Friday, January 21, 2011

Chemistry In Space Might Be The Best Thing Ever

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few months (which probably covers around 1/2 of my audience), you might have heard about this game. It's also been featured here. And later they also did a short interview with its designer. Well, it's about normal length for this kind of thing, really, but I wouldn't mind it being about 4-8 times this size. That guy's mind is a potential goldmine. I particularly like how he divides puzzle games into categories, it's pretty obvious that he's given more thought to this than we ever will. I would also be a lot more smug than he is, for sure. I'd be like: "puzzle games can be divided into categories 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the hardest one to design is #4 which btw, I've totally ACED, bitches!"

So yeah, SpaceChem. It's a rare game that feels so damn perfect (Deus Ex comes to mind - more on that later). I'm not going to tell you WHY it's so awesome. That's for you to decide. I'll just throw some highlights, and hopefully make you try it out for a bit. That's all I can do with this one.

It's a puzzle game. It's a PURE puzzle game. You know Braid? That was a puzzle game too - but a puzzle platformer. There was a disconnect between finding a solution, and solving the puzzle. You had to implement the solution - make your character jump, avoid monsters, reverse time and so on. You could fail on the implementation part. In SpaceChem that gap is very small. There are some spatial constraints - you are limited to the 8x10 grid and 1 symbol of each color on each square of the grid. It is an important constraint which plays a major role on later levels, for sure, but if your solution is reasonable you can usually make it fit somehow. The main thing is solving the puzzle in the first place. And because of the nature of the game, you don't need to stay in front of the computer - you can do that anywhere! Just be careful not to walk into a tree or something while figuring out how to break and reform triple-bonds.

It's a game about industrial chemistry in space. It's not a game about real industrial chemistry (obviously, because real industrial chemistry happens on Earth). Don't be scared that it might have some educational subliminal message. It's all a cover of paint, for the convenience of having something familiar to work with.

It's a game about programming (in a visual medium). If you're reading this, you should probably know how you feel about programming. If you don't yet, it's a good place to start. I think it's IMPORTANT to have the kind of mindset that enjoys programming, in order to be able to enjoy this game. That's the main reason I'm reluctant to recommend this game to absolutely EVERYONE. But if you're ok with that, this should be good for you.

It has the best difficulty progression of any game ever. BAR NONE. Fuck me, that's a tall order - and done to perfection. Let me recall my experience with it:

1. "Ah, the first tutorial level. Ok. I'm just following these instructions. Look at the pretty colors! I don't really have any idea what's happening here but whatever."
2. "Ah, the second tutorial level. Let me get this done with so I can get to the real thing. I mean, I still have no idea what I'm doing, but it's gonna come together at some point, I'm sure."
3. "Huh, where's the tutorial messages? ...."
4. "So, there are these inputs over here... and this output thing over here... so I guess that... yeah."
5. "Hmmmm, that doesn't seem to work."
6. "I DID IT! Hooray! On to the next level! I'm sure it will be a piece of cake, now that I've figured things out!"
7. "Huh, they want me to do WHAT????!"

There are no intermediate levels. There's no slightly more difficult task. Once you've mastered a piece of the game, you're given credit for it. The next thing will be something new. No wonder the players report amazing feelings of accomplishment when solving every puzzle - your intelligence is never insulted with trivial tasks, but always taxed, forced to adapt and discover new things. And it does all that for more than FIFTY freakin levels.

Also, it's a long game. No, really. It might be a 200-something meg game, and it will still take you the best part of a week to complete. From that point of view, it's also RIDICULOUS good value for your money - at $20, it has at least 4 times the total playtime of something like Modern Warfare 2 which is about 3 times as expensive. Yes, you might spend a lot of that time just staring at the screen, but your mind will be working double time.

So, er, that's it! Now for a promotional message from myself: play SpaceChem! (hint: demo here).



Blogger Gabriel Sandu said...

You forgot to mention it has a story that borders on thriller feeling / alfred hitchcock style of narration. I have been crawling under rocks and it feels so good there. As opposed from the other guy who shall remain unnamed and can't even be reached by phone because he's ignoring any interference when playing.

SpaceChem is awesome but more timeconsuming than anything. It's a problem. Not even TIM was *that* hard to pull off, or maybe my mind is not as bright as it once used to burn, mostly due to playing only WoW for the past 5 years? I can't even remember how to solve the 3rd layer of Rubik's Cube, actually.

6:25 PM  

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