SpaceChem

This is, as it turns out, pretty much the perfect game for me. I’ve put a scary number of hours into it since I picked it up on a lark during the last big Steam sale. It’s got that magical formula of great puzzle games: assembling elementary tools in order to accomplish a complex task. There’s an incentive to refine a solution as well – to not merely complete a puzzle, but to complete it well – since scores for solutions are compared between friends, as well as the world at large.

The production levels, as opposed to the research ones, are a particular joy. The feeling of being presented with a horribly complex task, and then slowly figuring out how to deconstruct it into manageable pieces, and then figuring out how to optimize those pieces so that everything balances out is tremendous.

The difficulty curve is generally pretty well designed. I know it got too hard for some people, but I never found it too frustrating. It’s the sort of game where I’ll feel stuck, and go to bed, and wake up in the middle of the night knowing how to solve the problem. I love that feeling. The one bump I had was with the stochastic input puzzles. Even now, I still don’t feel totally comfortable with just how limiting it is to deal with uncertain inputs, and my instinct is just to split everything up and sort it before doing anything else, even when this is terribly inefficient. But otherwise, there are lots of neat tricks that come up again and again, like how to efficiently disassemble a molecule and output it neatly, or using a predictably messy output in a clever way, or how to arrange a fusion sequence efficiently.

The developers should also be commended for uploading new puzzles on what seems to be a weekly basis. It’s already a big game, but this continuous stream of content means I’ll keep coming back to it. Some of these bonus puzzle are ridiculously hard. The trick for a lot of them seems to be figuring out how to cram a lot of manipulation of large molecules into a small space, which I don’t find particularly rewarding. But that’s a problem with, maybe, one in three of the puzzles, and the rest provide plenty of fun.

The interface is simple, but powerful. Unlimited use of “undo” while editing solutions is greatly appreciated, though it would be nice if one could also make a hard save of a configuration, so that it would be easy to jump back to it if tinkering on it didn’t work out as hoped. Between the different speed settings, and the “pause” command, debugging is fairly easy.

I appreciated having the chemistry hook. It meant that, like in a physics-based game, I had a generally accurate expectation of how certain procedures would work. One could imagine a game of this level of complexity but without the hook, that would feel alienating, and hard to get in to as a result.

So it’s great. Possibly my favourite puzzle game ever, in a toss-up with Braid. A strong contender for game of the year.

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