by Edward Picot
Click on images to access the game
Amanita Design was established in 2003 by the Czech Jakub Dvorsky, who was then completing his studies at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. Dvorksky started designing his first computer game at the age of 15, and Amanita is best known for its point-and-click adventure games, most notably Samorost 1 (2003), Samorost 2 (2007) and now Machinarium (which was released in October this year).
Machinarium has a great deal in common with the two Samorost games, particularly Samorost 2. All three share the same whimsical sense of humour. They are also all science-fiction-themed, but they depict worlds which are quirky, small-scale, densely textured and slightly shambolic rather than awesomely futuristic. The music for both Samorost 2 and Machinarium is composed by Tomas Dvorak, and their basic storylines are closely related too: in Samorost 2, a little man has his dog stolen by aliens, while in Machinarium the hero is a little robot, whose girlfriend has been kidnapped by villains.
Machinarium differs from its predecessors in some respects, however. Firstly, the backgrounds in the Samorost games were largely created from collages, often based on blown-up photographs of highly-textured natural objects such as tree-bark. In Machinarium, the graphics have more of a hand-drawn look. Secondly, although Machinarium retains the same point-and-click functionality as its predecessors, this functionality has been somewhat augmented. In the Samorost games whatever equipment was needed to solve a puzzle could be found on the current screen. In Machinarium, once you have found useful objects such as a key or an oil-can, you can store them in an inventory, for re-use later. This is one indication that the game as a whole is more complex, and what you discover in one screen often doesn't make complete sense until a few screens later.
Likewise, a lot of the puzzles in the new game ask something more of us than just finding the right objects to click or the right sequence to click them in. We are frequently confronted with logical or geometric brain-teasers. Green beads have to be slid from one end of a constricted maze to another; lightbulbs have to be lit up in the correct sequence to form various types of star; tiles have to be shuffled until they form an electric circuit; and so forth. At times these brainteasers, which are effectively mini-games in their own right, can become a bit too obtrusive and detract from the main storyline - but on the positive side, there is more emphasis on intellectual effort and less on clicking around until something happens.
As an acknowledgement that some of the puzzles can be intractable without help, Machinarium provides two levels of assistance. Clicking a lightbulb at the top of the screen yields a little animated hint as to how the current puzzle should be approached. If you require more detailed guidance - which most players will at some stage - you can click on a book icon, which reveals a walk-through in the form of a comic-strip. To prevent you from using this "cheat" all the time, the walk-through is protected by a mini-game in which you have to shoot spiders and navigate a maze of bricks and planks. Furthermore, some of the puzzles remain extremely tricky even with the aid of the walk-through, and some of the solutions are too complex to remember. When I played Machinarium with my daughter, there were a number of occasions when we had to copy a screenshot from the walkthrough into a separate document, and keep referring to it until the puzzle was solved.
It is with regard to its topography and its back-story that Machinarium goes furthest beyond its predecessors, however. The Samorost games were basically organised as a sequence of self-contained screens, each representing a new location and setting a new challenge. In Machinarium, our hero has to explore a robot city - not one place at a time, but a whole complex of interconnected areas. Completing the tasks in one location will often unlock extra features or information in another, and we are frequently required to revisit earlier screens in order to solve new puzzles. As we play the game, therefore, we find ourselves gradually absorbing the topography of the city, in a way which is both fascinating and satisfying.
At the same time, we are also learning more about the back-story to the game. As stated above, basically it's about a little robot whose girlfriend has been kidnapped by villains: but there's more to it than that. It turns out that both the little robot and his girlfriend were working for a brainiac-robot with an enormous head, in a surveillance-tower at the top of the city. The villains came, infected the brainiac-robot with a virus, had the little robot taken away to the scrapheap, and abducted his girlfriend. Now they are trying to blow up the surveillance-tower.
And in addition to the topography and back-story, as the game unfolds, a picture of society in the robot city unfolds with it. There are the brainiac-robot in the topmost tower and the villain-robots in the underworld; there is a police force, which seems to specialise in enforcing petty rules rather than catching criminals; and a whole middle layer of ordinary citizens, attempting to go about their business but constantly molested by the villains. There is a hint of social comment here which is virtually unheard-of in computer games.
It is these extra dimensions - dimensions which go far beyond the mere mechanics of game-play and puzzle-solving - which make Machinarium such a satisfying experience. Not many puzzle-games are worth revisiting once the puzzles have been solved, but the Samorost games were, and the same is true of Machinarium. In some respects, in fact, it is more satisfying the second or third time around - because then our attention is less focussed on minutiae, and we are more at liberty to appreciate the richness of the game-design as a whole.