Butterflies are often used as a symbol for freedom and beauty in literature, and the butterfly is symbolic of the soul in the folklore of several different cultures. It is surely, then, a deliberate subversion that Diane Mueller, AKA MadameBerry, chose a butterfly with broken wings as the subject for her short alternative title, Fragile Soft Machines, a meditation on hardship and perseverance.
The butterfly cannot fly with its’ kin, due to the right wing being torn; “the sky rejected you”. This is made clear almost immediately: “You cannot fly,” a voice tells the player. “No, but I can…”
A text bar appears. This is the first of many prompts the game asks the player to fill in a personal response. I typed “crawl” on my first playthrough. In the second, I typed “live”. I felt as if I was being psychoanalyzed; in the end, that turned out to be partially true, as a summary (that felt much like an epitaph) appeared once I’d finished the final sequence. Both of my initial playthroughs seemed quite hopeful. I wonder if this was Mueller’s design; to see how people might react during a truly stressful time in their lives, when before they might feel like they’re able to fly, but no longer do. It pushes the player to consider choices in hardship, the low road and the high. It’s not often that a game can provoke its players to be as thoughtful in such a small amount of time, and this is one of its strengths. There is no filler in Fragile Soft Machines.
Fragile Soft Machines doesn’t have a lot of gameplay in the traditional sense. The game is navigated by clicking on the place you want to go, and clicking on the vines you want to grow to climb and progress through the short stage. If you’re looking for a more usual gaming experience, you’ll be left wanting. Perhaps the game could benefit from including a slightly greater depth in mechanics, at the very least as a more intuitive platformer than simply pointing-and-clicking at the desired location. However, such a change could distract from Mueller’s focus on atmosphere. The game is moody and melancholic, aided by a minimalist colour-contrasted pixel style, the white butterfly sharply defined against dark backgrounds, and ambient electronic sounds ring and deepen insidiously when faced with adversity while quitting when faced with reflective moments.
The game itself is very short, lasting about ten minutes, although the game can be replayed two or three times to see all of the different possible pathways. Still, the player probably won’t find that they get more than 45 minutes out of the game, even when trying to exhaust all possible outcomes.
Fragile Soft Machines feels more like an experiment than a fully-fledged game. This is due to both the simplicity of the game’s mechanics and it’s short length. Mueller would have to expand on both elements to improve on the existing formula, as the current mechanics wouldn’t hold player interest if the game were any longer, nor would there be any need to improve the mechanics due to the game’s short length and atmospheric nature. A similar provocative experience from MadameBerry could use a similar approach but expand upon both core gameplay and variety in outcomes to create greater satisfaction.
Despite this, the game is a deeply meditative and thoughtful affair with a melancholic ambiance, and I recommend at least a few playthroughs of the game given its low price and accessibility. I look forward to future artful projects from Mueller, with the hope that they might have a deeper core game beneath the good writing and visual design.
You can purchase Fragile Soft Machines for $3 on itch.io.