I want to start out this review by saying that there will be parts of the plot revealed that are intended to be dramatic reveals or part of the general ambiance of the game. If you’re the type to have these things easily spoiled, then I would recommend considering how much you want to play the game before you read this, as many parts of the game will be discussed. Furthermore, the game itself contains material that refers to sex and trauma, so if these are sensitive subjects to you, then take care as you move forward.
The Music Machine is an indie adventure game by David Szymanski in which you explore an island in hopes of uncovering the mystery behind some strange deaths reported in the paper. Why you are doing this is unclear, as is who exactly you and your companion are. The game then leaves you wander the island’s orange and black landscape, digging through old cabins and examining peculiar structures for clues to the vague mystery.
While the graphics are actually quite nice in their striking contrast, there are some bizarre bugs that occur somehow as a result of the design. When interacting with certain objects you can choose to throw them with varying level of strength. If you accidentally throw a dark object into a black shadow, the object will disappear seemingly from existence. You cannot pick it up again, you cannot get it back. This would be potentially game-breaking if the throw mechanic was necessary, but it doesn’t seem to be utilized at any time. The most you need to do is move an object, which itself is a rare occurrence.
Though I touched on a few issues with the set-up and the visuals, they really aren’t terrible. An effort was made to construct an atmosphere. Where The Music Machine really loses me is its narrative. The story is distressing. In my view, there are two main components to The Music Machine’s plot: the backstory and the supernatural intrigue. While I have few gripes with the latter, the former attempted to introduce a storyline with sensitive material and fumbled greatly in its execution.
The character you control is 13-year-old girl Haley, and she is compelled to investigate the island where many bizarre murders took place by the spirit of Quintin, a 34-year-old man. Haley is possessed by an adult man. Quintin explains in the game that they share the same body and see through the same eyes, thus indicating that through Haley’s actions (which can be partially manipulated) Quintin can observe and attain goals. Now, I imagine many would argue that this sort of situation should not automatically be treated as suspect, that a kneejerk reaction to a relationship between a teenage girl and an adult man is unfair. While I don’t inherently agree with such logic, I will admit that when I first discovered their age difference, I was disturbed but did not immediately suspect sexual connotations. Then I saw this.
This occurs after Haley admits she had found and went through some of Quintin’s poetry. To punish her, Quintin forces Haley to spank herself. Haley calls him a “perv” and Quintin insists that he’s only trying to make her think about her actions. In spite of the character Quintin’s intentions, we have opened the door to sexual tension implied between the teen and the dead adult.
If this forced self-spanking isn’t enough to prove a gross, sexist story is being told, we see later in the game that there is a running argument surrounding whether or not Quintin is sexually attracted to Haley.
This comes up as the two discover a hatch that leads to an underground hallway. The awkward dialogue is meant to be the unfolding of two complex characters, but so far we have only explored exactly what we expected in the first place: implied sexual tension involving a young girl whose body is controlled by a man. I’m sorry if that seems blunt, but the game itself lays out this plot. I’m not making anything up or reaching for connections. This is part of the required plot of the game.
This set-up of backstory obscures a lot of the tension The Music Machine tries to build. You’re on an island where people were pierced to death in a bizarre way, exploring cabins and utility rooms of an old summer camp that seems to have become the home of a former camper with a god complex, but you have to jump over the hurdle of this creepy story of a dead guy who haunts a young girl and forces her to do his bidding, all while taunting her with death threats. And just when you think you might be able to reconcile the unorthodox pairing of protagonists, Quintin says this…
Yeah. The reason Quintin is possessing Haley is out of vengeance, because Haley falsely accused Quintin of molesting her and Haley’s father killed Quintin as a result. This adds several layers to the already disturbing relationship of control. Not only does it buy into a dangerous belief that young girls are trying to ruin the lives of men when they recount being assaulted, but it proves to be a self-defeating motive—by invading her body and forcing her to perform certain actions, Quintin has effectively made Haley’s accusation a reality. This addition to their past further solidifies the fact that The Music Machine’s attempt to write a deep story is nothing more than a sexist power fantasy. Quintin, a self-described terrible person, is offered various justifications for his actions against a 13-year-old girl—a girl who struggles throughout the game with being taken seriously.
Not content to let us try and forget this development, The Music Machine constantly brings up Haley’s body and sexuality even while we are supposed to be exploring different constructed worlds. The titular Music Machine is programmed to open portals to strange places, artistically tinted in a variety of colors, depending on which tune it is assigned to play. Even when you manage to immerse yourself in the new setting, you’re greeted with dialogue like this.
The game continues through the story, time and again reminding us of Quintin’s control of Haley’s body, from forcing her to run through poisonous rain that hurts her (implementing a timed dash aspect to the game) to negotiating the time she spends speaking with a seemingly omniscient force to actually trying to force Haley into the clutches of the deadly monsters they encounter in spite of her resistance. Finally, after uncovering the secret of the island and escaping the monsters responsible for the murders, Haley decides to share with us this little piece of character development.
I’m going to clarify right now that Haley insists that she does not mean it in a sexual way, and Quintin says he knows, but the fact that we have been shown time and again that Haley’s sexuality and Quintin’s control are driving forces of the plot leaves us with the unavoidable conclusion that we are to believe that Haley is willing to “love” Quintin in spite of his constant threat to her existence. Furthermore, he says that he cannot forgive her or love her back, which, if you accept the story as a diegetic vacuum, you can argue his withdrawn, misanthropic attitude is understandable. However, it is impossible to extricate such a work of fiction from the world that agrees that the word of even a young girl should be mistrusted when it comes to sexual assault. The game itself shows time and again that, yes, this is indeed about Haley’s sexuality and somehow, in spite of the many ways he menaces and hurts Haley, we are meant to see Quintin as sympathetic. Ultimately, we are not controlling Haley—we are controlling Quintin controlling Haley.
The Music Machine attempts to use the basic building blocks of Unity to create something unique. While the graphics are striking, much of the asset implementation is lazy (the omnipotent voice is depicted by a floating chair) and the game’s mechanics are somehow rendered buggy by the stark contrast of the color scheme. Though it considers itself an innovative, thrilling story, it only manages to retread a tired tale of the beleaguered man swept up by the mischievous antics of an immature girl. Sex and exploitation are unavoidable messages as the story thrusts Haley’s pubescence in your face. Overall, I would say this game is a pass. Even if you don’t consider the story disturbing, you’ll mostly be underwhelmed by a rather linear game that becomes visually tedious within a short period of time. The only part you might find interesting is the story of the Spindle Men, and even then the game presents its supernatural suspense in a muddled way. I would recommend skipping this one.