Interview: Amanita Design's Dvorsky On Machinarium's Eerie Adventure

Gamasutra speaks with Jacub Dvorsky of Czech company Amanita Design about his inspirations, and the process of creating Machinarium, a visually-striking adventure game that could breathe new life into the genre.
Jacub Dvorsky and his Czech company Amanita Design hit the global scene in 2003 with his critically acclaimed web game Samorost, but Dvorsky has actually been making games for the last 15 years, in spite of being only 30. His new title, Machinarium, is due for release on PC some time in the next few weeks – a classic point and click adventure game starring a robot who must retrieve his girlfriend from an evil fiend. The world is well-realized, the visuals gorgeous, and the soundtrack arresting. I had the occasion to play through most of it at the Penny Arcade Expo, and during that time was disheartened to hear a number of bystanders struggle to define it. I heard comments like “It seems sort of like an action game, but you can’t control the characters.” Or, “It’s a puzzle game? Like Tetris?” The closest one journalist was able to come was figuring out it was “A bit like Myst.” But really, it’s just the classic adventure genre in its most straightforward form, with some puzzle minigames on the side. Though the term may have fallen out of public view, the design concepts at work are still striking, and Machinarium will not disappoint fans of the genre. In this interview, we spoke with Dvorsky about his origins, inspirations, and the process of creating a unique adventure game experience. You said you have seven people working for you now. Didn't you start solo with just a sound guy helping? Jakub Dvorsky: Yeah, I started alone. I created the first Flash game Samorost alone, only with a sound maker - my friend from childhood. Later, the company grew, and now we are seven people, the same guy for the sounds, the musician, two animators, one artist, one programmer, and I'm doing design and direction for the whole thing. You've focused only on the PC so far. Are you going to continue doing that going forward or will you be porting your games to consoles or handhelds? JD: We also want to create an Xbox version for Machinarium, so we will see how it goes. We want to continue PC games because why not? I think the platform is the most important thing for us because we are doing old-fashioned games in terms of technology, so it should be on a platform like that. Yeah. The potential benefit to like having it on Xbox Live or something would be that more people may see it because it kind of gives you more publicity. JD: Yeah, sure. We really want to create an Xbox Live version especially. Have you talked to publishers yet? JD: We want to create it and publish it ourselves, but we talked already with Microsoft, and we are also a Nintendo registered developer, so it shouldn't be a problem. Just a matter of time then? JD: Yeah, I hope so. Creation Process This is maybe a complicated question, but how do you go about creating a puzzle or a set of puzzles in a screen. JD: It's always a long and difficult process. First, you need a lot of assorted small ideas, some visual idea, little sketches of some items, and also some ideas about puzzles. And then you decide to create some location, and design it, and put together the pieces to form story, design, and the look of the location. And also, it has to fit the whole concept of the game. Usually, I'm doing the design, so I'm thinking about it all the time and carrying with me a little notebook where I'm drawing and writing all the ideas I have. I have even dreams about it at the time, so it's really intense. Do you begin with the solution or the problem, when making adventure game puzzles? Or neither? JD: Oh, it's difficult to say. Maybe sometimes... I don't know. Probably... I have some visual idea of what it should be, and then I try to figure out some solution for it, how it could work. I'm not sure. It's a little kind of an intuitive process. So, it's just kind of all in your brain, I guess? JD: Yeah. We are sometimes using already invented puzzles, but if we are doing this, we try to remake it somehow. So, do you draw from puzzles that you've made before, or do you mean puzzles from other games as well? JD: I mean sometimes we use old traditional puzzles like five in a row, or other puzzles that were invented long ago. But only at some places where it fits to the game. When the player sees this, he knows that this is this kind of puzzle, and he should solve it. Sometimes it's somehow corrupted or tweaked. For example, there's one puzzle that’s very well known, but you will lose one of the pieces from the puzzle, and first, you need to get back the lost piece, then you can finish it. Have you played the Eyemaze games before like Grow RPG and Grow Cube and stuff? JD: Oh, yeah, yeah. I know it. It's from a Japanese guy... Yeah, I've played it. It's very simplistic. I think that he does pretty well is interesting failure conditions. So, if you don't actually find the solution, something engaging still happens. What do you think of failure -- not failure, but partial solutions and failure and stuff like that? How do you consider those? JD: I think it's important because it's obvious that you can't do everything right for the first time, so it must be funny to fail, basically. For the next game, we to try a new approach. We want to create a very playful game, which will feel like a toy that you can play with so you won't be focused only on the solution or finishing it but on playing it. It should be more about playing with the game, more than to solve it as soon as possible. Tough Enough It feels like in order to lead the player to the solution, you have to have visual cues. I was watching my friend play the area where you have to send this cart of plums or whatever are down into this chute. How do you try to think about giving these visual cues? In that case, there's a little "No robots" sign, which means, "Okay, I want to get in there because I'm a robot, so clearly I need to go in there." How do you indicate, "Alright, these are the tools you have"? Or must you even lead them to the solution? JD: We are trying to make it a little bit obvious, but of course, you need to try everything you can. You can't just look at the screen and figure out the puzzle and then do it. It's usually impossible like that. So, there are some clues, and sometimes you need to just try what you have. I believe the puzzles in Machinarium are much more logical than in our previous games. It's a lot about thinking about the puzzles, not just trying randomly and clicking everything. First, you need to try a couple of things, and then you have to think about it and figure it out to solve it. Yeah, because that particular scenario seemed like it was possible to figure out because you see these effects that are happening and they kind of lead the player along the way. A lot of adventure games wind up becoming just “try everything on everything else,” just click everything. Are you trying to move away from that? JD: Yeah, a little. And also, it's nice to create difficult puzzles, because I think nowadays in some current adventure games, it's so easy to solve the puzzle. In the older adventure puzzles, it was very hard to finish the game without a walkthrough because there was an infinite amount of items in the inventory and an infinite amount of options to do. Nowadays, everybody's trying to do it differently in the opposite way. So, now it's very obvious what to do and it's very easy to solve it almost without anything, so we try to make it something in between, and make it somewhat hard. There is no infinite amount of possibilities in each level because you have only a couple items in your inventory at a time, and you're not allowed to go to certain locations. So you see value in challenge for the player? JD: Definitely, yeah. There's also a hint system and a hand-drawn walkthrough in the form of a comic book for those that are stuck, so you can use it. You can use even the walkthrough, which is much nicer than any written one on the web, but to use it, you first need to win the small minigame, and it opens the walkthrough only on the page for the location that you're currently in, so it's not so easy to use it anymore. The Look How did you kind of come in to your art style? JD: It was a really long process for Machinarium because we knew that we wanted a new art style for this game. In our older games, we used collages for backgrounds. This time, we wanted more hand drawn, and we wanted to create a more handmade feeling for the game. And everything should be very organic because the game is about robots, so it's a contrast to it. Everything is very rusty and organic and hand drawn quite freely but with lots of details. So, we came up with hand drawn backgrounds, which are really hand drawn on pencil and paper, then finished in computer. We are adding pictures and a lot of details and colors. What would you say are the inspirations for your initial style, like the collage and all for Samorost? JD: There were a lot of inspirations. Some older adventure games. Also Czech animated films, which are quite famous, especially the older ones, like Jan Švankmajer or Jiři Trnka. There's also Russian animation. Their school of animation is very well known. Yuriy Norshteyn is an awesome animator. We are influenced by this. And I also studied with my friend, who is lead animator for Machinarium -- we studied at the Academy of Arts in Prague animated film. When I played Samorost and Samorost 2, it kind of has a bit of a lonely feeling. JD: Really? [laughs] Yeah. How should I... It's maybe not the right word. Maybe nostalgic. It feels kind whimsical and mystical. I just wonder what sort of feeling you are trying to get across with these games because it feels like you want to evoke something. JD: I think we are not thinking about it much. It just comes out like this somehow. I don't know why. Just a natural expression then? JD: Probably. Yeah. I don't know. I must admit I don't know. [laughs] It's very calm and very soothing. It's strange that it's coming out like this because, for example, also the music is very calm and very soothing and very soft. In my real life, I love death metal, for example, which is the opposite. Origins Is your background in film studies then? JD: Yes, but I was always more into games than into films. Did you have any other game background before you started Amanita Design? JD: Yeah, I started doing games 15 years ago while in grammar school. I created two games back then. First adventure game in Czech Republic. It was actually the first game published on CD-ROM in Czech Republic. When you were in elementary school? JD: No, it was grammar school, so I was 15. You were 15? And you published the first game on CD-ROM? JD: Well that’s when I started it. I published it at 17. Still impressive. It seems you've always been making games pretty much for yourself, independently, not inside of another company? JD: Yeah, yeah. I don't like to be part of a huge machine, especially I don't like to have a boss.

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