SpaceChem   1 comment

Not an objective review.

SpaceChem is a game I’ve been raving about to anyone who’ll listen for some time. It’s a puzzle game where you have to build circuits to control “waldos”, little machines that move around atoms and molecules, to convert some chemicals into others. It’s programming dressed up as chemistry. Despite how that might sound, it’s a very special game.

A lot of games are made challenging by requiring you to make inputs in a certain order at certain times. Essentialy they’re memory or reaction tests, be they dressed up as shooting people or steering an anthropomorphised meat cube through a blade-infused, salt-encrusted death trap. SpaceChem absolutely does not do this. All the input’s as simple and streamlined as possible, and it gives you all the time in the world to do it. On Steam it’s even crammed into the “Casual” category, and you know what? That’s perfectly fair. If you can use a mouse well enough to play FarmTown, you can use a mouse well enough to play SpaceChem.

As for the puzzles, usually when a game gives you a puzzle to solve there will be one solution. In many games, particularly point and click adventures, the solution tends to be pretty arbitrary; you’re not working based on logic or reason so much as trying to get into the designer’s brain and figuring out what they were thinking. Or just brute-forcing it by clicking every object on every other. Whether any other solution “should” work is irrelevant – if it’s not the one they thought of it won’t.
Other games (Lemmings or Braid, for example) give you tools which operate in well-defined ways, but then limit the tools’ uses or design the levels such that there are very few possible solutions. The challenge comes from finding and implementing one of the very few intended by the designer.
SpaceChem, again, absolutely does not do this. You’re only restricted on what will fit in the reactor(s) available. This means that, aside from trivial tutorial levels, any of the puzzles can be solved in a vast number of genuinely different ways. You’re not figuring out the solution the developer intended, you’re using the tools available to design and implement your own idea from scratch.

SpaceChem is not a puzzle game. It’s a problem-solving game.

So, you might think that a game which requires no dexterity or reactions, where every level can be solved in myriad ways, would be very easy, and you would be exactly, absolutely wrong. SpaceChem might not exercise your fingers, but it’ll thrash your brain like an overexcited dominatrix testing out the new whip she got for Christmas would if she were a very confused neurosurgeon. And that’s the joy of it: much like in Super Meat Boy where the satisfaction comes from finally getting through that level on the 47th attempt, the satisfaction here is when you solve a level, seemingly impossible at first glance, that’s been rattling around in your brain for hours or days. But unlike almost every other game, when the “Assignment Complete!” screen pops up you know it was your carefully-designed solution that solved it. No luck and no brute force. Nobody led you by the hand. You built it, from scratch, and it worked. Elation.

The “Assignment Complete!” screen also tells you how you compare to everybody else who’s completed the level. It tells you that your hard-thought solution is only average speed, and you used almost twice as many symbols as most people. That you thought you were so clever doing it using only three of the five reactors you were allowed, but some people managed it in one. So you go back to your solution, and now the problem is: how can I do it better?

It’s amazing.


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  1. Pingback: Portal 2 « Talking to yourself

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