MACHINARIUM and Steel-coated Contemplation

MACHINARIUM is a videogame developed Amanita Design and published by Amanita Design and Daedalic Entertainment (PC and Mac versions), for the iPad, PC, Mac, Linux, BlackBerry PlayBook, Android and PlayStation Network. The iPad version was played for the purposes of this review. It was directed by JAKUB DVORSKÝ.

Despite their origins, or perhaps because of, movies are afraid of silence. They are deadly afraid the silence will bore the audience – and a bored audience will walk away. In response, movies are coated with noise, music, action… anything to deter that silence. Games, whose language has greatly derived from the language of film, do the same thing and, more often than not, end up confusing content with busyness.

This was something I first thought when watching a rather forgettable movie called Robots. Now, some years later, Machinarium made me come back to that thought.

Machinarium is a game where you play as little robot trying to do some good, correct some wrongs and solve some puzzles as they come along. It is a game very much like a Hayao Miyazaki cartoon, with its whimsical graphics, charming characters, moody soundtrack – and, yes, the silence: various quiet “empty” moments where characters just stand in contemplation. Or maybe that was me? I’m not sure anymore.

Just like any Hayao Miyazaki cartoon is superior to any Dreamwoks/ 20th Century Fox Animation cartoon, so is Machinarium to Robots. While Robots is frolicsome, Machinarium is melancholic; while Robots nags us with Robin Williams, Machinarium features no voices whatsoever. Both works are populated with living machines, but there is not a single soul in Robots – and several in Machinarium.

The game starts off as your little robot is dumped in what seems to be a robot graveyard. He is all torn apart and your first puzzle and tutorial is to fix him up again. He returns to the city he came from, a dense and ominous mass of giant cylinders and spires. From then on, there is not much use to talk about the plot. Things will simply unfold as they happen. Sometimes little drawn bubbles will appear and show mini-flashbacks of how some bullies put the game’s characters in the predicament they are in when you find them, but these bubbles are there mostly to inform you. In fact, there is not a single “objective” statement to be seen in the entire game.

Machinarium, much like any other Amanita Design game, has that distinct Hayao Miyazaki-like quality of being grown, not built. There is no real reason for you to help your fellow robots or even for puzzles to exist other that the fact they all feel so natural – like some law of physics. Everything feels like they belong in that gameworld. Machinarium in one word? Organic.

And it is also concise.  There is no back-tracking in this game. There is nothing beyond the room/screen you are in either. Where are you going? You don’t know. All you need to know is that everything you may need to solve the room you are in is probably already in your possession. There is no inventory bloating; the game discards items you used in the past as soon as their puzzles are solved.

The puzzles are the standard fare for the genre: there are the logic problems and the situations that can only be solved by manipulating the environment with the items. These puzzles can be brutal, yes, but there is not one, but two hint systems to help you along your way (the way of shame, that is, you puzzle quitter!). The first system will show you a hint per se. The second, a full walkthrough for the area you are in. In order to demotivate the player from relying too much on the second system, the game first requires you to beat a purposely dreadful mini-game. I mention the walkthrough because I’m a big supporter of the idea that if one purchases a game, one must be able to finish it regardless of skill. Besides, this is the sort of thing that, if not there, would make IGN complain about the “game being too hard”. Oh wait, they did it anyways. Ah IGN, won’t you ever learn?

The only reason the graphics weren’t mentioned yet is because Machinarium was developed with Flash technology. So what you see in the screenshots here is what you get. In fact, these gorgeous graphics are the very first thing one notices about the game. Like everything else, the artwork also conveys that organic feel, with its pencil-drawn elephantine structures populated with such a richness of details one cannot help himself with the desire to be drown by it.

No, seriously, I want to lick those textures.

There is much to absorb. I’ve wasted many moments thinking about puzzle answers while trying to capture with any elusive details the environment was trying to convey – moments of emptiness, silence. If bosses truly serve as punctuation, then the lines of Machinarium were written as a collection of ellipses, followed by the occasional “ah-ha!” exclamation marks. These are the moments from which the soul of Machinarium derives. The movie Robots, by comparison, was simply too frantic and too preoccupied action and noise (the noise part courtesy of Mr. Williams). Never did the audience get the chance to see their characters sit down and reflect and, as a result, they never believed in them. Was it worth the price of not having them walk away?

Machinarium is genre great. It is as good as it gets. It ends with you leaving the city with your girlfriend, but never were you told that was the goal of the game – it simply happened. As detailed as its warm textures are, the game itself doesn’t tell you much. It is minimalistic in that regard, yes. The focus is to always move forward and always help people out from bullies. Whether or not one is the cause for the other or even if there is a causal relationship at all it’s up for discussion. What matters is that, unlike Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, the meaning is here. We are not dealing with an archetype trying to trick us anymore.

Machinarium is the real deal.

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  1. Pingback: YOU ARE HERE: How games have become domesticated | Nightmare Mode

  2. I use the word “contemplative” as part of my blog’s title, and as part of how I describe myself as a gamer. Machinarium had A LOT to do with that.