Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cheating in Machinarium

Is a game too hard if the developers have to include an in-depth hint system?

Machinarium, a 2009 point-and-click adventure by Czech company Amanita Design, is beautiful. Its hand-drawn artwork and quirky robot characters are easy to fall in love with. The game has a cohesive style and minimalist storyline delivered without a single word of text. It's the sort of game my non-gaming girlfriend was able to immerse herself in for hours.

But is it too obtuse? As Machinarium revitalizes a genre from a bygone era, it also revives that genre's bygone difficulty. While the characters are expressive and cute, some of the puzzles are devilishly tough to figure out: "move up and down below an electrical wire at a certain spot so the bird sitting on it tries to copy you and falls off, so you can use the puzzle piece in its mouth to complete a jigsaw and use the fallen electrical wire to electrocute a cat, which you then use to scare a rat out of a musician's didgeridoo." And that's only the beginning of the puzzle.

Conveniently, the game features an extensive hint system. For every room, you can either click the hint button to get a slight hint, or play a minigame to acquire an in-depth, play-by-play illustrated walkthrough of that room. The minigame keeps you from overusing the walkthrough, but the fact that it's even there is slightly troubling.

I appreciate tough games, but shouldn't players be able to get through the game without hints? They should have to make the Walk of Shame to GameStop to purchase the Prima strategy guide--it shouldn't be in the game itself, right? If Amanita thought players needed hints to figure the game out, doesn't that mean they recognized the game they were making was too hard for regular people to figure out?

The act of figuring a game out is part of why we play games. It's something only incredibly complex books and movies can accomplish, but something nearly every game requires. This audience involvement makes the medium unique--aren't you taking that away if you use a walkthrough?

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