Monday, November 9, 2009

Machinarium - Falling Down Gently

Machinarium has been praised for its gorgeous visuals and atmospheric soundtrack. But it also features surprisingly solid puzzle design. It does so by simplifying the core adventure game formula and finding ways to minimize points where other environmental puzzle games often get bogged down.

Often, adventure games become frustrating when the player can't determine whether or not they have all the necessary pieces to solve a puzzle. This ambiguity, combined with puzzle logic that often only makes sense to its creator, often causes gameplay to collapse to "rub everything in your inventory on everything in the world." Only once this painful process has been completed can the player be relatively confident they haven't assembled all the pieces and can resume hunting.

Machinarium addresses this by keeping the puzzle areas relatively compartmentalized. I haven't finished it yet, but at least thus far, the puzzles rarely span more than a handful of screens, sometimes as small as a single screen. This keeps the number of possible components and interactions limited, but not to the point of seeming shallow or painfully obvious.

Obviously, this conflicts with the adventure format that LucasArts laid down and has been kept alive by Telltale Games. In this style, usually shortly after the beginning of a chapter/episode, the game will present a number (usually three) of orthogonal puzzles that can be resolved in any order. The advantage of this format is if the player is stuck on one, they can change course and attempt to progress on another. The disadvantage is the various solution pieces to all the puzzles are in play at the same time, muddying the waters for any particular puzzle.

The other way Machinarium addresses potential points of frustration is by providing a pair of hint systems. The simpler one is actually far more interesting. It's a thought bubble hint that can be selected at any time. I think there's only one hint per room and it's usually very obvious. Rather than being a detriment, the obviousness is quite an advantage. The truth of any design is that, no matter how obvious you intend something to be, some players will simply miss it.

There's a puzzle that requires a plunger to solve. The plunger is in plain sight, but for whatever reason, I simply didn't see it. I had assembled all the other pieces of the puzzle and had been spinning my wheels a bit on that last component. Wandering back into the various accessible areas, I happened to check the hint bubble and I was clued to something right in front of my nose.

Basically, the game has a separate mechanism for resolving missing information that wasn't intended to be part of the puzzle in the first place. This provides more latitude for not needing to make things painfully obvious, while providing alternatives for those who happen to miss something.

Machinarium's secondary hint system is a fully illustrated walkthrough, accessible by completing a miniature Gradius-esque side-scrolling shooter that substitutes a key for the spaceship. Since it requires some amount of effort, it may prevent the player from immediately accessing the solution when stuck. While I'm not sure this will prevent stuck players from just looking up a walkthrough on YouTube, I think it makes a difference for players who prefer not to go outside the game for assistance (I count myself in that number).

There are other interesting changes to the core adventure gameplay, such as basically clearing the player's inventory after each successful solution and preventing red herrings from clouding future puzzles. The game is also completely free of dialog, which prevents conversation-based confusion (in addition to requiring basically no localization). It lends itself well to the game's aesthetic and definitely provides a healthy dose of charm.

Of course, I'm not saying Machinarium is the future of adventure design. More complex designs certainly have their advantages. But it's very interesting to consider how much can be stripped away and simplified without diminishing the experience at all. It makes you think about how many tropes in other types of games could be removed. Oh Machinarium, you may have opened a Pandora's Box.

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Blogger Erik Fagerholt said...

Yeah Machinarium was pretty great. It's not that often me and the girlfriend get together to play something other than GuitarHero or the random beat-em-up. I think the whole speachbubble idea was great (I also did not find that damn plumber).

From my work at Dice I really agree that some players will always miss even the most obvious (from the designers p.o.w.) paths, objects etc. and will need some aid - as long as the help you provide is on-demand and not in-your-face players really appreciate it (The head-turning thing in Mirror's Edge comes to mind).

November 9, 2009 at 6:56 AM  
Blogger Jordan Fehr said...

I've been playing Beneath a Steel Sky again on iphone with it's new release, and thinking about these issues as well.

November 11, 2009 at 7:16 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Erik I think that distinction between something that's on-demand and omnipresent is very important. It help keep "useful" from mutating into "frustrating."

@8th Ronin How are you finding Beneath a Steel Sky? I never played it, but I remember some people who picked it up on the iPhone were pretty frustrated by it.

November 12, 2009 at 7:52 AM  

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