In Machinarium, there’s a war being fought between two of Amanita Design’s departments: the artists and the programmers. Although the art is gorgeous and heavily stylized, it’s not clear what’s interactable and what’s part of the scene.
In the end, I wound up having more fun with the room-to-room puzzles and mini-games than I did with the overworld because the over-arching puzzles became too esoteric for me to understand. Part of that may be my lack of intelligence, but part of it falls on the design elements.
Gameplay Vs. Art Design
Where Machinarium shines for me is when you have a puzzle or, in some cases, a mini-game to complete. In both scenarios, you’re rewarded with an item to use in one of the larger, overworld puzzles. Some of them make sense, like using coins in the arcade or in the battery vending machine, but then others are so bizarre I’m left dumbfounded, like when you need to use the fried (seemingly dead) cat on the tube player.
Retrospectively, where else could I have possibly used the cat? I don’t know, but even some remote clue (like having a mouse in the background) would’ve been helpful. What I struggle with then is it’s not so much a puzzle or brain teaser as it is extremely esoteric.
I get that that’s part of the fun, the most obvious answer isn’t always the solution (i.e. f*** Occum’s Razor), but I hate roaming the world, trying the same item on everything expecting a result; and by everything, I do mean “everything” as there are no indicators as to what’s interactable and what’s not. Nothing is highlighted differently or sticks out against the art. And I love the art, but it can be overwhelming with the details.
For instance, here’s the first real puzzle in the game.
Okay so knowing that I can stretch my legs to be taller (since that’s shown in the previous puzzle) and seeing that the cop lets his comrade through, I know what’s interactable:
I’ll put the cone on my head, dip it in the paint and pull the handle to be let across… but no. My cap is too white. So I go back to the interactables: cones and paint. When I go to the cones, the Robot flips it off the ledge; I keep doing this until, beneath it all, there’s some light blue paint. Oh! So I dump that into the mixture and redip my cap and pull the lever… but I’m still not allowed across. Why?
Because the knob on my head isn’t distinctive enough, I need to use the ladder, take the last rung and slide it up until I get the bulb. I didn’t even know that was clickable, it blends right in!
And this happens often enough where it’s a problem. Here’s the religious city scene:
Ignoring the stairs, here’s what looks interactable to me:
The doors, the light bulbs, the old man and the manhole, the well, the lady praying on the bench — all these things stick out to me. What is interactable?
Even then, the old man isn’t interactable until you find the right item. Again, it’s very possible that I’m not smart enough for this, but I feel like everything I saw could reasonably be assumed to be interactive. I don’t mind exploring and I like the freedom of doing puzzles in any order, but when the art is so stylized, it’s frustrating to be stuck because I couldn’t differentiate between the background and foreground.
And this doesn’t happen all the time. Certain puzzles are perfect:
Now off-hand, this puzzle might not be clear, but in-game, the man working on the wires is moving, the bird on the pole is flapping, and the cat’s tail is wagging.
They add movement to all of these to help signify that “Yes, you can toy with these!” Even the fuse box isn’t wholly clear (graphically), but the robot’s drill is plugged into it, so you can figure it out. And just because I know what’s clickable in this puzzle doesn’t make it any easier, but at least I have all the information I need in one screen.
That’s why the overworld puzzles bother me, I don’t know if I have all the information even if I do.
It’s the first time I’ve ever played a game where the mechanics and the art design fight each other. After playing Bastion which weaves every aspect cohesively, it’s interesting to see Machinarium where two elements work independently, but in-game they clash.
I will say though, it was impressive that Machinarium managed to be make a coherent story despite being told entirely in images.
PS. Also excited to see Amanita Design making full-length games as I thoroughly enjoyed The Quest For The Rest.
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