Opus Magnum is the most tactile game I’ve ever played. Playing it makes me remember last Christmas, when I was given one of those wooden assembly kits where you have to snap together the various wood pieces like a jigsaw to create a three-dimensional sculpture. In my case, it was a little steampunk clock, all interconnected gears and ornate swirls. Turning a gear at the bottom would turn other gears, and the minute and hour hands on the clock face would turn in tandem with the gears.
It was very fulfilling to piece together something so beautiful and functional. But what I remember most about it wasn’t the end result. It was the feeling of those wooden pieces snapping perfectly together. Like most people, I’m drawn to tactile things, and the right combination of texture, sound, and resistance can invoke a surprising emotional reaction in me.
Opus Magnum is a puzzle game about building alchemy engines. Each level is played upon a hexagonal grid, and your aim is to turn a certain element or molecule into a certain other element or molecule. To do this, you place down rotating arms, pistons, and all sorts of other interesting mechanisms, and then program in the actions of each part in order to create a contraption that does the job automatically and forever.
The open-endedness of each level means you can choose your aim when creating your engine. Do you want to minimise the cost by using the fewest and simplest parts? Do you want to see how small you can make your engine while keeping it functional? Or do you want to create the fastest engine possible, size and cost be damned? Opus Magnum will score you on each of these, and compare your scores to those of your Steam friends. Which of course keeps you coming back to the same level again and again, because you’re wondering how the hell your friend managed to complete it in just 35 cycles. You must have missed something…
Opus Magnum will feel very familiar if you’ve played any other Zachtronics games, particularly SpaceChem. But Opus Magnum earns its name with that extra tactility that I found lacking in all other Zachlikes. So much of this comes down to the sound design. As hypnotic and gif-able as the contraptions in this game are, without the various clonks and ticks and snuks and shlacks of the pieces you’re missing half the experience. It’s the difference between looking at a picture of your favourite meal in a magazine, and having that meal placed steaming and ready in front of you. And all that tectonic aural sumptuousness is backed by the music of Robert Burns; soft, cerebral, and just as hypnotic as the rest of the game. It takes the bite away from the soundscape of your engines, allowing you to keep listening for as many minutes or hours as it takes to perfect your creation.
I can’t help but imagine how wonderful it would be if you could cross the tactility of Opus Magnum with the grand scale and open worlds of Factorio. Think how incredible that would be. I’m not sure I’d ever play another game again.