[Game: Spacechem, Zachtronics, 2011]
Lost in Spacechem:

The Addiction, Atmosphere, and Exquisite Challenge of Zachtronics’ Spacechem


Last week was another slightly heavy entry into this series, focusing on the interpretation of pixel art, and pixel art as an artistic movement. So, just like my post on Offspring Fling! from two weeks ago, I will be making this post another lighter recommendation. The game which I would like to recommend, however, is hardly light, and it goes by the name Spacechem.

No true fan of puzzle games should go through life without having experienced this title. Spacechem is an amazing piece of software, elegant in its game-design simplicity and staggering in its gameplay complexity. But also like that Offspring Fling! article, it is not the primary gameplay of Spacechem which is going to the focus of this article: instead it is an aspect of the game that I haven’t seen many people mention: the game’s atmosphere and story. Yes, this game is a satisfying yet relentless challenge, but its virtues do not end there.

Spacechem Screenshot - Zachtronics - atmosphere, aesthetics, story

The Atmosphere of Spacechem:

In Spacechem, the player assumes the role of a scientist enlisted to work on chemical reactors on distant planets, where the company’s facilities are besieged by local fauna and by another mysterious presence. The screenshot above, however, shows most of the visual elements which accompany the player throughout the game (albeit a somewhat complicated example from later into the campaign). Its aesthetic simplicity in no way detracts from the tough-as-nails, riveting puzzle-solving.

But if you would like an overview of exactly how Spacechem is played, I would just refer you to Matthewmatosis’ excellent video on that subject. As genius as the gameplay is, I feel that it has been discussed thoroughly by other commenters in the past several years in articles and videos across the internet. Instead, I would like to praise the game for some of its other elements, which are often overshadowed by its gameplay.

First, I would like to extend some additional praise to an area of Spacechem which is sometimes maligned: the aesthetic simplicity mentioned above. The simple commands and clear, vibrant lines navigating their grid perfectly meld together associations of programming, circuit diagramming, and chemical equation-writing. This combination, while far afield from anything remotely resembling actual chemistry, strikes a balance between actual science and science fiction. The iterative process by which the puzzles are solved is a close cousin to basic programming, but the atmosphere and the story provide credible tension from threats which are often supernatural and always potentially fatal.

Speaking of the story, the pages after pages of prose which bookend the puzzles in Spacechem have a distinct and interesting voice. The fact that the protagonist is one of the few defined characters in the tale, far from weakening the narrative, enforces a feeling of responsibility and danger for a person alone in an infinite universe. Through the cyclical process by which the protagonist (ostensibly the player-character) ends up moving from planet to planet, the sense of being driven into the farthest reaches of space and the sense of being a vestige of intelligence in total isolation are maximized.

Spacechem Production Screenshot - Zachtronics - atmosphere, aesthetics, story

This atmosphere is completed by the art and the music. While the artwork for the sprawling production and boss levels is not going to win an award any time soon, it gets the job done and it remains appropriately cold and alien, without losing the vibrant charm found within the reactors. The music, on the other hand, does great work to drive home the aforementioned feelings of loneliness among expansive vistas.

The chimes and mechanical sounds of the usual gameplay track give a slightly mysterious edge to an otherwise industrial experience. The weighty tone of the boss music makes those fights feel truly threatening, a feeling which is also enforced by the imposition of new gameplay constraints and new gameplay options. These changes make it seem like the player is being entrusted with the most important tools under the most dire circumstances. It is no small task to make a player experience something akin to what artists used to call ‘the sublime’ while showing that player a screen which resembles a cartoonish circuit board.


If you do fall in love with the gameplay, as I and so many before me have, I would highly recommend—after bracing for amazement—browsing through the videos chronicling some of the community competitions which were held in previous years. The brilliant solutions, tricks, and techniques employed by the competitors showcase the enormous versatility of Spachechem‘s design. And if you are inspired to participate, such tournaments are still held in some form annually; info about them can be found on Spacechem‘s Steam community forums.

I completed the main campaign of Spacechem once, and also completed its DLC campaign once (in addition to playing some of the bonus levels and the Team Fortress 2 promotional levels). Having those few tasks under my belt entailed 70 addicted hours in-game. But this will not be the case for every player: according to Steam’s global achievement statistics, simply completing the primary campaign is a feat accomplished by fewer than four out of every 100 players. Still, it is a game that I can not recommend enough to both casual and experienced players of all types of puzzle games. Spacechem is a fun, atmospheric ride for as far as a casual player cares to get, and an arena thereafter where the best puzzle game players are separated from the pretenders. This is as good as puzzle game design gets.


[Game: Spacechem, Zachtronics, 2011]
Lost in Spacechem:

The Addiction, Atmosphere, and Exquisite Challenge of Zachtronics’ Spacechem

was last modified: October 24th, 2017 by Daniel Podgorski
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