Machinarium, a Humble Breakthrough for Adventure Games

The Progress of Adventure Games

 Bleak AND beautiful at the same time.

Adventure games have, for a long time, been in the process of streamlining.  I think this comes from the old parser days, where people found it frustrating to have to guess what the designers were thinking.  They tried to make things more accessible through point-and-click interfaces, allowing you various verbs to interact with the environment.
 
When this process gained the pixel-hunt reputation for, if you're stumped, having to mouse over every little area to try to guess what, again, the designers were thinking, the mouse-over icon was born.  You can see an example of this in the Axel and Pixel Quicklook on this site, where the cursor will sort of tell you what's background and foreground.  The verbs, in a sense, are melded with mousing over a location, to where you no longer need to pick the right verb for solving a puzzle.  There are still inventory systems with these, so the verbs and items are still in a sense present, but nowhere near the amount that there used to be in games like those using the SCUMM interface, or the old point-and-click Sierra games.
 
This next step in simplification has been somewhat of a godsend for players who don't have the time and patience to solve puzzles through trial and error if the solution doesn't come naturally.  You still get a thrill from solving the puzzle using your own ingenuity, but you can at least progress if you happen not catch what's necessary to do.  The problem comes when the process of solving a puzzle now leads to a diminshed puzzle depth, reducing that rush of happy juice in the brain when you figure things out.  You run about, knocking things over, until it all falls into place, scanning the cursor over everything to find out what's pushable and what's just in the background.
 
I'm of a mind that this is one step too far, or at least a half a step.  We can still go about figuring out the puzzle methodically, but the reduction in variables is so much that you can, if you want, do little more than wave your magic cursor over the screen to find the points that really matter.
 

But, Czech This Out:


What I discovered while playing the demo for the new game Machinarium, made by the group who brought is the Samarost series, is that they had through clever design found a solution to this problem, while keeping the interactions simple enough not to be too frustrating.  With mouse-over contextual icons, adventure games allow the cursor to almost be another character, a semi-sentient puzzle solving creature that automatically knows what a thing is for.  It might be too much to ask of us to be able to figure out what an object does and how it should be wielded in order to help solve a puzzle, but sometimes this allows us to be a bit too lazy in actually figuring out how everything fits together.  Machinarium solves this dilemma elegantly:
 
Your character cannot interact with an object or the environment unless he is standing closely to it.  This isn't new in and of itself; there are plenty of games that tell you "you're not close enough yet".  What Machinarium does is it doesn't tell you these objects are worth interacting until you get close to them.  You still can mouse over things, but because you have to be close to them, the world instantly becomes less static.  You need to look for interesting areas, and experiment more than a quick-mouse over of the whole screen allows.  
 
On top of this, your character has the ability to stretch in height, or shorten himself, in order to access areas that are otherwise unreachable at his normal height.  Again, experimentation is encouraged, because you have to look at an object and ask yourself if the object is low or high enough to warrant changing the character's shape.  
 
The variables aren't increased substantially, but when you add these layers to the traditional mouse-over, you're forced to do some thinking about where you're going to go next and what you're going to do there.   The experimentation must be more intelligent in order to be successful, and that's why I think it's such a breakthrough.
 

Lessons Learned

 
Playing the demo made me realize just how lazy the latest iterations of adventure games have made me.  I beat a King's Quest or two in my day, as well as the lethal Space Quests and the clever Day of the Tentacle and Fate of Atlantis, so I know how cheap or obscure game designers could be. When I found myself doing the mouse-over thing in Machinarium, and usually not getting anywhere, it became clear what I needed to do was really start observing my environment again, instead of pretending the game was just an interactive painting.
 
I still didn't solve some of the puzzles, but I found the reason I hadn't was often because I was forgetting to think in the terms the game was telling me to think in.  I sometimes forgot that I had to actually be next to an object, rather than be some disembodied cursor spirit.  I also found that I often assumed the contextual cursor I saw in a given place was the ONLY possible interaction; again, this was an artifact of this increasing laziness that the self-solving style of puzzles have encouraged.  I managed to get past these problems by using the clever two level hint system, but once I figured out what I needed to do, I felt a bit ashamed for using the hints.  That's a good sign.
 

Other Features

 
The two levels of hints I mentioned let the player get the basic goal of the level, and if that's not enough, a Game & Watch-inspired minigame pops up.  If you manage to beat it, you get a generous, step-by-step solution to solving every puzzle in the level.   The minigame increases in difficulty every time you try to use it, so it's best to only pull it out when you have to.
 
You get the usual inventory list of acquired items, some of which you can combine (and they're relatively painless to combine, too, with a minimum of actions needed to do this, unlike some of the older games that would pause to tell you how stupid you were for trying to combine x and y together).
 
The artwork itself manages to be colorful and bleak at the same time.  I like bleak stuff myself, but I tend to like even that to have a sense of color and artistry to it, and Machinarium has that.  Just check out their screenshots to see kind of what I mean.  The music, by Tomas Dvorak (not sure if he's related to the other guy) has enough quirk to lend the right sense of quiet, mystery, and humor that the robotic main character and the other mechanical inhabitants show with their animations.  There are also other touches, like the daydreaming the main character does in addition to his other idle animations, which provide some foreshadowing to things that will be revealed later.  
 
Note that the Steam version doesn't quite give you the soundtrack mp3s as a free bonus, like buying directly from the company does.
 
Happy third big release, Amanita!

I Hope this Is a Sign of Things to Come


What looks like a standard puzzle game, in my opinion at least, is a revolutionary in how it goes about combining the expected adventure elements into something pleasantly challenging and beautiful to see and hear.  I hope more developers take this route in the future, rather than trying to simply make things easier or add more distractions to a genre which already has tons of untapped potential.  Kudos to Amanita Design!
19 Comments
20 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

The Progress of Adventure Games

 Bleak AND beautiful at the same time.

Adventure games have, for a long time, been in the process of streamlining.  I think this comes from the old parser days, where people found it frustrating to have to guess what the designers were thinking.  They tried to make things more accessible through point-and-click interfaces, allowing you various verbs to interact with the environment.
 
When this process gained the pixel-hunt reputation for, if you're stumped, having to mouse over every little area to try to guess what, again, the designers were thinking, the mouse-over icon was born.  You can see an example of this in the Axel and Pixel Quicklook on this site, where the cursor will sort of tell you what's background and foreground.  The verbs, in a sense, are melded with mousing over a location, to where you no longer need to pick the right verb for solving a puzzle.  There are still inventory systems with these, so the verbs and items are still in a sense present, but nowhere near the amount that there used to be in games like those using the SCUMM interface, or the old point-and-click Sierra games.
 
This next step in simplification has been somewhat of a godsend for players who don't have the time and patience to solve puzzles through trial and error if the solution doesn't come naturally.  You still get a thrill from solving the puzzle using your own ingenuity, but you can at least progress if you happen not catch what's necessary to do.  The problem comes when the process of solving a puzzle now leads to a diminshed puzzle depth, reducing that rush of happy juice in the brain when you figure things out.  You run about, knocking things over, until it all falls into place, scanning the cursor over everything to find out what's pushable and what's just in the background.
 
I'm of a mind that this is one step too far, or at least a half a step.  We can still go about figuring out the puzzle methodically, but the reduction in variables is so much that you can, if you want, do little more than wave your magic cursor over the screen to find the points that really matter.
 

But, Czech This Out:


What I discovered while playing the demo for the new game Machinarium, made by the group who brought is the Samarost series, is that they had through clever design found a solution to this problem, while keeping the interactions simple enough not to be too frustrating.  With mouse-over contextual icons, adventure games allow the cursor to almost be another character, a semi-sentient puzzle solving creature that automatically knows what a thing is for.  It might be too much to ask of us to be able to figure out what an object does and how it should be wielded in order to help solve a puzzle, but sometimes this allows us to be a bit too lazy in actually figuring out how everything fits together.  Machinarium solves this dilemma elegantly:
 
Your character cannot interact with an object or the environment unless he is standing closely to it.  This isn't new in and of itself; there are plenty of games that tell you "you're not close enough yet".  What Machinarium does is it doesn't tell you these objects are worth interacting until you get close to them.  You still can mouse over things, but because you have to be close to them, the world instantly becomes less static.  You need to look for interesting areas, and experiment more than a quick-mouse over of the whole screen allows.  
 
On top of this, your character has the ability to stretch in height, or shorten himself, in order to access areas that are otherwise unreachable at his normal height.  Again, experimentation is encouraged, because you have to look at an object and ask yourself if the object is low or high enough to warrant changing the character's shape.  
 
The variables aren't increased substantially, but when you add these layers to the traditional mouse-over, you're forced to do some thinking about where you're going to go next and what you're going to do there.   The experimentation must be more intelligent in order to be successful, and that's why I think it's such a breakthrough.
 

Lessons Learned

 
Playing the demo made me realize just how lazy the latest iterations of adventure games have made me.  I beat a King's Quest or two in my day, as well as the lethal Space Quests and the clever Day of the Tentacle and Fate of Atlantis, so I know how cheap or obscure game designers could be. When I found myself doing the mouse-over thing in Machinarium, and usually not getting anywhere, it became clear what I needed to do was really start observing my environment again, instead of pretending the game was just an interactive painting.
 
I still didn't solve some of the puzzles, but I found the reason I hadn't was often because I was forgetting to think in the terms the game was telling me to think in.  I sometimes forgot that I had to actually be next to an object, rather than be some disembodied cursor spirit.  I also found that I often assumed the contextual cursor I saw in a given place was the ONLY possible interaction; again, this was an artifact of this increasing laziness that the self-solving style of puzzles have encouraged.  I managed to get past these problems by using the clever two level hint system, but once I figured out what I needed to do, I felt a bit ashamed for using the hints.  That's a good sign.
 

Other Features

 
The two levels of hints I mentioned let the player get the basic goal of the level, and if that's not enough, a Game & Watch-inspired minigame pops up.  If you manage to beat it, you get a generous, step-by-step solution to solving every puzzle in the level.   The minigame increases in difficulty every time you try to use it, so it's best to only pull it out when you have to.
 
You get the usual inventory list of acquired items, some of which you can combine (and they're relatively painless to combine, too, with a minimum of actions needed to do this, unlike some of the older games that would pause to tell you how stupid you were for trying to combine x and y together).
 
The artwork itself manages to be colorful and bleak at the same time.  I like bleak stuff myself, but I tend to like even that to have a sense of color and artistry to it, and Machinarium has that.  Just check out their screenshots to see kind of what I mean.  The music, by Tomas Dvorak (not sure if he's related to the other guy) has enough quirk to lend the right sense of quiet, mystery, and humor that the robotic main character and the other mechanical inhabitants show with their animations.  There are also other touches, like the daydreaming the main character does in addition to his other idle animations, which provide some foreshadowing to things that will be revealed later.  
 
Note that the Steam version doesn't quite give you the soundtrack mp3s as a free bonus, like buying directly from the company does.
 
Happy third big release, Amanita!

I Hope this Is a Sign of Things to Come


What looks like a standard puzzle game, in my opinion at least, is a revolutionary in how it goes about combining the expected adventure elements into something pleasantly challenging and beautiful to see and hear.  I hope more developers take this route in the future, rather than trying to simply make things easier or add more distractions to a genre which already has tons of untapped potential.  Kudos to Amanita Design!
Edited by Meltac

Machinarium is indeed a very good game. Haven't played it alot, but from what I've played, I really love it. Haven't used the hint system yet, and I hope not to, even though I heard the game should become pretty hard later on =P If you haven't, you should definetely try out Samorost 1 & 2, but they're slightly different when it comes to gameplay-mechanics, Axel & Pixel reminds me alot of those. In Machinarium, I really love the fact that everything in it is handdrawn. It's a really good-looking game, with some different art and design ^^

Posted by erinfizz

I played this demo too, and it was really impressive. Just as soon as I'm caught up with Tales of Monkey Island and have had a week or two with Tropico I will be getting this.

Posted by Teirdome

Very interesting article.  I had not heard much about Machinarium, but you've definitely got me intersted.  Thanks for the insight!

Posted by Geno

I was going to pick up Machinarium, but then realized I didn't really need another steampunk indie game >.>. Nice article though, it was fun to read about adventure games again. 

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Geno: I understand if you're tired of the theme, although I think it's implemented in a very warm way that doesn't feel quite the same as some of the other games of this ilk.  At least to me.  
 
For me it's more about the mechanics; the pretty pictures are incidental.  I can see someone getting burned out on theme, though.  What were the other games you had in mind?
Posted by EVO
@Geno said:
" I was going to pick up Machinarium, but then realized I didn't really need another steampunk indie game >.>. "
  1. This ain't no ordinary steampunk indie game,
  2. You can never have enough stempunk indie games.
Posted by Diamond

I saw some trailers for the game before and it definitely looked neat.
 
Anyways I decided to check the game out tonight, it's amazing really.  Not so much for the gameplay, which so far seems like a typical puzzle / adventure game with some new mechanics.  But hot damn the graphics & atmosphere are amazing.  The robot is cute, the environments are god damn...  so great.  I'm flooded with memories of playing Myst when it was new, with a nice dash of Quake 2.  It's really appealing to me.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Diamond: Yeah.  What's strike about the aesthetics in Machinarium is that, while they have a definite hand-drawn feel, unlike a lot of other hand-drawn style games I've seen, this actually feels like a real place, more akin to animation than to sketches plastered on a game-active background.   Not a surprise considering how Samorost used a sort of live-model plus animation style, and Amanita also works a lot in animation.
 
I think the mechanics ideas are significant, and it's not without its minor annoyances, but I'm loving it so far.
Posted by RagingLion

Yeah, I've been aware of Machinarium while it was in development.  My housemate's already played it on my recommendation and I definitely will at some point, but may wait for a price drop since I have enough stuff to play in the meantime.
 
Interesting thoughts on adventure games in general.  I think you're right in what you say and it was interesting how you were describing how you were having to retrain yourself to actually think based on the context of the story environment.  I can't help but think that adventure games have failed if you just start picking up and combining objects brainlessly without any thought of why that seems like the right thing to do (assuming there is a logic that can be applied to find the solution).  Maybe game developers have just struggled to find a mechanic to stimulate this thought while still making it accessible - and perhaps Machinarium has come up with a decent attempt at that.
 
There's a possibility of me taking a part in creating a small game/mod which may have an adventure slant so this stuff actually seems relevant to me atm.  My goal is to make players actually think about what they're doing - definitely a challenge.  If anyone has any ideas I'm very open to hearing them.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@RagingLion: make no mistake, the game definitely encourages more thoughtful behavior, but it still has its moments where I'm just combining things desperately and randomly clicking.  That's still a problem because when I'm at a loss for what to do, I have to fall back on the lizard-brain method for problem solving.
 
The contextual stuff, though, at least prevents me from doing that and being accidentally successful too often.  Maybe Axel and Pixel is a great game, but I got this weird feeling when watching the quick look that it seemed like it was solving itself.  It's still possible once in a while in Machinarium, but it's a bit funny that a game populated by machines is less willing to let you ACT like a machine :)
 
Good news is, in the full version I've so far not used any of the hint system.  Sometimes it takes me a while to figure things out, but I've doggedly stuck to thoughtful experimentation, and for the most part it's worked.  This game really rewards careful observation of the environment.
Posted by ch3burashka

How did I know you'd do a blog post on this here indie game?
 
Speaking of indie, I try to pimp this game whenever, wherever: 
http://theunfinishedswan.com/games/swan/
 
I can't wait 'til it comes out.
 
I just played the demo of Machinarium. The atmosphere is awesome, and the character is cute, innocent.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@CH3BURASHKA: Is that the game where you paint to sort of find your way around the landscape?  That looked interesting, although I wonder how deep they're going to go with that concept.
 
And as far as knowing I was going to talk about Machinarium, I wonder if you know me better than I know myself :)  I forget how I stumbled upon it (wasn't on Stumble Upon), so if I'd missed it I'd not have written about it :)  
 
The atmosphere is really great, yeah.  And the character is disarming.  Nice change of pace, but most adventure games tend not to make their heroes too aggressive.  Might make for a funny adventure game if all you could do was bash stuff and scream at people... :)
Posted by Virago

I loved this game. However, my copy was in Russian, so I couldn't follow the introductory bit at all, and it took a bit longer for me to figure out what the heck was going on. This is totally one of my favorite games.

Posted by Cirdain

This is my pick for:

Best Debut

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Cirdain:
Would it count as a debut?  They've done other games before.  Still, any attention this game gets is fine by me.
Edited by Al3xand3r

Um, it's "just" a really good adventure game (for the price), it does nothing new or any particular breakthrough. It's well worth the purchase but that's it. Pixel hunting or whatever other issue is up to the game's design to avoid. A game that had Machinarium's system could still have pixel hunting with the added annoyance that you'd first have to put your character close enough to the pixel you wanted to check. On the other hand there have been games without Machinarium's system that don't suffer from such issues either. The system itself doesn't avoid the issues, it's the rest of the game that does, just as any good adventure title. Certainly not every adventure game should strive to be just like Machinarium.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Al3xand3r: I wish I had your youthful exuberance.
 
I never know quite how to react when one begins a post with "um," but I'll try not to obey my first impulses.  I make it pretty clear why the subtle differences in the engine bring about a new playing experience compared to at least most of the mainstream titles out there that just copy what came before, but I don't expect everyone to share my opinion.  Take it as you like, but I'd argue that the pixels as you call them are fairly clear stand-out objects.  Part of the pixel epithet comes from when the resolutions were a lot lower, anyway.  Any more clarification and I feel I'd just be repeating myself.
 
I do agree, though, that not every adventure game should be like it, because that just brings about the same amount of repetition that I felt Machinarium was getting past.
Posted by torus

Absolutely love this game- even though it is a bit of a pixel hunt, it's really beautiful and often very clever.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@torus: When I originally wrote this, I hadn't played through the full game.  I think what disappointed me a bit was that the demo puzzles were all in-environment, but a few of the later puzzles were actually just puzzles, things that didn't necessarily belong in the world that you saw.  Since I played through the full game without a single hint, I didn't feel like it was a pixel hunt so much as a figure-out-the-puzzle hunt that sometimes hit on multiple screens.  I finished it though.  I don't think I've gotten a whole lot smarter; I do feel as though the game environment was finely tuned to provide just enough clues that the idea of just scraping through the screen trying to find a thing to put in a thing didn't really apply.  
 
I guess it would depend upon specific puzzles whether or not the pixel hunt thing would apply.  There were a few times where I was curious about a thing on the wall and it turned out to be important.  If one didn't notice that or think it might be important, it could turn into a pixel hunt for that person.