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Finding Humanity in 'Machinarium'

Machinarium’s game design, art style, and narrative themes toy with conventional ideas about humans, robots, and adventure games.

In an industry dominated by fast-paced shooters, streamlined RPGs, and instant-access mobile games, it is easy to see adventure games as niche or even archaic. The slow-paced, obscure, single-solution puzzles that comprise most adventure games take patience. The zany worlds of many popular adventure games, such as the Monkey Island and the Sam and Max series can make it seem like adventure games have a language all their own.

Machinarium clearly follows in some old adventure game traditions. But, by tweaking long standing conventions and combining them with novel artistic design and storytelling, it creates a unique identity for itself and the player. Although it is set in a world populated by robots, Machinarium’s gameplay and aesthetic work together to tell a story about humanity.

Because adventure games often favor methodical, repetitive problem solving, they have a tendency to make the player feel like a robot. Machinarium employs its art and story to justify this behavior, thus turning a potential weakness into a strength. Josef, the player’s avatar, actually is a robot. Thus employing the always effective, yet time consuming tactic of trial and error is more than a genre convention: it’s role-playing. Clicking everything on the screen, systematically testing item combinations, and repeatedly talking to other characters can hamper immersion in games involving unpredictable characters and zany worlds. In Machinarium, solving problems by acting like a computer aligns with the game’s fiction. Implementing a brute-force algorithm, such as examining every pixel on the screen for irregularities, is something that a robot would do.

Despite this clever narrative conceit, Machinarium still takes steps to obviate common adventure game problems. Nels Anderson identifies several design and interface choices that “minimize points where other environmental puzzle games often get bogged down” (“Machinarium -- Falling Down Gently”, Above 49, 9 November 2009). Each of Machinarium’s puzzles takes place within a limited area and is solved using specific, contextual items and actions. This takes some of the guesswork out of puzzle solving and allows the player to focus on enjoying specific environments without worrying that they are missing something.

Should the player succumb to the human emotion of frustration, Machinarium’s two-tiered hint system offers help without removing all challenge. The initial hint manifests as a thought bubble emanating from Josef. In thinking about what he needs to do, Josef communicates the objective to the player without revealing the solution. Additional, more detailed hints and walkthroughs are locked behind a Gradius-like minigame. This minigame provides a respite from the cerebral challenges of the puzzles and instead tests the player’s dexterity and improvisational skills. This keeps players who prefer action challenges over brain teasers engaged in the game’s rules and fiction, as they never have to leave the game’s world to look up hints.

Dexterity challenges within the Machinarium’s logic puzzles also help stave off the potential boredom that comes from passivity. Many puzzles require the player to time their clicks or directly maneuver an object which helps prevent the player from feeling like they are solving puzzles by running automatic software commands. This introduces the possibility of unexpected errors and gives players a reason to pay attention to avoid mistakes.

Machinarium rewards a player who is able to act as an amalgamation of machine and human traits. The player’s hybrid identity is reflected in the game’s artistic style and in its plot. While there is very little organic life in the game, the world is still a lively place. The hand drawn art style employs scratchy lines and earth tones that give off an organic, rather than mechanical feel. Instead of trying for a sleek, futuristic atmosphere, the world is a massive kludge of discarded junk that has been re-purposed in order to create a functioning society.

Although Machinarium's inhabitants are composed of metal, circuits, and duct tape, they also possess personalities. The game has no dialogue and instead has characters use exaggerated gestures and noises to communicate their wants and needs. Such desires are curiously human. For example, robotic musicians get depressed when they lose their instruments. A temple in the town square caters to adherents of robotic Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sects. Josef encounters a robotic prisoner who asks if he can bum a cigarette. The cleaning bots tasked with the impossible job of scrubbing the grubby city scurry about like skittish rats. Machinarium continually gives the player points at which to connect with the game on emotional levels, even when presenting them with tasks that require detached logic.

Despite its robotic skin, Machinarium's plot is about companionship, altruism, and progress. Josef is continually harassed by a group of bullies, whose motivations for being cruel, greedy, and all around jerks go largely unexplained. Apparently some robots, similar to some humans, are just rotten to each other. Josef’s quest to save his mate and escape his comfortable, yet stagnant role as a servant for the city’s ruler demonstrates a motivation to grow beyond his current function and possibly even his original programming. This desire for progress and self betterment is strikingly human. Combined with his anthropomorphic facial expressions and vocalizations, Josef’s emotional journey appeals to a player’s empathy even while they engage with the stark, binary rules of the game’s puzzles.

Machinarium is a study in transcending limited roles. Mechanically, the game tweaks the adventure game formula in order to create manageable puzzles that make room for active participation. Systematic problem solving is combined with improvisational twitch-based gameplay in order to retain some spontaneity within the largely inflexible systems. Narratively, Machinarium's characters and story complement the player’s cyborg identity. Josef and the other robots embody a mixture of robotic and human traits that make them relatable characters with understandable problems. Machinarium invites the player to submerge a bit of their humanity in order to solve the game’s puzzles, but it never pushes them into fully becoming a problem-solving machine.

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