30 January 2013

Point-and-Click for Dummies

Some people get nostalgic when they have to use pen & paper when playing a videogame, whether it's to make your own map or work out a puzzle or even just write down the solution. There was a lot of genuine excitement when the developers of Grimrock included a printable PDF of custom graph paper for people to use in lieu of the game's built-in map function. I even remember the original MYST coming with a blank notebook. If I think further back, I remember someone at a neighbor's house handing me a memo pad when I sat down to play one of the Carmen Sandiego games to work out the clues. 

I'm not a very smart person. I'm really not. 

I was a "B" student through most of middle school, high school, and the entirety of college. That may sound like a decent achievement, but it was arduous and painful. I was in Honors Algebra I in high school, and I would often be at my desk, my forehead pressed against the paper (as if trying to will the answers into existence) in tears. I'd stare at a jar of broken pencils, trying to keep things in perspective and not let it all get to me. The reasons why I struggled so much are many and varied, much of it owed to the kinds of mixed signals parents often unknowingly send to their kids when it comes to expectations. In short, unless I was told so, I wasn't allowed to be okay with anything. If I was too calm about something, I'd be chastised for not taking things seriously. If I beat myself up about something, I'd be told to calm down and keep things in perspective. There was no middle ground, the choices being to either make mountains out of molehills or get them made for me. Failure was almost always chalked up to simply not trying hard enough or wanting to win enough. 

I bring this up because I gave Machinarium a try. It's a point-and-click adventure game where you solve puzzles to get past certain obstacles and progress farther in the story. You'll gather items, talk to people (robots), you'll move things around, you'll read little schematics or symbols. The game is broken up into individual screens (sometimes two or more) of either a single room or series of rooms, each one a puzzle unto itself, with one rarely carrying over into the other. I solved the first one easy enough, but the second one resulted in me doing a search for a solution. At first, my reaction was "well, duh." but then I stopped and asked, "Well, how would I have known I could do that?" Often the solutions in these games come as a result of getting mad and clicking on anything and everything, eventually discovering the solution completely by accident. This was not a good start. 

The next puzzle involved flipping a series of switches to lower a beam to climb on. I kept trying to work out how the symbols on the switches corresponded to actions, eventually working something out that only really held up about one in every five times. I should have felt proud for solving it without the walkthrough, but I wasn't. 

To its credit, Machinarium will hold your hand on occasion, but it does so in a novel way I've never really seen before. In the upper right corner of the screen are two icons, one a question mark that isn't selectable (how this is made otherwise is never all that clear) showing a simple illustration of what should be done in order to progress. The other icon is for a notebook with a curious electronic lock. In fact, it's less a lock and more of a minigame. You suddenly get to play as a small, flying key shooting at spiders while scrolling left to right until you reach the keyhole at the end of the stage. If you complete this scrolling shooter (my favorite videogame genre, by the way), you get a rather beautifully illustrated set of storyboards revealing the solution to the screen's puzzle. In other words, it gives you the answer, but it makes you work for it. It's very novel. 

The detail of these answers varies at times, often only telling you that something is a puzzle, but not actually showing you how to solve the sliding block or red wire/black wire problem, leaving that up to you. This is where I start to develop a complex and almost abusive relationship with the game; I should be having fun, I enjoy taking on a challenge, I know there's no real pressure, and I know there's no one around to point and laugh when I need to take a few extra steps than most. So, why does the idea of getting out pen & paper feel so defeating? There was a puzzle I absolutely couldn't figure out. It was like that wolf-chicken-feed puzzle but with way more flora and fauna. The shmup hint book gave me the solution, but instead of writing it down, I tried memorizing it, even checking back every few steps. It didn't work. I started to get up to get some scratch paper and a pen, only to feel very depressed. 

I turned off the game, resolving to just come back later. Unfortunately, like I said, giving up (even briefly, with resolve to return, and after trying my best) doesn't sit well with me. It brings back a painful memory, a fight I had with someone. Someone has a go at you in frustration, and says something hurtful. The memory itself is really nothing special, certainly nothing traumatic, but it's one of those lingering echoes that comes back to haunt you at the worst possible time. A harmless little remark over a game of chess or basketball or Mario suddenly becomes this metaphor for your whole life (even though the person who made this remark is barely older than you). Worse is when someone else comes along to tell the self-appointed life coach to back off, only to turn the mess into a full-on battle of the wills. Doors get slammed, chess pieces get picked up, power buttons get pressed, apologies are made, and you try not to go to bed angry. 

Machinarium is a game that makes me very sad, but not for the reasons it probably wants me to be. 

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