There's an old adage passed down by screenwriters - "Show, don't tell". It urges would-be movie makers to reveal facts about the world and its characters through actions, rather than boring exposition and endless voice over.
Czech point-and-clicker Machinarium from Amanita design is all about the power of showing over telling.
Everything you need to know about the game, from the steampunk cityscape to the bullies who preside over it, from your hero's love for a tin can girl-bot to a woman's worry for her lost robodog, is portrayed through sounds, sights, and gorgeous hand-drawn art.
Outside 'Save' and 'Load', there isn't a word of dialogue throughout the entire adventure. Thoughts, feelings, and desires are instead shown as doodley animations in pop-up thought bubbles, and the backstory to Machinarium's quirky city is revealed in its inhabitants, objects, colours, and mechanisms.
Without dialogue, Machinarium's narrative is necessarily subtle and understated. You play as a stretchy robot boy who's been tossed into the scrapheap outside city limits. He needs to sneak back in, avoid playground bullies, save his girlfriend from robo-slavery, and defuse a bomb.
Fittingly, its humour is delivered in silent slapstick with over the top expressions and cute set-ups.Like clockwork
The city itself is a scrappy and arcane metropolis, laced with pipes and tubes over Victorian tiles and wallpaper. It's two parts steam punk, one part dystopia. Both Blade Runner and Wall-E. There are dogs made of cogs, dancing wrenches, and elderly church-goers. It's drenched in muted colours and dilapidated mess. It's utterly teeming with atmosphere.
In some ways, the hopeless, crumbling facade of Machinarium makes for a rather grim backdrop, but the robots you meet and the events that unfold - all drawn and animated with care - give this microadventure a true sense of character.
All in all, Machinarium presents a plausible land of automata, and not just a series of inter-connected, puzzle-filled screens. Most importantly, it's a warm - though otherworldly - locale that you'll just want to spend time pottering about in.Do the robot
You'll definitely spend a lot of time doing that as you flutter between the game's various rooms, meeting mute characters and working towards your goals. Machinarium is a true point-and-click adventure with items to pick up, problems to solve, logic puzzles to overcome, and a bottomless inventory of junk to lug about with you.
On the whole its puzzles are extremely clever, and clues - once again suggested by actions and visuals rather than words and dialogue - nudge you along the right path. Each puzzle is usually contained to a few screens, too, so you won't have to traipse back and forth across the city feeling bemused and confused.
Unless, of course, you can't find an important item. The whirring, animated circus of Machinarium has a habit of hiding must-have objects and blurring the line between things you can interact with and things that exist simply to look pretty.
On more than one occasion I found myself stuck simply because I wasn't looking hard enough, or in the right place.Does not compute
Alongside the Monkey Island-esque item-based puzzles come logic-heavy mechanisms that explode straight out of Puzzle Agent or the back of a cereal pack or inside of a Christmas cracker. Things like sliding blocks, following wires, and drawing complex shapes without taking your pen off the page.
They're generally a nice break from the item-manipulation puzzles, but they sometimes break the flow when you're stuck on a nuts-and-bolts take on noughts and crosses for ages. There are a few out-of-place arcade games to boot, which just don't fit the puzzle-focused world of Machinarium at all.Do androids dream of electric sheep?
Luckily, the game comes packed with an in-app guide book that can help you solve the toughest brain-benders.
One button (a lightbulb) gives you a light nudge with a general idea of what you should be trying to achieve. Another (a book, complete with a mini-game you must beat to unlock it) gives a full solution.
With a few hints here and there, you'll probably get a good seven hours out of this game. A very good seven hours.
Machinarium is a must-play adventure for anyone who's had a brief dalliance or a full-on love affair with point-and-clickers. Its puzzles are great head-scratching fodder, but the game's real champion is the rustic charm of its world, the bouncy jazzy beat of its soundtrack, the characterful animations, and an understated yet heartfelt story about two robots in sappy robo-love.iPad version reviewed.
Want more? Check out our growing collection of Machinarium articles!