If there's one thing we like here at Destructoid, it's robots; if there's two things we like, it's robots and adventure games. When we received a preview copy of Machinarium this weekend, our excitement was as unsurprising as it was vocal (Chad literally used about half dozen smiley-face emoticons after receiving the download link).
If you haven't heard of Machinarium, it's an atmospheric, hauntingly well-illustrated indie adventure title from the guys who made Samorost. Currently slated for an October 2009 release, Machinarium looks to be a remarkably long (our preview had 23 playable levels out of an ostensible 28) slice of surreal indie adventuring -- but is it any good?
After the jump, Anthony Burch, Chad Concelmo, Ashley Davis, and Jonathan Ross weigh in on what looks to be a truly polarizing experience.
The game's just too fucking hard to me, for all the wrong reasons. When I finally solve a puzzle, my reaction isn't "Oh, how clever -- why didn't I think of that earlier," which is an emotion I feel constantly while playing some of my favorite adventure games. What I feel is more of a "Wait -- I could have clicked on that?"
It seems like there are all these layers of needlessly obfuscating mechanics designed to keep the player from the solution whenever possible. Like the fact that you can't interact with anything unless you're right next to it, and have stretched or contorted yourself into the appropriate height, or the fact that, like, in the puzzle where you have to pretend to be a guard robot so he'll let you pass over the bridge, you couldn't just combine the light bulb and the cone in your inventory, and you couldn't just wear the cone, then use the light bulb. Only after screwing the light bulb into your own head and then using the cone could the puzzle be completed.
My least favorite parts of classic adventure games usually consist of shitty pixel-hunting puzzles, and it feels like Machinarium is a game made entirely of them. Since the game isn't forthcoming about what you can and can't interact with, I'm not allowed to focus my thought process on solving the puzzle because I'm constantly worried that I haven't found the two-pixel-wide hotspot the developers hid under an oven. I can never just look at everything in front of me and say, "Alright, now how do I solve this puzzle with these things at my disposal," because I'm never sure that I've found or activated every little goddamn thing I need to activate in the right way, in the right order.
I think I managed to break the game, but I don't hold that against it since it's an uncompleted demo (I'm gonna restart and dive in more tomorrow). I got to the sewer escape and moved to the room with the guard, but when I moved back, the propeller thing + broom was gone from my inventory.
I thought the things you could click on and interact with were fairly straightfoward. I'll give you the light bulb having to be in first before being able to put on the cone, but from what I played, the game was pretty good about about not making the game a pixel hunt. In general, I had collected most of the items on the screen pretty early on, and then spent most of my time figuring out how to utilize them.
I can see how not being able to interact with everything on the screen whenever you want could be annoying, but I actually think it works well as a design choice. It prevents you from just flailing your mouse across the screen to see what you can interact with -- it makes you think a little bit more about what's available to you, what you need to do to access certain parts of each room, and the benefits of being tall vs. small. That actually has been my biggest criticism of recent adventure / "escape the room games." They either become the 2-pixel hunts you're talking about, or they become a "just click on everything as fast as you can to figure out what's up" kind of deal; I think this strikes a good balance. You very quickly figure out where you can and can't walk to, and then have to ascertain what's important, what height you need to be, and figure out a way to get from place to place in enough time to do what you need to do.
It just feels like lazy design to me, in a way. Like, why bother designing legitimately interesting and forthcoming puzzles in the same way that Professor Layton does, when you could just force the player to hunt around for little bibs and bobs before they can actually do any real thinking? I don't mean to compare the game to Layton, because it's so obviously different, but that game and a few recent adventure titles I've played (the better episodes of Telltale's episodic series, for instance) really pleased me in that they often outright told you what needed to be done and what objects you had at your disposal, and then forced you to think within those constraints. I don't really see the virtue in being needlessly vague when it comes to puzzle-solving.
Machinarium is almost never upfront about what those constraints are, so when I solved a puzzle (like figuring out that I was supposed to pull a lever by yanking on the stair bannister next to it), it felt less like a solution I'd legitimately come to of my own strategy and more like someone revealing the answer of a trick question.
I guess I disagree that the puzzles are vague -- I think they just require a bit more thinking than the average puzzle game.
You can figure out pretty quickly that you need to get into the door the carts go into, but it soon becomes obvious that the door is only open for a short time. The hook you pick up fairly early on, and you can see that it matches the hook at the bottom part of the banister. Attaching the hook to the top part was actually the very first thing I figured out on that puzzle - it took me longer to figure out how to get to the shovel/ramp up at the top of the screen.
I certainly agree with you that the game is difficult, but that's something I don't mind. I'm right with you in that I don't like games with puzzles that make zero sense, but I feel like these puzzles do -- it just takes a bit more time and a different style of thinking to figure them out. While I felt stuck at a couple points (again, I didn't get super far), when I finally figured it out, I never felt like the solution was unfair; I just realized that I had gone about solving it the wrong way initially. The goals seem relatively straightforward, but figuring out how to accomplish them requires a lot more lateral thinking than the average puzzle game.
Oh my gosh, I never thought I would say this (out loud), but I vehemently disagree with you on this one, Anthony. I know we are going to battle to the death on a volcano, but it was comforting to know that before it happened we could talk about how amazing Half-Life 2 and Shadow of the Colossus are. Now, we have something to argue about before I throw your weeping body into a pool of molten lava. Fun!
I feel that Machinarium is the perfect adventure game. The puzzles don't feel needlessly hard to me at all, and part of the reason I love it is because of the details like having to stand next to everything before interacting with objects. To me, it adds a whole new level of depth to what could have been a pretty generic adventure game.
Obviously, I love adventure games more than words, but one thing I miss about newer adventure games is the puzzle-solving mechanics of the really old school variety. I don't know if you have even played them, Anthony, but the early Sierra games forced you to actually type in verbs and nouns to solve all the puzzles -- kind of a text/graphic adventure hybrid. When you typed simple things like "look under rock" you had to be standing directly over the rock you were talking about. In newer adventure games, you can literally just stand in place and do everything by clicking on objects, regardless of where your character is staying. I still love the mechanic, but the transition to this never really made any practical sense to me. With Machinarium, this older way of thinking is making a grand comeback in such a refreshing way.
I do agree with you that if the puzzles were horribly obscure this would be endlessly frustrating, but I don't think that is the case at all. To reference one of your examples about the traffic cone and the light bulb: I, too, did what you did, and tried to join the two items together before using them on myself, which obviously didn't work. I then tried to use the traffic cone on my robot's head followed by the light bulb, which, again, didn't work. Once I figured out you had to use the light bulb on the head first, and then the cone, it worked. But, honestly, this made sense to me looking back! The light bulb had to be screwed in his head to power it, and that couldn't be done with the traffic cone in the way. To you it may be an annoyance of game design, but to me it is a glorious detail that sets it far apart from other adventure games. Most games wouldn't care how you use specific items, as long as you use them. With Machinarium, the satisfaction and admiration I have for the game is in the unbelievable details the game offers.
I have made it a long way through the demo so far, and have never been too stuck to get frustrated. Sure, some parts took me forever to figure out, but that is part of the reason I love it. You eventually figure the puzzles out and, when you do, it feels so good. It's like you accomplished something really satisfying!
I know I have already written a lot, but I do also want to quickly talk about how absolutely gorgeous Machinarium is. Seriously, I don't think I have seen a hand-drawn adventure game -- or any hand-drawn game, for that matter -- look this beautiful. And the animation is superb! I love the way that communication between the robots in the game is handled through beautifully animated, text-free thought bubbles. They are such a clever touch. Have you gotten to the part where you have to help the robot band fix their instruments? Each of the band members tells a little story about how the robot bully in the game stole the parts to their instruments, and the visual thought bubbles that accompany each story are unbelievably cute.
I still have a few screens left before I finish the extended demo, but I have already fallen in love with Machinarium. Honestly, this could easily be one of my favorite games of the year once it is finished and polished up just a little bit more.
I'll meet you on the volcano, Anthony. :)
If you enjoyed the old-school Sierra parser interface, I can more readily understand why you'd enjoy Machinarium. I hated parsers because you were basically playing a game of "try to guess what the designer is thinking," which is admittedly what most adventure games are, but they put so much focus on the irrelevant parts of the puzzle-solving (what exact words need to be typed to complete something you have a pretty general idea of what to do, trying to figure out exactly what commands the parser will and will not understand) that most of those older games are frustrating far more often than they aren't.
By building a wall between player and puzzle via the arbitrary proximity and height restrictions, I feel pretty much the same needless frustration I did when playing Leisure Suit Larry 2 (except this time I don't get rewarded with tits).
But yeah, the art is fantastic and the story bits are really cute.
Also, I just want to clarify -- I'm not calling for a way-too-easy adventure game structure where all you really have to do is click everything in a random order and eventually you'll come across a solution (as is the case in the lesser Telltale episodes). I just want the game to be forthcoming about what items and basic devices you've got at your disposal, so you can focus on solving the puzzle with what you've got rather than (ironically) running all around the screen trying to click everything in close proximity just to make sure you've collected everything you can. Haven't you ever looked up a walkthrough for an old adventure game or something, only to find the reason you were stuck is because you hadn't found a secret little inventory item tucked away on some corner of the screen? When you finally solved the puzzle after getting that little bit of help, it didn't feel transcendent or cool -- it felt unsatisfying and douchey.
I actually totally agree with you on that last part -- well, maybe I wouldn't use the term "douchey," though. Haha. Having recently played through a handful of old Sierra games, I was considering writing a feature on how they are almost physically impossible to beat without some sort of guide or, at the time, pay-per-minute hint line. In that regard, I see what you are saying.
But, again, I guess I don't feel this way about Machinarium. Getting back to another previous point, you talk about having to stand right next to all the stuff you can interact with. This may seem annoying, but the game does something clever to help with this. The walk mechanic in the game is not like a normal walk icon in most adventure games. In Machinarium, when you click on the cute moving robot feet icon, your character only will move to "hot spots," or places where you can interact with/pick up something. It's not that you have to wander the screen looking for the perfect place to stand in order to interact with something. I just think this is a very important thing to point out, as it really helps with guiding you ever-so-slightly in the right direction. It keeps aimless searching to a minimum.
I do get what you are saying, though, and I guess it just comes down to what kind of game people are looking for. I feel everything in the game is prefectly realized (and perfectly logical), but I also might be hypnotzed by the game's beauty and slightly giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Most importantly, I think anyone (and I really mean anyone) that likes adventure games should give Machinarium a try. You won't know whether you fall into the Anthony or Chad/Jonathan boat until you try it, and it really is too beautiful and impressive to just ignore. Judge for yourself and I am sure you will quickly realize that Anthony is totally wrong. :) :) :)
Or more likely, you'll realize Chad is a little bitch.
I have to side with Anthony on this one. Um, not that last part, but the rest. I love Chad!
Machinarium is an absolutely gorgeous game, but in my opinion, that is its downfall. My biggest problem with it is that everything blends in with the background too well. I realize that the design choices that the creators went with were made to help immerse the player deeper into the robot character's little world, but I feel that this often works against the gameplay. I may just be stupid (I love puzzle games, but I'm not the greatest at them), but I found that most movable/usable items were overly hard to pick out, even when the "hot spots" place you within arm's reach of them. The things you can interact with glow, but very softly, and when you don't know what you're looking for, it won't pop out at you as something to pay attention to. In many instances, I didn't have to flail around to see what could be interacted with. I just had to walk from hot spot to hot spot beforehand, which added to my frustration with solving the puzzles. I rarely felt clever after solving my way to the next screen, only relieved to be done with the puzzle. I don't think that's the feeling I should be having.
I don't think outlining everything that can be touched in glowing red is the solution, but I do think that they could do with a bit of resizing. A lot of the movable/usable items are very small and inconspicuous -- I would be more inclined to try and click on them if there were a little more there to click/be highlighted when I hover my mouse over it. There are also moments when the game gives you no clues as to whether or not you are clicking the right or wrong thing. Sometimes the robot will shake his head no, and if you're in the right place to place an item, it will be placed, but most other times, if you try to do something, nothing happens. There is a surpising lack of positive and negative reinforcement to help you along.
The puzzles aren't completely illogical in how they are solved, but they make for a bumpy ride regardless. For a game that is set up to provide the player with an experience that pushes the concept of exploration, the very little leeway given when it comes to putting the pieces of the puzzle together kind of ruins it for me. I was excited to find that I could combine items in my inventory on the first screen, and then when I had two items that I knew had to be combined on the next screen (the cone and light bulb), I couldn't. It is cute that the robot has to screw the light bulb into his head first to make it work, but I would have never had the eureka moment to do that. Why couldn't I have just combined the two and then screwed the finished hat in? That makes more sense to me, especially after just being made aware of the item combination ability.
I have really been looking forward to this game for a long time because of its art style, and it's pretty disappointing to find that the gameplay doesn't mesh too well with it. It could be a really great little adventure game, but there is a lot holding it back, making it more frustrating than fun. But then again, that's just my opinion.
Uh oh, I feel a West Side Story-style gang fight brewin' between Ashley/Anthony and Chad/Jonathan concerning Machinarium.
I have already started snapping! :)
I'm glad we're using dance instead of knives.
I'm using a knife.
Your knife has nothing on my jazz hands.
I actually tape knives to my shoes and then do capoeira.