I really can’t say enough good things about this game. I’ve already written about the experience elsewhere, so I’ll try to stick to seeing SpaceChem from the game designer’s perspective.
Things SpaceChem does right:
- Player freedom: The story stays out of the way and lets the game go. You can even ignore the story entirely, and just play the “puzzle” part of the game. The puzzles let you solve the challenge any way you want. There is no “right” solution (though some are better than others). SpaceChem never forces you to take time out of gameplay to experience the story. It’s totally optional.
- Story conveys the experience well. You really get the feeling of a corporate drone who is trying to live his dream in a disenchanted environment. Also, how all the absurd stuff is taken in stride. Excellent tone that supports the mechanics.
- Keyboard shortcuts! Direct spatial mapping of visual and keyboard positions is a bonus. This really speeds up construction of the complex puzzles later in the game. Developers take note! Do this!
- Solid Interaction Metaphors: Bonding, De-bonding, moving, rotating. Everything works like you would expect it to. Clear and straightforward. Computer programming metaphors also apply, with control loops, process communication, and logical analysis.
- Steady difficulty progression: Spacechem presents you with steadily more challenging puzzles. New mechanics are introduced slowly, and then explored before adding more. At each stage the mind reels from the implications. In the beginning, I was mildly insulted by the ease of the puzzles. By the end, I was staring at my own creations, in stunned silence… marveling.
- Community-wide statistics: After completing each level, you are presented with a graph of your solution, compared with everyone else’s. This was a masterstroke. It at once comforts the player with all those who did worse, and challenges the player to excel those who did better. There is a strange sense of camaraderie with all those others who have faced the challenges that you have faced. A must for any puzzle game with clear metrics of success.
Things SpaceChem does wrong:
- No way to bypass levels. Perhaps you’re not up to the challenges, but just want to read the story. Maybe you just want to skip on to something really hard. Whatever the reason, there should be a “skip this” option. As it is, the linear progression rewards “cheating” and looking up solutions (which then pollutes the statistics) instead of hitting an “I give up, skip it” button.
- Superficial story: You know how I said the story stayed out of the way of the gameplay? Well, this is the downside. The “story” and gameplay only interact in a minor way.
- Not relational: The game is very dry and inhuman. This is probably intentional, but it makes it kind of hard to care after a while.
- Only one size: I feel like Spacechem would have profited a great deal from various size “game boards”. There are several layouts, but only one size. You can’t experiment with what one can do with larger layouts, or how much a smaller board limits your options. This seems like an easy way to increase the scope of the game. (Of course, maybe it’s actually really hard to implement! What do I know?)
- Only two “scales”: The two scales of abstraction, “production” and “reactor” give a hint of a great deal more complexity. What if chemicals could be shipped between production plants? What about different planets? This feels like a missed opportunity to tie the puzzles together in a nested way.
- Tools missing: Spacechem lacked some basic tools that would have made playing a whole lot easier. Copy-paste would have been so helpful for repeating complicated structures (though this is in the game now). Saving solutions so you can try something else would have been great too, and would allow several different attempts simultaneously. Overwriting commands is a pain as well, since you must first delete the existing command. These are little things, but they felt like major annoyances while I was also trying to wrap my head around the insane challenges of the later levels.
So, overall, fantastic game. Seriously, this game will alter the way you think. Go buy a couple copies and stretch your mind.