Every Monday we send Brendan to the special economic zone of early access and task him with increasing the productivity of the people’s republic of videogames. This week, the brain-breaking electronics of SHENZHEN I/O [official site]. Some spoilers included.
Zach Barth of Zachtronics, who is previously responsible for games like SpaceChem and Infinifactory and who is also definitely a robot, unfurled his new electronics-em-ep this month. In SHENZHEN I/O you play an expert who emigrates to China to work for Longteng Electronics Co. Ltd. That means you’ll be building circuits, wiring microprocessors and writing bits of code for a range of increasingly unusual and complicated devices. But you’ll also be learning about your co-workers and delving into an unnerving industrial future that probably already exists.
To boil it all down, though, it is a flashier and more human take on the puzzles of TIS-100, which was dubbed by its creator as “the assembly language programming game you never asked for.” In a lot of ways, this is that game's spiritual successor – the Dark Souls to TIS’ Demons. Once again you are twiddling with the fine details of tiny machines and once again there’s a story bubbling underneath it all. But this time it looks like something you might be able to understand. At least, that’s how it has been for me so far. It should be noted though, that I haven’t seen even half of the puzzles yet. This is because I write words for a living - words like “circumnavigate” and “banjaxed”. It takes a lot of brainspace to store these words, and even more to make up new ones, like “brainspace”. As a result, I have forgotten how to order numbers in a sequence. A delight then, that I am still very much enjoying this game.
For a start, it benefits greatly from being tied to the real world. TIS-100 often felt like you were making a machine out of algebra. But the devices of SHENZHEN feel more rooted in reality – buzzers, heat sensors, and LCD displays all feature as components in functional gadgets you are expected to design. Creating the devices is a matter of plonking microchips down on a grid and drawing wires with the mouse, then typing in the right instructions based on what’s necessary and what you can understand from the instruction manual (more on this later). As you go, more components are introduced and the tasks become more difficult. From a fake security camera which is nothing but a box with two blinking lights, to a retro videogame with a blocky LCD screen.
Importantly, and unlike TIS-100’s conundrums, there’s a reason for your works to exist, even if it is as flimsy as someone saying to you: “hey, we need a tiny device that counts points in a drinking game!” It can sometimes feel nonsensical. For example, why are you required to make a buzzer that alerts your VR-bound co-worker of his girlfriend’s arrival outside his ‘play area’? I know the sordid answer implied by the task, but I fail to see why the VR user couldn’t make use of, oh I don’t know, a doorbell.
Despite these inconsistencies, I prefer being able to imagine the devices as physical things – it seems to make the puzzles easier to comprehend. One of the projects is a device used in some sort of mining machine. You get a grid which shows how much power is to be used in certain boxes. I scratched my head until I realised it must be a wall - the 'coalface' at the end of a mine shaft where an automated drill has to be instructed to drill some parts of the wall with more power than others. It's far more satisfying to work toward something you can picture in your head, rather than making abstract numbers dance in whatever way the game demands.
The story beats, likewise, are more intriguing than previous games. Your colleagues here providing some humanity between the logic puzzles. Every completed level sees a fresh burst of emails: trivia about China and its language, idle chatter, businesslike requests, suggestions or updates. One of them downloads a game of solitaire to your in-game desktop. The story unravels through these emails but also through the devices you build, which start to become more and more unconventional.
An early project sees you tasked with building an infrared sensor for “monitoring” purposes. This device has a built-in clock, with its time coded into 15 minute slices. Not much is said about where it is going to be used or how. But as you tinker away on the code and start calculating the index of the clock you realise that it’s designed to be switched on between about 11pm and 5am, and the sensor is tuned to trigger an alarm when it hits 20 degrees. What’s going on here? I’m not sure, I just designed the thing, celebrated my intelligence with a whoop, and only then noted the tone in the resultant email from my co-worker, who said we had “impressed” our clients in the defence industry.
This feels like the start of an intrigue which I still haven’t fully unveiled (because I am an idiot and it takes me about 30 minutes to an hour to complete each puzzle). But I can see darker tones shaping up, hints of your character being complicit in something that might not be 100% ethical. It's possible we're facing a narrative reminiscent of Papers, Please. Like your life as an Arstotzkan border guard, you are given a job to do and the means to do it. But unlike life at the customs post, you are far more likely here to get caught up in your work for work's sake, to get absorbed in the problem-solving and the resultant feeling of reward and cleverness. Enough to perhaps overlook what your devices are really being used for. That in itself makes the game feel very crafty.
It’s a shame that characters sometimes voice their concerns too loudly and obviously in emails, ruining the subtlety of the message. After the infrared sensor device, for instance, the Chinese co-worker who tasked you with the project, Wu Lili, idly mentions that the company will now get more jobs from defence and security firms. She drops this information and signs off, saying no more about it, and this is enough to make raise your eyebrows. But immediately after she drops this suggestion, one of your US colleagues chimes in: “Hang on. We’re becoming a defense supplier?” It’s moments like this, when the message is oversold, that the story loses some of its mystery.
As for the puzzles themselves, they owe a lot to TIS-100, and anyone who clattered their keyboard to the tune of ‘MOV UP, DOWN’ will recognise the basic idea. Take some numbers, pass them through snippets of your own code, and push them to the ‘output’, whatever that is (a blinking light, a speaker, an LCD screen with patterned blocks). Except this time you also have much more control over the flow of the numbers, dragging wires from one component to another. There’s sometimes two layers to the puzzle. First: how do you place the components and wires within the limited space in such a way that they don’t ‘run into each other’. And second: what code goes into the microprocessor chips?
The first problem can often be solved with a bit of spatial reasoning or enthusiastic use of ‘bridges’ - parts which allow wires to travel directly over others. The second problem is where things get tough. If you haven’t encountered a Zachlike before, it is going to either make you fall in love or throw your computer into a canal. The game comes with an instruction manual - a PDF which the developer suggests you print out for the ‘best experience’. I don’t own a printer, which I realise is the PC gaming equivalent of being the artist at the party who says they don’t own a TV. But I doubt alt-tabbing your way to the instruction manual removes too much from the game. Anyway, however you like your instruction booklets, you’ll need to read it, both thoroughly and repetitively.
Like its monochrome predecessor, it’s necessary to learn the language of the game to crack the puzzles. This is enough in itself to put off some who may be interested in the story but who can’t face the terror of learning the difference between tiny programming commands. The manual is swimming in three-letter jargon: ‘tlt’, ‘tcp’, ‘dgt’, ‘dst’. There’s ‘mov’ and ‘jmp’ and ‘slp’ and ‘slx’. I can’t judge anybody for looking at all this and belching a firm, wholesome “NOP”. Even I bailed halfway through Zach’s previous game, unable to face the mental blockage caused by a recurrent and unfathomable coding error of my own making.
At the same time, the presentation of this language is far more intimidating than the reality. Once you get your head around moving the numbers from one place to another and proper use of the plus and minus signs (which basically let you make wee ‘if, then, else’ statements), then you’ve got the building blocks for solving many of the game’s problems. I’m probably not explaining this very well. Read the manual, yeah?
The thing to take away, apart from a subtle sense of numberdread, is this: SHENZHEN I/O is a polished and compelling puzzler. It is also a very traditional Zachlike, which is not something I consider a complaint. These games have always elicited an appropriately binary response in me. It’s one of the few subgenres which can make me feel both like a dribbling buffoon and a superhuman genius who has come to take over the world’s technology firms using drones and maths - all within the same 30 minutes. To those not afraid to tackle the manual – get yourself ready. You’re going to need some brainspace.
SHENZHEN I/O is available on Steam for £10.99/$14.99. These impressions were based on build 1386464.