Machinarium: Gameplay and Hints

I’m pretty sure I’m nearing the end of this game. Like many adventures, it’s fairly short. And unlike Samorost, in which each room is a self-contained mini-adventure, Machinarium has a layout that returns on itself a lot and makes you revisit locations for different purposes and from different directions. One of the first locations has a bridge that you try to cross, only to slip on an oil slick and fall into the lower city; the same location appears again, from the other side of the bridge, much later on.

The puzzle content turns out to be mainly a mix of self-contained mini-games and environmental inventory-item use. There’s a little bit of combining of inventory items thrown in, but only in fairly obvious ways, and a little bit of Myst-style contraptioneering, but not nearly as much as you might expect given that the setting is all about fanciful machines. Some of the self-contained puzzles are old chestnuts, including one or two that even appeared in The Seventh Guest [EDIT: Looks like I’m wrong about that. See comments.], but others seem to be genuinely original, like when you have to find a minimal way to block the flow of water through a complicated tangle of branching pipes. I had fun with these puzzles, and didn’t get truly stuck on them once.

And this is one of the clearer examples.The environmental puzzles, on the other hand, I’ve got stuck on several times, either as a result of not noticing a clickable item or simply because the required action was one of those unpredictable ones that you need to just try rather than figure out. Fortunately, there’s an excellent in-game hint system, one I like so much that I’m actually kind of glad that I got stuck so that I could experience it properly. First, every scene has one free hint that displays, in a thought balloon from Josef, a picture of your ultimate goal for that scene. It’s a bit like the high-level course correction that some text adventures provide in response to the command “help” or “think”. This has never really been enough for me when I’ve resorted to hints, but I appreciate that it’s there, because if I actually had been so off-base in my thinking that all I needed was a statement of intent to put me right (as has happened in other games), I wouldn’t want or need anything more detailed. Second, you can access a more detailed depiction of every action you have to take in your current room. This is the part that I described as being “in comics form” in my last post, but let me describe it more fully now: it’s in the form of an opened book, with line drawings on the right-hand page while the left-hand page is filled with text in a made-up alphabet and perhaps an explanatory illustration that you can puzzle out the significance of, kind of like the Codex Seraphinianus. The panels depicting the actions, too, require a certain amount of interpretation — even though they’re illustrations, you have to read them — and they leave out any steps that have to be performed in a different room, such as picking up inventory items. While the absence of a particular action you were expecting in the hints for your current room can itself be a significant clue, the fact that it’s left out helps it to feel like you’re figuring out the last steps yourself instead of just following directions. Secret: the Spiders of Josef HintbookThis sense is further helped by the way you access the full hints: by playing a mini-game, a crude scrolling shooter with Gameboy-style graphics in which you guide a key through spider-infested tunnels to a waiting keyhole. It’s not an engaging enough activity that I’d ever choose it when I’m not stuck, but it puts a speed bump on the process of getting hints, makes them non-free in a way that I think works better than rationing out hint tokens or whatever. It’s not too difficult once you’ve worked out how to work it, but can still take me three or four tries to get through, and that’s enough to make me feel like I’m not cheating. I earned those hints.

5 Comments so far

  1. Merus on 16 Sep 2011

    “Some of the self-contained puzzles are old chestnuts, including one or two that even appeared in The Seventh Guest”

    please be soup cans
    please be soup cans

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 16 Sep 2011

    Alas no. The famous soup-cans puzzle was word-based and would thus violate Machinarium‘s no-words policy.

    And actually, now that I look at a walkthrough of T7G, I think I was wrong about the two games sharing any puzzles. I had been thinking of the Four Knights puzzle in particular: it appears in only slightly disguised form in Machinarium, and I could have sworn it was in T7G as well, but no. I’m sure I’ve seen it in some other first-person soup-can-oriented graphic adventure, though.

    The one other puzzle that really struck me as well-worn was the Leapfrog puzzle, which I’m really sure I’ve seen in some Myst imitation or other, but not in T7G

  3. matt w on 17 Sep 2011

    As I said in comments to the previous post, I wound up using online walkthroughs; I just couldn’t get anywhere with the mini-game, though it’s possible that I just didn’t understand the control scheme. I have a thought here about different types of gameplay on a very broad scale, meaning basically time-sensitive versus time-insensitive. Most of Machinarium is time-insensitive (or very mildly time-sensitive, like one puzzle where Josef has to get across a screen and be ready to do something before an animation finishes). But the key game is very time-sensitive, so the size of the speed bump depends on how good you are at a fundamentally different style of game than the game you’re playing.

    On the other hand, some later parts of Machinarium become more time-sensitive in a certain way. No spoilers since I don’t know how far along you are, but I think the use of that is kind of interested.

    I’m also interested in your thoughts on the politics of Machinarium, which may not be entirely apparent until the end of the game. At the very beginning it looks like Machinarium is a completely oppressive society that you’ll be fighting back against, but I don’t think it plays out entirely like that in the end. Most of the ordinary citizens seem perfectly benign, so that’s part of it, but not all.

  4. Carl Muckenhoupt on 18 Sep 2011

    If you’re talking about the defuse-the-bomb puzzle, it’s kind of a fake time-sensitivity. You get as many retries as you like, and the puzzle doesn’t change. It actually reminded me a little of the time bombs found at the end of those Japanese object-disassembly Flash games in that respect, except that those usually keep things a little tense by randomizing things or being hard to manipulate quickly, whereas here, it’s just a single picture-puzzle occasionally reset by basically irrelevant explosions. If the time limit bothers you, you could pause the game and solve it from a screenshot.

    As to the politics, your reaction was very different from mine. I never got the impression that the society was supposed to be oppressive or that I was supposed to be fighting it. Run-down and crime-ridden, sure, but that makes it a job for Batman, not Robin Hood. The two police-bots who refuse you entry at the city gate at the beginning come off as strutting martinets, but I didn’t think that implied much — that’s the sort of demeanor you expect of a gate guard you have to trick your way past in an adventure game regardless of the context, just because it makes the player feel better about tricking them. And not long after that, we got a flashback showing the bad guys pausing in their mistreatment of Josef when a police-bot walks by, which to my mind established that the police are, if not my friends, then at least my allies. The people who throw you into a jail cell aren’t the established order, they’re the people trying to blow up the city’s central tower. So no, I don’t think the fact that you wind up fighting to preserve the system instead of topple it comes off as an unexpected twist.

  5. matt w on 18 Sep 2011

    I meant the Space Invaders game and the game inside the leader’s head, actually. I agree about the fake time-sensitivity of the bomb, and thought that was a nice touch. Even the Space Invaders/Berzerk games seemed to me like they were meant to give a flavor of time-based play without actually frustrating you too much, though maybe people who are even less coordinated than me would feel different.

    On the politics, I suppose that my initial impression came from the militarism of the gate guards, especially since they’re keeping out a citizens who’s been consigned to the junkyard, namely you. The jailhouse sequence also seemed oppressive, though maybe the most oppressive guy here is one of the Black Cap Brotherhood. (I didn’t remember the bit with the police-bot that you mentioned; as you may guess, it’s been a while since I played.)

    But overall my impression of Machinarium was sclerosis. The city is creaky and crumbling, the ruler is nodding off in his much more luxurious tower having fallen under the villain’s sway, and if the apparatus of justice isn’t meant to be oppressive it sure is easily corruptible and unforgiving. (That is to say, there aren’t any safeguards against some criminal just redirecting the police bot to vacuum up some innocent bystander, and there doesn’t seem to be any recourse once that happened.) And the happy ending is an escape.

    All that made me wonder if it was influenced by the later days of communism; Jakub Dvorsky seems to have been born in ’78 or ’79 so it’s not totally beyond the bounds of possibility.

    (BTW, I thought that taking drastic action against the Black Cap Brotherhood was probably justified by the bomb, though it’s not clear why the BCB need to set the bomb at all. The one really act of cruelty I found really gratuitous is what Josef does to the ventilator bot.)

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