I’ve had my eye on Machinarium for a few weeks now, so I had to try out the demo:
I liked it, and will probably pick up the full game one of these days if it goes on sale. I like some adventure games (“The Dig”) but don’t like others (“King’s Quest 7”). The genre really is a mixed bag. Machinarium’s demo plays fairly well, though, so I recommend at least the demo to anyone who is interested.
In the meantime, the demo reminded me of the importance of trust in game design. There was a point in the demo where I found my gamer instincts warring with reality. Naturally, Here Lie Spoilers…
The game is all about clicking on stuff, trying to find what you need to solve puzzles. Sometimes, you have to combine objects you’ve gathered to progress.
Level 2 has your character trying to get through a security checkpoint. You need to devise a disguise to get past the sentry. At one point, you pick up a traffic cone as part of the disguise, but there’s still a stack of cones left over. You can click on the stack, and the character throws a cone into the nearby canyon. This is where I ran into trouble. I wasn’t sure that I’d never need another cone, so throwing them in the canyon seemed like an irreversible move that I might regret later. I never want to get stuck in a game, so I don’t like irreversible moves.
Thing is, you need to throw all the cones overboard to get to a puzzle piece under the stack. I only found this after I had exhausted all other possible moves and just went ahead and threw caution to the wind. I didn’t want to get myself stuck, but the devs were a step ahead of me and made the game so that I couldn’t get stuck. My instinctual desire to keep all potential puzzle pieces around until I had it solved, a sort of MacGyver/Packratitis affliction, ran contrary to the solution of throwing away potential puzzle pieces to get to the solution.
This might just be a set of mixed expectations, just as much my fault as the designers, since often in these adventure games you actually do need everything and even a lot of apparently useless stuff to solve the puzzles. In a way, this skirts Twinkie Denial conditions of “extreme lateral thinking” and “no lateral/logical thinking”. Some pieces just don’t make sense unless you’re reading the devs’ minds, and some are blindingly obvious in their function… which means they don’t really work that way in the game’s logic.
Still, I don’t like throwing pieces away that might have a use later. I had to trust that the devs knew best by having my little character throw the cones away. That wasn’t something I did lightly, and I find that it reveals a slightly untrusting/adversarial relationship that I have with puzzle designers. (In contrast, the only reason I’m still working on one puzzle in Professor Layton and the Curious Village is because I do trust the devs that there’s an answer to it, despite evidence to the contrary. Funny how that works out.)
All in all, this is probably just as much, if not more, about my approach to the game. I don’t like throwing away potential puzzle pieces. I don’t like needing to trust the devs that much, especially when the puzzles themselves may well get increasingly obscure as the game goes on. I detest needing to read the designer’s mind; to me that’s the sign of lazy puzzle design.
I do still like the game. I’m leaning toward buying it at some point. It’s just not a perfect game, and this tenuous trust between player and designer can make or break a game, especially one based on puzzles. Players need to know that they will have all the tools and pieces at their disposal, and that their cleverness will carry the day. That’s the backbone of the puzzle/adventure game genre, and really something that should be the core of the design. Obscure elements or lack of communication of clear goals, tools and pieces can kill a game like this very quickly. Some of this is UI design, some of it is game design, but players need to be able to trust the designers… even if (maybe especially when) they default to “not trusting”.