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Hands-on | Machinarium

Format: PC | Genre: Adventure | Publisher/Developer: Amanita Design | ETA: Autumn 2009

By Chris Evans

machinarium1“The art style is some kind of steampunk. A lot of inspiration comes from old, rusty machines, abandoned factories and industrial buildings.”

Jakub Dvorský, lead designer of Machinarium, is telling me about the aesthetic of Amanita Design’s next game. It’s certainly the first thing I noticed upon playing the current build: it’s like nothing else I’ve seen and really sets Machinarium apart from other titles in the new generation of indie games. There’s a reason it won the Excellence in Visual Art Award at this year’s Independent Games Festival.

//Junk for joy
Machinarium harks back to the classic adventure games of yesteryear: a 2D point-and-click with a variety of puzzles thrown in for good measure. But rather than taking place on a monkey island or in a city where the local police force consists of a dog and a rabbit, Machinarium sees you take control of, in Jakub’s own words, “a young little scruffy robot” called Josef. “He’s named after Josef Capek – Czech painter and initial inventor of the word robot,” Jakub tells me. “At the beginning of the game, we don’t know much about either the main hero nor about the Machinarium city and whole world.”

It’s true. When you start to play, little Josef is in pieces amongst a whole load of junk. All you know is that this robot has been dumped here, and your first task is to reassemble his body. The various features of the game are introduced rather simply in this opening section: you drag Josef’s head up to reach higher places and down if you want him to grab something below him. After moving a bathtub to get Josef’s head reattached to his body, you have to interact with a Hoover – this is where you will first encounter the thought bubbles that both give you hints about what you have to do and tell you the story.

machinarium2“When the little robot sees new characters or locations he will have flashbacks – often short stories he remembers about that character from the past,” Jakub explains. “It’s usually a simple black-and-white animation in a comic bubble above Josef’s head. He also has dreams, and he can communicate with other characters through these comic bubbles. There is no speech or text in Machinarium.” It’s an interesting approach, but one that comes off very well.

//A world apart
Without spoiling too much about what we’ve learnt of the story, some basics. Once you’ve managed to get Josef into the city, after impersonating a police officer and hitching a ride in a coal wagon, you meet the arch villains of the piece, the Black Cap Brotherhood. It’s clear that the group are preparing to bomb the central tower of Machinarium, and it becomes your job to stop them. I wondered at first if this was some sort of social commentary, but Jakub assured me it isn’t. “Of course there are some references to reality,” he says, “but we aren’t trying to comment on anything. Machinarium is primarily a comedy.” Indeed, the jokes shine through in refreshing contrast to the bleak, oppressed feel that emanates from the city.

It is important to know that Jakub wants to set Machinarium apart from its contemporaries. “Compared to other titles in the genre,” he muses, “I think we try to put bigger emphasis on details and things which aren’t in the main focus – like the subtle animation jokes, music that’s composes carefully for each location, or the fact that every building, character and item in the game has its own history and meaning.” The subtle jokes in the animation are indeed great – there’s nothing like seeing a magnet at the start of the game get stuck to Josef’s little head.

machinarium3Jakub and his team are investing a lot of time and love into Machinarium. The screenshots alone showcase something exciting, and seeing it in motion adds so much character to these robots. Impressively, the gameplay is top-notch, even in this early build. Some puzzles stumped me, but Jakub promises that the difficultly will be tweaked a bit before release. “We want to add some hints to places where it’s too difficult to find out what to do,” he reassures me. And though there are currently a handful of relatively significant bugs, with a few months before release these should be ironed out.

Jakub is confident that Machinarium will be vastly more expansive than the previous games from Amanita Design, such as the web-game series Samorost. “Compared to Samorost,” he says, “Machinarium will be bigger and more detailed, with a stronger storyline and more logical puzzles. There will be an inventory, and a couple of other new features such as in-built mini-games and, of course, the animated communication among characters.”

//Size is everything
Perhaps most amazing is that only seven people are working on Machinarium. Compared with games like World of Goo and Audiosurf this may seem huge, but in the grand scheme of things to have only seven people working on a title this detailed is astounding. I certainly get the feeling from talking to Jakub that it is the small size of the team that has allowed them to create Machinarium in just the way they wanted.

It shows plenty of promise. A few of the puzzles need tidying up, but some of them are genuinely innovative. It looks beautiful, and through the hand-drawn levels and characters you can really feel the human touch in the game. Assuming its minor problems are fixed before release, Machinarium looks sets to be a decidedly welcome addition to the indie game scene.

For more information on Machinarium, head on over to the game’s official website.


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