Roots to robots

It has been fascinating to follow the evolution of Amanita Design's work from the original Samorost 1 through to their latest offering, Machinarium. The first, while it introduced an innovative visual style and type of gameplay that inspired a slew of imitators, was formally little more than a loosely associated collection of hallucinatory set pieces. Machinarium, by contrast, is a much more mature and focused game. Samorost 2 was an important intermediate step, utilizing motifs from the original game and just beginning to rationalize that surreal, oneiric world by introducing elements like characters, plot, spatial continuity, and logical causal relationships. Machinarium takes the final step and brings us to a world that is solid and grounded, with rules and interlocking parts that fit together like — well, like a machine.

In Samorost 1, nothing was grounded — not even the ground.

It's like the druggy haze of Samorost 1 was already starting to clear in Samorost 2, and now with Machinarium Amanita has clambered out of the beanbag, combed its hair, put on a suit and tie, and gone out into the real world. Interestingly, the references to hallucinogenic substances that peppered the Samorost series (the name "Amanita" refers to a type of toxic mushroom, which is also the studio's logo) are largely absent from Machinarium, and the earthy roots, furry forest creatures, gnomes, and cosmic little green men of Samorost have been replaced by an industrialized metal cityscape of dive bars, jails, factories, and bombs, populated by rusty robots and hunks of junk, cops and crooks and gamblers and beggars. Is this what the world looks like when you come down?

The brave new world.

Paralleling this aesthetic evolution is a complementary formal one. Samorost 1's "click anywhere and things happen" mechanic has been gradually whittled down to a more traditional system of agency, and in Machinarium the player directly controls the main character, a charming tin-can robot, who walks, stretches, collects and manipulates items within his immediate sphere of influence. (Except for during the first two minutes, that is, where the player acts on the environment at large in order to bring the pieces together to assemble the robot in the first place — a final transition from the old ways to the new.) Gone is the out-of-body dissociative experience of Samorost 1, where the player's and main character's motivations were aligned, but their actions disjointed: the player operated directly on the environment while the sprite sat down and watched, with the player in the role of an unseen godlike manipulator, or maybe the world itself. It was the perfect gameplay model for what represented essentially a really groovy trip.

Sitting back and taking it all in.

It would have been interesting to see that mechanic developed further, but Amanita chose the opposite route and made the game world and mechanics more concrete, not less — and Machinarium is definitely the stronger for it. It's a rich, tightly-constructed game, made with purpose and clear direction. I would love to see Amanita — or someone else — go down the other path someday, though. It's perhaps a greater challenge to make a sustained, meaningful experience out of the whimsical illogic and disembodied agency that characterized Samorost 1. Can the player's sense of identity be even further shaken? Can the bounds of cause and effect be further strained? Can the resulting journey cohere and add up to something more than a succession of novel and entertaining images?

The first denizen of Samorost you encounter: a toked-out dude with his hookah.

Amanita seems to have shelved the hookah for now, and I'm glad to follow them out of the wild and into this exciting new urban junkscape. But I wouldn't mind going back occasionally into that wild forest, just for a little while. Just one more hit...

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Blogger mit:

Machinarium is really a great game. I love it too much. Thanks for the review.

Blogger Jparked:

great work!!!!


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