The Games Of Christmas: December 4th

By RPS on December 4th, 2009 at 11:57 am.


Friday, and the end of our first week of door-opening. More of the best is yet to come, of course, including today’s offering, which we count as one of the most fascinating accomplishments of 2009. But what could it be? Only a journey through the electronic portal of our incredible seasonal advent calendar will tell you. Follow the hand of the one true leader of the Autobots as we discover…

Machinarium!

John: Just the little animations that played out in the robot’s imagination were enough. Those sequences showing him playing with his friend, hiding from the mean robot cops, and sometimes getting caught and punished, carried enough emotional weight that the rest of the game could have been bouncing a ball against a wall and I’d still have been happy. However, they were just one tiny ingredient in a game that overwhelmed with adorable detail. Machinarium not only understood what makes adventure games great, but understood how to tell a story – something that’s incredibly rare.

Most immediately striking is the art design. We already knew that Jakub Dvorský had incredible talent from the combination of cartoon and photographic collage that were the basis for the Samorost games, and his hand-drawn skills shown in BBC educational game, Questionaut. But Machinarium goes further, its hand-painted backdrops jaw-droppingly lovely, the animated characters within it – here’s that word again – adorable. It’s a game you want to call people into the room to look at, each new location something to pore over, spotted minuscule details, microscopic jokes.

The puzzles themselves combine two different styles. There’s very traditional inventory puzzles, which is often a way of saying, “Click everything on everything until you find the thing that works.” That’s somewhat true in places here – clearly the band’s didgeridoo-thing springs to mind. However, it’s often far more intuitive. And in that band case, it’s hard to care about any preceding frustration when the end result is the delighted group playing their jazzy number while your robot does the cutest dance ever performed. Also, getting stuck wasn’t a big stumbling block. Rather than having to head to GameFAQs to hunt down an answer, Machinarium has a two-level hint system. First there’s a general clue for what you’re aiming to do in a location. This is a great idea, especially if you’re coming back to the game after a day and have lost your place. Then there’s the hint book – a step by step pictorial guide for each location, but locked behind a small, reasonably simple mini-arcade game. You must fly a key through a side-scrolling chamber of spiky rocks and descending spiders. It’s elementary to complete, but it also takes a minute or so, meaning the incentive to cheat and peek at the answer is hindered. You could just get the solution, but it’s going to be a hassle. The mini-game was cleverly pitched at being perfectly acceptable, but not really that much fun.

Then there’s the puzzly puzzles. Sets of switches to align, tiles to arrange, and a five-in-a-row game that’s so hard you have to get your housemate Graham to complete it for you. (I think that puzzle might be the game’s big failing – I know of at least one enthusiastic player who never got past it.) These manage to avoid cliché, the sliding tile puzzle at first eliciting a weary groan from me, before realising that it was a cunning twist on the form.

Tomáš Dvořák’s music once more scores an Amanita game, and he once more triumphs. More than ever before the music is a part of the world. The band’s tune, the wrench’s dance song, each area’s score – it’s phenomenal. (And comes with the game if you buy it directly from Amanita.)

But what I love most is the emotion that pulses through the game. Comparisons with Pixar feel dangerously bold to make, but I’m dangerously bold. Dvorský has the narrative delicacy and artistic talent to engender that same resonance that makes films like WALL-E so extraordinary. I don’t pay this compliment lightly. It’s in a big part about what’s not said, what’s not spelt out for you. The story of friendship between the two robots is barely enunciated. It’s a wisp, floating inside an oppressive and dingy world of fascistic robot police and towering archaic architecture. When you first see your captured friend through the window to the kitchen you feel the gasp of potential for hope, introduced so gently through the remembered moments of play in your character’s daydreams.

Machinarium is beautiful.

Jim: For all regularly kicking of the adventure genre that I and others give, there are moments when it delivers some of the best aspects of gaming. I can’t really add much to what John has said, other than to note how it felt like opening some kind of exquisitely expressed imaginative package, and examining the tiny details, not for any other reason that joy of seeing it come alive.

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32 Comments »

  1. Ian says:

    Still need to get this. Am trying to behave myself with purchases but this is one of the ones making that difficult.

  2. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    *Reminds himself to get back to Machinarium* Great game. Wonderfully atmospheric and bewildering. And what John said.

  3. phil says:

    This was easily my second favourite adventure game of the year, if they had only given you the opportunity to solve a puzzle via facilitating rat necrophilia, it would have easily taken the top spot, my criteria are harsh but fair.

  4. ordteapot says:

    This is going to be in both the UK and US direct2drive Christmas sales, although on which day isn’t particularly clear. Nor is how much the discount will be. Man, I’m just full of information.

  5. Richard Clayton says:

    Main image clicky linky URL is broken, chaps

  6. toni says:

    hmm, i dare to raise them above pixar. while pixar managed to do something bold with the FIRST hour of WALLY the rest was – by the numbers – and cliche ridden breaking the flow of the previous movie I was watching and that suddenly disappeared into DarlingTheHumansAreFat. Machinarium starts, continues through and ends in the same remarkable style and brilliance and that is the biggest accomplishment.

    • malkav11 says:

      And yet, WALL-E is hardly Pixar’s only movie, or indeed their greatest triumph (that would be Up).

      I guess it’s the one drawing the comparisons because it’s also got a heavy emphasis on robots?

  7. Mike says:

    It’s the kind of game you get falling out of a posh Christmas cracker. Small, intricate and very fun. It’s also one of those lovely games that ‘non-gamers’ will sit at and play with.

  8. Risingson says:

    I already made a 7.5/10 review in our site (spanish http://www.aventuraycia.com , not highlighted to spam only the necessary). It’s a great showcase of art, and a pityful collection of puzzles which are not better than the ones in Gobliins but are overhyped for its visuals only. Sliders should be considered a negative presence always.

    Anyway, that’s videogames nowadays: cuteness is always considered better than design. This game is cute, very cute, but that cuteness wears fast. Comparing it to Pixar movies, where there are not only technical achievements but ALWAYS a very solid and brilliant script and dialogues is just unfair for Pixar. But anyway.

    • Lilliput King says:

      Nah I’m good.

      Oh wait – Story and setting aren’t technical achievements either. In fact, it isn’t really the art that makes the game great (though it contributes) – it’s the ambience, generated by the music, character design and environments.

      To sum all that up as ‘cuteness’ seems vaguely derogatory. You cite Pixar films’ dialogue and script as a target Machinarium falls short of, but to me Pixar dialogue and storylines almost always seem contrived, predictable and dull. There are other ways of telling a story, as Machinarium (and the first little bit of WALL-E, I guess) can aptly demonstrate.

      To the other point, though, I guess I’m not one of those people who plays adventure games for the dang puzzles. Can barely stand the things. I played Time Gentlemen Please, Monkey Island and Grim Fandango because they’re well written and funny, not because I actually enjoy the tiresome, arbitrary mechanics that require me to use everything on everything else.

    • Psychopomp says:

      “I didn’t like the puzzles, so everyone else must be giving it a free pass for its visuals!”

    • Kakksakkamaddafakka says:

      Uh, yeah, I’ll stick to adventuregame sites that actually enjoy puzzles, thank you very much.

      Oh, and your score is wrong by the way, it’s supposed to be 10/10.

    • Taillefer says:

      I find it odd you gave it such a high score then. A “pitiful collection of puzzles” can’t be worth much, so the rest of the score must be based on visuals, right? Seems you’re the one caught up in the hype.

      I, however, love the game. And give it lots of electronic cuddles.

  9. Snuffy (the Evil) says:

    It’s on my “Indie-to-get” list, which means I’m probably never going to get around to buying it. “World of Goo” is still item number 1, for Pete’s sake.

  10. mcw says:

    They made the 5-in-a-row puzzle easier with the latest patch: http://machinarium.net/blog/2009/11/29/machinarium-patch-02/

    • Fede says:

      It wasn’t bad before, but I can understand if someone got stuck there, as you always had the handicap of playing second. Alternating the first to play would have made it easier, without weakening the AI.

      I found it the right amount of challenging as it was, and returned to it to distract myself when I got stuck in other places.

    • mcw says:

      I think I got it on the fourth or fifth try, I’m curious to see how it plays after the patch. It sounds like they made the AI play worse after a couple of defeats.

    • jsutcliffe says:

      I actually liked that puzzle — all my training on Go Moku on my dad’s BBC Micro finally came in handy.

    • Lambchops says:

      I played 5 in a row again after hearing people moan about it so much and won just as easily as i did the first time.

      i only bring this up because I’ve been on the recieving end of “that’s because you suck at games” type arguments many a time and I’ll take my petty revenge when I can!

      Machinarium was indeed wonderful.

  11. DMJ says:

    I haven’t been able to play an adventure since…

    um…

    Toonstruck. Yeah, it was definitely Toonstruck.

  12. sana says:

    The post-opening picture fits extremely well with the one in that showcasing box you got on the main page!

  13. Markside says:

    I must say, I’m really offended by this calendar you’ve got going on. I’ve always thought of Horace’s Endlessness as being expressed in a more fractaline manner – his infinite circumference of ever repeating bear anatomy an expression of the platonic perfection and ultimate nature of his bearness, which shall never be surpassed. To show him merely as some sort of extended sausage-bear is both misguided and silly.

  14. KilgoreTrout XL says:

    I liked the looks of the demo. I couldn’t get across the bridge on the second screen though, which makes me kinda stupid I suppose, and I felt that clicking the hint button on the game’s second puzzle would have started a bad trend.

  15. Kakksakkamaddafakka says:

    Still doesn’t beat Boris at 0:45

  16. CAGer says:

    This game is hinted to be on sale at Direct2Drive as part of their “24 days of Christmas” promotion.

  17. somnolentsurfer says:

    I’m fairly proud that I own every one of RPS’s calendar games so far. Or perhaps that just means I put to much stead by what the hivemind tells me. Either way, this is my favourite of the week. There’s not really much to add to add to what John says other than that, in my opinion, it’s the best new adventure since The Longest Journey.

  18. undead dolphin hacker says:

    It’s an adventure game?

    Nevermind then.

  19. sbs says:

    How do i find out which machinarium version i have anyways.

  20. Pijama says:

    Machinarium’s soundtrack has bossa nova.

    Czech bossa nova.

    I can say that I have listened to everything now.

  21. Kua says:

    Hands down, my game of 2010. Well I’ve barely played any other new games, which begs the question, why am I loitering here?

  22. Ricc says:

    Just bought it on Direct2Drive, since it’s only £7.50 there, during today’s deal. I know, that’s not as good as buying it from Amanita’s website, but it will do. ;)

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