A few months ago I got an email from Zachtronics, creators of the Codex of Alchemical Engineering, about the new indie game called SpaceChem. It was billed as “an obscenely addictive, design-based puzzle game about building machines and fighting monsters in the name of science.” What’s not to love?

Here’s a preview. . .


Game reviewer Quintin Smith loved it:

SpaceChem is a game where you build fabulous contraptions. It’s about getting stuck into a massive puzzle, laughing at the optimism of what’s expected of you, and then finally applying what might be the finishing touch to your engine and cheering as it works. There’s even a strange element of not simply feeling like a gamer, but a scientist. You’re constantly having these little ‘Eureka!’ moments and folding them into a level to make for a more efficient machine.

Zachtronics offered me a review copy, but I’m not really a gamer. (I always have a sneaking suspicion that I could be using my time more productively, by, say. . . blogging.) Anyway, I had my resident video game expert (my boyfriend) play the game for me and report back. His review was a little mixed.

Let’s be clear: SpaceChem is not going to teach you actual chemistry. The creators admit the game is about “fake chemistry”. While you are ostensibly synthesizing molecules, you do it by assembling complex “reactors” – circuits of “bonders,” which are widgets that add and subtract atoms. (Imagine them as a serious of standardized processing vats in a futuristic chemical plant.) Each “research project” requires that you make one or more molecule endproducts from some precursors; determining the right proportions to use involved a little stoichiometry, but nothing complex. It’s more of a logic puzzle than real science. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Zachtronics says, “the most important thing this game teaches is how to think like a programmer. Each puzzle consists of two “threads” that operate simultaneously, requiring players to explore and master concepts like in-order execution, branching, synchronization primitives, and subroutines in an organic and comprehensible environment.” That’s pretty cool, right? But my boyfriend’s main complaint was that after a while, it became repetitive. As he put it, “there are lots of complications, but you’re always moving everything in a linear path.” There was only one kind of task to focus on at a time, and he found it almost impossible to pick up again when he left off in the middle of a two-three hour puzzle. Since you’re striving for either speed or efficiency, this annoyed him, and he gave up.

However, this was after he played SpaceChem for several days, so he got a fair bit of use out of it (various players online say it took 50-150 hours to finish the game). I can testify that his initial reaction to the game was quite warm, until he figured out how it worked. Plus, when I prodded him to give me a highlight, he conceded that “the best one was the giant octopus where you had to create a nuclear missile.” Say what?

Interested? You can read more about it here, or or download a free demo of SpaceChem here. Or you can just buy the game, for $5 less than these awesome shirts. Seriously – I’m not a gamer, but I love the shirts.