SpaceChem: A rewarding slog

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It's taken hours and hours of preparation, optimization, fine-tuning, and extensive tests, but it's ready: finally, the production line can begin operation. The machines are fired up, pumping out manufactured elements to be spliced and attached to other molecules to create other chemicals through elaborate strings of commands. Everything running smooth as can be.

Then it all stops. An error; pipelines are backed up, apparently. No matter. Just make them longer. No, wait — that will put one of the other reactors out of sync. Maybe… no, that won't work either. Oh! How about… no. Arrgh! It can't be fixed! Have to start over. Damn it! All those hours for naught…

Moments like this are what have made SpaceChem fall by the wayside for me. Whatever enthusiasm I can muster is extinguished the second I remember the doozy of a problem waiting for me, but never for long, for its almost addictive in how rewarding a game it is. Just need to take the regular break to keep it from breaking me.

SpaceChem hooks its players through one very simple conceit: building your own solution. That is, not unveiling an answer to puzzle, but carving out one of your own, leading to a near limitless number of ways to complete a level. Not something usually seen in puzzle games. They're always a linear affair, traditionally, vaguely guiding you to one very specific resolution. Seldom does the chance to find multiple ways to solve something rise; two or three tops, if you're lucky. But limitless? Virtually unheard of.

The game uses this concept to its absolute fullest, purposefully designing each challenge as a blank canvas. A goal is set — turn one element into another (Nitrogen and Oxygen into Nitric Oxide, for instance, or Carbon Dioxide and Hydrogen Sulfide into Sulfuric Acid and regular ol' Carbon) — but how that goal is achieved is left up to the player. Whether that be through a carefully constructed, straightforward approach, mind-bogglingly complex but impressive, or even a merely passable is, again, down to each individual to decide. You feel like a genius, either way, as the mentally-taxing nature of the game increases the sense of accomplishment ten-fold.

Although the game cleverly displays statistics around how many cycles elapsed or how many symbols (read: reactor instructions) were used right at the end. Instantly your work becomes meaningless because someone else did vastly, or even a fraction better than you. And now you have to do better, for a once good solution is suddenly a disaster. A devious means of keeping one ensnared.

And that's the beauty of SpaceChem. It lets you tackle things however you want, but drives you to learn the ins and outs of the systems to make the most efficient or minimalist solution possible, deftly adding a competitive element. It's puzzle gaming at its purest: challenging, open-ended, and hard to quit.

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