Machinarium: Final Thoughts

I said that I’d finish Machinarium on the PC rather than the iPad, but it turns out I was wrong. I can blame my lengthy bus commute, but that’s only part of it. Despite what I said before, it turns out that the touchscreen version of the interface is easier to use in some situations, particularly when you’re pressing on-screen buttons repeatedly. With a touchscreen, you can hold one finger over each button, essentially treating the screen like a keyboard. With a mouse, and without the hotkeys that usually accompany button-based interfaces in PC apps, you have to keep looking back at the buttons to reposition the cursor over the one you want, and that means briefly looking away from whatever the button affects. This is particularly bad in action sequences.

Action sequences? Yes, there are a few, adaptations of old videogames. I’ve already described one: the shooter that grants access to the hints. In addition, there’s a simplified Space Invaders at one point, and, towards the end, a maze-based shooter in a style that reminded me a lot of Atari 2600 Adventure (even if the gameplay was more like Berserk). The context for the Space Invaders is simply an arcade, but the maze game seems to be about cleaning up the software corruption left behind by the bad guys in the mind of the big-headed robot in the city’s central tower.

The bad guys in question are a small band of criminals in black hats who are seen stealing things and even planting a bomb throughout and before the game. Josef recognizes them: they’re responsible, it turns out, for his condition at the beginning of the game, in pieces in a scrapyard, and also show up in a few little flashbacks where Josef remembers when they were mere schoolyard bullies, shaking him down for pocket change and knocking him off the jungle gym, thereby justifying any horrible thing Josef might do to him in return.

Which, of course, provokes the question of whether, and why, robots need to go to school, but the rule of this game is that robots can engage in any sort of human behavior if it’s funny or makes for a decent puzzle. A couple of scenes have toilets in them. An early scene in a jail cell has a cellmate who wants a cigarette, although I suppose that in a sense it makes more sense for robots to smoke than for people to do so. One of the bad guys’ nefarious deeds was to kidnap Josef’s girlfriend and force her to work in the kitchen of a sleazy bar, raising the question of why a robot needs a kitchen, although somehow the “girlfriend” part, with the implication that robots are gendered, doesn’t seem so strange. Well, our concept of gender is at least as much social as biological. Presumably it’s entirely social for robots.

There’s a brief bit where the player even gets to control the girlfriend, which yields one of the game’s better jokes, especially considering that it’s a repeat of a joke you’ve seen over and over by that point. One of the first things we learn about Josef is that his inventory is in his abdomen, and whenever he picks something up or takes it out to use it, he hinges his head open at the mouth like the lid of a trash can. It’s a great sight gag because it combines so many incongruities: he’s turning himself into an inanimate object, but he’s also eating something or vomiting it out, while at the same time being completely unconcerned about what it is or what it’s made of unless its physical properties affect the process of insertion or retrieval (as when he sucks in a length of hose like a child eating spaghetti). Now, one of the things that genders the girlfriend is that her face is more delicate and less machine-like than Josef’s. It would still look monstrous on a human, but relative to the other robots, she’s downright pretty. So when she handles inventory the same way — something she doesn’t even look physically capable of doing — it comes as an extra shock. But it’s also touching in a way, because it also reinforces the sense of a bond between the two of them. They’re two little robot geeks who approach the world the same way.

Also, it helps that there are flashbacks, in the form of line art in thought balloons, showing Josef and girlfriend in happier times. I’ve only seen a couple such — apparently more appear when you stand still in certain locations, which means you’re bound to see one or two over the course of the game, but not more than that unless you’re looking for them. Now that I’m done, I may do that. This strikes me as something that’s missing from most games with kidnapped-girlfriend plots: some indication of what the hero is trying to recover.

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.


If Josef had the jumping ability he has in SMB, he wouldn't need to push those crates around.In my weekend Super Meat Boy session, I unlocked a new playable character: Josef, the protagonist of Machinarium, a game that, coincidentally, was recently ported to the iPad. Taking this as a cue to finally play the thing, which has been languishing on the Stack ever since its inclusion in a Humble Indie Bundle, I have now gotten a taste of both the PC and iPad versions.

Machinarium was created by the same team as Samorost and its sequel, and has something of the same feel. It’s a more coherent world, both logically and artistically, and more like a conventional point-and-click adventure, with an inventory, and an avatar whose actions you control and who goes where you click (although only approximately: it’s more like he has a set of fixed positions that he can move between, but the UI presents it as if it were classic Sierra/Lucasarts-style navigation). But it has something of the sensibilities of a twitch-and-wiggle game, where you seldom know at first what a given click will bring. Even the splash screen emphasized this: the very first thing you see in the game is the title drawn in thick letters with a scribbly fill (anticipating the illustrative style used throughout), which warp and morph when the cursor passes over them.

Our cleverer readers may now be wondering how they manage that on the iPad, which doesn’t have a cursor in the same sense as the PC. The answer is that they don’t. The iPad version skips the splash screen entirely. This is just one of several small ways in which the PC version is superior.  The lack of a persistent cursor on the touchscreen means that there’s less feedback about what’s clickable; the game shows a cursor briefly when you tap things, but you lose the passive feedback. There are a few places where the iOS version compensates for this by superimposing arrows on the screen to indicate actions you might otherwise miss (which is particularly important in timed sequences), but this is an inelegant solution. I suppose that for some people the convenience of portability, or even just love of Apple, will counterbalance these deficiencies, but I intend to finish the game with a mouse, even though I’m farther along on the iPad at this point.

Now, I said that the protagonist is named Josef, but I have to take Ed McMillen’s word for this, because, like Samorost, the game itself is completely wordless (apart from a few early tooltips that instruct the player in basic controls). Even the hints are wordless, showing rather than telling the actions you must take, in comics form. Talking with other characters yields voice-like squeals and gibberish, often accompanied by a cartoon-style speech balloon bearing a picture of what that character wants from you. In typical adventure-game fashion, this usually means a sub-goal you need to achieve to get what you want from them, but there’s at least one case where it’s a complete red herring. I think the use of pictures instead of words made this particularly unexpected: how could I doubt the existence of an item I had seen?

Josef is a robot, as are all the inhabitants of the city where the game takes place, including the animals. (Possibly the city itself is called Machinarium? As with Josef’s name, this is unclear from the game content.) It’s a ramshackle place and the robots all seem old and dented and in need of a good cleaning and oiling, badly repaired or perhaps just awkwardly designed. But it’s a graceful sort of awkwardness. Josef himself frequently displays a machine’s imperviousness to discomfort, for example allowing himself to go stiff, tip over, and fall from a ladder instead of going to the effort of climbing down. In effect, he temporarily becomes an inanimate object during this animation. A city of robots is a place where the distinction between the animate and the inanimate is not rigid, and that cuts both ways: any machine can become a character, with its own motivations and opinions. It’s a bit like what Syberia was trying to do, but to a greater extreme and with more of a sense of humor.