Saturday, September 14, 2013
Machinarium - I Just Don't Get It
I was very, very, very close to attempting a review of Machniarium after finishing my free copy through Playstation Plus. In the little bit of spare time that I've had that I haven't dedicated to Animal Crossing or watching youtube stuff to unwind, I picked up and ran through the game with all the grace of a wounded gazelle in a minefield and the experience was about as frustrating as that statement might lead you to think it was. There was a lot of struggle, not only in simply me playing Machinarium, but also in deciding just what I was going to do with the myriad of thoughts about it that surged through my head as I was playing it. The one thing that kept coming was "I should review this", but each time, I just wasn't sure, and I wasn't quite sure -why- I wasn't sure. It's frustratingly cyclical, as you might imagine, but I finally did figure it out while I was thinking about it, and it is precisely the reason I'm not going to review the game.
I just don't get it.
I like to think that when I review a game, I understand it. I may love it, I may hate it or I may just feel it's in the 'okay' to 'good' range, but I understand it. I understand what it's going for, some of the under-lying mechanics, what actually happened in the game and so on. This is decidedly -not- how I felt at the end of Machinarium, as I just honestly don't even know what I played. Was it a classic point-and-click adventure game? Was it just a puzzle game with bad controls? Was it some kind of weird hybrid of the two that is baffling to my senses? I don't really get the what of it, and moreso, I don't get the -why- of it, so that's really what's gotten me confused and just unsure of the whole thing. All I can really do is write up what I kind of figured out and what I -did- get and just talk about the game rather than trying to be critical and fair and such about it.
The one thing that stood out to me almost immediately about the game, at the title screen, actually, is that...somebody didn't really think the controls out. At all. It's simple enough to use the left analog stick to select things, yes, but it moves a bit slowly. It was clearly not the intended usage for it, which is fine even if it could have been tweaked a little better, but it draws you to the touch screen of the Vita which is more or less built for Point-and-Click games. It's a foregone conclusion that, for a game such as this, your finger would effectively replace the mouse for the purpose that it was originally intended on the PC release of the game itself. It's not even something that you would just think it should be that way - it should be that way, and of course I only bring it up because it is not that way.
The easiest way I can think of to explain it is that your finger and the screen effectively replicates a trackpad of a laptop rather than a mouse - your finger controls where the cursor moves in relation to where you move it, rather than the 1:1 language of the mouse or your finger on 99.99% of all touch-based games. It is -incredibly- frustrating as you might understand. For an easier explanation, you cannot touch the top of the screen to open the inventory and select an item and drag it to its usage area, but you can drag your finger up, pull it back and drag it up again to get the cursor to the top of the screen, select an item with X and then use the stick to move it because it's entirely too uncomfortable otherwise. This is, of course, wrong and it set the mood for the frustrating nature of the entire game which was simply compounded by the, er, 'puzzles' that it held within.
The puzzles are where the game jumps the shark from puzzle game to classic Adventure game because "Adventure Game Logic" is in full-swing in Machinarium. Because only in an Adventure game can you be expected to cut down a mini-chandelier that looks suspiciously like a grappling hook, attach a cord to it and to a robot, hook the hook into a toilet and then use the robot to rip the toilet (that is, as you discover, hanging over a cliff) from the ground so that you can use robot toilet paper of all things (the screenshot at the top is this, by the way, I'm not sure if it's meant to be aluminium foil or what, nor am I prepared to imagine what usage robots need of a toiler in the first place) to bungee down and swing over to the wall where a bomb is so that you can defuse it. Only in an adventure game can you be expected to repair a circuit breaker with a series of Snake-like puzzles so that you can zap a few plants with a mysterious ray, which will open a pitcher plant that you have to prop open with a stick so that you can recover the magnifying glass that it holds which you can then attach to a slide projector so you can go through a number of slides and figure out the solution to a keypad which opens a door on the other end of the room.
This zany, esoteric puzzle-solving is almost mitigated by the fact that the game gives you the gist of the solution to just about every room in the form of a robot journal that is always on the right side of the inventory drop-down menu. Of course, it doesn't just -hand- you the information you want - you have to play a little Shoot-em-Up game as a flying key that has very little substance and goes on just a little too long to get to the 'lock' that will open the journal to the page you're on which has a little comic-style representation of the main events of the screen you're on. It's not quite an FAQ, but in most cases, it gets the job done. The caveat to it, however, is that while you don't have to play the Shmup every time you want to consult the page (which, you could just screenshot the page and cheat anyway), you have to do it every time that you leave and re-enter the screen. Some areas are places you have to visit a few times and re-doing the game just to get access to a page you have already seen is just a little bit silly and a little too annoying for my tastes. There could have been a better compromise made - perhaps a little variation in mini-games to add challenge for a one-and-done approach to the page being unlocked 'forever' or something.
I have to say that I do love the aesthetic and the look of everything in the game, at the very least. Everything is very distinctive and interesting to look at, and that's definitely where the bulk of the care went when it was being designed and created. The story is simple enough to be told without words, which is actually kind of interesting, but means that it doesn't go very deep at all. The puzzles are by and large not...'unique' to Machinarium, which isn't saying that it's ripping them from elsewhere, just that there aren't many that are -designed- to the game, or at least the ones that are are outnumbered by the ones that aren't. Things like five-way tic-tac-toe (played with a gigantic asshole, by the way) and turnstile puzzles populate the game, though thankfully there is not a Tower of Hanoi to be found. That's merely a small mercy, however, as enough of the other known puzzles are a pain in the ass enough. But through the whole game, you can't help but take in each new screen, each new character with a certain sense of wonder, because of the cohesive design that permeates the entire world that has been created in the game.
All told, Machinarium is not a very long game, but its content makes it feel as if it drags on for absolutely forever because of the myriad of complaints I detailed above. Perhaps with a better port job, I would have found it much better than I do currently, since the bulk of my frustration lies with the controls and how that extends to the rest of the game itself, obfuscating each and every single thing that it intends you to do. Even if it's perfectly workable with the sticks, the option for the Touch Screen is there and is, in fact, the optimal set up...provided it would have been done correctly. But it threw me off so badly that I just lost every ounce of thought for the game when I stopped playing it, which is basically why I never really got it. And I don't really think I should be judging a game on a poorly-done port. Even if that was the one thing it did wrong, it's kind of an important thing. Still, since it was free and you have likely added it to your download list, you may as well give it a shot - your experience will hopefully be better than mine.
it takes a special game to make -giving you all the answers to it- a ridiculous chore, but man