After its real peak in the lighter half of the nineties the point and click genre felt almost instantly out of date. It was hit by a kind of grass-is-always-greener philosophy and where the FPS genre was green the point-and-clicks were like trying to find golf turf in Dune. By that point the genre began festering away behind flashy advancements in graphics systems that allowed for further generations of successful 3D titles. And just as the graphics started to lag further behind, the love for the humble 2D adventure game became a seven-year-itch relieved by more progressive likes of Doom and Quake.
To be fair even around its peak the point and click industry was beginning to seem technologically stuck.
The genre was always a bit rubbish at improving on itself. Between 1984’s King’s Quest and its 1990 re-release you had a nice little advancement in graphics but beyond that the genre hadn’t really seen that much significant progress for the rest of the early nineties. Hell, it took until 1997’s Blade Runner before we saw developers begin to play with real-time 3D models. But they never really disappeared. They’re the gaming world’s Spaghetti Bolognese lodged somewhere in the back of the freezer since ’93. They’re Betty White’s face. Point and clicks just sort of got stuck in time somewhere in the nineties and then never really aged.
In the last decade and a half we’ve had a real increase in the market worth of nostalgic gamers. And with the industry capitalising again and again on much-loved series from the mid-nineties we’ve had the likes of Monkey Island and Sam and Max revived and wheeled out like some aging stars in a Nevada showroom for years now. So really the recent release of Machinarium has come right in the middle of a small-scale renaissance of old school adventure games. Much of that has been steamheaded by the handfuls of new episodic releases coming out of Telltale Games and the like.
However in Machinarium’s case we have a game that goes beyond the safe, soft nostalgic references, helping to prove that this renaissance can go further than polishing the bits of old gold from over a decade ago. Where games of the nineties were criticised for being technologically dead in the mud next to their immersive 3D counterparts, Machinarium takes basic production material like Flash and pushes it to its artistic and experimental limits.
Developed over a period of three years by the tiny, independent Czech studio Amanita, this award-winning game is obviously a labour of love. In it you’re playing as Josef, a little scruffy robot named after Czech painter and initial inventor of the actual term “robot” Josef Capek. You’ve been accidently ousted from your robot city and are trying to work your way back in to save your girlfriend while stopping a gang of robot hoodlums from setting off a bomb.
It’s a bit of a nebulous plotline but the focal point of the game is really the artwork. The game is cute. It’s scarily cute. With a smoggy, coffee-stained steampunk flavour the game is like an H.R. Giger puppy. The art is cuddly but with enough cracks and pointy metal edges to make it feel like it does more than simply cater to the internet’s infatuation with saccharine Wall-E bots. Like his previous work with Samarost and Samarost II, designer Jakub Dvorský used Adobe Flash as a multimedia platform while combining bitmap character models and hand-drawn background art to help overcome the artistic limitations of Flash. What you get is a gumbo blend of old and new animation techniques. Where 3D models can be easily modified, the stylistic choices call for over an hour of frame-by-frame animation and a patchwork of photographs scanned in and cut into textures to give the game a finely organic atmosphere. Point and clicks might have seemed past their due-date when compared to immersive 3D games but here two dimensions becomes an artistic principle. Intentional or not, Machinarium helps to underline exactly how point and clicks can stand out on a technological and artistic platform without seeming like the also-ran of game genres.
The game also veers away from having too many standard “combine-these” tropes by incorporating a vast amount of minigames. You’ll get variations on Connect 4, tile arrangement and lever puzzles. Take Josef into an old, dusty arcade and play a coin-operated minigame. Search through the brain of a robot in a top-down shooter. All of these bring a nice level of scope to the game, consistently offering you both a micro and macro level of gameplay. Beyond that you do get a taste of the traditional standards of the genre. The game’s plotline is largely held together by your typical combine-these puzzles and Fedex mini-quests.
Like many modern adventure games Machinarium has an in-game hint system. This is a two-tiered system; the first hint coming in the form of a light bulb icon that, when clicked, opens up an ink-drawn thought-bubble doodle giving you a broad idea of what you’re meant to do in the current screen. The second isn’t so much a hint as much as it is an actual walkthrough, written entirely in pictorial form like all other in-game information. But just to keep you from constantly reaching for the walkthrough, the game forces you to first play a short Defender-like minigame.
Unfortunately it’s the basic click-to-interact system that occasionally gets the better of it. Where the game seems to have a refreshing take on what a modern point and click can look and feel like, Machinarium isn’t really the sort of game that has learned from the frustrations of its predecessors. The point and click headaches are all still there, with a few new ones thrown in for added kicks.
Basic exploration is painstaking. Push, pull, prod Josef and you can interact with your surroundings. As a robot his actions fit his roll, each of them creakily robotic in their own way. Josef can be stretched or shrunken down to fit through tight spaces, with each size having its own walking speed. If you’ve accidently directed Josef to walk across the page when shrunken down like a pile of flapjacks he’ll wobble across your monitor screen like he’s suffered a stroke, and with no easy way to put a stop on actions you’re stuck staring at him miserably hobbling over to your cursor. That’s especially fun on screens that require timed actions. Good luck if you’re trying to switch back to your default size in a pinch; it’s often a slippery process when you’re in a rush. Because he doesn’t easily snap to size it’s more like trying to manhandle jelly when you’re trying to get him back to default.
Beyond that there are silly foibles that make the game seem more user-unfriendly than it needs to be. Just try clicking something across the screen and Josef will shrug at you aimlessly because unless you’re directly next to the object you want to interact with you’re not going to be making much progress.
But that’s a small stumble in an overall amazingly crafted game made by such a tiny team. Retailing at £11.56 on the Machinarium website, this is a brilliant way to spend eight hours or so.