Written By: Erika Haase
If someone told you their level design process as a game creator was to lay down in a field of grass after the rain, and imagine each drop of water hanging on a blade of grass as a room full of life, then you’d probably be talking to a developer at Amanita Design. Hell, their logo is after the meaning of their name – a kind of mushroom. These indie developers hail from Brno, Czech Republic, and are responsible for some of the most beautiful indie titles on PC, mobile, and even select consoles, and they do it all with a current employee count of only 20 people as of 2016.
Founded in 2003 by Jakub Dvorský, they’ve put out work with consistent quality and innovation that is a rarity in an age of “sequel-itis.” It began with a free to play title on the Amanita website, created by Dvorský himself as a Flash project while still a student of the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. A link to where you can play the original Samorost is provided at the end of the article. Inspired by the beauty of nature, the wonder of space, and the boundless secrets of the universe around us, Amanita Design brings to life point-and-click adventures that challenge, impress, and never once feel dull. A hunk of dried out and petrified wood can serve as an entire planet for a gnome in search of adventure in Samorost. An overturned metal colander can serve as the perfect backdrop for a little robot trying to find his girlfriend in Machinarium. The connections between plant cells and the fibers of spider silk make for perfect pathways for five seedling warriors in Botanicula.
The point-and-click adventure genre is an acquired taste, and admittedly, one that is hard to warm up to when the games are too long, or complex. Games like The Longest Journey, Syberia, and Day Of The Tentacle could sometimes have a player clicking around vast areas for hours looking for solutions to puzzles.
For some people, that’s a perfect gaming session, but for others, puzzle-solving burnout takes place and becomes frustrating when you want to progress the story line. Amanita Design prevents that burnout from happening by taking some key steps.
First, Amanita Design puzzles can always be solved by either logic, math, or playful experimentation. Everything you need to solve the puzzle is given to you every time you’re within a puzzle room, with few exceptions. They ramp up in difficulty in sensible measures, as well, foregoing any form of explicit tutorial and letting you quickly build a rule set for how to interact with the world you’re gaming in. If you’re really stuck, a hint system is in place which serves as a gentle nudge in the right direction and not an outright solution giver. You’re always allowed to feel smart, and let me tell you, you will feel smart in many of these puzzles. The importance of great puzzle design, even if you look up the solution online, is that you’ll never be left with a feeling of “how the hell was I supposed to have known to combine this stick with that toaster oven?” that plague other point-and-click games I’ve played.
Secondly, Amanita Design games (with perhaps the exception of a first playthrough of Machinarium) can be finished in a single sitting. In fact, my rule of thumb for playing one of their games is to sit down with a nice cup of coffee, pencil and paper, and sink into the world for an immersive experience that takes an average of about 5 hours to complete. If you have to break up your gameplay session, it doesn’t take anything away, but like a good daydream, certain thought processes are enhanced when uninterrupted.
Lastly, Amanita games have very simple stories. The plot of each game can be summed up in a single sentence, and extra plot details are obtainable for being extra clever. They’re usually presented as animations in a rough, flip-book, style.
Many times, they’ll show up within thought bubbles above a creature’s head as they mutter in gibberish. Without the presence of a complex narrative, if you have to walk away from a puzzle, and don’t have the time to dedicate to a 4 hour play session, you won’t feel lost when you come back because there are nearly no details to forget, letting you simply focus on solving the puzzles and enjoying the game.
So which should you play? The real question is which should you play first. If you’re doubtful of your puzzle solving prowess, I’ll be frank and let you know that Machinarium is the hardest of the current library of games. There are two puzzles in particular that might have you probably resorting to a web search for a solution if you aren’t a logic or math puzzle fiend. After getting feedback on the difficulty of Machinarium and wanting to incorporate an improved hint system, Amanita created Botanicula which had a perfect balance of difficulty and solvability. Happily, this trend continues into their most recent game, Samorost 3, a game five years in the making, and the sequel to the title that got their company off and running over a decade ago. You can jump into each game without knowledge of any other, so what you pick is up to you. All three games are available on iOS, Android, and Steam, or directly from Amanita themselves. In the case of Machinarium, you can even choose to play it on your PS3, PS4, or PSVita as a PSN download.
If you have a love of colors and the vibrance of the great outdoors, than dive into Botanicula and follow around five brave seedlings in lush grass greens, dew drops, ant tunnels, and the innards of flowers and plants.
Are robots your thing? Polish up your logic skills and go to the world of Machinarium where you play as Robot Josef looking for his friend Berta after their hover car crash lands in a junkyard.
Ever look into the night sky and wonder what’s going on between the stars? Help a space faring gnome live out his day dreams by solving the mystery of a magical trumpet that lands outside his front door in Samorost 3.
Once you’ve fallen in love with the imaginations of Amanita, you’ll be happy a new game is in development as you read, known only as Chuchel. Chuchel has some very amusing trailers and concept art released to date, but little else.
What’s apparent almost immediately is the love and dedication this team has for their work. No detail is overlooked. Hand drawn environments pop on the screen in a way that no other medium can. Screenshots look like pieces of art you could hang on a wall, but yet there are moving pieces that chirp, screech, yowl, and roar, making it come to life. Music is ambient and nonintrusive, but thematically accurate and always relaxing. You’ll enjoy solving puzzles to these tunes, composed by Tomáš Dvořák (FLOEX) and Czech alternative band, DVA. Many of the songs are a collection of sounds from materials either shown in the game, or taken from nature and beat upon in front of a microphone in ways that magically produce music. If you appreciate music like I do, you’ll be searching for the OST purchase links as soon as the credits roll. In the case of Samorost 2 on Steam, the OST is now included with purchase for free without needing to buy a collector’s edition.
Music is an important element in all Amanita titles with at least one puzzle per game requiring you to coordinate the efforts of some kind of band. You are always rewarded for your efforts with a tune that will bring a smile to your face and a tap to your toes. There’s a joy that culminates in the expert sound direction, the happiness of solving a puzzle you’ve been thinking hard over, and the brilliant visuals on screen.
Merchandise is far and few between, with only a recent boost in the number of items available on the Amanita Design website. What is available, however, is almost always handmade in the Czech Republic, showing a desire to return their successes to their own home that I greatly respect. The quality of their plush toys from Machinarium and Samorost follow even to the boxes they come in, which are replete with the hand-drawn style of in-game instructions about how to “use” them in real life. (I took those suggestions to heart, and eagerly photographed my robots in their own adventures)
Most recently, the music has been released on vinyl from each of their key titles, with each record printed to look like the element most used in that particular game – copper, wood, or even the bluish dark of a night sky. Art prints are always included. PC games are always DRM free.
In a world packed with indie titles of every shape, size, and color, it’s hard to insist that you should pay attention to what’s happening with one over another. So many are doing such amazingly creative work that it wouldn’t be fair to. That said, I’m always saddened when people haven’t heard of Amanita Design’s work yet, and happy to have any opportunity to share the good word about their craftsmanship. I finally had the chance to start, and complete, Samorost 3 last night and I had to share my love for this company. I hope you have as much fun as I did.
Enjoy links below for all things Amanita Design. Let me know which games you play, have played, or who your favorite might be! You can follow them on Twitter @Amanita_Design.
To play the original Samorost for free right in your browser: Samorost
To buy any of the titles DRM free for PC/Mac w/Steam Key: Amanita Design Games Store
To see the great merchandise now available from all titles, buy OSTs, or get your own Josef & Berta plush toys: Amanita Design Merch Store
For the digital OST of Samorost 2, Machinarium, and Samorost 3: FLOEX store
To watch the hilarious trailer for the upcoming Chuchel:
Disclaimer: I was not paid or subsidized in anyway for these kind words or links.
I make no money if you click on them.