Machinarium – “I think, Sebastian, therefore I am.”

Some games I haven’t the courage to approach with a review. Partially it’s because I don’t think I have the right knowledge or literary technique to express my views or to dissect them properly, but also because I have this unconscious fear of objectifying them in such a way that will make them seem less… special. Like a beautiful, fragile Ming vase, I fear touching them will break it to pieces. This is such a game.

“Machinarium” is, to put it simply, the story of a boy who must free his loved one from captivity. Bullied by nasty ruffians, the young couple was split: he was left to die in a garbage dump and she was imprisoned in a towering dungeon. You follow their journey to escape a corrupt city, as the little boy goes from rebuilding his own body in a scrapyard, to flying away in the horizon towards freedom. Perhaps I forgot to mention we’re talking robots here? Well, as the name so implies, “Machinarium” presents a dystopia whose inhabitants are machines made out of metal foil and rusty screws. But these machines are living creatures in every sense of the word, expressive little buggers whose eyes and bodies move as if they were flesh and blood… their animations (Václav Blín and Jaromír Plachý) are an exquisite exercise in the elegant conveying of intelligence, conscience and, more importantly, emotion. Every character has its distinct personality, simultaneously familiar and alien, but always endearing and lovable. It’s as if someone had given you a magic mirror where you could see this enigmatic reflection of our own children tales, just with robots in the place of humans. The setting itself retains characters’ beauty and strangeness, with each of the game’s backgrounds (by Adolf Lachman) looking as if it were a painting drawn by those same bizarre creatures.  The atmosphere borders the ethereal, thanks to a moody color palette and the superb ambient score by Thomas Dvorak.  And though “Machinarium” is unequivocally a land born out of the eccentric mind of Jakub Dvorský, this world isn’t as idiosyncratic as “Samorost’s”, marking a departure from that surreal, somewhat comical ambiance, to an almost dreamlike fusion of children animation’s naiveté with classical science fiction aesthetic.

As expected in video game land, the little boy’s ICO-esque quest can only be conquered through the solving of several puzzle-like contraptions. But unlike the nigh non-diegetic barriers that adventure games so oft use to imply interactivity and challenge, each puzzle in “Machinarium” is an intricate part of its world. In other words, puzzles are there for a reason other than you solving them. This subtle twist makes the game’s challenges mirror the fiction’s semantics – construing the odd gadgets thus becomes part of the act of understanding “Machinarium’s” world: its past history, its characters and society. This is the defining element that elevates Dvorský from mere story-teller to video game author – he expresses his ideas with rules and interactions, and not just images and sound. His story, so primitive and universal, beautiful and touching, is a story told through the complex language of video games… it is a story worth playing with.

score: 5/5

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  • Comments (4)
    • Muhammad Nasrullah
    • February 22nd, 2010

    Thanks for reviewing this game, after your review I tried the Demo and I love it enough to go buy it. Indie developers don’t get the exposure they need and I was very pleasantly surprised at the level of quality a small gaming studio this small can make. Thanks!

    (ps: despite having to download the EXE, did you know that this game is made in flash? Pretty neat!)

    • ruicraveirinha
    • February 23rd, 2010

    I’m glad I got someone to buy this small gem. Have fun, cheers!

    • lauramichet
    • March 6th, 2010

    I found your comparison to Ico interesting. It’s something I hadn’t thought of when I played this game.

    What did you think about the ending? It’s a beautiful story, but I was disappointed by the gameplay of the final ‘encounter’, so to speak, and by the fact that this little boy ends up just shooting his enemies, even if only digitally. It seemed to run counter to the ethic of much of the rest of the game.

    Nevertheless, I hope they do a sequel as soon as they can, or at least another large and long game with similarly high-quality art and puzzle design.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • March 7th, 2010

    ICO is not even a direct reference of the game. But today, I think it is inevitable to mention it, due to their similar narrative themes and tones. They’re both children tales about a boy trying to save his beloved from a prison. The simplest, most endearing of tales…

    If you look closely at a considerable number of Machinarium’s puzzles, they are homages to several classic video game genres. In that regard, I think it is fitting that there is a small citation to the shooter genre, especially since it is in its minimalistic, classic formulae. Sure, it’s not my favorite puzzle, by a mile, but I get its idea. Every puzzle in Machinarium speaks of its world, of its rules, of its machines, and, in my friend dieubussy’s own elegant words, of the robot’s abstract digital logic and thought process. What better materialization of these robots entertainment, than classic video games? It’s a perfect match once you think about it.

    A sequel?…. I’d prefer a new game 😉

    Cheers, thanks for the comment!

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