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Machinarium (PC) artwork

Machinarium (PC) review

"Adventure games suck. Letís face it. They do. Iím not totally opposed to the idea of an adventure game being good, of course, but the inherent flaw of the genre is that theyíre not about gameplay, and that undermines the very purpose of the medium, which is to be interactive entertainment. The few adventure games that have actually held my attention over the years, such as The Longest Journey or Grim Fandango, have done so because of an intriguing story, memorable characters, and c..."

Adventure games suck. Letís face it. They do. Iím not totally opposed to the idea of an adventure game being good, of course, but the inherent flaw of the genre is that theyíre not about gameplay, and that undermines the very purpose of the medium, which is to be interactive entertainment. The few adventure games that have actually held my attention over the years, such as The Longest Journey or Grim Fandango, have done so because of an intriguing story, memorable characters, and clever writing Ė nothing, youíll notice, that has anything to do with gameplay. These games have interactive elements, sure, but only as a means to drive the narrative forward, and any designer who treats gameplay as an obligation rather than a top priority has missed the point of gaming entirely.

Machinarium, to its credit, is one of the few point-and-click adventures that Iíve ever been compelled to see to the end, though once again itís for reasons I shouldnít be concerned with. Namely, the game is breathtakingly gorgeous Ė if 2D gaming really is a dying art, then Iíll be sad to see it go, because the world of Machinarium is constructed with the sort of loving attention to detail and animated with an eye-catching charm that would be impossible to recreate on any 3D engine. But Iím sick of people giving the free pass to games like this simply because theyíre nice to look at, or they tell interesting stories. Machinarium, for all of its successes, fails as a game. Too bad Iím judging it as one.

One of the troubles with adventure games is that they take linearity to the extreme. Most games (real games, that is) introduce a set of mechanics to the player that become the basis for all actions, where the player must figure out how to apply what theyíve learned in order to progress. Machinarium and its brethren follow a different pattern, in which the player is constantly being given new, unfamiliar objects that each only have one specific use. Your task, then, is to figure out just what the designers wanted you to do with each item. The ďpuzzlesĒ arenít so much logic-based as they are a test of the players' ability to get into the designersí mindset. What can you do with a handful of toy gun pellets? Well, theoretically, there are about a million things you can do with them. What did the developers have in mind? I suppose the only way to figure that out is pull up your inventory, drag the pellets across everything you see in the environment, and hope to trigger some sort of event.

Machinarium does earn points for inventory restraint Ė if you obtain an item, thereís a good chance youíll be using it on something thatís immediately in front of you, in the room youíre in. It also gets credit for providing stumped players with answers, should they ask. A hint system prompts a thought bubble to appear over your characterís head, indicating what your primary goal is at the moment. Thereís a full-blown walkthrough available as well, presented as a comic, and the only price for using it comes in the form of a shooter mini-game youíre forced to play every time you open the book. Itís a big price, though, considering how often youíll be using it.

I suppose it was nice of Amanita Design to include a walkthrough, but Iím surprised it didnít strike them as a sure-fire indicator that their game was too hard. Listen to this: Early on in the adventure, Machinariumís robotic protagonist is imprisoned and must escape. His inmate indicates that he wants a cigarette. I surmised on my own that I needed to rip off a chunk of shaggy overgrowth sticking out of a pipe and wrap it in a piece of toilet paper, but combining the two items in my inventory didnít work. After examining my options for a few minutes, I opened the walkthrough and discovered that I had to place the plant on a nearby light bulb, thereby drying it, before making the cig.

Oh, okay.

Think about it, though: How does that make sense? I suppose itís reasonable to expect a plant to be dry before you attempt to smoke it, but plants donít dry in a matter of seconds. Iíll grant you that Machinarium takes place in some weird alternate reality only inhabited by robots, and that the rules pertaining to that world arenít necessarily parallel to the rules of ours, but come on. Puzzles are supposed to be logical, and how can something be logical if the fundamental principles weíre familiar with donít even apply?

Iíll do you one better, though. A bit further down the road, my path was blocked by a bigger robot who asked me some simple questions in which I had to match colored propellers with their spinning equivalents. Simple enough, and I aced a couple of his quizzes. Nothing happened, though. I kept talking to him, and he kept giving me the same quizzes with no reward whatsoever for correct answers. Stumped, I opened the walkthrough, played that fucking mini-game for something like the seventeenth time, and found the solution: In order to get past the guard, I had to respond incorrectly to several of his questions in a row, at which point he would blow a gasket (figuratively, though I suppose literally, too) and the path would be open.

That description may have come off a little dry, so read it again and really think about it. In order to get past the guard, I had to take his quiz and fail.

ÖWhat the FUCK?!

What in the HELL kind of logic is that? So Iím presented with a scenario in which Iím given a set of questions, and my only means of progression is to guess incorrectly? In what twisted universe is this EVER a solution Iíd come up with on my own? What, so am I supposed to approach puzzles in other games the same way? I just say to myself, ďWell, hereís a puzzle Iím supposed to solve, so why donít I screw it up intentionallyĒ? How does that make sense? EXPLAIN YOURSELF, GAME!

I guess if Iíd gotten one of the questions wrong by mistake, Iíd have noticed that the guard was getting a little upset, and Iíd have used that as a lead. Sorry Iím too smart for you, Machinarium. I eagerly await the next first-person shooter where the only way to win is to throw down your weapon and run into enemy territory unarmed! Or the platformer that can only be beaten by immediately and deliberately leaping into the nearest bottomless pit!

But Iím overreacting. Puzzles like these make up a small portion of Machinarium. The game is generally tolerable and occasionally downright clever. I never once felt guilty for looking up the answers, though, and thatís the gameís problem. Many of the solutions had me thinking, ďWell, yeah, I guess that makes senseÖ but no, I never would have figured that out on my own.Ē One particular puzzle involving a mechanic bird on a wire has an absolutely ingenious solutionÖ yet at the same time, I could never imagine anyone figuring it out without consulting the guide. And thereís the issue. Designing a game thatís too hard and then throwing in a free walkthrough doesnít solve your problem. It just means youíre acknowledging the problem and taking the lazy way out.

But, my, the game sure is something to look at. And itís not just the art itself Ė the adorable character designs and stunningly detailed cityscape Ė that catches the eye, but the way itís animated, the way it all moves. As odd as it feels to say, these robots have life. I was struck by a little moment when the main character discovered a plot to set off a very large bomb, and he reacted by letting off this squeaky little shriek and failing his stubby arms around, banging them against the sides of his metallic body. Or when a street band is playing on-screen, and the protagonist bursts into a modest little dance when you leave the game alone for a few seconds. You canít help but smile when the game presents you with amusing little details like that. I also admire the talent it takes to tell a complete story without a single line of dialog. Itís a triumph of Amanitaís artists that all of the emotions, however simple, were able to shine through in full clarity.

Is that enough? For some, it is. There are probably people out there who would consider Machinarium fun and intuitive, and I suppose all I can do is agree to disagree. But Iím betting there are also a few people who acknowledge Machinariumís issues and dismiss them outright, and theyíve got as little grasp on what a good game should consist of as the people who make adventure games in the first place. Throw Machinarium up on a wall in the Guggenheim and then weíll talk about art; I paid twenty dollars for a game that I didnít enjoy, and in the end, nothing else matters.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (January 02, 2010)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Lewis posted January 03, 2010:

Interesting approach, Mr. Suskie.

On your first paragraph... well, have a read of this, in which I talk a bit about the what-makes-a-game-anyway-maaan? thing. And then read this, where Robert Yang disagrees with me and presumably agrees with you. And then keep your eyes open at Gamasutra and GameSetWatch, where I tackle the issue more explicitly in an article that should appear later this week.
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WilltheGreat posted January 03, 2010:

Well there's something to be said for your style here, Suskie. Despite that you disliked the game, you managed to make it sound like something I'd enjoy. I'm not sure what that means, but I think it's impressive.
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Suskie posted January 03, 2010:

Ha, you know something, Lewis? I just realized that a lot of my comments towards adventure games and the people who make them ring especially true with you, since I'm under the impression that the mods you've been making are precisely the sort of thing I wouldn't like. So, sorry about that! Hope you didn't take it too personally. For what it's worth, I haven't played your mods, for your sake as well as mine :)

And I actually read more of the stuff you post on Twitter than you may realize. So, yes, I'm familiar with those two articles. I think the whole debate is interesting, as passionately as I feel about the stance I've taken.

Will: That makes sense, actually. If you like adventure games, I have no doubt you'll love Machinarium. I guess that picture came through. This review was more of an outburst against the genre as a whole, which I figured I could get away with since I rarely review adventure games anyway. Thanks for the comments!

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