SpaceChem

By: Elliot Metson

Published: January 21, 2011 Posted in: Review

So it’s come down to this. I’ve used all available bonders, but the strongest bond I can muster between my two Nitrogen atoms is a weak double bond. They’ve clearly requested a triple bond. I’m at wit’s end, and I’m only on the second ‘do it yourself’ level. Desperate, I turn to fellow space scientist, Craig Lager, for help.

“Man, you suck.”

I hate you, SpaceChem, I bloody hate you.

SpaceChem - Very stuck
These grey cirlces are bonders. Dropping atoms on adjacent bonders and activating a Bond+ waldo will form a bond between the atoms.

I take a much needed break. I re-energise myself with some Galaxy chocolate (somewhat fitting) and I have my very own Eureka moment.

‘Dumbass!  The Bond+ waldo doesn’t need to be anywhere near the bonder! You can put it anywhere on the line, as long as you drop the atoms on the bonder!’  I thought to myself.

With great haste I rush back to my PC, boot up SpaceChem and moments later I form the perfect reactor circuit – triple bonded Nitrogen atoms formed with effortless ease and dropped off in the exact output location. I feel like a genius.

I love you SpaceChem, I bloody love you.

SpaceChem - Start
SpaceChem at its simplest – Pick up atoms from each end, bond them, drop them in a corner. Repeat 10 times.

Trial and error. Solving SpaceChem’s often unbelievably difficult puzzles will require a lot of this. Any puzzle game in which you fail as constantly as you do here should be damned to the depths of puzzle hell. Any puzzle game that looks, at first glance, like a game they’d release on a £5 ‘educational’ CD from PC World should be awful. But it’s not awful, and it doesn’t deserve to go to puzzle hell.

First, I want you to cast aside any preconceptions of this being an educational game. You will learn nothing school-ish from SpaceChem, unless you’ve never seen a periodic table before. However, I will use a school analogy to describe SpaceChem’s tutorials. Imagine you are in a chemistry class, the teacher is a substitute teacher, reading instructions from a hastily scribbled sheet left by your regular teacher. The substitute teaches English full-time; chemistry is not his domain. He rushes through the instructions, drawing some diagrams on the board, telling you to do the same in your book. You don’t really understand what any of these mean, but you go along with it anyway. As you go through the lesson, more and more new concepts are being thrown at you and you’re struggling to absorb everything that’s going on. As the substitute nears the end of his instruction sheet, you figure it would be best to raise your hand and ask for some clarification, but before you can do that, he’s erasing the diagrams from the board, giving you several pages of textbook exercises and getting out of the room as quickly as possible. Suddenly you’re alone, having to work through these exercises with no extra help on a subject you know hardly anything about.

SpaceChem - slightlycomplex
This is still very early in the game – you have to teach yourself to pick up the same type of atom with both lines and drop them off accordingly.

The rate at which SpaceChem goes from holding your hand to throwing you into the middle of the proverbial dual carriageway is quite staggering. But it’s this baptism of fire that really contributes to the feeling of great accomplishment you get at the end of every puzzle. At first you feel like a fluke artist, bumbling your way through, then you get stuck and have to stop for a while until out of nowhere the solution appears in your head. Everything works from thence on. This is magic science.

At the time of me writing this, I’m on the second level of SpaceChem’s third world. I started work on it roughly 16 hours ago. Everytime I look at it I’m as daunted as I was the first time I laid eyes upon it. Frankly, I couldn’t be any further from getting the solution. After this level, there are five or six remaining before I can move onto the next world and, get this, there are nine worlds in SpaceChem. Conventional wisdom dictates that if I’m this badly stuck this early in the game, I may as well give up. The fact that I’ve got so far to go before the end should be a daunting prospect, but to be brutally honest, it’s highly endearing. The more I fail, the better I feel when I eventually succeed. Chasing this feeling of success is SpaceChem’s greatest thrill.

SpaceChem - Mindfuck
World 3 Level 1 – No tutorials, no hints, just plain hard. The ’4/10′ means I have to drop 6 more completed molecules to finish the level.

I wrote in my article about Dear Esther that it was the way audiobooks should be presented and how stories should be told from here on. I am telling you now that SpaceChem’s method of teaching makes me wish my school education was like this and that this should be the way we teach kids in the future. Give them a beautifully basic looking game with a lovely soundtrack, a barebones tutorial and a periodic table. World hunger will be solved, the cure for cancer will be found and we’ll all live on Mars, because we’ll have bred a generation of absolute geniuses. I’m going to reattempt World 3 level 2 right now, and when I get the answer I will raise my arms in triumph. When I am faced with World 3 level 3, my brow will be furrowed with despair. I very much look forward to it.

Elliot Metson