Critics often associate the point and click genre with stagnation. Then again, trying to think of ways in which to infuse the genre with innovation can prove difficult. One might wonder if there’s anything more to the genre than pointing and clicking. The closest thing to evolution I have seen in the genre thus far comes from the indie sector in Amanita Design’s first full-length title: Machinarium. And, by evolution, I don’t mean the robots that star in the game. Among other successes, Machinarium actually makes small, but important changes in the typical point and click adventure gameplay and shows developers where to go from here.
Machinarium tells the story of an adorable robot and his quest to find and rejoin his girlfriend, or whatever, if robots don’t have sexes, which I am quite certain they don’t. Gender issues aside, the story develops simply and succinctly without much philosophical depth, if any. Charm propels the story, not intricate plotlines and themes. Fortunately, it does so well enough to forgive its shallowness, and in a unique way. There is no dialogue in the game. Robots don’t speak English or any other language we can understand for that matter, so something else must be done. Animated and thoroughly wonderful thought bubbles replace standard means of communication. Dialogue would have soiled the delightful atmosphere anyway.
Machinarium owes much of its atmospheric success to its pre-rendered backgrounds. The game’s art is positively the best hand-drawn work I’ve seen in a video game. The sketchy, intricately detailed style and adeptly chosen color pallet make the visuals unforgettable and the world almost palpable. Machinarium’s is a world to inhabit, and my only regret is being human.
To augment the already startling atmosphere of the setting, Amanita composed an original soundtrack to accompany the mechanical cityscape. The best of the soundtrack offers Eno-esque electronic ambient music, with an occasional industrial flavor as well. Some tracks are more outstanding than others, and I simply wanted more.
For the most part, Machinarium plays like any given point and click adventure. The protagonist explores a series of screens and interacts with objects to solve puzzles. The interface is sometimes problematic, but the standard puzzles are particularly well designed and usually challenge the player just enough. If a puzzle becomes too frustrating, however, the player can access an in-game walkthrough, which is painstakingly detailed and drawn in the style of the game. To access the walkthrough, however, one must complete a cute mini-game, which brings to mind the aspect that makes Machinarium feel more advanced than most. Thrown in with the traditional puzzles are mini-games and other diversions, such as a Space Invaders clone. This may seem trivial, but the way in which these elements are implemented makes a significant difference and sets Machinarium even farther apart from its mainstream competition.
Machinarium tells a succinct, enjoyable, and occasionally incredibly surreal story in a new and fun way. The graphics and music take the player into another world, like all the best games. And, Machinarium offers mature and evolved gameplay in the form of mini-games and deviations from the normal point and click pacing. At one point the villains throw the protagonist in prison, and as he pokes around the cell, new prison cells appear on the screen as his exploration dictates. Another segment has the player controlling another character altogether, and one of the last challenges is strangely abstract and particularly memorable.
Unfortunately, Machinarium is only about five hours long with no replay value and no reason to return to the game except beauty alone. Forgivable, perhaps, for an indie game, but let’s hope the next Amanita game doesn’t break our hearts with its brevity.