Daily Independent: SpaceChem Delivers Sublime Pseudoscience

The Daily Independent is a recurring feature in which we shine a light into the darkened wilderness of indie gaming, illuminating both the good and the bad of what we find there.

I was a terrible Chemistry student. I wasn’t much for the sciences in general, but something about Chemistry completely confounded my brain. It seemed like math, insidiously disguised, and that was the only reason I needed to hate it.

If only I had had access to SpaceChem in 10th grade. Created by Zachary Barth, whose title Infiniminer formed the basis for Minecraft, SpaceChem might not get you a five on the AP test, but it certainly makes Chemistry seem more stylish and fun.

Gameplay involves managing a pair of infinitely customizable conveyor belts, known technically (and hilariously)as “waldos.” These devices, represented as red and blue lines on the game grid (see above), can summon atoms, recombine them, reposition them, and then deposit them in the correct location. The gameplay revolves around the careful coordination of these two processes, ensuring the correct synthesis of complex molecules out of different chemical substrates. Put another way, SpaceChem is sort of like a brain-teasing, fun take on assembly-line design.

As atoms move along the waldo, they can be dropped, picked up, rotated, or deposited, all by placing a special instruction on a certain grid square. The “sync” command, for example, ensures that two atoms move in tandem, often as they pass over special bonding squares that turn them into ions or molecules. The game plays a little fast and loose with the actual chemistry, but it’s all in good fun.

Computer programmers are sure to love SpaceChem, as building complex, interlocking step-by-step contraptions, shorn of code’s textual mysteries. If so inclined, programmers and laymen alike can even create their own levels — the game supports a user-generation system not unlike Little Big Planet‘s. SpaceChem can also be expanded with official DLC.

That might not be necessary for a while, depending on your talent for puzzle games. Accompanied by striking, sci-fi baroque music, and the game’s vibrant red and blue color scheme, players will work their way through dozens of levels, designing an increasingly ingenious array of compound-producing mechanisms. SpaceChem even has a narrative story; though I didn’t play to its conclusion, the beginning hinted at an intriguing sci-fi thriller about corporate malfeasance and cover-up.

Whatever happens, don’t let the pseudo-academic subject matter of the game fool you. That SpaceChem is a rich, complex, meticulously designed puzzler might not come as a surprise. What’s amazing is that even for an avowed hater like myself, the game’s exuberance made Chemistry fun.

Check out the two previous installments of Daily Independent, Edge and Dungeons of Dredmor.

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