Zachtronics Industries is known for creating engineering puzzle games. In 2009, Zachary Barth, sole developer of Zachtronic Industries, released a game called Infiniminer which served as a basis for the ever popular game Minecraft and subsequently games like FortressCraft and Craftworld. In January 2011, Zachtronics Industries released SpaceChem for Microsoft Windows but was rejected on the Steam platform. However, after much praise from journalists and Valve reconsidered.

Most people would shy away from games that are described as a “problem-solving centric puzzle game that combines the logic of computer programming with the scientific domain of chemistry.” In fact, when I read this description what got filtered through my brain was “educational” and that just turned me off almost completely. Watching gameplay videos didn’t help either. I couldn’t really understand much of the game by simply watching so I decided to just pick it up to see what all the fuss was about. What I found was a complex brain crunching puzzle game that makes you feel like an idiot and a genius at the same time.

The player takes on the role of a reactor engineer working for SpaceChem; a top chemical manufacturer for distant space colonies. The aim of the game is to basically convert raw materials into whatever valuable compounds each level demands. Working with atoms is difficult stuff and in real life they obviously don’t do it manually. To put it as simple as possible they input codes into a computer which controls a machine that then splices atoms. In SpaceChem you are that machine so everything is done via a visual program.

Each reactor starts off with two “waldos”: a red one and a green one. Think of them as your machine hands that handle the atoms. These waldos move can move around the reactor through a line that you lay out on the reactor’s grids. As they pass through these lines, commands can be inputted on a tile which the waldos execute as they pass through it. For example, if you place an α input (generate atom) command followed by a grab command on the tile right after then the waldo will generate a molecule and then grab it right after.

The reactor is divided into 2 inputs and 2 outputs; α input, β input, ψ output, and ω output. The aim is to basically generate molecules from α input or β input then dump them to either ψ output or ω output depending on what the level demands from you. However, it’s not as simple as taking an oxygen atom then dumping it in one of either output. You may have to add or break some chemical bonds along the way. Also it’s not as simple as executing everything perfectly at least once. Whatever you’ve set the reactor to do must work for a certain amount of cycles so if it doesn’t work after the second cycle then you’re probably screwed.

Later on in the game you taken to a top down view of a map where you have to connect a given amount of reactors to storage tanks that will supply the reactors with atoms. Basically, as you are working for the top chemical manufacturer in space, different types of compounds need to be made and shipped off. For example, the game tasks you with doing 40 cycles of formaldehyde which is comprised of 2 hydrogen atoms, 1 oxygen atom and 1 carbon atom. You are given three different storage tanks that supply each one individually. A reactor only has 2 inputs so you have to decide which part of the compound to create first and then later on bond whatever is missing in another reactor to create formaldehyde.

The developer probably realized that this game would look quite intimidating to most people, gamers or not. The game does give you a bit of a tutorial in the beginning but even if you do the tutorial a million times you won’t learn anything past that. However, I don’t think this is a flaw. The game refuses to hold your hand through the levels. The tutorials are about as informative as a two page pamphlet explaining how to splice atoms using a nuclear reactor. The gameplay requires plenty of experimentation before you can do things perfectly which I think is great because it makes you feel like an absolute genius when you do it right. When you don’t do things right, on the other hand, the game does not give you consequences. The first time my atoms collided I thought the reactor was going to explode but it didn’t, it just promptly told me that some atoms collided and that I should probably go and fix that. On one hand this is good because it enables you to do trial and error but on the other hand it does not leave space for efficiency. You can make a complete mess out of the reactor and still get the job done.

Sometimes there is more than one way to solve a puzzle. You can basically either do it in a more complex way or you can do it simply and efficiently. At the end of each stage the game gives you a summary of how efficient you were. This report also shows how other people did well each level. While you might feel like a genius for creating ammonia with only 16 commands, you might see another player who did it with only 12. This encourages you to backtrack and replay old levels with more efficiency.

SpaceChem also actually has a story but it’s not really essential to the game. It serves more as context and ambience. You are basically a fresh recruit who wants to venture into space to work for SpaceChem. It’s your first time in space and working as a chemical engineer out there is wholly opposed by many because of the dangers that come with it. The story comes with quirky intergalactic events like people getting ejected out of airlocks and reactor gas explosions.

The graphics are nothing special but it does look very sleek and science-y. The game does not demand much of your system at all. It’s played on a 1024×768 resolution and does not give you the option to choose otherwise. It does give you the choice between windowed and full screen but that’s pretty much it. You can’t really tweak the graphics any more unless you want to dig into .ini files to make some minor tweaks but it’s not like the game needs to have amazing face exploding graphics. There’s not much action to need amazing face exploding graphics.

The soundtrack does sound like something chemical engineers would be listening to while they work in space. It’s ambient and relaxing enough to not distract you from all the chemical bonding you’re doing but not too relaxing so that you don’t feel like what you’re doing doesn’t require much effort.
SpaceChem may not represent what real chemical engineers actually do in reactors but it does show you how fun it could be to play with the building blocks of matter. The game is currently being used in several schools in the UK as a learning tool to teach students basic programming and chemistry concepts. I highly recommend this game to people who are looking for a very rewarding and articulate puzzle game or to people who just want to do some SCIENCE!