching your progress and waiting for the perfect time to act. So you traipse carefully, perhaps more cautious because the color feels like a grim warning...

The Music Machine (PC) image

Eventually you figure out how to travel to other locations, and that's when Machine goes full-on cosmic horror. You learn why those other realms exist and what they mean, plus the identity of the slayer. If interdimensional travel is any indication, your foe is much worse than you could have imagined, and yet you're going to take it on anyway and hope that Quintin has a change of heart before the credits roll...

This game does more with its sub-genre than surround you with tentacles or scare you with fish people. It gets the idea of human insignificance in the face of a massive universe, and yet it also deconstructs the category by presenting the idea that humans are still complex in their own way, even if they are but puny ants to the rest of the cosmos. It uses that to build on the dynamic between Haley and Quintin, which in itself already works as a wonderful foil. Haley is carefree and a tad rebellious, where Quintin tends to be more bound to tradition. Haley constantly wants to take cigarettes she finds lying around, and Quintin admonishes her for that desire. She retorts that smoking would eventually kill her and give Quintin what he wants, and yet he remains adamant that she shouldn't engage in such behavior. You can tell that even though he wants her dead, he still wouldn't visit certain types of harm on her. His emotions are conflicted, and they get called out frequently. It all plays perfectly into the "humans are insignificant, yet still somehow complex" thesis Machine offers.

The last few segments reveal your adversary and their motives. During this time, the game hits a few low notes that somewhat spoil the strong experience, first by blatantly retreading a few stages. There's a reason this occurs, but the game could have gotten the point it was making across by either providing new locales to explore or revamping familiar areas so that they at least don't come across as rehash or padding. Hell, one of those levels involves solving a puzzle, and the solution remains precisely the same the second time around.

The Music Machine (PC) image

The main antagonist also fails to impress. I don't want to give too much away, but they possess the most simplistic, underwhelming design imaginable. "This is supposed to scare me?" you think, even knowing the deadly nature of your assailant. Imagine a slasher film where Charlie Brown turns out to be the murderer. Yeah, good grief. It's that much of a downer. At this point, you can basically choose an ending and watch the credits roll. Thankfully, this revelation didn't completely contaminate the overall effect.

"Different" is a neutral word. Some people believe that games that offer "different" content are inherently terrific, and yet I've played a lot of "different" games that were tedious or broken. The Music Machine is "different," but in a way that separates itself from Steam's veritable dump bin of jump scare compilations and asset flips. I'll admit that it's not all that interactive and focuses more on narrative, but it offers an unsettling character study and a deconstruction of cosmic horror combined with an artsy appearance. Unlike the 65688610th haunted house game I'm about to play, I'll actually remember this app and its odd world and characters for years to come...

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (October 23, 2021)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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