The Music Machine, by one-man-developer David Szymanski, does not go where you think it’s going. It sets up an interesting premise, then veers off in a completely unexpected direction. Usually that’s a bad thing, but in this case, it’s a very good thing. It goes from interesting to fascinating, and establishes a world that I desperately want to dig into more deeply.
You play as Haley, a 13-year-old girl. Or rather, you play as Quentin, a 34-year-old man. You actually play as both of them at the same time. See, Quentin is dead. He’s a ghost. He has possessed Haley, taking control of her body, and has spent the last three months with her trying to find the worst death that he can imagine for her. The game opens with them landing on a small island that recently witnessed a brutal mass murder.
At first, you don’t know why they’re there. The mysteries of their relationship and quest are compelling, and the game is impressively restrained in presenting exposition. The details come slowly through natural sounding dialogue, and once the game has established the personalities of these characters, it trusts us to extrapolate an unspoken motivation. For example, the game never explicitly says that Quentin came here hoping a serial killer would kill Haley, but he does say that he wants her to die. He’s also very intent on finding thst killer. The game trusts us to put two and two together. That said, the game does explain their history and Quentin’s reasons for wanting Haley dead.
These details could be considered a kind of spoiler, but the game isn’t really about Haley and Quentin and their unique relationship. Instead, it uses their situation to explore the nature of evil, contrasting Quentin’s methodical vengeance against the dangers of naiveté and premeditated evil versus accidental evil. Surprisingly, the game makes a strong case for the latter being worse: It’s so much easier to commit horrible acts when you don’t realize or care that you’re committing horrible acts.
The writing is consistently fantastic, able to evoke a lot of personality through just a few lines of dialogue. There’s no voice acting, conversations appear here just through text, but each character has such a well defined way of speaking, so that you don’t even have to look at the name of who is talking at any given moment to know who is currently chattering at the other. You can tell by their choice of words and the cadence of those words. It can often be difficult to convey emotion through plain dialogue, without any supporting text, but The Music Machine is able to convey not just emotion, but nuance as well through its written language. It’s not just a matter of word choice, but how conversations are constructed, how the two characters play off each other. There are times when I can practically hear their voices whispering, whimpering, shouting, or cracking in fear even without any kind of punctuation to express those tones.
The art is similarly impressive. The Music Machine paints its world with just two colors at a time. The island is bathed in pumpkin orange, and its shadows are pitch black. It’s a perfect color contrast: light and dark, like dusk or dawn, peaceful and yet slightly otherworldly.
Rather than paint the entire game in these shades, The Music Machine knows when to change its palette. At one point, you’ll go underground, and the brick tunnel is a dirty green, perfectly conveying decay and mold. These tunnels look and feel like they could collapse at any moment. The colors continue to change with each new location you visit, and it works wonders in conveying mood and tone. Unlike other games that stick to a single monochromatic style the whole way through, The Music Machine uses its changing palette to evoke new fears and new uncertainties abput the nature of each new place that you explore.
This is a dark and disturbing game that confronts the uncomfortable implications of its premise, yet it never wallows in that darkness. It’s ultimately a story of hope, of a bad man who can’t help but do good when faced with true evil. Quentin is a terrible person: Curt and dismissive at best, cruel and vindictive at worst, who has lost everything and has nothing holding him back from his worst impulses. And yet, his premeditation suggests an emotional thoughtfulness that true evil lacks.
True evil doesn’t hate. It simply doesn’t care.
The Music Machine is available on Steam for $5.00. It actually takes place in the same universe as one of Szymanski’s other games, The Moon Sliver, which is also available on Steam for $2.00. They’re both worth playing.