We live in a society, or so the saying goes. Many people play video games to escape from the troubles of the real world, and it’s hard to blame them. But I think the most thought-provoking games are ones that reflect the real world. They’re the ones that make people think the most. The Machine is probably one of the bleakest and most depressing games I’ve played in a long time. Quite an impressive feat, considering it runs on the same hardware that powered Pokemon Red and Blue.
The Machine is a narrative adventure game courtesy of horror artist Ben Jelter and publisher Incube8 Games, casting you as a humble cog in the titular machine, navigating the teeming crud of a sad, dying world. Will you become the king of The Machine? Will you die a forgotten nobody? Or will your fate lie somewhere in between? It’s all up to your decisions, so choose your fate wisely.
The Machine is a backwards compatible Game Boy Color game sold by Incube8 Games for $59.99, and is playable on anything that can play Game Boy cartridges, including the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and the original and SP models of the Game Boy Advance. It is also playable on the Super NES via the Super Game Boy, the GameCube via the Game Boy Player, the Nintendo 64 via the Super Wide Boy or Pokémon Stadium Rom injection, the Retron 5, and any other Game Boy hardware clone one can think of. Or Incube8 sells a digital Rom file for $12.99.
Story: A Speck of Girt
The world of The Machine is a world of despair and decay. The world has been reduced to a barren, featureless wasteland, with the few surviving people making their home in the titular Machine, a giant triangular tank that roams the wasteland, its treads driving endlessly through the ruins of the old world. But people still live on. They’re hideous disgusting mutants now, but they’re still people nonetheless. One such person is Girt, our hero, a young man about to come of age in The Machine, on the day of the aptitude test that will determine his entire life. And he didn’t study.
That’s one of the things that helps set up the oppressive nature of this world right away. As with China’s life-ruining Gaokao test, the Machine test will determine everything about your life, and on your first few playthroughs, where you don’t have all the answers, you are effectively locked into the lowest social classes. It’s a nice way to show just how brutal and class-obsessed The Machine is.
The Machine’s itch.io page describes the game as a “Pancake Adventure” stating that the game is short but offers many different story routes, with all of them centering around completely different plot events. I like this setup. The game does encourage replayability, and it also helps that for each story route, there’s very little plot that’s shared across routes. It would be extremely annoying if there was a long, unskippable intro at the start of each playthrough. But you can breeze through the start of each playthrough in a few minutes, which I like.
Another strong theme of the game is that idealism solves nothing. If Girt tries to be a nice guy, it will end badly for him. One of the first routes you have access to is having Girt become a police officer. The Police officers are all bastards and openly treasonous and will fire you if you aren’t a jerk like them. The game also takes place in the backdrop of an election, with the two parties being the typical, “Power to the People” party known as Mawa, and the “Communists are polluting our precious bodily fluids” Volf party. If Mawa wins, Volf will always launch a coup to destroy them and take power. “The Machine changes for no one”, they say. The Machine does a great job of making you feel weak and meaningless.
Gameplay: Pancake Adventure
The Machine is a narrative adventure, with little in the way of traditional gameplay. After Girt completes the test and obtains a job, he spends his days going to work and completing his routine. One early option that shows this off is having Girt be a factory worker. As a factory worker, Girt must spend his days sorting boxes, while playing a minigame that is deliberately monotonous and boring. It was a good way to show off just how badly the lower classes have it.
There are, in fact, a lot of minigames throughout The Machine, most tied to your current story route. You have the aforementioned box sorting minigame, but there are also shootouts, arcade machines, murder mysteries, fitness training, and plenty more where those came from. While there’s not a lot of traditional gameplay, the game is full of variety.
While the game can be beaten in around two hours, playing the game multiple times is openly encouraged. NPCs will sometimes discuss things relevant to the aptitude test, and the game will automatically save those answers in memory for future playthroughs. You can also unlock bonus features and options for additional repeat playthroughs. You can play for a dozen hours and not come close to seeing all that The Machine has to offer.
Graphics and Sound: The Machine Grinds On
I personally think building a game around one core set is a nice way to stand out. It forces you to think carefully about how you use space, and it encourages making the world dense and tightly designed. The Machine is a great example of this. You never get to see much of the world outside, but The Machine’s interior is richly detailed and beautifully ugly. I imagine it was quite difficult to get all the dirty details to shine through on the Gameboy, but they nailed it. The world is disgusting, with trash and dirt everywhere, particularly on the lower floors. The Machine also has these weird mechanical organs scattered across its various floors, which I thought was a nice detail. They help The Machine function and throw in a dash of biopunk that lends itself well to its weird world.
The character designs are very unique too. The manual and website artwork shows off really gross, disgusting creature designs, but it doesn’t reflect well in-game. The characters are super tiny sprites, and they don’t show off the character designs very well. The world design is perfect, but the game could do a better job of showing off its characters.
The music also does a great job at showing off the game’s atmosphere. It’s harsh and overbearing, very metallic sounding, though there isn’t much of it. The music does what it needs to do. The game’s sound effects are quite minimalistic.
The Machine was reviewed on a Game Boy Advance SP, using a copy provided by the publisher.