Back in 1996, an upstart developer released a game called The Neverhood. It wasn't a big hit, and it wasn't an exceptional piece of gameplay design, but as an art project, it stood out. Even today, it's a game sought by collectors and remembered by fans as a classic of the adventure genre, and something unique that has never been duplicated. Now, Amanita Design's Machinarium arrives carrying much of the same spirit. It isn't so much that Machinarium is overtly similar, or even influenced by The Neverhood, but the two succeed in much the same way, with exceptional art, music, and a curious fascination with the visual instead of the verbal.
That distinction is a significant one, as both Machinarium and The Neverhood tell stories more like independent animation than like games. Traditionally, adventure games are some of the most verbal out there – a heritage owed to the days when they existed solely as screens filled with narrative text. Myst pushed away from this by minimizing dialog, but still offered volumes upon volumes of books to read. The Neverhood moved a bit further in this direction, aided by the slapstick spirit imbued by its claymation visuals, but still buckled with a few verbal exchanges and a lengthy mythos scrawled on a wall. Machinarium takes the hard line approach of the silent cartoon, existing completely devoid of language, written or spoken, apart from a few pop up tutorial hints at the very start.
It helps, then, that the visual component of Machinarium is very strong. The hand-drawn artwork is rich, detailed, and distinctive. This is a world entirely of robots, looking like it may have been abandoned by any organic creators long ago. It's a brown, gray, run down world, with oddly whimsical architecture, innocent and dreary at the same time. The cut-out style animation and subdued palette echoes Yuri Norstein's classic animated short Hedgehog in the Fog, while the absurd, bulbous buildings call to mind Dr. Seuss. Characters communicate with each other through pictorial word balloons that sometimes even become small animated vignettes in their own right. The language-free approach has not compromised Machinarium's sense of humor in the slightest, schowcasing a wonderful sense of slapstick and timing, rather than clever writing.
Although hardly full of complex twists and turns, Amanita manages to spin a simple story of a lone robot, out to thwart a terrorist plot by a trio of local bullies, and rescue his captured friend. Humor and atmosphere drive the game considerably more than actual narrative, but the simplicity of it makes it an appealing game even for younger players. The unique ambient electronic music helps to accent the atmosphere and personality of the game nicely, and stands out enough that the soundtrack download will seem appealing.
The gameplay might be a bit less accessible in some ways. This is a classic point-and-click adventure, and all that implies. The simple interface makes this extremely easy to approach and comprehend, even for non-gamers who have never held a controller. The puzzles are a mix of traditional inventory puzzles (i.e. use [item] with [object]) and inventory combination, with some more creative Myst-like logic puzzles sprinkled in.
The only real twist is that Machinarium's puzzles are very location-specific. You can only move between certain pre-defined points, and you can only interact with objects in your immediate vicinity. You can modify this reach by squashing and stretching the robot's torso. While all of this easy to comprehend, it involves creative thinking and problem solving abilities, and no amount of practice or repetition will make up for this. The game does its best to streamline things by taking you through a series of screens that must be solved one at a time, but those not experienced with adventure games might still find themselves getting stuck. There is a basic hint system that helps to illuminate the basic objective at hand. There's also a more detailed solution that can be unlocked for those that are truly at a dead end, but this takes some of the fun out of things.
Regardless, Machinarium is not one to miss. Nostalgic fans of point-and-click adventures will find solid, well-designed puzzle and casual gamers will find an appealing, artistically ambitious presentation that is impossible to deny. Moreover, fans of animation will find a charming, simple tale and an unforgettable sense of style that stands on its own, even beyond the confines of a game. After decades of gaming, I can recognize a game destined to be an enduring cult classic, and Machinarium is quite simply The Neverhood for a new generation. While there have been many good adventure games in recent years, there have been few games that stand out amongst the sentimental favorites of past decades, and Amanita's latest can proudly stand as an exceptional in that regard.