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.