Better Living Through Chemistry: SpaceChem

By Quintin Smith on January 6th, 2011 at 11:22 am.

Behold! I have made my pipe dream a reality.

Indie puzzler SpaceChem saw a quiet release on the 1st of this month, and in the two hours this morning that I spent playing it I’m not sure I stopped smiling. I’ll be getting Wot I Think up asap, so for now I’ll be brief: this game is incredible. I think we might have just received one of the year’s best indie games in the first week of 2011.

As you might gather from the trailer below, SpaceChem is about creating circuits for chemicals to travel down, aligning them in certain ways or shunting them through machinery to create the molecules you need. Wait- that sounds terribly dry. Let me try again.

SpaceChem is a game where you build fabulous contraptions. It’s about getting stuck into a massive puzzle, laughing at the optimism of what’s expected of you, and then finally applying what might be the finishing touch to your engine and cheering as it works. There’s even a strange element of not simply feeling like a gamer, but a scientist. You’re constantly having these little ‘Eureka!’ moments and folding them into a level to make for a more efficient machine. But this game isn’t just innovative and clever, it also (perhaps surprisingly for a game so very much about SCIENCE!) has an abundance of heart. Why is that so common in the best indie games? I do wonder.

But yes, this is some of the finest puzzling I’ve ever encountered. Here’s a demo, and you can buy the game for $20 from that same link. Get this game.

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138 Comments »

  1. Rich says:

    I wish real organic synthesis was so fun.

    • otzenGulasch says:

      sounds like boinking, which is fun, imho

    • Premium User Badge

      Lambchops says:

      Of course real organic synthesis is fun (he says as he despairs at a mass spectrum showing that a reaction expected to take hours is still not complete after 2 bloody days!).

    • Rich says:

      Oh, you wet chemists. That’s why I’m a chemoinformatician.

    • Dood says:

      Hey, organic synthesis can be fun (sometimes). But inorganic chemistry is where the real fun lies. If it’s not red hot yet, give it some more heat!

    • Warth0g says:

      This is an English language forum people, stick to the rules…

  2. radomaj says:

    I played through the demo, then I visited some previous levels and optimized them. Wish I had the monies to get this.

    IT’S LOVELY, PEOPLE. Try this.

  3. Alex Bakke says:

    Silly question, probably: Can it run on a netbook?

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Site doesn’t say. Why don’t you find out and inform the rest of us!

    • Cooper says:

      Minimum resolution seems to be 1024 x 768, so most netbooks will be too small.

    • Baboonanza says:

      Goddamn it! Not agian :(

    • Alex Bakke says:

      SCIENCE HAS BEEN PERFORMED!

      And in the game.

      Yeah, runs beautifully – only hiccup was that windowed mode was off-target slightly, with no way to adjust (http://tinypic.com/view.php?pic=9vjlgp&s=7)

      Remedied by switching to fullscreen, though.

      Netbook used: Acer Aspire One, AMD 1.2GHz, 1GB RAM, Onboard graphics.

    • Alex Bakke says:

      Oh, and the native resolution is 1024×600.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      You should have a TV show and we should call it ALEX BAKKE IN ACTION

    • Fetthesten says:

      I know Alex in real life and I want you to believe me when I tell you that he should never, under any circumstances, have a TV show called Alex Bakke In Action.

    • Alex Bakke says:

      Alex Bakke inaction.

      I had a quick scan around the common room – Quite paranoid now.

    • Alex Bakke says:

      Ah, common mistake. On your twitter, you’re following Alexander Bakke – I was never christened, and the name on my birth certificate is Alex Bakke. While I’m living in England, my Grandfather was Norwegian.

      ALEX BAKKE IN ACTION ONCE MORE

    • Fetthesten says:

      All right, the Alex Bakke I know is not you, but I still feel pretty confident in my claim.

    • crazydane says:

      I genuinely do know Alex Bakke in real life, I think ALEX BAKKE IN ACTION the Tv show should basically consist of him stalking people on twitter and other social networks.

    • BovineLegacy says:

      Alex Bakke once ran over my dog when he was backing out of the driveway. On purpose.

    • President Weasel says:

      While you’re living in England your grandfather is Norwegian, but what would happen if you moved to, say, France? Would he become Danish while you were there, and start talking as though he had a hot potato in his mouth?
      Enquiring minds want to know!

      I tried the demo, and got as far as needing to make H-C-(triple bond)-C-H in the one 4 by 4 bonder. It hurt my mind, so I’ve at least temporarily given up. Great sense of achievement when you get one of these doohickeys to work though.

    • Premium User Badge

      bonuswavepilot says:

      Think of it this way prez: while you’ve only got a little 4 by 4 bonder, you can always stick on an atom, then shift the half-built molecule over one, then stick the other atom on…

      Also – this game is lovely and makes my thinkmeats boggle.

  4. Dominic White says:

    I really want to like this game – or, rather, I DO like it, but I’m also utterly mindcrushingly terrible at puzzle games. Zachtronics did a similar freeware title to this a while back – The Codex of Alchemical Engineering. – http://www.zachtronicsindustries.com/alchemy/alchemy.htm – and I never got very far it in before smoke started rising from my head, and I could smell burnt hair.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Yeah. I have an inkling that I’m going to hit the intelligence glass ceiling before I finish the game (but long after I’ve gotten $20′s worth of fun).

    • Premium User Badge

      AndrewC says:

      People who are good at puzzle games are marvellous, extraordinary creatures who we should put in secure facilities for the purposes of study and keeping them away from proper people.

    • Nova says:

      So there is probably a special room for John Walker in castle Shotgun.

    • Dominic White says:

      Don’t get me wrong here, I do like the game, and enjoyed what I’ve played of the demo so far. I just don’t think I can justify putting down $20 on it at the moment. Not when I’m 90% sure that my brain will start dribbling out my ears a few missions in.

      Zachtronics games are nothing short of fascinating, even when I completely fail to understand them though. Dude makes smart stuff, no question.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      @AndrewC: We could give them boxes to play with.

      And device for creating holes in the fabric of space-time.

    • Premium User Badge

      AndrewC says:

      They could fix my toaster.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Schaulustiger says:

    Is it possible to solve a single puzzle without deep knowledge of chemistry? I only have a very basic understanding of this stuff, and my mind is completely blown by the trailer. There’s hydrogen and carbon, and it somehow mixes and flows and… GAH, WTF IS THAT?

    • Quintin Smith says:

      No knowledge of chemistry required! The game could just as easily have been about assembling toys or guns or flatpack Ikea furniture. I suspect the developer is simply a powerful nerd.

      EDIT: Actually, I take that back. There’s an atmosphere of magic and conspiracy that comes out of the game’s imagery of chemicals.

    • Premium User Badge

      Schaulustiger says:

      Well, now I’m intrigued.
      I’ll still wait for your WIT but I predict I’ll be entranced by your fancy words and buy it on a whim.

    • Rich says:

      I would say that having only minimal understanding of chemistry is probably an advantage. Most of the stuff they propose you build are just wrong and would be an annoyance to a synthetic chemist.

      Basically, you’re just building a protocol to put together patterns. Much more fun.

    • Dominic White says:

      Well, of course it’d be problematic for a SYNTHETIC chemist. In this game you play as a SPACE chemist. They’re obviously better, and not made of plastic.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lambchops says:

      Yeah the chemistry is simply there to provide a set of simple rules on which the puzzles can operate – it bears no relation to real synthetic chemistry (if only carbon flourine bonds could just be ripped apart at will!).

      It’s a logic based puzzle game which is pretty good at teaching/letting you figure out what you need to know.

  6. James says:

    Hmm…maybe I’ll understand after the Wot I Think. It just doesn’t say “buy me”.

  7. Navagon says:

    This looks like it would make sense to people who build processors for a living. But I am not one such CPU building person thing.

    • Strabo says:

      I am. And it does.

    • Premium User Badge

      phlebas says:

      I can confirm it also appeals considerably to the kind of person who writes compilers and has a beard.

    • Navagon says:

      Then I can at least feel some pride in being able to identifying the target demographic.

    • Tacroy says:

      I agree wholeheartedly – this game definitely appeals to the beard-scratching segment of the population.

    • Poindexter says:

      Why does this subthread make me want to buy this game most? Oh yeah its probably that CS/Math degree hanging on the wall…

  8. Eagle0600 says:

    From the creators of the game that inspired Minecraft! (the one that isn’t Dwarf Fortress, that is; it’s called Infiniminer).

  9. Dozer says:

    What you wrote about puzzle gaming sounds a lot like how I feel when I manage to scratch together some C++ code that does what I hoped it would do!

  10. Pie21 says:

    I am in love with this GUI…

  11. Cooper says:

    This man is a puzzle making god. He’s the one behind:
    The Codex of Alchemical Engineering Excellent puzzler which starts easy-ish and gets really hard by the end. Very, very recommended to anyone who likes puzzle games. (The sequal, here will kill you)

    Bureau of Steam Engineering Starts HARD gets harder. Great puzzler based around building SteamPunk inspired machines (The tutorial is to build a Steam powered mech…)

    Finally kohctpyktop. Which is basically impossible. Unless you are an electrical engineer. Before you even start playing their website suggests you look up electrical engineering basics on the internet!

    Oh, and let’s not forget he created Infiniminer The grandfather of you-know-what.

  12. Cooper says:

    This man is a puzzle making god. He’s the one behind:
    The Codex of Alchemical Engineering Excellent puzzler which starts easy-ish and gets really hard by the end. Very, very recommended to anyone who likes puzzle games. (The sequel, here will kill you)

    Bureau of Steam Engineering Starts HARD gets harder. Great puzzler based around building SteamPunk inspired machines (The tutorial is to build a Steam powered mech…)

    Finally kohctpyktop. Which is basically impossible. Unless you are an electrical engineer. Before you even start playing their website suggests you look up electrical engineering basics on the internet!

    Oh, and let’s not forget he created Infiniminer The grandfather of you-know-what.

    • Yargh says:

      there must be something wrong with me, I’m seriously enjoying kohctpyktop. Transistors are fun

    • Mattressi says:

      Thanks for the Bureau of Steam Engineering link; it’s awesome! Can’t really get into the other games; I’ve always hated electrical and chemical engineering. Though, it seems that kohctpyktop is just logic circuits, but it’s presented as electrical engineering so I instantly switch off lol. Bloody PNP, NPN and stupid crap like that – give me a mechanical control system any day!

    • JackShandy says:

      Seconded, steampunk engineering is the best excuse for a puzzler I’ve heard for a while.

      Recipe for orgasm? Give it a competitive multiplayer mode.

  13. Premium User Badge

    stahlwerk says:

    21 comments in and no chemistry pun? Come on, that’s not the reaction I expected!

    • BooleanBob says:

      Please, no; resorting to puns is never the solution.

    • Feet says:

      Well I’m sure your comment will be the catalyst for some now.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      I don’t care for your joke and I don’t like glycol ether.

    • Navagon says:

      I was thinking of one but I need to ion out the flaws first.

    • President Weasel says:

      Come now, there’s no need for acid tongues. More puns would just be rubbing salt into the wound.

    • Pie21 says:

      Ah, the pun thread. It is the standard temperance and prescience of this fraction of the community that distils RPS from the volatile mixture of games journalism.

    • Doesntmeananything says:

      Ah, my faith in humanity is shattered to atoms by your puny puns with no substance.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lambchops says:

      This periodic punnage is a base instinct for any RPS commentor.

    • F4T C4T says:

      @ Lambchops: You might say it is what forms the bonds between us.

    • The Hammer says:

      These puns are all quite formulaic, aren’t they?

    • Premium User Badge

      Arathain says:

      They do seem to lack the elements of humour. Pretty basic, all said.

    • Coins says:

      All these puns give such a positive charge to my day.

  14. noom says:

    Hmm. Well, I’m stuck on the first tutorial level. Just what the hell is going on here?

    Edit: Seriously though, “Waldos stop moving when they collide with the side of a reactor”. What exactly am I supposed to do here..? Think this game will be good but can’t get past this point :(

    Edit 2: OK, I got it. Stupidity crisis averted.

  15. pupsikaso says:

    Man! I completely forgot, thanks for reminding me! I was gonna buy it after new-years, cause they were having a tiny mini-sale for 2 days, and I forgot =(

  16. godgoo says:

    may i be the first to say: THE MUSIC IS AWESOME!

  17. MartinNr5 says:

    Demo gotten!

    • MartinNr5 says:

      Demo played!

      Demo enjoyed!

    • pandora says:

      And the music is in ogg files so you can play it outside of a game. Unfortunately there’s no metadata and I can’t find any info about author(s)…

  18. limbclock says:

    I’m hoping that this game will be available on Steam. By the intro video alone, i’d pay 20 euros for it.

  19. Freud says:

    Doom makes kids violent. This game makes kids want a meth lab.

  20. Alex Bakke says:

    What do you get if you substitute the carbon atoms in a benzene ring with iron atoms?

  21. JuJuCam says:

    Quite satisfying to get things right, especially once you start chaining multiple reactors.

    The first level on the third planet freaked me out a little, though. A triple bonded pair of carbon atoms with a hydrogen atom at each end… wut?

    • Strabo says:

      >The first level on the third planet freaked me out a little, though. A triple bonded pair of carbon atoms with a hydrogen atom at each end… wut?

      You mean, like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetylene

    • Mana_Garmr says:

      I just got to that one. Then I quit because I spent quite a while getting the previous level to sync properly to do what I needed and I have studying to do.

      Stupid exams, clearly this game would be better for my brain.

    • RagingLion says:

      Yeah, what the hell acetylene. I’m really struggling on that one with only having the four spaces in which bonding can take place and which forces the paths to need to wiggle back into the centre as many times as possible without covering the same ground twice. I’m thinking some of the symbols need to be used twice to give yourself enough room?

      Anyone got any clues? I guess I could Youtube it if I really wanted.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lambchops says:

      @rRaging Lion

      i found that the key to this one is the relisation that you can use the “bond +” command on both Waldos at the same time thus creating twon bonds for the price of 1). Oh and in case you haven’t noticed (I know I didn’t twig to this straight away) the “bond +” command can be activated remotely from the bonders. it’s the molecules being in the right place that is important the command can be anywhere as long as it syncs with the molecules being over the bonders.

      I see someone has beaten me too this further down! Really should read the whole thread first, eh?

  22. MadTinkerer says:

    Ah, from the same guys who made The Codex of Alchemical Engineering, which I heard about from a link from the guy who made Manufactoria… Hey wait a minute…

    I also used to play Rocky’s Boots and Robot Odyssey as a kid…

    And I’m currently programming my own Indie game not in Flash or Game Maker or Python or even Java but straight up undiluted C++!?! With no college degree!?!?!

    What’s XKCD and Dresden Kodak doing in my favorite webcomics list!?

    OH MY GOSH I AM AN ENGINEERING/SCIENCE NERD

    I need to apply to MIT right away!

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      Java, Python, Flash, Game Maker?

      Not sure you’ve got a set there, old chum.

    • Premium User Badge

      Devenger says:

      Hmmm. Straight-up undiluted C++ doesn’t make you ‘better’ in any way unless you actually manage to finish the game in it, and even then I imagine you’ve got some portability problems ahead. I’ll be back here feeling sufficiently nerdy with my mere Flash AS3. Unless you’re suggesting that being an engineering/science nerd isn’t a synonym for ‘awesome super-being’, in which case you’re just wrong.

    • DrazharLn says:

      If you haven’t done much programming before (or even if you have), I’d suggest using a different programming language.

      C++ is hard to write in, has a lot of gotchas, is unintuitive in its function and is hard to port to other platforms. Java or Python are both extremely portable and will function well on all of the three major platforms (and many, many others), are much more intuitive and understandable. Getting (more) subjective, Java and Python are a lot more enjoyable to use.

      - A Computer Science Undergraduate

    • Premium User Badge

      phlebas says:

      Some people do enjoy C++ though!
      (see comments above re: people who are good at puzzle games)

    • Sunjammer says:

      I kind of dig C++. It’s not far from assembler with object oriented lipstick. It really is a puzzle language though. The pointer declaration/indirection operator duality made me want to kick babies at one point.

  23. Premium User Badge

    Lambchops says:

    I’ve been championing this game in the forums. Quinns is spot on here. This is the first great game of 2010 and one of the best puzzle games I’ve played in ages.

    The histogram style leaderboard is a constant encouragement to go back and at least be a little bit better than average (I’ll settle for that – i’ve no idea how some people have managed to get such good solutions to some of the levels).

    Don’t be scared/confused by the trailer. try the demo and you wil know soon enough whether this is a game for you. Hopefully it is – because it is wonderful.

    • 2ds says:

      Yeah at first I was thoroughly intimidated by this, then I realised the people who had the lowest cycle count probably had more symbols and or reactors, I can’t imagine scoring super low on all three categories at the same time… ( I hope =( )

  24. Premium User Badge

    Schaulustiger says:

    I hope someone can help me out. I’ve been playing the demo and I’m stuck on the fourth level of the first planet. I’m supposed to de-bond two F-atoms and output only one of them. No problem there, but how do I get rid of the second F-atom?

    • Premium User Badge

      Schaulustiger says:

      Ah, nevermind, I’m supposed to make use of both atoms. Boy, this game makes you feel SMART!

    • Premium User Badge

      Schaulustiger says:

      I stand corrected: It makes you feel smart for a short while and then incredibly DUMB for the next 10-30 minutes when you try to figure out how to solve the next level.
      I have spent the best part of this hour trying to figure out how to connect two atoms to a molecule and I still have no clue. This is what science must feel like.

  25. GoodPatton says:

    Fatboy Slim reference.

  26. plugmonkey says:

    My god, this game is beautiful.

  27. Grazzled says:

    Norton Insight really doesn’t like the demo file. Blocks me downloading it, saying it is risky. Not sure quite what it is basing that criteria on.

  28. Pemptus says:

    Man. I felt so smart completing the couple of missions after the tutorial, but then it hit me on the head and reminded me that I’m not altogether built for this. Triple bonding with only two pairs of bonders? The mind reels! Very elegant game though.
    (I know it’s probably easy, I’m just too dumb for this)

    • plugmonkey says:

      Not the most efficient solution, looking back at it, but this is what I came up with:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?hd=1&v=1VxhX66gYx4

      (Spoilers, obviously)

    • Pemptus says:

      Interesting. I probably wouldn’t have thought about doing it like that myself. Which is pretty much the reason why this game isn’t for me. ;(

    • Mana_Garmr says:

      See, now I assumed the blue waldo could only trigger the Beta input. That means I probably could have done some of the others with far less meandering.

      I went this way.

    • plugmonkey says:

      See, now I’d assumed the waldo had to be in the bonder to use the bond command. ;))

      A discovery that has far reaching implications for my future designs…

      This game truly is a work of art. Absolute insta-purchase. Thanks RPS!

    • RagingLion says:

      “See, now I’d assumed the waldo had to be in the bonder to use the bond command.”

      Ooooohhhhh. Yeah, same here. Now this is actually possible.

    • Tacroy says:

      You can also do multiple bindings during the same time-step. For instance, my solution involves both waldos grabbing a nitrogen, syncing up, and then walking through the binder field together – the first step double-binds, and then the second one adds a third bond.

      Link (but it wasn’t working when I checked, I don’t know if it will when you guys look): http://www.youtube.com/watch?hd=1&v=ysvaWL7L5gc

  29. Dharoum says:

    That one was doable, I’m now hitting my head against the wall with producing Acetylene in 1 factory!!

    i.e.: H-C—C-H, with only a couple of bonders and input H and C…

    SPOILER:

    If you still didn’t figure that other one out, use the turn button.

  30. Jajusha says:

    Spoiler:

    Red waldo gets C. Blue gets a C, triple link them. Then Red gets a H, blue gets a H, and link them to the triple C. Just transport them to the output and ship it to space!

  31. Dharoum says:

    I got soooo close!!! only due lack of space I couldn’t get it. I did blue double C then give to red make it triple, then red blue work together to attach H.

    • Mana_Garmr says:

      Mine goes all loopy. I’m fairly sure there must be much simpler ways.

    • Pip says:

      Here is how I have done it.

    • Dharoum says:

      Well… I didn’t knew that you could just leave these molecules at one place to bond them, so mine is all moving and nice, although terribly inefficient compared to others. I was at first surprised my score was so bad, since I felt I did a good job, but well, here it is:

    • Froibo says:

      Remember that the chemical does not have to have the same shape as the diagram as long as the bonds are all correct.

  32. Jajusha says:

    Ill get you one day Amonnia, one day!!!! (H3N) ain’t easy in one machine)

  33. noom says:

    Just muddled my way through the first level of chapter 3. Was fairly logical to get first compound finished and out, but the repeats kept failing. 30 minutes of trial and error later and I ended up with this utterly beautiful/hideous solution (spoilers, obv):

    Chapter 3, Level 1

    My sense of astonished glee at actually solving this almost made me cry with laughter. That’s also the first time I’ve ever felt compelled to upload anything to youtube. In other words, I think I love this game :D

  34. zach says:

    In Sernimir IV (the first level where you’re supposed to use reactors), I don’t see any reactors or buttons that allow me to build such. I figured this was just a weird way of ending the demo, so I bought the full game.

    No juice; same problem. I’m probably doing something wrong =(

    So far it has been awesome though.

    • Mana_Garmr says:

      If it’s the one with 2 storage tankers on the left and 2 cargo freighters on the right you can grab the exit pipes, with the little white + signs, to link things up. You just link top tanker to bottom freighter and vice-versa.

    • JuJuCam says:

      You take reactors from the bottom of the screen, same way you would if you weren’t using keyboard shortcuts within the reactor.

    • Premium User Badge

      Sagan says:

      Yeah, the first reactor level has no reactors. Also had me confused. You are only supposed to draw the pipes.

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  36. Premium User Badge

    Man Raised by Puffins says:

    Very interesting demo, though I can see pretty much exactly where the game is going and I don’t think it’s for me. I’ve certainly got no great desire to continue optimising these circuits at any rate.

  37. Bennus says:

    I’ve just fallen victim to an agonising error that deletes all of my progress (think I was on the one after you first introduce 2 reactors). That was after my previous profile suddenly corrupted. Every level I tried to select was a CTD.

    Anyone else encountered similar? I’m too scared to start the demo again lest I break down in tears and my brain walks out for all the wasted effort. *massive sad face*

    • TeeJay says:

      I didn’t get a CTD but the demo didn’t save my profile or progress.

      It is shame because I’d like another go at the level I reached but can’t be arsed playing from the very start through all the previous tutorials and levels again just to get there.

    • Bennus says:

      Is there a cap or some limit to the demo? I just did the first level, played about in the second, restarted game and the progress was there. Ah well, I cba trying to get to where I was. Assuming the full game is less buggy I’ll probably get this when it drops in price a bit.

  38. Cronstintein says:

    I lost all my progress and I think it might have something to do with closing the program with the windows ‘X’ in the corner rather than using “quit” from in game. Could be wrong though.

    • Hematite says:

      I was having the same problem, I changed the whole game directory to allow read/write instead of some of it being read only and it seems to work ok now.