On One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.
It seems like over time there are just some genres of gaming that fall by the wayside. Either new genres rise to take their places, old ones meld together to form an abomination or people just plain stop playing the games released in a specific one at which point developers finally realize it and stop making them. This is a normal cycle of things, really, and it should not surprise anyone when developers stop making games that do not sell.
Up until recently, this is, more or less, what I figured happened to the adventure game genre. The evidence was all anecdotal, sure, but even as an avid gamer doing freelance journalism the last true adventure game I had played was back in the middle of the 1990s. While I was playing Doom 2, networked with my brother, I would also occasionally dabble with Hugo’s House of Horrors.
Hugo’s House of Horrors, and its sequels, ran via DOS, had a command line interface and required knowledge gathered outside of the game to complete. If you weren’t aware of the name Bram Stoker, you were plum out of luck. Looking back on my experiences now, I’m a little surprised that it didn’t bother me that I had to jump through all of those hoops. Considering that I barreled through the original plus sequels, I suppose I’m even more stubborn than I previously thought.
But Hugo and his little misadventures would never see any similar titles join my ever-growing collection of games. Well, not until recently at least. As I have become more involved in the independent gaming scene, I have slowly rediscovered my apparently ageless love of the adventure game thanks to a little title called Machinarium by Amanita Design. You may have heard of it.
Not only has Machinarium been kicking around my PC, Telltale Games’ Sam & Max series has joined in the fun as well. To be fair, Sam & Max actually started the party but much like the cute girl you just can’t bring yourself to talk with I avoided it at all costs. I purchased the first and second seasons of Sam & Max back during Christmas, as they were on sale for the criminally low price of $14.99 or thereabouts. Machinarium actually came much later to my attention but was also picked up during a sale.
Machinarium was, however, the first of the two that I booted up. This all came to a head less than a month ago when looking at the various games I owned yet had never played. After compiling my incredibly huge list, I began making mental note of which ones were and were not considered indie. Have to build up my street cred, you understand.
Booting up Machinarium for the first time was like opening a box hidden at the bottom of your closet for years when you move: full of memories and cobwebs. The cute little robot inexplicably reminds me of Hugo, thus bringing on the nostalgia, and my return to adventuring form could charitably be referred to as “rusty” at best.
Though it scratched an itch that I no longer even realized I still had, Machinarium is still an adventure game. This might just be my own preferences talking, but logic and/or puzzle games still leave me rather unsatisfied when playing for long bouts of time. I am prone to becoming frustrated with a puzzle and just giving up rather than trying to work through it.
I would argue that’s a fair response to a puzzle game. Somewhere along the line, it stops being fun for me. Why play a game, especially if you’re looking for entertainment, when it’s just not fun any longer? And yet, I continue to play! Both Machinarium and Sam & Max see playtime, not much but some definite chunks, during my typical week. It certainly seems that both have something going for themselves that defies my somewhat irrational hatred of the perceived tedium inherent to adventure games.
Reading that last sentence is a bit of a puzzle in itself so let me attempt to clarify further: the game manages to make me want to play even though I don’t like the game. This effect is somewhat baffling to anyone who has never played either title. It’s akin to looking someone straight in the eye and explaining how much you hate how hard some of the puzzles in Braid were or how difficult you made them by not making the right jump at the exact right time in the correct loop of time. At that point, your hypothetical listener should look at you and respond, “Then why play?”
Maybe it is just me but my answer invariably comes out something like, “Because there is so much more here than just the game.” The game is just the mechanics beneath the surface. The game is how it communicates progress, the way in which we determine when we are done and how well we did. In the most common sense, the game can also be considered to be the humorous dialogue, the charming characters and the incredibly cute graphic design decisions. I would argue, however, that these actually function secondary to the mechanics of the game. Like water seeping from a tailpipe, they are a byproduct.
In Machinarium, I could not care less about fixing a little bucket designed to drop something I’d rather not contemplate too long down a chute or into a cart. In Sam & Max, I often get frustrated with the tried-but-true steps of speaking with Sybil and Bosco, two characters often important to solving whatever caper’s on the menu. Those are just samplings from both games where the mechanics, the means by which the game progresses, bogs down everything else that I like about the game.
I push myself through the tedious dental-related psychosis analysis—you read that correctly—because of the dialogue between Sam, Max and the various characters and props scattered throughout the scenario. Machinarium’s art design is simply a wonder to behold. There’s a reason it’s won awards for art direction—it’s simply gorgeous to look at. Any given screenshot is worthy of being a wallpaper of its very own.
Perhaps my problems, as illustrated above, are why the adventure game genre became synonymous with action/adventure and sometimes just plain action. God of War is a fun romp, mechanically and aesthetically, and doesn’t suffer the same pitfalls. Of course, it has its own Achilles’ heel but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the adventure game evolved beyond Machinarium and Sam & Max’s brethren to something engaging in more than just a single aspect and has left behind, well, leftovers.
And leftovers are great! Even though my father refuses to eat them, leftovers remain a staple in my diet. Sam & Max (as well as a number of titles in Telltale’s catalogue) is a holdout from earlier times. It harkens back to the days when DOS was a common way to begin a game. The same goes for Machinarium. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just not for me.
You’ve probably been there too. Ever seen a movie where you absolutely despise the protagonist, antagonist and female lead but love the characters playing out just to the side of the action? That’s how I feel about modern adventure games. It parallels the hilariously-bad movie Twins. God of War and the like are the Schwarzenegger’s of the gaming world whilst Sam & Max is the Devito: it uses humor to compensate.