I’m a horrible, horrible person. Almost five months ago I completed that dashing little indie adventure game Machinarium by Czech wizard and sometimes game designer Jakub Dvorsky and I, in my audacity, promised some kind of transcendental writeup about the game, and how it proves that not all adventure games post circa 1990 are terrible. That didn’t quite happen.
Maybe it’s because I felt inclined to be an advocate for indie games, AND adventure games in one self indulgent fell swoop, or maybe it’s because I feel like taking an unfair advantage of how many hits I get on this blog due to people spelling “machinarium” as “machination”, but regardless, I feel some moral obligation to follow through on my promise. The problem is that the premise is hackneyed and short lived; no, people, I feel as if this game deserves more attention that just my unwavering adoration and some vague musing on the signs of the times. I’m going to write about why adventure games are fundamentally flawed.
I love adventure games (almost as much as I love juxtapositions). As a dedicated gamer, and some kind of vague proto-journalist I find myself dealing in the extremes posed by such a wide variety of titles over a large period of time, and out of this extensive play-log comes the inevitable favouritism and criticism and lots of other hard hitting isms. It’s not that we, as gamers, are unwilling to accept when a developer has made a mistake, it’s that we as people, form critical opinions of what’s “normal and what’s other” (as my English extension teacher would chime from her ivory tower at the front of the classroom). Games go much the same way, and it’s no mistake that we have come to cringe at the mention of certain ideas, and sadly, adventure games have fallen into that cynical maw.
“Adventure games weren’t always bad”. You’ve got that right, little Jimmy Internet.
It may be a strange twist of fate, but I’ve almost had the good fortune to be born at a time in which I got into adventure games at their downturn. The 80’s and 90’s left me a veritable buffet of brilliant titles to explore at my leisure, but I had this feeling chipping away at the back of my mind the whole time. These games are OLD, why haven’t I seen anything more recent? In retrospect I wish I hadn’t answered this question, but I’d hardly be the person I am today if I didn’t play a few horrible games.
The very year that it ticked over to the noughties (god I hate the noughties), Escape from Monkey island came out, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I got my greasy mitts on it and cancelled my marriage proposal with Curse of Monkey Island; It cleft my heart in twain. Escape from Monkey Island was one of those games I wanted to love, just because I loved its predecessors so crippling dearly; when it showed me that only an empty husk of the fiction remained, I almost broke down in tears. To this day I can’t quite pinpoint why Escape from Monkey Island had such a profoundly negative impact upon me; maybe it was the sterile textures and primitive 3D, or maybe it had just lost the love. In fact, Escape from Monkey Island left such a poor taste in my proverbial mouth that I almost lost my passion for arbitrarily rubbing random items together in hope of advancing absurd stories.
Years went on and adventure games came and went in a long depressing haze, their charm spoilt by the grasp of more face-shooty games in which I just had to use gun A with man B. Yes dear readers, I got stupid. Maybe this is some kind of analogy for the general decay of adventure games, as the likes of Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein transformed old adventure gamers into button mashing machines, detached from their original love by a chasm made of pure poor design choice. But I was wrong. What I’d failed to realise is that adventure games had simply metamorphosised into something more palatable.
In 2000 Deux Ex was released.
The more I look at it, the more I begin to think that Deus Ex was a final, extravagant farewell to adventure games, as well as a warm introduction to its next stage. Deus Ex, as argued by many, is the perfect chimera of elements, both adventure and action; a title that many hoped would pave the way for a future of games and gamers that concerned themselves with strategy, story and systems that would sustain the intellectual air that gaming rose from. But this is when things sort of died. Adventure games tried to continue as always, ultimately trying to advocate their cause whilst never feeling as if they need anything more than the fact that they are adventure games, to maintain their importance, resulting in good puzzles and storytelling taking a back seat.
Last year Rock Paper Shotgun did a post on this little game called Machinarium, and I promptly ignored it because I’m a jerk. I don’t know why, it just sort of slipped under the radar. Out of morbid curiosity, I looked back at its quaint artwork, and reading revealed that it was an adventure game; this thought prodded some kind of flaming hate-tiger deep inside my bowels as I actually thought it looked kind of charming. Upon being drawn into the demo’s simple charms I immediately let my guard down, and pre-ordered on game on a whim.
Machinarium is what adventure games need to be.
That may sound like a pretty bold statement coming from one opinion laden number on the internet, but bear with me here. Machinarium succeeds where its predecessors have failed because it has both realised the need to retain the story and dignity of adventure classics, whilst making it more accessible to a 21st century hardened audience. Maybe this is the wrong way of putting it. Machinarium isn’t any harder or easier than a good, classic adventure, nor is its story any more compelling, it’s just been done right. A common complaint among nostalgic adventure gamers is that story these days always surrounds some horribly convoluted plot that would send Metal Gear Solid into a spin. Amanita realised that the best stories are small, touching tales of characters in a large, foreboding world, so they did what they did best. Incidentally, Ro-boy does not talk, meaning that plot exposition had to be handled carefully and subtly. When idle, he will visualise a thought bubble that drips fragments of his past into the player’s pursuing mind. Any other way it just would have been unsavoury. The story is inherently simple, so it was necessary to deliver it in a way that would not be overwhelming; the witty gesturing of the characters, and their thoughts delivering it in a way that voice acting could never do justice to.
Puzzles are a sore point in a lot of adventure games because the designer forgets that the audience does not possess their mind, and thus puzzles arrive at a point at which the ludicrousness reaches a singularity. I can remember reading this writeup on Old Man Murray that detailed a puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3 that involved renting a motorcycle. The description ran for eleven paragraphs, describing a sequence of events that even the most obsessive quality assurance tester wouldn’t be able to twist their neurotic brain around. The puzzles in Machinarium adhere to a bizarre rollercoaster like formula in which the game is determined to duck between self contained move-the-block type puzzle devices, to long winding rub item X against Z whilst manipulating A and watching for reaction Y. Oh god that could be misconstrued. Regardless, the puzzle flow feels a bit judder-y, often resorting to these puzzle machines when a situation couldn’t offer further complexity. However, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing considering that the start of the game is essentially linear, the problem lies more within their flow. I encountered several key moments within the game in which there were several things I thought I could potentially do, however, the game was adamant in pursuing its own logical solution. I guess it’s not bad when this happens, it’s certainly better than having no idea what to do at all. But this is a minor stumbling block as the puzzles are actually structured in quite a logical order that compliments the player upon their completion, and urges them on in the world.
By now you’re probably saying that “this is sounding a lot like a classic adventure game, you promised some kind of revolutionary feature, you traitorous bastard RAH RAH RAH”. Maybe my initial cause for celebration was simply because it is good, and that term is not used lightly these days. However, measuring a game on its scale of good-ness doesn’t say a lot in contrast to its significance. Maybe it is that Machinarium does not have anything more to offer than proof that passion still exists within adventure games, and the significance we derive is simply a reflection of this.
When entering this train of thoughts, I was determined to prove that adventure games are always going to be bad; ever; simply because I failed to see that, whilst the current trend might suggest that adventure games are a sign of the consumer, they aren’t a sign of a developer. I’m under the stubborn impression that there are no bad developers, or bad minds within the industry, only misguided choices and lost intentions. Although there have been plenty of bad adventure games within the 21st century, it does not mean that the developer is incapable; simply lost for whom to target. I guess what Dvorsky wanted to demonstrate was that the fires of adventure that glowed warmly within gamers within the 80’s and 90’s hadn’t been extinguished, merely covered up. When Machinarium came around, gamers mapped onto its every edifice and simply revelled in the fact that it made them feel young again.
Miles Newton – Nostalgic for the future