SpaceChem PC, Mac, Linux Review
SpaceChem isn’t a pretty game; if it put on a nice shirt, it might be described as looking functional. The interface is pretty dodgy. The overarching story is a mild diversion. The tutorial is awful: if you’re going to understand how this game works, well, you’re pretty much on your own. I just wanted to get all that out of the way.
In each level of SpaceChem, your job is to create a path for a pair of devices – they’re called waldoes – to follow. You instruct them to pick up atoms, manipulate them into molecules, and deliver them to the output area. It wants water? You’d better grab a couple of hydrogen atoms, an oxygen atom, bond them together and drop them off. As you get comfortable with the basic interactions, the game starts throwing more at you. First you come across levels that require more than one reactor – what you thought was about as complicated as a SpaceChem level could get turns out only to be a component in a far more intricate reaction. Then you get special reactors – reactors that can sense different elements and respond accordingly, or reactors that can fuse elements together, creating a new, larger atom.
I just wanted to get all that out of the way, too.
Because what makes SpaceChem great – frustratingly, mind-bogglingly, three-in-the-morning-and-why-won’t-this-fucking-work great – is something else. It’s a weird feeling, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt a video game display so much confidence in me. The complexity of the levels increases exponentially, from individual reactors shuffling atoms around to giant petro-industrial complexes that spread across half the planet, and as the complexity increases, so do the demands placed on you. Every time you load up a level, and see what you’re given, and what you’re expected to make out of it, there’s usually one appropriate reaction: “wait, you want me to do what?”
But you completely control the pace of events – you have as much time as you need – and as you think, the game sits back and allows you to make the mistakes that you need to make as you work out whatever new tactic this level requires. Every time you complete a level, another one comes along that makes the one you just poured your soul into for an hour and a half look like a Sunday afternoon stroll. It’s as if the game says “Well, if you can do that, I’m sure you’ll have no problem with this.”
Calling it a difficulty curve is underselling it. It’s a Goddamn work of art. If it is a curve, it’s the Nürburgring’s Caracciola Karussell – sweeping, majestic, plotted in a single perfect curl of an cosmic pen through God’s own landscape.
I’m trying to come up with a better metaphor, because this feels weird, but I honestly think that playing SpaceChem is like you’re six again, and your dad is trying to teach you how to ride a bike. At first, you act like a stroppy little brat, because what he wants you to do is plainly impossible and he’s being a big stupid poopy-head. But the fact that he thinks that you can do it, and that he’s willing to give you all the time you need to crack this, gives you the dedication to try, over and over again, until you get it right you get it right and you’re flying down the street and you’re the master of the Universe and you know your dad’s going to be so proud of you.
And when you turn around and cycle back, your dad’s standing there with a twin-rotor helicopter, saying “Right, let’s see how you do with this, then.”
It’s honestly exhilarating, today, to play a game that lets you come up with ideas for yourself. At its heart, it’s like programming a computer – with loops, IF-THEN statements and catastrophic crashes intact – and like programming a computer, you feel like you’re genuinely learning something new; techniques or shortcuts that you use to complete one level will make the next level that bit easier. Because the game lets you work these tricks out on your own, they feel yours – “Ah, a variation on the Myall sorter,” you imagine esteemed SpaceChem experts saying, nodding sagely, fifty years in the future – and brilliantly, the levels reflect this, giving you a start point, an end point, and absolute freedom to get from one to the other. How I would complete a level is completely different from how you would complete a level, is completely different from how the Queen would complete a level.
Every time you do complete a level, you’re instantly measured up against the rest of the SpaceChem-playing universe in three metrics – how many reactors you used, how long it took for your reaction to complete, and how many instructions you used. This encourages you, brilliantly enough – and I’ll stop using that word when SpaceChem stops doing brilliant things – to go back and improve on your work, on your own terms. Go ahead and create a newer solution, a model of efficiency this time, if you want – a pretty little alchemic haiku in a triplet of perfectly formed reactor-verses. Or try to solve the whole damn thing in one giant, rumbling mess of a reactor that looks like the London Underground falling into a black hole. It’s up to you.
SpaceChem is different from most puzzle games. You’re not testing your wit against that of the developer; you’re using your skill and experience using a limited set of tools in progressively more taxing situations. It’s a subtle, but important difference. When you complete a decent puzzle in a regular game, you’ll think the designer of the puzzle was clever. When you complete a puzzle in SpaceChem, you’ll think that you are clever. And that’s pretty clever.