Amanita Design founder Jakub Dvorský on successful artistic point-and-click games Machinarium and Botanicula

Machinarium, photo: Amanita Design

Amanita Design is the independent Czech game design studio behind the point-and-click adventure games Machinarium and Botanicula. With beautifully hand-drawn backgrounds and richly-designed worlds, the games put players in the shoes of protagonists such as a broken little robot or a group of unusual creatures who face robotic wrongdoers and a dark parasitic force, respectively. Both titles have proven very successful. Recently, I caught up with Jakub Dvorský, and asked him not only about the games but also how he started his business.

Jakub Dvorský,  photo: Jeriaska,  CC BY 2.0
“I originally founded Amanita Design only as a graphic design studio for myself. I was a graphic designer doing animation; but in 2003 I created a game called Samorost as part of my thesis work and it proved very successful and popular around the world. So I continued with designing small games and I am still doing it.”

What design or gaming principals carried over from that first game into Machinarium and the most recent Botanicula?

“I was always into adventure games, a genre I wanted to interpret freely. I don’t think our designs are typical point-and-click adventure games but they do fall within that genre. I am still trying to develop the genre in different directions which I like.”

One of the nice things about Machinarium is, is that at the binning there is one line of instructions and that’s it. Is it your aim to keep it simple as well as to leave discovery up to player?

“Definitely. I hate tutorials, actually, and there is no dialogue in the game. I want players to be able to experience the game right from the beginning. It is not hard anyway, so I don’t want to teach anyone, they figure out what is required fairly quickly.”

Some moments in the game – scenes really – are harder than others. You often have to do different steps in sequence… I take it you are a fan of logical puzzles?

“That’s true. At the same time, not all our designs make use of them to the extent Machinarium does. It depends a bit on the topic, whether they belong there or not.”

Machinarium,  photo: Amanita Design
In Machinarium, you created a very specific Sci Fi setting: it is very detailed and it seems to me there are also a number of historic influences: parts of the robot town are evocative of Prague’s Old Town Astronomical Clock or the Jewish Quarter… they are different but similar. How deep do you have to go when designing a world?

“That is a difficult question to answer. I’ll say this: we wanted to create a world which felt warm and pleasant and not cold or boring like you might image a world inhabited only by robots to be. Even the robots are rusty and less than polished. The houses as well: we live here in Prague and other cities and often the houses need renovation or are old and moldy and a bit broken we like that kind of stuff. We love these kinds of details, not only in the design of the architecture but also the state of decay. If an old human-made machine has become busted that is when things get very interesting for me.”

“We not only draw the games in great detail but we also take photos of a lot of textures in the real world and put them into the illustrations.”

And of course, sound and musical effects complete the impression. When my son and I were playing we’d look at the big bloated building in the background with little lights on and I found myself wishing I could look through the windows to see what was going on there. I’m not sure which film director said it but there’s this quote something like ‘Life continues beyond or outside of the frame’…

Machinarium,  photo: Amanita Design
“Yes and that is what we are going for as well. We want it to be believable that this world could exist ‘somewhere’, you can trust in that, and that there is a much deeper story than is revealed in the game. We know a lot of these side stories and the background of how it was built, for example, that are not told in the game. But knowing those things makes those worlds easier to design.”

The film equivalent would be the backstory or character bios… for example, I learned that the robot we play in Machinarium has a name which is never mentioned…

“His name is Josef. But it’s true, his name is never once mentioned in the game, since the characters don’t talk in a traditional way.”

Since we’ve touched upon it… what kind of character is Josef? Obviously, we control most of his actions but there are some which are scripted where he expresses himself…

“I would say not only him but also other main characters in our games are sort of neutral. Obviously they are nice and have a sense of humour and are not evil at all. But they don’t have strong characters so you can project your own personality into the main character. And that’s the way we wanted it.”

Machinarium,  photo: Amanita Design
At the same time, the way Josef or the characters in Botanicula are graphically presented does evoke the ‘little guy’, especially since the robot faces quite a difficult task. One of the things which is consistent in Machinarium and Botanicula is that there are the ‘good guys’ and then there is an evil side…

“Yeah, that’s true. He’s little, he’s definitely weak. But he’s also smart and has his wits. Not unlike Bilbo, for example, from The Hobbit.”

What age group did you have in mind originally for these games? Who were these games designed for? Children or adults?

“For us. That is our only criteria. We make and design games for us. So we can like them and be proud of them. Surprisingly children… well when we started we didn’t have much experience with children but now we have our own and surprisingly even little kids like the games a lot. It works for them as well as adults who never played games. And even hardcore ‘gamers’ who might normally enjoy First-person shooters. They play with their girlfriend and so on.”

Comparing the two, Machinarium had a kind of ‘help book’ if you got stuck on a level. That wasn’t included in Botanicula. Why not? I ask because Botanicula seemed the stranger of the two worlds: although familiar and organic, everything takes place on a living or dying tree, in some ways it seemed less straight-forward at first.

Botanicula,  photo: Amanita Design
“In Botanicula, we felt the help book wasn’t needed. First, the game is easier overall, there are fewer puzzles or they are not as tough. But also the game is based more on exploration itself. It is not as important if you progress quickly or not: you should just explore and click on everything and even the wrong solutions are fun. We want players to explore all the solutions, even the wrong ones.

“Both games are linear but Machinarium feels more so, it is more story-driven, maybe. Botanicula is more about nature and exploration and you travel along and collect those cards of the creatures you meet.”

Collecting. Many of us have a collecting ‘gene’, don’t we?

“It is one of the aspects pf the game and a lot of guys, I think, especially like that aspect. There are 123 creatures you can meet and collect in the game and only one in a thousand finds them all, I think. Playing the game is fairly easy but collecting all these guys is quite hard. It’s a challenge.”

My little boy and I found the representation of evil to be quite a bit darker in Botanicula than in Machinarium, I have to say.

“At the start the former looks happier and more colorful, but in the end it is darker and more psychology. Botanicula is similar, but it was designed by Jára Plachý and his world is close to mine but different.”

Botanicula,  photo: Amanita Design
And both have done well?

“Yes, both proved very popular. The sales have been great and have allowed us to remain completely independent. I never expected such success. I can also say there is a new project in the development stage by a new team we’ve put together but it’s too early right now to say more.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 12, 2014.