If you have been hanging around around the Steam catalog lately, you’ve probably seen this indie game from Zachtronics Industries. The Steam action catalog seems pretty thin right now and my son and I have been playing a handful of manual puzzle games recently. Sink or Swim, Rush Hour, Alcatraz, TipOver, and River Crossing have got me in the mood for puzzle games.
At a low level the premise is that of designing and implementing the movements and operations within a chemical assembly factory to manufacture molecules from atoms. The factory consists of a couple of atom movers (called waldos) that can pick up either single atoms or the output from other factories and move them about the assembly space, allowing the player to create/break inter-atom chemical bonds in a set of special bond building spaces. Once the specified output molecule is constructed, it needs to be shuttled out of the factory either as the standalone solution to the level, or as input to a subsequent factory in one of the more complicated, multiple output levels.
Operations available to the player include placing markers to build a track for the waldos, rotating the proto-molecule, synchronization with the other waldo, and making/breaking inter-atomic bonds. You can place markers to leave or grab the proto-molecule at various places and a synchronization marker allows communication between waldos.
I know what it sounds like: yuck chemistry, but thankfully, you don’t need to know anything about chemistry to play: the individual stage goals represent the chemical bonds pictorially and that devolves into thinking about simple movement and manipulation pretty quick. There is, honestly, an atomic periodic table available for reference but no description of how an atom’s position within the chart defines the number of bonds an atom can sustain, so it has proven unnecessary (so far) and that’s a good thing indicating the clear capture of a real world phenomena as an abstract game play mechanism.
In my second year of Engineering, the mandatory common path organic chemistry class stood as an obstacle of Everest-like proportion. An alcoholic instructor sacked mid-term led to the department head taking over, and each day he tut-tutted the previous instructors progress and vowed to, ‘pick up the pace a little,’ and slide after slide of incomprehensible chemical product would flash by at subliminal speed leaving me with a sick feeling in my gut. Probably an accumulation of ketones, maybe some alpha-placalids, beta-phenoboloids, and zeta- polyaphnards were causing my issues, but the keen little chemical and petroleum students absorbing each slide like little molecular sponges made the situation worse. Then my major project partner quit Engineering entirely in the middle of our term paper and I was at sea.
I escaped (with major GPA damage) a repeat, but there are parts of my visual cortex that still don’t work properly and I still smell the smell of phenol when my left turn indicator blinks, and the experience honestly made me question buying this game. Why would I enjoy a chemical factory game if I have no tolerance for chemistry? The answer to that question is that the factory portion of the game is more a programming language than a nano-molecular assembler. There’s a set of possible operations and an execution sequence for transforming the input to output criteria and that is pretty much the definition of a programming problem. You have freedom to approach the problem any way you like with the caveat that the physical space limitations and the command tool set often restrict you to the fairly optimal path. During the problem solving phase and particularly once you get it working, the movement and precision of elements within the factories can be quite entrancing.
There is music but I haven’t found it noteworthy either positively or negatively. I have reduced the volume to a whisper as it is a little intrusive in hard thinking times. I have yet to check if a player can provide his/her own tracks as that would help with the limited selection. The entire in-game music selection can be heard during the trailer at the Steam page
There is a story which consists of a multiple pages of text that are unlocked as various problems are solved. I’m early on and the story is in introductory stages. The teaser hints at surprises but so far the game has been all about the puzzles.
The factory editor where I have spent most of my time is well done. Placing the commands and routing atoms through the factories is pretty painless using either the mouse exclusively or using keyboard shortcuts to support the mouse. One small complaint is that occasionally you may find that you’ve not left yourself enough room to do a subset of operations and there doesn’t seem to be a way to shift a group of operations to a new location, but this is rare on the whole. There are a few tutorial levels, but I was hoping for more as I didn’t honestly feel prepared for some of the early challenges. On the one hand it’s a positive that the run time engine tells you clearly that you can’t rotate a molecule in such a way as to have atoms pivot outside the factory, but I wish I hadn’t had to discover that after I placed 20 widgets counting on being able to do that very thing.
I haven’t yet got my head around doing some of the more complex things with the primitive command set, either. I keep wishing for a loop control and a decision/branching control as I’m already finding accomplishing the goals at level three a bit tricky. This has been enjoyable though, and the game both allows you to revisit any level to try to improve your process efficiency and to compare your process design against that of others in both parts used and overall steps required to generate the required output. I would not normally do that until I had worked over my design, but the whole scheme comes right out of the box. In the case of the linked video of my process for problem 3-1, clearly the ‘comparison’ is against some savant petro-tech schooled chemical monkey’s theoretical design and not an elegant real world working solution but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the process and naturally I already have many many several major process improvements in mind for my next iteration. The YouTube video generation process is also included right in the game and that’s a nice touch. I’ve run across one tiny potential bug of not being able to switch the color of a single flavour of an already-placed instruction, but the game has worked very well otherwise. The PC version performed a .net update on install, but nothing else, apparently the OSX version requires MONO, and it’s available on Linux.
I’m enjoying it. Twelve hours already, yeesh. It has a minimalistic feel and feature set that isn’t unreasonable in a $10 game with some nice replay and online comparison perks that should make it a good value. I’d be content with just the puzzles, but I’m hoping the story provides something interesting as well.
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I really want to buy and try this game, but honestly I am scared of the complexity. I kind of solve similar “puzzles” at work. Perhaps, I’ll just buy the game to be one of those cool kids.
I found the demo hugely engaging. The game gets challenging, too much so really for the way my brain works, but I really enjoy laying out complex instructions and then watching them play through. SpaceChem is definitely worth the pittance it currently costs. Thanks Helmut!
I’d not heard of this Helmut but blimey, does it look heavy going. I might give the demo a whirl just because a) it looks quite minimalistic and hypnotic, and b) I still don’t know how the hell you do what you’re supposed to do. I’m reminded of Electric Box (which is very cute) but it’s much more simplistic and really probably nothing like this.
For the most part the difficulty ramps quite gradually and you can get to be making quite complicated machinery without thinking too hard. There have been a few spots that have been a bit sticky, mostly of the kind where I’ve dream up something cool and spent some time putting it together only to find I can’t perform one specific operation that would make the whole thing work and have to start from scratch.
I’m currently designing and naming factories that take part in the greater whole of a chemical process. The planet I’m on supplies methane, and I’m splitting it up and making other molecules. The output from one factory is fed to the input of another. The process doesn’t run forever, just for 40 molecules so it doesn’t have to be perfect. You get to do some neat stuff just by combining some simple factories.
FYI if you want to move a group of elements, band-select them and drag them to the new location.
I think one of the greatest things about SpaceChem – aside from it being fun as a game, obviously – is that it actually helps you understand what kind of a thinker you are. It requires a very linear, structured logic and spatial perception to your problem solving. The further ahead you can envision events and keep track of how you’ve manipulated them, the better you’ll be at SpaceChem. I could see this game being used as a cognitive test to help further understand how different people learn and solve problems.
And those that can’t figure out how to move groups of elements get stuck mucking out the sump? Thanks Johnny.
Steerpike, that sounds more complicated and scary than the process actually is. I think it’s more a process of structured logic discovery than it is a formal piece of design. As in, say isn’t that a fine piece of structured logic I’ve just built, rather than sector x5b4 is required to integrate with y8z3 at these interstices to blah blah blah. Which is a funner process.
I put my money down on this as soon as it came out.
Of course, I haven’t even installed it yet.
I bought Spacechem as soon as it came out and played it a bit. Liked it a lot, though I haven’t got round to going back to it recently (and have now installed the Steam version instead, so need to start again). It’s very nicely put together, the difficulty ramps up such that you learn one useful trick at a time and the level you’re on is generally almost-but-not-quite-too-hard-to-crack. Decently written too, and the interface is pretty slick. I don’t love it quite as much as Manufactoria, but that may well say more about me than about the games.
I started playing this last week and honestly, I’ve been bowled over by it. It’s poetry watching your carefully laid out waldo’s assemble a molecule, ship it out to another reactor for that to then process it in its own unique and hypnotic way as well. I also love how the same problem can be solved in myriad ways.
SpaceChem has that rare effect of making me giddy when I accomplish something and that’s a wonderful thing (because I’m usually so grim). The music too is fantastic and so far the story seems well written and interesting. And Phlebas is right regarding the interface being slick, it’s lovely elegant thing.
Well stop lounging around and get to level four so you can help out a little bit. 🙂
I’m enjoying this game quite a bit but can’t face the unending difficulty of the later levels on a continual basis. It’s a game that I’ll drop into and feed a little bit into my subconcious every week or so in order for ideas and schemes to perk, but it’s rarely a game I can sit and try to solve for any length of time. Once you’ve spent the hours necessary to solve one of the complicated puzzles, you get to throw it all away and tap on the next one. Repeatedly. That said, getting one of the complicated multi-factory levels completed and efficient is very rewarding.
I’m on level 2 of Danopth (planet 3). Just created Acetylene, which was tricky. Be sure to check your scores against mine Helmut by pressing tab while hovering over each level 😉 Nothing like a bit of healthy ‘optimisation’.
I’d never seen that feature before. Good. Naturally, I’ve gone back and tuned a few of my earlier efforts. It took me a long time to realize that (for example) the blue waldo could activate the red input output squares. That’s not clear from using the keyboard shortcuts.
Yeah I had the same issue. I thought red was always alpha input and blue was always beta input but after right clicking one of the nodes/instructions, hey presto! there it was.
This was my first “Woo!! I did it!! But argh!! It’s such a clunky solution!!” video:
It’s creative with the rotators, I’ll give it that. Since then I’ve tuned it up and I’ll post that vid later just for kicks.
And I just realised, your second video above is for Acetylene… very interesting. That triple bond I found was a pain to create!
Edit: Whoa, that’s some crazy waldo-action right there.
Here’s my Acetylene-making wonder. 😉
That was a problematic level. At the time I was still trying do things with cooperation between waldos, thinking it was the way to go, but I’ve kind of drifted away from that approach.
The pipeline levels are astoundingly instructive. There, inefficiencies are usually very obvious and problematic. You’re usually forced to make any single piece as efficient as every other piece in an effort to prevent atoms from piling up in the pipelines and blocking the output blocks, something that isn’t necessarily fatal but which requires more complexity and moving parts to manage.
Finished the last mandatory exercise on planet five. A wicked concoction of odd numbered fusion products coupled with some ugly bonding exercises. I didn’t finish it in a pure sense, I built a chemical contraption that required painstaking manipulation of four manual switch settings through the 1200 or so execution cycles necessary to blow up a monster. That’s what I bring to the table. Dedication. Commitment. If I have to build your carbon nanotube stinky foot odour absorber atom by atom then that’s what I’ll do for the win.
I’ll get there as soon as I can! It’s hard work being a SpaceChemist…
Okay Helmut, hit me. How the hell did you get your cycles so low for this level? I was proud of my achievement until I saw your efficiency. 😉
You’ve already done everything in reactor 2! You don’t need the third reactor at all as all it’s doing is conveying from in to out. I have a very similar split but do nothing but make H2 in reactor 2 and ethane in R3. You’ve already done the heavy lifting in one reactor! Impressive. At the second reactor Just send the output from the red waldo to the H2 tank and the output from the blue reactor to the Ethane tank and get rid of reactor 3, that should be faster.
Maybe we should move over to Bollocks?
New thread started up here: