A college buddy of mine, whom I affectionately nicknamed a popular search engine, first recommended Machinarium to me about two years ago. Sadly, it took me this long to finally sit down and play through the little critically-acclaimed, point-and-click gem of a game. On the surface it may seem like a work that pays minimal attention to its own narrative. But digging deeper leads to some important lessons in storytelling.
Thus, this week’s (micro-) review! And once again: SPOILERS ABOUND.
“THE CHARACTERS” or “LITTLE MECH IN THE BIG CITY”
From his introduction and character design right down to the problems (puzzles) he solves which form the crux of the narrative, Josef embodies a compassionate underdog archetype evoking both sympathy and empathy. Beneath his tin body and metal head beats a heart most human, endowed by the universality of his experiences. Who hasn’t felt unappreciated in their lives, just as Josef was discarded into a scrapheap and broken to pieces by the fall? Who hasn’t suffered some degree of bullying, not unlike that perpetrated by the thugs who only take what they will? Who hasn’t felt small in stature and ability, dwarfed by a world full of greater, wiser giants?
Yet in spite of it all, Josef fights against being victimized. Our very first act as the boy-robot is to literally pull ourselves together. An intentional, uplifting metaphor from the devs at Amanita? I’d say so. His willpower presents a stark contrast to the state of Machinarium’s citizens, almost all of whom wallow in helplessness and even self-pity. Where the ‘adults’ of the world give up far too soon, this one ‘child’ saves just about everyone simply because he never stops trying. How can you not root for a kid like that?
Josef is the heart of Machinarium, and without his likability as a hero there’d be nothing to say about the cast altogether. The villains are playground bullies grown into a gang of thugs, wreaking havoc to no particular end. The love interest exists purely to fulfill the function. But one can’t deny the effectiveness of these simplistic roles in providing a clear goal and conflict. And they also mesh well with the aesthetic. Robots in a humanist drama or thriller? It’d be ridiculous. Sometimes one dimension is all you need to tell a story.
“THE WORLD” or “THAT GOES IN YOUR -WHAT-?!”
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the art in this game, superbly detailed, and the music, sheer beauty. But even the intricacies of all the puzzles lend themselves to depicting a complex ecosystem of technology beyond the understanding of any one individual. The City of Machinarium feels vast, lived-in, and despite its rust-covered and dirt-smeared exteriors of stone and steel, the soundtrack reinforces that there is life here. The bomb may be senseless, but we come to love the world quickly enough to know that it must be stopped. On that subject–
“PACING” or “WHEN DECIDING DETONATION TIME, LESS IS MORE”
The introduction of the bomb in that basement hideout informs us of the stakes early, raising tension before things get dull. But I found it to happen too soon. In a plot of excusable idiosyncrasies, this is the one detail that pulled me out of it. From the umbrella-wielding dog-lover to the extra-large cop guarding the elevator stretches a very, very, very long journey. I nearly forgot about the source of urgency altogether.
Pacing would have improved with a delay in activating the bomb, extended through more build-up. Show the thugs blowing up something small in the basement before carting off that dark pink… uh, food/explosive substance elsewhere. Then have a scene or two of them putting together a bigger version of that small explosive, and so on. With the tension increased more gradually, it’s less likely to deflate prematurely.
“DELIVERY AND EXECUTION” or “THANKS, THOUGHT-BUBBLE!”
Devs ensured that context would always distinguish the three types of thought bubbles we see in Machinarium: past memories, present needs, and future puzzle strategies. Very well-done. Seeing Josef recall the bullies’ exploits, or others doing the same, struck me as oddly poignant. The animated images resemble children’s drawings, and there’s something a little heartbreaking about seeing a child retell and relive a trauma through such a personal form of expression.
“PUZZLE AID” or “THE TOME OF I CAN HAZ HELP?”
On the subject of the inexplicable, why does Josef have a locked book of answers? It may have been a contrivance simply for the player’s benefit, but as I was playing I thought about one way devs could have explained the book. The tone of this story doesn’t lend itself to huge twists, but a subtle revelation revealed to those who’d stop to think — and there’d need to be something else in the course of play that alluded to it — could’ve been that maybe Josef is older than he seems. Josef has a book full of bot schematics and city plans because he is the one who built the City of Machinarium.
I think this would’ve made his casting out at the start even more meaningful; it’s a prevalent idea in tech that the First of things quickly grows irrelevant, unimportant, forgotten while the Newest is idolized. Briefly. “In the with the new, out with the old,” as they say. Maybe it’s the sentimentalist in me, but I think the First of anything stands as an important hallmark in any context and that it should be remembered, even after it has been obsolesced.
“THE RESOLUTION” or “AERONAUTIC ROADKILL SUCKS”
Seeing Josef finally escape the city with his girl/friend was heartwarming, sweet, and it felt well-deserved. After helping all those robots, he can finally venture out and find his own measure of happiness. Why o why did devs decide to rip him apart from her?
Maybe I’m overreacting. Sure, it’s a whimsical tale where no one really appears to suffer emotional pain. But but the poor kid! After all he’s been through! Bah.
All nit-picking aside, Machinarium still stands as a testament to how much you can do — how much story you can tell, and in particular, how much emotion you can evoke — without dialogue. It’s a short story, a slice of life tale. Lessons are important even for big-AAA-game development in the event that we’d need to tell a story within a story: an old legend, or a forgotten childhood. There is no real Trophy for creating a game without dialogue, but there is virtue in finding the right way to tell a certain story. Sometimes, it’ll be with words; sometimes without; and other times, it can be a combination of both.
Josef, I hope you find your friend out there. And just as you Corvo’ed the Black Cap Brotherhood, may you also do the same to those damn dumbass birds what knocked down your chopper.