When a game wins three Adventure Game Studio (AGS) awards, chances are good that a fulfilling experience awaits, and that promise is exactly what drew my wife and I to playing Nanobots recently. And we’re both glad we did, as the freeware adventure from Erin "The Ivy" Robinson proved a pleasure to play. Created in 2008, Nanobots won the "Best Gameplay," "Best Puzzles," and "Best Programming" awards, and it doesn’t take long to see why. The game follows the adventures of six endearing little robots on their quest to learn how to cooperate with each other to save themselves and their creator, but these bots cannot succeed without your help.
While a conventional adventure in many respects, Nanobots provides an unusual form of gameplay, as the apparent protagonist, Gregor Mathewson (a.k.a. Groovy Greg), exists more as an innocent bystander while the story unfolds without him. Groovy Greg is a young college student at Robo Tech, trying desperately to design robots that can love. In doing so, he has created tiny Nanobots, each with unique abilities designed to work together to complete tasks. (Though for the scientific purists among us, these Nanobots are not true microscopically sized nano-bots, just very small robots.)
During the opening animation sequence, players watch Greg try everything to get his bots to cooperate, including having them play a game of charades together. Alas, no matter what he does, we only see the Nanobots bicker and fight with each other. This is bad news, because if the bots cannot work together, their human creator will not be able to prove his theory. Worse, he will not be able to finish his degree, so in his desperation – and at the urging of his professor – he takes a break from his lab to clear his mind.
Little does Greg know, however, that his professor has the nefarious goal of destroying the Nanobots in a fit of jealousy. Robo Tech is a very hippie college, and the professor himself has been trying to create loving robots as well, so he has no intention of allowing the young student to beat him in his life's work. Unfortunately for him, the Nanobots overhear the professor's plot to destroy them, and at last decide that they must work together to escape their doom.
As the Nanobots are finally left alone, the gameplay begins and players must help the bots ensure their self-preservation. When starting the game, you are asked if you would like a tutorial for how to play. A rarity in adventures, this tutorial session is well put together and worth experiencing, as it introduces you to the bots' individual capabilities and asks you to perform some basic interactions. Through these interactions, you learn the basics of gameplay and how the abilities of the bots may be used together. The six Nanobots include:
- ChemBot - the only female bot, can mix and handle chemicals
- BrainBot - can analyze items
- TallBot - can stretch and reach normally out-of-reach things
- AudBot - can learn any spoken language and also talk with the other bots
- HotBot - can heat up to melt and cook items
- StrongBot - can push large items around
Greg's lab bench provides the entire set for the game, which sounds small until you consider the tiny size of its occupants. All puzzles are centered around the unique abilities of your bots. There are no pixel hunts or mazes, and to solve a puzzle, you’ll find yourself asking questions like, "Can I push, heat, mix, analyze, talk, or reach for this?" The bots solve some puzzles individually, such as breaking into Groovy Greg's computer or learning to speak to his French-only speaking girlfriend. They must learn to work together, however, to ultimately save themselves, as eventually all of the puzzles lead to the climax of escaping the professor bent on their destruction. Fortunately, the professor is easily distracted and spends most of the game out of the room, leaving the Nanobots to their own devices.
For the most part the puzzles are logical and not too obtuse. Some require more thought than others and provide a nice challenge. The quality and distinctiveness of the puzzles come from the number of possible actions available to you, and the fact that each bot can only hold one inventory item at a time. It isn’t even possible to drop an item, so once picked up, it must be either used or passed to another bot. Therefore, you might use TallBot to reach an item and give it to BrainBot for analysis. Or you might use StrongBot to push a beaker into reach for ChemBot to be able to add chemicals to it.
The interface is easy to use for anyone familiar with traditional adventures. In addition to the expected point-and-click elements, there is a list of the bots at the bottom of the screen. At any moment you are able to select a new bot to control, and the screen is re-centered on the selected bot. Besides simply moving the bots around, each bot has three actions that it may perform. You can pick certain objects up, attempt to give those items to another bot, or perform the bot's special ability. The desired action is chosen from a verb list, also at the bottom of the screen.
While the constraints and abilities of the bots provide the puzzle quality that won Nanobots its awards, they can also create some frustrations if you are not thinking far enough ahead. For instance, ChemBot is the only bot allowed to carry a chemical. So if you have her pick up a chemical that you do not yet have a use for, you may get stuck with no way to put it down and no way to continue. There is a chemical disposal system and most of the chemicals have infinite supplies. However, there is one limited chemical that we picked up prematurely. If there was a way to discard the chemical while still retaining use of it for later, neither my wife nor I found it while playing together. Reloading from a save game was the only action we could see to take. Fortunately, such obstacles are rare, and you could easily finish without encountering one at all.
Nanobots also provides a sort of in-game hint system, which we did not realize until we were quite far into the game. Hints are provided through bot interactions as they discuss the issues at hand with each other. If you become stuck, you are able to use AudBot to ask the other bots what they think should happen next. Often a bot will have something useful to say that helps guide you in the next step.
The bots are quite individualistic, each with its own personality. AudBot, for example, has two heads which often bicker with each other; BrainBot is stereotypically brainy and has no time for frivolous actions. Together, the Nanobots often quibble and comment with each other in response to actions performed or when one bot needs another to take an item from it. The dialogue between the bots is fun, well written, and true to the bots' personalities.
Initiating conversation with another bot produces short discussions that are automatically played out for you, but when engaging a non-player character, you are given a dialogue tree and you’ll need to choose the right responses to get the desired result. Such non-player character interaction is extremely limited, however. The Nanobots interact with only two other characters throughout the game, Groovy Greg's girlfriend (via a cell phone) and a spider. These interactions are further limited by the fact that AudBot is the only bot capable of starting conversations with his special "Talk" ability.
Like most freeware adventures, Nanobots does not have spoken dialogue, but it does have a well-composed synthesized musical score. The music is whimsical and adds appropriate ambiance, evoking a mechanical, rhythmic feeling. It is how one might imagine a fanciful factory would sound, similar to the soundtrack for the movie Toys. The graphics are also nicely designed and colorful. They are presented in 320x240, 256 color, which is common in AGS games, and Nanobots is a fine example of pixel art with cute animations, providing a distinctly retro feel.
After overcoming all of the obstacles and seeing the adventure through to the end, players are treated to one last fun little bonus puzzle. To finish it, you much find each bot in a much larger beach scene. It adds nothing to the plot, but it is a fun diversion and a final chance to interact with the bots.
Overall, Nanobots is a nice change of pace from typical genre offerings, and an excellent adventure in its own right. The limited setting makes the game feel smaller than it really is, but it’s entirely appropriate for the plot, and all told, my wife and I got about four hours of gaming out of Nanobots, which is reasonably substantial for an independent adventure. It was certainly long enough for the bots to grow on us during the game, so we’d like to see even more of them in future. And indeed, while it may not be the same six, there are more bot developments on the way, as The Ivy and crew are currently at work on a commercial endeavour called Puzzle Bots, an adventure we're now anxiously awaiting.
Nanobots can be downloaded from the developer’s website.