As a child of the point-and-click adventure era, I love Telltale Games. Yet I have an embarrassing confession to make: I haven’t played a single one of their modern 3D revivals. I’ll get around to Sam & Max and Monkey Island eventually–the original games are near and dear enough to my heart to guarantee that. But I love Telltale for their steadfast devotion to adventure games. They have almost singlehandedly breathed fresh life into the genre, and without their successful experiment in episodic point-and-click adventures, independent projects like Machinarium may never have been made. And that would be a tragedy, because Machinarium is a quiet masterpiece.
Developed in Flash by Czech studio Amanita Design, Machinarium begins with a basic groundwork of accessible, logical puzzles and then surrounds them with a lush and vibrant world, dripping with life and detail in its characters and environs. Or, perhaps there’s not life, but there’s indeed sentience–every character, from the intrepid hero to the troublesome owl, is a robot, just a small part of a thriving steampunk ecosystem. Without its incredibly detailed, textured hand-drawn artwork Machinarium would be a very different game indeed.
The art drew me in, of course, and it’s what kept me playing, eager to make it to the next screen and pore over the background, taking in each little touch in the new area. Like the best point-and-click adventures, though, Machinarium handles narrative wonderfully, but in its own unique way. Like a classic cartoon, Machinarium eschews dialogue in favor of thought bubbles, where images pop up to flesh out plot points and character motivations.
The game also follows the logic of a cartoon–there are some mean bad guys who have treated our hero unfairly, and as we help him follow in their tracks, we gradually learn more about him and more about his enemies. They’re out to create mayhem for kicks, and he seems to want to stop them. But as we conquer each new area and move closer to the hero’s origin, a new piece of the story fits into place, and suddenly the entire thing gains a new sense of heft and meaning.
He perseveres for love, of course. What else?
Dialogue or voice acting would likely undermine the power of this robot romance, but somehow the charming sound design, character animations and thought bubbles add up to something downright sweet. Though love gives our hero momentum in the second half, it’s almost unnecessary–the rest of the world is so charming it’s a delight to interact with each NPC to see how they’ll behave or what key item they have to offer (or demand).
Machinarium may not be laugh-out-loud funny in a Ron Gilbert or Tim Schafer way, but I challenge you to spend more than a few minutes at a time without grinning. It will be tough, unless you’re stuck on a particularly obstinate puzzle. Though nearly all of them are logical, a few were obscure enough to make me dip into the game’s built-in hint book. Another guilty omission: I grew up playing everything from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis to Hugo’s House of Horrors, but I’ve always been pretty terrible at adventure game puzzles. The few that stumped me in Machinarium may be a cake walk for those with godlike critical thinking skills.
The clever design of Machinarium’s hint book actually helped me complete at least half a dozen puzzles without ever giving me the solution. It acted like a cheerleader for me, since every time I was ready to give up it stood in my path as if to say “Do you really want to give up?” Turns out I didn’t. By locking the solutions away behind a mini-game, the developers give you ample opportunity to pull your beleaguered brain up by its bootstraps, renew your will and press on towards the solution.
Even though it’s been over a month since I finished Machinarium, little bits and pieces regularly pop up in my mind: a snippet of amazing background music here, an awesome wrench-bodied robot there. When I realized that it was essentially a quieter, more subtle version of Spike Jonze’s robot love story I’m Here, I couldn’t resist the connection. Play Machinarium. It’s available on Steam, a platform on which it’s easier to buy games than it is to resist them. Wait for a sale, if you must, but buy it, both to support the developer and play the game. Your heart will thank you for it.