Version tested: PC
SpaceChem and Super Meat Boy. One is a game of atomic engineering, the other is about a skinless kid and his hot girlfriend. There's not too much common ground there, except on this essential level: they both nail the "Look what I made!" factor.
Overcome a challenge in either of these games, and you get the urge to call someone into the room, point at the screen and proclaim, "Look what I made!" In the case of Meat Boy, the player-created masterpieces were video replays of your death-cheating exploits; SpaceChem provides a more cerebral counterpart. You build tiny chemical reactors that scoop up atoms and rearrange them into new compounds to advance the interests of your industrial overlords. It sounds dry, but man, is it a kick to watch those atoms go.
The root problem of each stage in SpaceChem is to design a "reactor" that will refine raw atoms and/or molecules into a new compound. Your reactor might be connected to an atmospheric pump that provides you with a 3:1 ratio of hydrogen and nitrogen atoms, and the goal is to cobble these together into – yup, you guessed it – ammonia fuel.
Splicing atoms with your fingers is a messy enterprise. (I always end up getting atoms in my hair.) So SpaceChem provides you with microscopic helpers called "waldos". There are two in each reactor, a red one and a blue one. The waldos move along tracks that you lay out on the reactor's gridded workspace. As they chug along, they execute simple instructions that you place along their route.
For instance, a waldo that passes over a "grab" instruction will pick up whatever atom is on that space in the grid, dutifully toting the chemical in its pincers until it reaches a space you've labelled "drop". Waldos are dumb and obedient, like a Labrador Retriever, except they manipulate quantum mechanics instead of licking their own crotch.
At the outset, your waldos do little more than grab atoms from the inputs on the left side of the reactor and dump them on the output side – maybe adding or breaking a couple of chemical bonds along the way.
In short order, the business of molecular chemistry gets complex, as it's wont to do. Soon, multiple reactors must be chained into a pipeline, conducting high-level alchemy that can't be accomplished with a single set of waldos. You acquire new instructions, such as a sensor mechanism that sends a waldo in different directions depending on what type of atoms are in the mix.
As the universe of possibilities expands, the problems become more daunting, yet SpaceChem is always more accessible than it looks. Creator Zach Barth must have known that his game could intimidate players. I mean, check out the screenshots. Even I hesitated when I first saw this game, and Eurogamer was paying me to play it.
Given that first impression, the trap for Barth would be to browbeat players with tutorials out of fear that they wouldn't get it by themselves. We've all seen it before: You plough through untold heaps of diagrams and explanatory videos, all so the developers can be sure you won't misunderstand any facet of their delicate vision. After all, if you don't have a steel-strong grasp on the rules of, say, the Chocobo breeding mini-game, is life still worth living?
Rather than sticking its fingers up your nostrils and dragging you where it wants you to go, SpaceChem tries an unorthodox approach: not doing that. The tutorials are helpful, but they're brief and almost nonchalant as they unveil new concepts. The unspoken attitude is, "Look, we have faith that you'll see why this is cool, so just try it."
And so a gratifying cycle of trial, error and discovery commences. Before long, a twisting network of waldo trails takes shape on the screen, with bright instruction nodes scattered around like glittering traffic lights.
The intermediate steps of constructing a reactor are so engrossing that the final pay-off comes as a surprise. You turn the contraption on, the waldos do their dance – hey, you're making methane. The game gives you a few seconds to watch the process and, yes, grab some spectators if you're so inclined.
Then you can move on to the next challenge. Or not. That's a central tension throughout SpaceChem; the drive to proceed into new stages competes with the allure of revisiting past levels to tinker. SpaceChem stokes the latter temptation by presenting an efficiency report at the end of a level. This pernicious document grades your solution by metrics, like the time it took your machine to process the materials and how many instructions you had to place in the waldos' code to do it.
The report card is a tease, as it charts the elegance of your solution against the results of other people who have played the game. You rearranged those helium atoms using 16 instructions, bully for you. But look here, a couple of guys figured out how to do the same job with only 12. Now that's something! If only you could be more like them.
Thus the urge arises to dive back into the reactor grid and push your results closer to the left edge of the bell curve. Once you've trimmed your codebase and shaved cycles off your runtime until your design can't possibly get any cleaner, you get to look at the revised efficiency report and bask in the fact that everyone in the world is stupider than you, except for that little sliver of people on the edge of the chart there, but they probably cheated or something.
SpaceChem's story is a passable tale of sci-fi intrigue. You're the rosy-cheeked recruit who joins up with a shadowy outer-space engineering concern. The place has its standard share of crazy galactic happenings: A bunch of workers get blasted out of an airlock, gas explosions destroy a berserk robot, some employees fall ill with debilitating brain disease. Basically, a meal at Taco Bell, but in space.
The story is mostly there for ambience, and SpaceChem is very good at ambience. Its soundtrack has a grand tone, with bit of eeriness, all of it quite listenable. Small, considered visual touches, like the flashing lights of a reactor grid in action and the chemical formulas on the periphery on the interface, complete the sensation that you're doing something cutting-edge, even dangerous.
Scientists recently rejiggered a helium atom to behave like hydrogen. I have only a basic understanding of how that works, but damn if it doesn't sound pretty cool. It makes me wonder if the experience of building an elaborate atomic reactor in SpaceChem is a taste of what it was like to conduct that experiment.
Sure, SpaceChem is just pseudo-science, but it does capture that mystique of toying with nature's fundamental ingredients. And while nuclear chemists are serious professionals, I'm willing to bet that the first time that one of them transformed a smidgen of helium into super-heavy hydrogen, part of him wanted to cry, "Look what I made!"
9 / 10
SpaceChem is available now as a direct download from www.spacechemthegame.com for PC, Mac and Linux. Thanks to Quintin Smith for the tip.