Where and who am I (again)?
Like Crimson Room before it, 2005's Submachine 1: The Basement by Polish developer Mateusz Skutnik kicked off a popular series in the "escape the room" genre of online games. Sticking hard and fast to the first-person escape game credo popularized years earlier by MYST, your character is an amnesiac who wakes up in a strange place, and must escape.
Why? Because. Stop asking so many reasonable questions.
If these games are heavily influenced by MYST, I wonder how many online escape game designers made it off the first island? By the end of the game, MYST does actually develop a story, and there's an explanation as to why you're there and what you're trying to accomplish. Early escape game designers rarely added that kind of detail to their games, resulting in titles that had just a bunch of stuff to click on until a door opened to a picture of The Outside (which has a blue sky and trees ... that's how you know it's The Outside). Submachine 1 predictably fits this mold.
For whatever reason, enough players found the atmosphere of Submachine so compelling that they collectively invented a backstory for the game on Skutnik's message boards, says Wikipedia. Depending on where you sit, you can either spin this as a triumph of a creator who sparked the imaginations of his group of loyal fans, or as the mark of a lazy storyteller who let his audience do the heavy lifting for him. I'm a player who really values story, and I roundly despise online escape games, so you know which camp I'm in.
If The Outside is the implied goal, it was down to Skutnik to make the inside look as Inside as possible. That means concrete walls, pipes, and valves. The whole thing is set to the dynamically jarring strains of a looping soundtrack that sounds like a country & western band caught in a slow-motion bus accident.
Considered as its own entity apart from the escape game genre, the game begins with absolutely zero direction or goal. When MYST came along after dozens of story- and character-heavy Lucasarts and Sierra graphic adventure games, this felt freeing - especially for players who just liked to explore. Poke around the island for a bit, and chip away at this interesting puzzly rabbit hole as you slowly reveal your purpose there.
In Submachine, the lack of direction feels annoying. I know my goal is to escape because this is an escape game. But if I were a new player, I'd have no clue what I was trying to accomplish, and the game isn't throwing me any bones. In Crimson Room, the goal was weak but clear: you're in a room, there's a locked door, and you have to open it. In Submachine, you're in some sort of a ... bunker (?), there's a diamond-shaped machiney apparatus on the wall (which isn't even for certain - the graphics are so simple that it could be a wall hanging or a mural), aaaaand ... go.
That diamond-shaped thingy on the wall is actually the device that opens the exit. Your goal is to find the four triangular panels that fit into it. The designer could easily have telegraphed this by drawing a Big Door/Exit on that first screen as a clear goal, and by implementing an initial puzzle where the player has to put a similar panel in a similar apparatus to open a similar door/exit. That's one way to wordlessly communicate the Big Goal to the player right off the top. Missed opportunity.
You navigate the bunker by clicking the obvious door and ladderways strewn throughout. Thankfully, Submachine doesn't rely on unfair and unfun pixel hunting (with one possible exception). Because the room design is so stark and simple, everything you need to click on is quite clearly clickable.
Anywho, we have four panels to collect (even though we don't know it) to operate that device and reveal the exit door (which we don't know exists). Those panels are inside four pieces of equipment: the glass bubble machine, the bell machine, the clock, and the electrified machine. Let's look at them one by one.
The Glass Bubble Machine
The weakest design in the game is the glass bubble machine, which reminds me of Mysterio's head from the Spider-Man comics. The machine has three red lights on it. To power it up, you pull three switches. Due to the map layout, you're likely to encounter all three switches before you find the machine they control. Once pulled, the switches cannot be un-pulled, so there's no trial-and-error or guesswork involved whatsoever. This problem is called backwards solving, where you fix a problem before you even know it exists. Backwards solving crops up often in beginner adventure game design, and I have a feeling we'll see a lot more of it in future Puzzle Autopsy articles.
The conduits the switches are connected to lead to absolutely nowhere, as you can see from this map I pulled from the Submachine wiki (yes, the series has its own wiki):
So even if you were a diligent player and mapped the whole thing out to discover how those switches work, you couldn't squeeze an ounce of logic out of this puzzle. Blood from a stone, that.
The Bell Machine
The Bell Machine is a box topped with four cubes, sitting beneath four bells. Ringing the bells makes different combinations of cubes float up or down. This is a classic abstract logic puzzle that you'll see in many, many games. The solution is to click the bells in sequence so that all the cubes are suspended at once. I've played very unforgiving versions of this puzzle, most notably in The Fool's Errand and its sequel, where it involved spelling a phrase. This iteration is very simple, and random frantic clicking will have it solved in no time. I'm still chipping away at A Fool and His Money.
Once the cubes are all floating, a panel magically appears in the box, which conceals the panel you need (though you don't know it) which helps open the door (which you don't know about). This is a bit of quasi-reverse solving again, because the game has you doing something without knowing why. You're just mucking with these bells and cubes, taking it on faith that something useful will happen once you've solved the puzzle.
A better, more goal-oriented approach would be to show the four cubes floating when the player enters the room. Show the panel inside the box. Then close the box up, and make the cubes drop. Now the player understands that elevating the cubes will probably re-open that panel. But setting all that up takes effort, and why be arsed?
Opening the clock (that you don't know you need to open or why) is one of the two slightly more complex, multi-step puzzles in the game. First, you have to notice the arrangement of these three circles:
and duplicate it on some pipes in another room so that (presumably) the water can flow through.
You also have to take a valve and put it on a nearby pipe, and then turn it to make the water flow, which ruptures some leaky plumbing in a distant room:
Out from the burst pipe pops a "pearl," and if there's one thing we all know about pearls, it's that they're used extensively in clock construction. This is the one possibly pixel-hunty I alluded to earlier: when you place the pearl in the tiny hotspot inside the clock, you fix its ... pendulum, I guess? ... and the panel appears.
The Electrified Machine
The last panel is inside a visibly riveted hatch in a not-working machine.
There is some sort of chest chaotically wired to a four-digit combination panel. The combo has to be somewhere in the game, and true to amateur escape game designer logic, the best place to hide the combo is any old random wtf place he can think of. In this case, the code is embossed on the top of a coin that you find elsewhere. Why? Why not! We're not about to start making sense at this stage in the game.
(Note: the coin graphic was changed in later versions of the game to jive better with the surreality of the Submachine series)
Randomly-associated combos are my biggest beef in both real and virtual escape games. Let's say you're the guy or girl who build the Submachine underground bunker. You have this chest that you want to protect, and you need to program a combination. Do you a) choose the same 4-digit PIN you use for your bank debit card and remember it privately for the rest of your life, or b) choose the date stamped on a random coin, which is identical to thousands of other coins you'll handle in your life, all with different dates stamped on them, and then leave that coin lying around on the floor somewhere in the hopes of finding it again in case you forget the combo? This is an online escape the room game, so the choice is clear. B, baby. B.
This puzzle is nonsensical, but at least it's simple. In other escape games we'll study, there are multiple combos and multiple random associations that require leaps of faith to associate them and open the locks. The coin in Submachine 1 is a venial design sin that eventually balloons into a mortal one.
Inside the chest is a fuse. Put it in its obvious home, throw a few more switches, and you've powered up the machine.
Of course - OF COURSE - to get that riveted hatch open (which you don't know you're trying to open), you need to short out the machine. So ... wait for it ... press the right button on a radio (but not the left button, because it's not clickable - OBVIOUSLY), and the drawer underneath will open. (The top drawer, not the bottom drawer. You can't touch the bottom drawer, so it might as well not even exist. So why draw it, I ask? But I ask too many questions. Shhhhh. There, there.)
Inside the drawer is a spoon which you need to place between the exposed electrical nodes of the machine (THESE nodes, not THOSE nodes on the other end of the machine in a different room. Why would we want to short THAT side of the machine? It doesn't even have a riveted hatch in it that we're trying to open even though we don't know we're trying to open it yet. Sheesh!) Doing that will short the machine, frying its nodes. The short will, of course, LOGICALLY AND PREDICTABLY, make the riveted hatch fall off, revealing the final panel.
If you're not following the obvious logic here, it's that a powerful electrical charge will slice metal rivets in half, so that anything they were fastening will fall off. It's scienticious™.
Escaping through the big metal door brings you into an elevator car with two buttons. The top button makes the elevator go up. The bottom button makes the elevator ... door open.
Okay. We're done here. We're so, so done.
Story, as such
I should mention the game's few attempts to hint at a larger story or game world. One of the objects you obtain is a journal entry:
There's a picture on the wall teasing the setting of the game's sequel:
This extended version of Submachine 1 retcons an optionally discoverable "ancient crystal of wisdom" object into the game to explain that object's appearance in your inventory in the second game.
The Great Underground Empire
There are no fewer than five different versions of Submachine 1, eight sequels, a prequel, and a couple of spin-off titles. The series was very well received among online Flash game portal players, and I suspect it's because Submachine 1 was much easier to complete and not as unfairly pixel-hunty as its contemporaries like Crimson Room. Everyone likes to feel smart, after all.
When played together with its sequels, I'm sure the series gets more intriguing as it goes along, and as its designer grows along with it. But studied in isolation, Submachine 1 has a few uninteresting, illogical puzzles and commits a couple of design crimes that are more misdemeanor than felony. To borrow a term from Douglas Adams, Submachine 1 is mostly harmless.