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The Games Of Christmas ’11: Day 22

It's poetry in motion

As the Advent door creaks open, a pungent smell pours out, causing eyes to water for miles around and entire species of flower to wither into extinction. Sorry about that. Something has clearly gone horribly wrong but we'll just have to try and put it all back together again, step by step, and hope the reaction isn't one of total disappointment.

It's... SpaceChem!

Adam: Space Chem is not for everyone. What a gloriously preposterous thing to say. Show me any game in our stuffed-full-of-goodness Advent calendar that is for everyone. Show me anything in the world - other than the smooth and buttery taste of Bastion Bourbon* - that everybody enjoys. You can’t do it because you’re not everyone and you don’t know the fellow who is.

The reason I place the useless caveat before talking about Space Chem is because it’s the only game I’ve played extensively this year that casual onlookers mistake for some form of punishment or work. Dots zooming around on a screen that looks dangerously like a programmable circuit, with my good self hunched before it, grimacing like a man who has inadvertently sat on a part of his own anatomy. Any interruptions during a particularly complex level can cause me to unleash such a torrent of foul abuse that I may as well be spewing raw sewage in the faces of those who would dare bring me a cup of coffee or a handkerchief with which to mop my furrowed brow.

That may seem like a comment on the obtuse difficulty of the puzzles but it’s not. Not really. Sure enough, as progress is made and multiple complex reactors are required, SpaceChem can give the stoutest of brains a stern workout, but my aggressive streak is fuelled by the intense concentration required rather than the elusive nature of the solution. There are problems, in life and in gaming, that cause me to throw up my hands and admit defeat. I have a very low capacity for solving anything that requires spatial awareness, for example. Visualising and manipulating objects of specific size and shape is incredibly difficult for me. My brain rebels against the notion so I walk away.

I’ve never walked away from SpaceChem because it all makes perfect sense to me. It’s just that later on, the amount of systems in play, all relying on one another, can be very daunting indeed. Combined with the amount of time I can spend on a level, that complexity means that when a task is complete and the circuits are humming away at top speed, there is a relief such as I rarely experience. The 94% of my brain that was devoted to maintaining an overview of how each new link or alteration might bring things to a grinding halt is suddenly free again. I am immediately an intelligent, sentient being again rather than a calculating machine purpose-built for a specific role.

SpaceChem turns me into a machine that is more capable of complex interconnected thoughts processes than the human version of me.

It just keeps getting better as well. Not only the addition of a sandbox mode, which I haven’t had a proper chance to try yet but love the idea of, but the fact that the game tracks stats from every player. Not only does that provide an extra spur for greater glory through efficient science, it also highlights the ridiculous and diverse ways in which its possible to solve each challenge. There will always be someone who has found a more elegant or more insane solution than you thought possible.

I’ve not even touched on the crisp, clean visuals, which communicate everything effectively and with a neat simplicity that fits the world like a particularly snug glove. Or the music, which is fantastic and often stirs me on to greater feats of heroic chemical bonding.

I shan't leave without mentioning the story though. I often think I’d enjoy more puzzle games if they had a narrative framework, however slight. It’s the carrot that keeps me going, while the seventeen sticks of brain-ache beat my legs into a bloody mess of splintered bone and meat pudding. As long as that carrot looks delicious enough, I’ll drag myself on, with a slug-like trail of viscera in my wake.

SpaceChem doesn’t need that carrot because it may well by my favourite puzzle game of all time. But there it is – a lengthy story that’s very well-written indeed, with a sense of humour and a darkness to it. Although its approach is very different, with text and static graphics as its building blocks, it has some elements in common with Portal 2’s narrative, focusing as it does on experimentation, and an odd and sometimes disturbing corporate history.

I haven't enjoyed a puzzle game this much for years, if ever. The complexity of solutions combined with the fact they will be your solutions rather than the games is a mark of the intelligence dictating the entire design. To a certain sort of person, SpaceChem is more than just a series of challenges; it’s a set of finely calibrated tools for creating brain-teasing fun of the most satisfying sort.

* Sponsor's message: Today’s Advent Calendar entry is brought to you by Bastion Bourbon, which puts more fight in you than any other beverage, keeping you hale and hardy against even the toughest odds. I wouldn’t normally sign a sponsorship deal but with Christmas coming, I’ll need plenty of strong stuff to drink and it’s a good excuse to talk about Bastion. I didn’t get to do that yesterday when the others were singing its praises because I was trapped in a shopping centre packed full of people as foolish as myself who had left off buying gifts ‘til there was hardly any time to do so. I was thinking of Bastion the whole time though. I love it dearly.

There are words in the next paragraph that may well spoil aspects of Bastion's story and since this is a post about SpaceChem, it might be the last place you expect to see them. You have been warned. Skip past the paragraph and picture below if you are avoiding such talk.

Bastion is a game in which an old man tells lies to a kid who stocks up on liquor to keep himself from giving up as he traverses a fragmented world, collecting an arsenal of increasingly murderous and unpleasant weaponry to kill everything that has managed to survive a genocidal act of horror. It’s a game in which the player is rewarded with a pair of bellows which burn the life out of everything natural that grows, walks and flies, and later with a cannon that harnesses the very power that nearly brought about the end of all things, a device that should be dismantled and destroyed rather than turned against other creatures. It’s a game with enjoyable combat, cleverly varied weapon load-outs, a beautifully told story and the best soundtrack of the year.

OK. I'm done. Just ignore that previous paragraph if you don't care about Bastion or don't want to risk knowing more than you should before playing it. And then go and play the demo of it. And the demo of SpaceChem if you haven't already. Then buy them both and have a very lovely Christmas indeed. SpaceChem wins the mind, Bastion wins the heart. It’s been a heck of a year and there are still two more entries to go!

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.