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The Games Of Christmas: December 4th

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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