Endings are hard to do. I have an English professor who asserted once in class that ‘most endings are bad… pretty much, all endings are terrible.’ In a way, he’s right. Story endings are artificial. They’re where we choose to stop telling a tale that, in the context of the real, continuing world, has no actual end. The editorial act of forcing an end to a story’s living world can be an easy thing to mess up: many people would put this kind of blame on Harry Potter.
The best ending of any kind that I can think of is possibly the ending to Casablanca, followed quickly after by the ending to Watership Down, which actually made me cry when I was in fourth grade. I can’t think of many games that have a similar sense of profound resolution. Indigo Prophecy’s ending arguably ruined the game for me; the ending to Beyond Good and Evil is a bit too baffling to be fully satisfying. Many people detest BioShock’s ending. The ending to KOTOR II was an uninspired mess. There are games out there with spectacular finales, but I’d argue that they’re the exception to the rule: Modern Warfare is one. Portal is another.* Usually, after the player has spent his or herself on a traumatically difficult boss battle, where can a game go? Can tying up the loose ends of a possibly feather-light plot compete with the excitement of climactic play? Often, no. Games have it tougher than most media when it comes to endings.
Machinarium is one of those games where you can feel the ending coming from far away. It feels very right. The action, which until the final hour or so has been spread all across a small city of robot people, begins to narrow, finally converging on a few puzzle-dense rooms stranded, lonely and hollow, high above the clouds. The music, which is frankly my favorite part of the game, becomes more resonant and contemplative, while the images become more arresting and, frankly, disturbing: the last character you meet is eerie, or at least a bit unsettling, in a way I found very compelling. (Hint: you perform crazy robot psychotherapy on it. Yeah.)
The ending also addresses a common theme that runs through the rest of the game: arcade culture. Throughout Machinarium, the player is exposed to old arcade games presented in non-traditional ways: chiefly, arcade games are presented as relics of the past, as grungy, dust-splattered, rickety, bike-powered objects, entertainments occupying a space as far as possible from the slick, bright, neon experience we normally associate with arcade games. The final encounter, or boss-fight, if you will, is also an arcade game. It’s also non-traditional: its soundtrack is jarring and unpleasant, its display elements are non-rectilinear and bereft of ‘digitalness’, and…
Well. IT HAS THE WORST CONTROLS OF ANY GAME, EVER.
The final ‘boss fight’ of Machinarium is so unpleasant that I put the game down for a whole month. Though the rest of the game is a rather calm, contemplative thing, something that can be solved easily with an old and fuzzy laptop touchpad, the final ‘puzzle’ requires a mouse and infinite patience. You must play an extremely long and badly-designed Flash game for which no rules or objectives are given. Dying pulls you out into the world again, where you must repeat a few trivial adventure-game actions in order to reenter the fight. I died countless times, mainly because my screen was wider than the game file itself (Machinarium is Flash) and every time my cursor left the game panel, I would lose control of the character and die. Furthermore, it’s a mouse-aim game with no separate controls for your avatar: you trail around after the aim cursor, able to control your own position only indirectly. I’m sure that not everyone had as huge of a problem with it as I did; nevertheless, it’s so badly designed that I doubt it would do well as stand-alone gameplay. Which is important in a game that’s partially about games. It’s not the main theme, but it’s prominent, and I expected better.
Furthermore, I feel that it pollutes the atmosphere of the entire game: it features your robot taking down enemies with a gun. Up until this point, Machinarium is about a relatively-pacifist underdog robot who is eternally harassed by aggressive, bombastic, armed criminals. I did not expect his final triumph to involve shooting people, even digital people.
Aside from this, I enjoyed Machinarium immensely. It’s a gorgeous adventure game with awesome puzzles—something I hope to write about soon. I’m pretty sure that, art, difficulty, and puzzle-wise, it’s the best adventure game produced by anyone, ever, in several years.
But I haven’t yet played Time Gentlemen, Please, so don’t hold me to that assessment.
* Though the ending has apparently changed due to that awesome ARG– something I need to take a look at!