The Machine. A place where you can do anything your heart desires! That is of course, if you’re at the top. But if you’re not within that small circle of power, well then … I’m sure there is a place for you somewhere within the belly of the mechanical beast. You won’t get a say. You won’t get a leg up. What you will do is what’s good for the Machine. And what is good for the Machine, is rarely good for those at the bottom. All I can say is … good luck to you. Don’t hit your head on the way down.
With The Machine, a dystopian adventure game for the Game Boy Color, Ben Jelter has created a living, breathing world so rich in detail, it’s incomparable to anything in the entire Game Boy library. Having started development back in early 2020, iterations of the game have seen versions of GB Studio dating back to 1.1! The amount of time, effort and passion poured into this project is plain to see, with many of the expertly crafted environments maxing out the scene and background art limitations that are imposed on any developer using GB Studio.
The entirety of human existence is now relegated to living within a mobile mechanical city, perhaps paying for past crimes against the natural world. It unceasingly traverses the planet’s surface, while those inside fight to control a way of life that is comfortable for some but oppressive for most. Perhaps there are machines elsewhere on the planet, but who knows?
You play as Girt, a young man ready to be placed into the system like any good cog of the Machine. Take the test, determine your potential and thrust yourself into one of more than twenty five stories to be explored as you learn about the various intricate systems, complex characters and dark secrets The Machine has to offer. Large scale events such as an election to determine the future of life in the Machine play out, and it’s your choice as to what role (if any) you want to take. These various events are so detailed and dynamic that it’s as if the Machine grinds on even when you turn off your Game Boy in between play sessions.
The aptitude test itself acts as a branching off point. Score well and you will find yourself at the Job Fair. Maybe you can land yourself a decent enough gig working for the MSS, a corrupt secret service agency, towing the current government line. You may even find yourself living somewhat comfortably in L* block. If so, good for you.
If you can’t manage the test though, don’t fret! There will always be a place for you on B1. It’s not as flashy and the company is a little more… fetid, but you can at least work for a meager living. Join the Police Force like your Uncle Bop, why not make a bit of money on the side if you’re the type that’s okay with a little abuse of power? Or you can always work at the Factory. Don’t listen to the rumors, the work isn’t that tedious. Hey, you might even be able to unionize and squeeze a little more out of those who live on the top levels. Don’t squeeze too hard though, those in power aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty if it means they get to keep what’s theirs…
If this isn’t enough choice for you, then you can always just quit! Nothing is stopping you from living in the slums of B2. You don’t have to work, you know. You can always step outside of the system and spend your time doing whatever it is they get up to on B2. Just don’t expect to receive any help when you’re in trouble, the cops aren’t likely to assist if you’re not prepared to fit in and do what you’re told.
This is The Machine’s promise to the player. You make the choices. It’s your destiny. But choose wisely, because those choices have lasting consequences… and the Machine has its own plans too! Ultimately, role-play the way you wish. Be good, be bad, be a bit of both, and do all of that in a variety of different ways as you play and replay time and again. And when it comes to what you can do in this fully realized dystopian world, the scope and breadth of your options is quite frankly staggering. What Ben Jelter has achieved here is a new benchmark for what an adventure game developed for the Game Boy can offer.
The pixel artwork on show here is phenomenal too, making the Machine feel all the more tangible, and very befitting of the challenging themes and often stark narrative threads. Lunchz’s minimalist soundtrack lends itself well to the scenarios, perfectly reflecting the oppressive nature of the Machine and the various failing human systems within it.
Personally, I have spent over fifteen hours playing The Machine and in that time I’ve seen eight endings. But there is so much more to uncover still. So many mysteries I wish to solve, paths I want to walk and stories to explore. There is a huge amount of unlockable achievements too! The themes discussed throughout these various narratives have both surprised and entertained me, but perhaps the greatest achievement is how provocative the experience has been. These moments are not just found in the dialogue or plot points but entwined into the core choice-based game play itself. Many of my own choices have played out in sometimes shocking and unforeseen ways. You will need to decide what kind of person you want to be, and what ethics and morals are important to you as a character. All while exploring themes and ideas such as classism, capitalism, individualism and collectivism, as well as issues with the democratic process, our relationship with technology and nature, and much more.
All in all, The Machine has become one of my all time favorite Game Boy games. Its contemporary and daring approach to story-telling makes it one of the most engaging experiences I have found on the console (certainly as far as adventure games are concerned), and is a more than worthy addition to any Game Boy enthusiasts collection.
A playable demo of The Machine has been made available to those seeking to explore Ben Jelter’s imagined world.
Additionally, The Machine is available to purchase for Game Boy Color through Incube8 Games as a Standard Physical Release as well as a Collectors Edition. Pre-Orders are available now, ready for a March 2022 release date.
But until then…
… the Machine grinds on!