While last time we talked about The Swapper, a game that almost begs the player to do research and read about philosophy, Machinarium is nearly the polar opposite: most often described as minimalist, it contains no verbal exposition, and the storytelling only happens directly on screen or in animated vignettes. Saying that it goes out of its way to hide the plot and backstory perhaps would be too much, but the story you get by simply going through the game without digging is really not that interesting, and in fact I’m surprised that the majority of users on Steam remarked about how they enjoyed story and characters. All the credit, I suppose, goes to the gorgeous art style, that alone manages to make the world come alive and makes characters likeable and relatable.
Still, it’s surprisingly easy to miss some major plot points: for instance, during my first playthrough (which lasted up to the final tower, when I unwisely decided to wipe Flash cookies in my browser and all my saves with them) I didn’t even know the lady I helped in the kitchen was in fact the PC’s girlfriend. It is only shown in a thought bubble that plays when you have been idle for a couple of minutes, and I just hadn’t been idle. I only found out because a friend texted me while I was playing it for the second time. The names of the characters themselves come from outside the game, in the marketing and design material that Amanita released to the public, or from colloquial names that the fans gave to major characters in needing to talk about them. So, the protagonist and PC is Josef, his girlfriend is Berta, the villains are referred to as Black Cap Brotherhood, Black Hat Gang, or similar, and the robot we save at the end is King, Master, or the Royal Robot. The lack of words inside the game is matched only by a lack of words about the game: it has been extensively reviewed and a lot of people seem to have enjoyed it, but the most common reaction has been “awww, what a cute little thing, I’ll have my 5-year-old play it” and then dismissed and forgotten. Both in the Amanita forums and in the Steam forums there is no discussion about the plot, the characters or the world, as far as I can tell. Besides being mentioned or referenced, the only article about it I have been able to find is this excellent piece on Unwinnable.
Perhaps this is because Machinarium doesn’t exactly invite discussion, or even immersion in its plot. Surely, the world is beautiful and believable, it shows craft and care, and, although static, each character has personality and displays idiosyncrasies that hint to a larger life than what we see on screen. It even has gaming’s most likeable air ventilation system. But the moment-to-moment gameplay does not invite a focus on the greater, final objective that each puzzle should bring us closer to achieving. In this sense, the first part, being more linear, escapes this criticism: there, Josef’s objective is clearly to get back into the city. We may not know why he’s been thrown out, or why he wants or needs to go back, but the first couple of screens have a clear focus, with each puzzle bringing us closer and closer. There is a clear structure driving the player: Josef needs to do X, but he needs tools he’ll acquire by doing Y first, but to do Y he needs something he gets from Z… When he then gets thrown into prison, both Josef and the player’s immediate wish is to escape, and once again that drives the story forward. The game loses this focus in the second half, when Josef enters the city. The fact that he spots the bomb through the telescope as it is placed is not only fortunate timing in-fiction, but that he should look into the telescope in the first place is simply adventure game logic: this object can be clicked, so I should probably click it. From then on, adventure game logic (AGL) dominates and drives the game forward more than any plot. Not only it’s unclear why Josef doesn’t tell anyone about the bomb, but from that perspective a lot of his actions are nothing but a big waste of time.
There’s a timer ticking, but he’ll gladly stop and help some buskers with their instruments, by playing games in a bar, electrifying a cat, stealing a barrel of oil (beer?), in hope that a random housewife, annoyed by the (beautiful) music will throw her vase and her radio on to the ground; and that old man on a wheelchair, he looks so helpless, why not fetch him some oil so maybe he’ll kindly move away from the sewer cover. The Wrench, at least the Wrench looked like a reasonable person tool differently-shaped individual (don’t joke about him just because he’s different, no robotism, please!), if you explained to him why you needed his help maybe he’d have done it without asking for a radio in exchange. Oh, right, you don’t know why you want to open that water tank. You don’t really know if there’s a passage, and where it leads, and if there’s a convenient lift on the other side. Also, have you noticed in this city no one does anything for free? You have to run around doing everyone else’s chores before they help you with what you need. Friendly sneering aside, this is what I mean by AGL: players aren’t solving puzzles to eventually achieve their narrative-established objective, they solve puzzles because they’re there, and they trust the game designer that they’ll need whatever they get to progress in the game. It all flows very naturally, but there is no logical, narrative link in Josef’s actions, which only goes to show, again, how much this game is kept together just by the art style and visual world building. Furthermore, for that whole section, which constitutes more than half of the game’s length, there is not even a reminder of what we’re supposed to achieve by the end, there is no exposition, we don’t learn new things about any of the main characters – except Berta, we learn that she has been imprisoned by the Black Cap Brotherhood and forced to work in a kitchen, but if you’re like me maybe you didn’t even know who Berta was – we don’t learn about the BCB’s motivations, whether Josef has any link to them, if that tower they strapped the bomb to is important or just a random tall building. I’ll admit that, during my first playthrough, having to focus on the puzzles, and sometimes getting stuck, I even forgot about the bomb at one point, until I reached the tower and saw it again. I was just running around the city, trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, not trying to save it all from disaster.
Accepting that and moving on, the overall story is one of ascension, of liberation, a linear progression from negative to positive that is very strongly supported by the visual representation of Josef’s vertical journey: he starts in a scrapyard, trying to enter the city he falls to the bottom, then he’s imprisoned, uses the sewer to escape, climbs the city upwards, takes a lift to the highest floor of the highest tower and then escapes in a helicopter. The latter is not necessarily explained in the fiction – Josef never expressed that desire, and we don’t even know where they’re going – but it makes immediate sense, if only thematically, as a symbol of his achievements and the freedom he has obtained. In the process, Josef frees his fellow prisoners, saves his girlfriend, cures the Royal Robot, disarms the bomb and flushes away the Black Hat Gang, and in this sense it’s also a hero story. The theme that was most apparent to me, on reflection, is how much the game’s minimalism, the reliance on purely visual storytelling and the gameplay being led by AGL all affect plot, characters and world-building, and invite the player not to think about them, not to question them or reflect on them. It’s not that those things are hidden, but the player is not particularly invited to focus on them, almost the opposite actually, and there is no moment in the game’s pacing when the player is allowed to stop and ponder on the events instead of trying to overcome an obstacle. It’s hard to speculate on Amanita’s creative process, but there is a clear link in my mind between Machinarium’s minimalism and its heavy reliance on tropes and black & white extremes. Not that minimalism forces or even encourages them, and actually a minimalist design can be used to powerfully subvert the player’s expectations, but Machinarium never does that, and uses minimalism, AGL and its lovely art style to sweep those worries under the rug.
For example, the Black Cap Brotherhood: we’re never shown their motives for disabling the King’s brain and attempting to blow up the tower; what we are shown are random acts of pure cruelty, at times almost cartoonish cruelty in its senselessness, like stealing the wrench’s radio and breaking the busker’s drum. Maybe they’re revolutionaries, maybe they’re terrorists, or who knows what else, but by never even hinting at any motivation for doing what they do we are encouraged to simply think of them as “The Bad Guys™”. By contrast, the player should side with his fellow victims, bound by sympathy and compassion. There is a lot of rhetoric here: we don’t actually know almost anything about them, but the game asks us to see most citizens as fundamentally good, or at least not-bad, for we see them suffering and in need, or we’re shown their flaws. Also in opposition to the dry, joyless evil laughter of the BCB, we see the citizens finding great joy in small things, like having the wheelchair oiled, or dancing. And Josef readily joins them and dances whenever there is some music playing, showing that he too can find joy in simple things, even in a difficult time of need and suffering and urgency (the bomb is still ticking), furthering the sense of community with the small people of the city.
Also on the side of the “Other” is the police: while never downright evil like the BCB, the few episodes in which they intervene form a picture of ineptitude and inadequateness, and sometimes even of oppression. The former are exemplified by the memory bubble in the final area, when we learn why Josef was discarded: the BCB broke in the tower, disabled the King, and when the alarm went off a sort of giant hoover that was supposed to suck the criminal away failed to do so and got Josef instead. When a real policeman arrived, it was too late, and the BCB member kidnapped Berta and fled. The police wasn’t even able to fix the Royal Robot, since we still find him broken when we get there at the end, and they certainly don’t know about the bomb, the secret BCB prison, or where they can find them and arrest them. The puzzle at the very beginning, in which Josef disguises himself as a police officer with only a traffic cone and a lightbulb, invites the player to chuckle at their gullibility. On the other hand, one of the animated thought bubbles that play when idle shows Josef trying to smoke some plant and then having to hide it when a policeman comes nearby. Both Josef and Berta appear very stiff and nervous in his presence, with the final impression being that the police is a very rigid organization, detached from real life and small joys that cause no harm. It is an oppressive force, that stifles freedom in the name of bureaucracy, that abuses its power over simple and honest people while unable to catch and punish the real criminals. There is a strong juxtaposition set up, between the powerful and the powerless, the powerful being the police (through authority and law) and the BCB (through violence). The point & click mechanics help reinforce the feeling of being on the side of the powerless: Josef is resourceful and eventually manages to save the day and solve all the puzzles, but nothing just works out of the box in a user-friendly way in his world. The environment is complex and not immediately accessible to him, he needs tools and devices he doesn’t have, and even something as simple as operating a lift requires a lot of effort. It is an interesting take on technology that works more on the player than it does on Josef: these devices are designed to be operated this way. Sometimes they are simply unsophisticated to begin with, like the current generator in the arcade machine, but the point remains that most things are not broken but working as intended, Josef probably finds it normal, and, being a robot, we can assume he is very apt at solving logic puzzles, unlike us. It’s familiar technology, only with a user interface that has not been designed to be operated by a human, and therefore it takes on a different value inside the fiction and outside, creating a gameplay obstacle where there wouldn’t be any in the fiction.
On the topic of tropes, the game makes use of several stereotypes: some, I’m willing to assume, are consciously employed for comic relief, like the “Fat and Skinny” prisoners and the “Gentle Giant” policeman, and the game is cartoony enough to make them work. (I used TVTropes’ names) Less justified, especially in a game that cares so much about its visual design, is its depiction of women. There are 5 women in the entire game: the lady who lost her dog, the housewife living above the buskers, the religious woman outside the church, the bartender and Berta. All of them are identified as women by typical gender signifiers, or by being put in the “appropriate” gender role. The lady with the dog is pink and with long eyelashes. The housewife is, well, the usual fat and nagging housewife who can’t even enjoy some music. The religious woman is pink, and looks just a bit too devoted, as if she lost touch with reality. The bartender is pink, and her job is to serve men. The character design only reinforces the idea that male is neutral, and female needs a signifier, female is different and other. The musicians, the BCB and their prisoners, the king, and even the police are all men. Berta is also pink, and she is exclusively defined as the protagonist’s girl, with no life of her own. Interestingly, the BCB forces her to work in the kitchen, another typical female place. Of course, Berta is also the damsel in distress: she has some of the agency and resourcefulness of Josef, when we control her (although, I do wonder if we’re playing as her, or if we’re playing as Josef telling her what to do), and in the past they were on equal footing, at least in terms of social value, i.e. their job was the same, to clean for and probably serve the Royal Robot. Ultimately, though, she is the one who needs rescuing, whereas Josef reassembled himself in the junkyard and then rescued himself from the prison. She only shows up at the very end, as the prize for Josef completing his quest and saving the city. Perhaps the biggest gap to fill in the narrative concerns Josef’s motivations. In particular, while some things can be explained by reasonable assumptions (Josef probably wants revenge over the BCB, wants his life and his girl back, and wants to disable the bomb), the biggest question is why does he fly away with Berta. Was he unhappy with his previous life? He’s always shown smiling in the flashbacks before the BCB. There is a strong hypothesis that Josef and Berta were not only the King’s servants, but his slaves. Perhaps by rescuing the King he has earned his and Berta’s freedom; but if he decided to rescue him in the first place, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad relationship after all. In The Swapper the narrative gaps were vital to the narrative itself, because they required the player to make use of their assumptions and then questioned them. In Machinarium the blanks can only be filled with speculation and thin assumptions about the world and the characters; plus, the player is not given enough information to make informed assumptions, unless I really did miss or misinterpret some major plot point conveyed through some small detail.
I write these essays articles words because I like digging into the things I love, enjoy or at least find interesting. I like reflecting on what they really mean and what lies beyond the surface, behind the plot as pure sequence of events. I like trying to explore, make clear and engage with the kind of worldview they present, the arguments they make, the things they’re trying to tell me. I like to reflect about whether they’re enriching my life, more than just simply giving me a few hours of entertainment, and if so, how. I enjoyed playing Machinarium. It wasn’t amazing, and it wasn’t particularly memorable but it was… nice. And perhaps that’s its biggest merit and its biggest fault. It’s just nice. It’s incredibly nice to look at, I repeated it so many times. But it feels shallow, unambitious and forgettable, and perhaps that’s why there are so few words about it. It doesn’t necessarily feel like that when you’re playing it, and its minimalism helps with avoiding that feeling, but it does reveal it when you’re trying to dig in. It wasn’t particularly rewarding to explore, and perhaps that “I’ll have my children play it” dismissal wasn’t entirely wrong. I’ve tried to work out the way it views the world, but in the process I never felt the game trying to engage with me, no will trying to tell me something. Whereas The Swapper writes “what is consciousness?” on a hammer and then repeatedly hits you on the head with it, the sensation was that Machinarium had nothing much to say for itself. Is that why the game was mute? Perhaps I just wasn’t very good at listening…
In the words of Jakub Dvorský, founder of Amanita and designer for Machinarium, “Of course, you can interpret [the game] any way you want, […] There’s no deeper meaning or message hidden in the story.”
I’m always striving to improve, so I appreciate and value any kind of criticism and feedback. This is very much a new adventure for me, and I’d be delighted to hear what you think about it, so, if you like, leave a comment or get in touch. If you enjoyed your stay, consider subscribing or telling a friend. Have a lovely day. Meow ^_^
Links and Further Reading
The only article really about Machinarium I could find is this excellent piece by Joseph Leray on Unwinnable. I skipped talking about the game’s subtext of slavery because that article already explores it very effectively, but it also informed my words in many ways. This piece briefly compares games’ pacings, praising Machinarium for letting him take his time. On the other hand, Edward Smith’s post about technology in games doesn’t mention Machinarium – it’s mostly about Alien Isolation – but it’s a great place to start if you want to think about the role of technology in any game, and to a certain extent in other media too.