It's been a while since we had some Friday Flash Fun here at SciencePunk, but this one really blew me out of the water.
SpaceChem is currently causing quite a stir amongst the gaming websites: Escapist Magazine gave it the Genre Buster award and Rock Paper Shotgun hailed it as "one of the year's best indie games". Deservedly so, in my opinion.
SpaceChem puts you in the shoes of a junior materials chemist, blasted into the depths of space to work for a pan-galactic mining corporation. Your job is to build complex molecules from the basic chemicals mined out of these planets. At your disposal are reactors in which you design increasingly sophisticated programs. Once you're sure the reactor will run without spitting out the wrong molecules or accidentally smashing them into one another, hit play:
In the above clip, my reactor builds titanium dioxode or zinc oxide, depending on what element appears in the input tray. Most of the molecules in SpaceChem obey real-world chemistry, limiting the number of bonds between elements and accepting isomers. It may sound a little dry, but it's utterly absorbing to play. I've lost entire evenings and the following morning to these puzzles! Developers Zachatronics Industries say that they designed the game to teach "how to think like a programmer".
Starting out with two simple loops, the game builds up to include branching functions, in-order execution, synchronisation, and sub-routines. Eventually you will move on to control entire cascades of reactors, where optimising the delivery of molecules between reactors is every bit as important as what happens inside them.
The genius behind SpaceChem is that every puzzle can be sovled in a variety of ways, depending on your skill and imagination. After each success, you'll be shown how you ranked against other players in the number of instructions used and the speed at which your system runs, piquing your competitive streak. You'll find yourself returning to old puzzles in an attempt to find simpler, faster, more elegant solutions, and it's here that you achieve most of your innovation and satisfying gameplay - not just solving the puzzle, but solving it with a touch of class. If you're especially proud of your solution, the game provides an easy function to upload it to YouTube.
730 cycles? You inefficient swine!
The game is available through Steam, grossly underpriced at a mere $15 - I would happily pay twice that. The interface is gorgeous to watch and sound effects unintrusive. The soundtrack sways between rolling bombastic anthems and glitchy electro synth. It runs on Mac, PC and Linux. My only negative thing to say is: do not boot this game up if you have a deadline looming. You will not be able to tear yourself away from it.
This game reminds me of the how programming was taught to nell in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age.
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