Recently in this year’s gaming culture, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic (as is everything!), an old gaming term has enjoyed revival. That term is “comfort game,” meaning you play it just for the cozy feeling of dwelling in a comfortable, predictable universe. A comfort game is never too challenging, nor is it too novel. Sometimes it will be a nostalgic play-through of a game you’ve already beaten many times. Most of the time, it’s a wide-open sandbox game with no real end or goals in sight.
I feel this way about Contraption Maker. For those of you who haven’t discovered it yet, this is the living successor to The Incredible Machine series. It is literally by the same developers that made that old classic. We’ll dig deep into the roots of its cultural heritage in just a minute, because it’s fascinating, but first let’s try to explain this unique game…
Contraption Maker is all about the engineering puzzles
In Contraption Maker, a typical level will have a setup of gizmos, a goal explained to you in a dialog, and a bin full of spare parts with more gizmos you can add to the present scene. When you think you have it, start the simulation and watch the puzzle run. If you get it right, your goal is achieved and you get to the next level.
The goal is always something basic and mechanical: Get the ball to the box, turn on all the blenders, feed the dog, etc. The gizmos comprise a collection of balls, boxes, ropes, pulleys, gears, conveyor belts, fans, blimps, mousetraps, and an expansive set of eclectic junk. This trailer conveys the state of confused complexity:
Now you might be thinking, “That doesn’t sound like anything you described in a comfort game.” Well, no, the puzzle levels themselves are goal-oriented, challenging, and get progressively harder as you go along. But who needs to play the puzzles? The real fun in Contraption Maker is in building your own “levels,” and by levels I mean “automated contraptions that run on their own.”
The designers of this game have tried hard to sell the puzzle game value, but like most good open sandbox games, they just don’t see what the real appeal is. The real appeal is in playing with the highly unrealistic physics engine. Most players of an engineering bent will immediately want to know if you can build a perpetual motion machine. The answer is yes, it is disgustingly easy to do, most bluntly evident in the presence of an “anti-gravity” plate which makes any object that passes over it fall up instead of down.
Laws of thermodynamics be damned, you can burn Isaac Newton‘s bacon in minutes. Even without the anti-gravity mechanisms, there’s at least one ball in the game which bounces higher than it was dropped, and will continue to bounce higher until it leaves the screen, unless you leave it in an enclosed box, where it will bounce up and down at an increasingly fast rate until it achieves what for the game engine is maximum velocity.
You can then share your works with the community, and also browse the creations of the community. Download a custom level and play with it yourself, even modifying it with your own ideas. Here’s a couple designs I ran and recorded:
An “Executive Toy” by somebody named “Nick,” in the Contraptions files on Contraption Maker. Yet more impossible physics:
And here, just because it’s cool, is a Pachinko machine, possibly by the same designer because the description texts are similar:
Beyond that, there’s a modding community glumly supported by the game designers who fruitlessly bark “but doesn’t anyone want to solve this puzzle where you have to sail a kite to start a teapot to power on a light bulb?” Ignore them. They have Chris Sawyer syndrome. They make a great game engine without having any clue what drives its popularity.
The history of engineering complexity
Rube Goldberg is the man to talk to. In the early 20th century, coinciding nicely with the American industrial boom, Goldberg made an original niche for himself drawing comic strips of complicated machines which went through many arbitrary operations to accomplish a mundane task. Goldberg satirized the complexities and inefficiencies of inventions and industrial progress, right along the same vein Charlie Chaplin was mining with Modern Times (1936).
Since then, Goldberg’s name is lent to every complex, overthought machine made by every wacky inventor in media. Goldberg himself was also an animator and film producer, even working with the likes of the Three Stooges. Cartoonists would go on to use his style of industrial chaos in homage for all perpetuity, from Tom & Jerry cartoons like this one:
All the way to the “breakfast machine” from Peewee’s Big Adventure (1985).
All that and he only eats one bite.
So you can see the cultural lineage coming down to the Machine / Contraption series of games. Within its roots is contained a post-modern commentary on how focused we get with our gadgets and gizmos beyond their usefulness. That’s your cultural background lesson of the day.
The Incredible Machine is a DOS classic
Contraption Maker is of course derived from the original game The Incredible Machine out of Sierra Entertainment, the same company behind the cult classic King’s Quest and Space Quest games. It’s an award-winning series which is still easily available and playable for DOSBox. The fact that these are all the same game in descending lineage is inescapable, because the company has endlessly recycled the same objects, level designs, and general engine through a dozen versions, only adding on to the puzzle levels.
Nothing against the puzzle levels, mind you. They are kind of directed at little kids, with the whole series aimed at being an educational game for the STEM pack. Speaking as a dad here, my kids whipped through the puzzle levels in about an hour and then discovered the puzzle editor.
Here’s the kinds of caddywumpus physics you can get away with here:
A 3-ball track using pipes and ramps. This is the classic “juggling pipes” routine most Incredible Machine players discovered at some point or another.
Pinball elements! Always a popular favorite. By the way, I recorded these with the sound off because this game is irritatingly noisy.
The purest proof that the Incredible Machine series has no respect for thermodynamics. Nothing here but a bowling ball, springboards, and some ramps and walls. Yet the ball is able to increase its force every time it bounces. This simple executive-desktop-toy doohicky will run indefinitely with nothing but kinetic force.
Just for chuckles, here’s kinetic force applied by two infinitely bouncing baseballs on a ramp, which provide enough extra energy to power the conveyor belt. Just think of all the points of friction we’re overcoming here.
Aside from the extreme liberties with physics, The Incredible Machine series makes at least a decent engineering tutorial. It still involves application of engineering logic. You could even argue that the rules of the universe you’re playing in don’t matter so much for learning engineering principles, so long as you sort the rules out and let them work for you.
> “The engine does not use a random number generator in its physics simulation, ensuring that the results for any given machine are reproducible.”
This has always been a puzzle to us long-time players, because there are clearly some random variables at play. Leaving one of these perpetual motion gizmos running long enough will eventually fail. I’ve seen it more often with the balls-and-pipes numbers; maybe after 50 cycles or so, eventually something bounces out of the frame and the show’s over. But it is not, in fact, always reproducible. Run the same simulation and maybe it will fail after 40 reps or 60 reps.
This is likely due to tiny floating-point errors within the game’s calculations. These are very difficult to tease out, requiring a deliberate effort to overload the game’s engine with variables. But I think I found an exploit with my own laboratory test demo:
These pool balls come in one of 16 possible varieties, naturally. You’ll notice that when the Part Creator is charged with hatching out Change-A-Balls, and those bounce around enough to change into a pool ball, it’s a random one of those 16. In fact, start with a Change-A-Ball with everything deselected except pool ball, it will start as a random one every time (or pseudo-random).
Now if somebody out there in the mods community makes an object detector, one that could send a signal depending on what object rolls through it, and can distinguish the different pool balls… we have randomness! Imagine a pachinko machine with a different result every time. Imagine being able to simulate keno and bingo and lotto numbers. Imagine engineering a blackjack game with that set of DLC cards in the game.