Why would I want to play a game that terrifies me? This is a question that was on my mind a lot as I got stuck into the recent indie horror hit ‘Amnesia’ earlier this year. Attempted answer next week.
The next post will be an analysis of cooperative gaming and will introduce a useful new way of thinking about these sorts of games. If nothing else, it will try and explain why Portal 2 excites me so much. See you next week!
You are already in love with Space Giraffe. And, for that matter, so is everyone who has ever disliked or criticised the game. Allow me to explain. You, my friend, are in love with Space Giraffe, or with what lies at the heart of it – something uniquely precious, of profound beauty and significance. What lies at the heart of Space Giraffe – in an especially pure, concentrated and potent form – is something close to the essence of gaming itself, the essence of ‘being in the zone’.
We have all touched this from time to time. Maybe that time when you just went for it in Super Meat Boy and grabbed an A+ rating on your first play of a level, that time you danced through a whole group of enemies in Counter Strike – bringing them all down without even taking a hit, that time you finally got through that horrific boss encounter after so many failed attempts. Of course, it is much wider than gaming, as anyone who plays sport or a musical instrument (for instance) will know. I do not need to do much work here to introduce ‘being in the zone’ and its worth. We all recognise it as elusive, precious, a state of not thinking too much and just flowing with your instincts, a kind of detached clarity of perspective. We do not spend all our time ‘in the zone’ – indeed, this is part of the reason that it is so special.
When we take a closer and more complex look at things, we can start to see how special Space Giraffe is. ‘The zone’ is not some abstract external thing; it is a product of the gamer as much as the game being played, this unique interplay between your mental state and the game you are playing. If ask yourself how you could possibly try and capture ‘the zone’ in a game, you soon realise that you couldn’t, not entirely. It is not something static and solid like a picture or bunch of written words; if it was, then it would be easy to recreate. Rather, it is a living achievement of the gamer at that particular moment. The most you can do as a game designer is set up your game in such a way that it disposes people to getting there.
Space Giraffe does this. That is why it is so special. It is constructed to lead you into this sort of state in a more deliberate, sustained and successful way than I have ever encountered in gaming. Space Giraffe practically forces you into the zone – that is the way it is meant to be played. It does this with its graphics, sounds, enemies, weirdly shaped levels, conceptually nuanced gameplay and generally bombarding you with information and colour. I am almost tempted to say that Space Giraffe either forces you into the zone or forces you to give up on the game.
But that is too strong. Whilst the game is horribly unhelpful at introducing its basic mechanics and helping you grasp them, its learning curve is actually brilliantly judged once you get onto it. As soon as you get to grips with the basics of the game, its complexity increases at a well judged rate. Levels become more challenging in terms of their spatial configuration, in terms of the intensity of the colours and visual distortion, and in terms of the different enemies and their behaviours. This is a gradual ratcheting up process and it is this that gently nudges you into the zone.
This is the crux of Space Giraffe’s genius, so it bears emphasising. Space Giraffe ratchets up its complexity and the volume of information you have to deal with, until a normal approach to the game simply cannot process things well enough and your mind turns to something else. You end up looking at it differently, playing it differently.
You will reach a point in Space Giraffe when the increasing complexity or volume of information becomes too much to handle. When this happens, you will definitely panic and die. After a while, however, one of two things will happen. Perhaps you give up, drop the game and head onto the internet to tell everybody how terrible it is. Or, perhaps you stick with it and after a while, you find a way of coping with the trickier moments. Instead of panicking, something happens and you shift your focus, you see through the swirling mass of colour and information for the first time. You trust your peripheral vision a bit more, you accept that you cannot watch every enemy directly all the time, you place a bit more faith in your mind’s ability to keep track of and read this swirling mass of colour. And – for a time – you are seeing and playing the game differently, and – more than that – playing it better.
Of course sometimes you panic and it all goes, sometimes you lose your rhythm, sometimes the colours and noise are simply too much. But you very quickly go back in. Over time, you start to build these flashes into a general way of playing. It is a massively compulsive game when this starts to click. As you reach the later levels, you are required to be in the zone on pretty much all the levels for a fair bit of the time. So, at the high end, Space Giraffe does force you into the zone, but by this stage, you are more in tune with how to get there and would not want to be playing any other way. It is crucial to keep playing until this has a chance to happen.
I need to stress that this ‘being in the zone’ is not some fragile illusion like many of the epic moments in Call of Duty, where a large battle seems to be going on around you, but many of the enemies won’t shoot at you and there are hidden strings and spawn points operating all over the place. Such a feeling is wonderful, but flimsy – don’t look too hard or you’ll see right through it. Space Giraffe is not like this – the game is very challenging at times. The flip side of this is that it does not give you hollow victories. When you get ‘in the zone’ you are not doing so in some child’s playpen, but in a genuinely ferocious gaming environment. Now that I’ve had a chance to say all this, here is a video of it in action from one of the later levels – this deserves fullscreen and high definition.
If that all seems a bit much, don’t worry – let’s get back to the argument.
The spatial complexity of Space Giraffe’s levels is a vital part of this process of coaxing you out of your standard way of playing. The first level is shaped like a flat rectangle, viewed from above and behind. The simplest possible start. The playing surfaces then become more complicated: take the paper and fold it weirdly. And now even more weirdly. And then wrap it back on itself. Then make it loop back on itself so that it’s a continuous shape you can move across. Then wrap it round the camera with the camera right inside the shape. Then introduce an enemy that spins the entire level. In spatial terms, the levels practically go from from simple rectangles to Klein bottles, which is quite a progression. The more complex level shapes are better dealt with by feel than consciously thinking too hard. You cannot always be trying to navigate in terms of ‘left’ or ‘right’ when the level you are playing on is some nasty, contorted, barely Euclidean zigzag that is constantly rotating. You just have to go by feel – so you do. And when you start to do this, the magic happens.
Sounds are crucial too – the game encourages you to use audio cues to ‘hear’ certain important game events. Many of these bits of information may well be visually obscured by layers of pulsing colour and other things happening on screen. An enemy shot being deflected, re-entering the playing surface, a flower being shot back, a flower growing and then maturing, an aggressive rotor arriving on the playing surface – many crucial bits of information that the game presents you with have to be listened for. Again, it’s not all about staring intensely at one bit of the screen, but a broader kind of conscious engagement with the game.
Space Giraffe forces you to shift how you perceive and respond to the game away from a standard ‘Looking closely at the stuff on the screen and twitching your ship around precisely in response’ approach that you would naturally follow in such a game to something altogether different. The gameplay is actually rather deep; there are some very interesting mechanics, tensions and tradeoffs to be balancing and juggling (more below). There is lots happening on screen in terms of enemies and their particular behaviour and functions, to say nothing of the swirling colours.
Enemy spawn locations are revealed in advance by different coloured dots that appear just beyond the playing surface. Given the number of enemies that spawn, this gives you a whole system of colour to try and follow at the periphery of your vision. All this is a lot of information to deal with at once – this forces you to perceive and play the game differently: you’d be overloaded otherwise. There is so much to keep track of that you have to rely on your subconscious, even if it’s just a tiny bit at first.
Of course, you need to understand the information (i.e. enemies and game mechanics) consciously and explicitly before you can do it without thinking much. That is why the game’s learning curve (as soon as you get onto it!) is such a crucial success: it allows you to get comfortable with the enemy behaviour by introducing new elements in turn: never so slowly that you get complacent or bored, but never so fast that you have gone through a new level without any idea of what a particular enemy was doing. The colours are another key part of this process. You gradually learn to see through these. Then they go and introduce new enemies that cause visual distortion as their main feature. So it’s ratcheted up again.
It is also crucial that Space Giraffe doesn’t doesn’t fetishise high speed, precise twitch reactions. It’s not some top down pixel shooter. Your bullets can deflect enemy shots just by shooting them, and you are always shooting. Most of the enemies can be killed by either shooting them with a single shot them or simply touching them. It gives you jump pods and smart bombs that almost act as ‘get out of jail free cards’ – this is a real help to your education as they allow you to avoid panicking and continue relaxing into the game. For most of the game, its actually not that easy to die randomly, so it doesn’t punish you when you are taking faltering experimental steps.
Space Giraffe’s gameplay is surprisingly conceptually interesting. There are lots of different enemy types that have their own behaviours and quirks, and a situation with several different kinds of enemies acting simultaneously (i.e. almost every level) is quite an interesting thing to follow. Then there are the tradeoffs you have to constantly manage.
You get most points by physically colliding with enemies (think of this as wanting to wait for the aliens in Space Invaders to reach the bottom of the screen, and then colliding with them to kill them). So to do that you need to let stuff stay alive and get close to you. But on the other hand, you are constantly firing, and you need to be shooting almost continually to keep your power levels high enough to make colliding with enemies safe. (Your power zone needs to be active to render collisions safe. And don’t worry! It all makes sense very quickly – just not in paragraphs of words.) So you end up with this wonderful ‘herding’ and ‘farming’ mechanic, where you want to herd enemies close to you to be killed, but now is not the place to get into it.
Again, the complexity of the gameplay forces you to play Space Giraffe differently. There are simply too many different sorts of threat zooming around to be able to consciously think through each of them and construct some kind of plan in response that best satisfies all the different demands of the game. You cannot simply pause and take stock of your situation. Again, you just have to rely on your ability to read it, sense it or whatever. You have to ignore the trees and focus on the forest, even if it feels like a magic eye puzzle at first. Again, Space Giraffe’s genius lies in its gently encouraging you to making this switch.
Your own attention, perception and ability to hold onto a swirling situation becomes a crucial factor in the game. What I want to establish is that there is this depth to the gameplay and that it lends interest and fun to proceedings as well as contributing to that elusive ‘zoning’ quality. What skillset does this game ask you to master? Why take it seriously and devote time and energy to it? Well, Space Giraffe is not asking you to become some savant-twitcher-gamer. It asks you to learn how to read a complex environment and respond sensibly and decisively to it. Space Giraffe deserves lots of credit for being a game that promotes and encourages development of this sort of skillset.
Visually, the game is a wonderful synthesis of abstract geometrical beauty and boundless swirling colour. It looks magnificent and is a kind of aesthetic not seen enough in games. Going out of focus, getting into the zone and riding above this swirl is valuable as well; there’s a beauty to the changed perception. So, why is there not more open love for the Space Giraffe? Quite simply, in the initial stages of getting into it, this game gives you every reason to give up. You need to have a basic grasp of what is going on to start on the ‘interest/complexity treadmill’, and this game does not give you that. It will, however, let you limp onto it without a grasp of how to play the game or what it is about. This will simply lead to confusion, panic and emptiness. Just watch the video reviews – you can see some angry people playing the game in fundamentally the wrong way. Why should we expect someone who has not been shown the fundamentals of the game to be able to stick with it and enjoy it? Space Giraffe’s otherwise commendable learning curve begins with a considerable difficulty spike; a spike that it does not work hard enough to help you over.
The game almost seems designed to amplify frustration: the sounds, the humour and the colours all become pretty toxic and enraging when you are not feeling kindly disposed towards the game. Work through the opening stages, and you will see the humour, the charming insanity, the profound beauty, and the core of what the game’s about. People who criticise Space Giraffe on the basis of understandably hostile reactions to its opening levels are missing the point, but they are certainly not wrong: I need to stress that Space Giraffe does itself no favours in these early stages.
Space Giraffe at its best is a distillation, celebration, affirmation, continual realisation of ‘the zone’. This is something that is crucially alive and impossible to capture in a video game, but Space Giraffe almost does, and it deserves recognition as a vehicle for this uniquely valuable state. It can initially seem facetious, cruel, incomprehensible, messy and obnoxiously weird, but this soon gives way when you grasp its incredible beauty and complexity.
The zone is something between you and the game. You become part of what it is that is crucially valuable here, and that is what some reviewers are having a hard time over. You are part of the game’s canvas and mechanisms for doing what it wants to do. The result is contingent on how well the game can lead you into making the necessary contribution. The game is not blameless here, but I hope some of you are inspired to put in the effort required to make Space Giraffe work. Trust, me, it’s worth it when it does.
All the images have been taken from http://www.gamezine.fr/ because they take much better screenshots than me.
There is a fantastic piece on Space Giraffe by Jonathan Blow – the guy behind Braid – magnificently entitled: In which I compare Space Giraffe to Ulysses. The comments thread provided some good ideas and inspiration too.
The same can be said for Keiron Gillen’s piece over at RPS, and the discussion in the comments thread.
It can be picked up from Steam, D2D and Gamersgate. For more info head here.
Spacechem is a work of dazzling originality and almost ferocious intelligence; its concept is brilliantly realised and the whole thing sparkles with love and polish. It is a game of unexpected beauty, charm and humour; a celebration of creativity and experimentation. It is a game about designing your way through sophisticated multilayer puzzles. SpaceChem’s most significant achievement is the way it is able to foster creativity and experimentation without having to sacrifice any of its complexity or subtlety. It introduced me to a compelling new skillset and type of thinking; giving me the space to learn, experiment and play with its game system. It has left me surprised, delighted, excited and intimidated – both at the demands of some of the puzzles, and at what I have managed to produce in response to them. With SpaceChem, Zachtronics Industries have created a charming, superbly rich and uniquely creative puzzler. Its rightful place is alongside Braid and World of Goo. I wholeheartedly direct you to the demo. Let’s see a video of it in action. Set the quality to maximum and enjoy this one fullscreen with the sound on.
Spacechem is a design based puzzle game. That idea deserves explaining. At its most basic, Spacechem presents you with a grid of squares. There are four special zones in this grid: two input zones and two output zones. Your job is to take certain inputs from the input zones, process them in a particular way, and then put the desired product into the output zone. You do this with the two ‘circuits’ at your disposal. Each starts off as nothing more than a ‘start’ command placed somewhere on the grid. You have to design a circuit that will do whatever processing is required to turn the inputs into the outputs. Since I started writing this article, Zachtronics industries have put a better explanation up themselves. Watch it below.
These two circuits each have a ‘waldo’, which you should think of as a cursor that moves along the circuit executing instructions as it comes to them, picking up and dropping off molecules and so on. It’s the bit that looks like a (). The commands that you can put into your circuit include: requesting a new input molecule, picking up, dropping off, bonding, splitting and rotating molecules. You can direct each circuit to go wherever you like by issuing directional commands, and can order the two circuits to synchronise in various ways. You can get it to do double loops or fancy things if you want. There are two circuits involved in each reactor you work with and they are largely isolated from each other; commands issued to one will not impact the other. You can and will have them working together : swapping molecules between them, triggering each other’s inputs and so on. You will get a feel for it. With two circuits at your disposal and free choice of of where they start, go, and what they do, you have a lot of options within this 10×8 grid. It is a powerful toolkit to play around with, and Spacechem gets an admirable amount of mileage out of it. ‘Design some circuit that will take these inputs and produce this output’ is a surprisingly deep and compelling core for a game.
With this core of mechanics in place, Spacechem opens up its complexity and depth. New mechanics and constraints are introduced, some as one-off challenges, some as extra considerations for a few levels, some as permanent additions to your repertoire. This reactor circuit work is the heart of Spacechem, but the puzzling soon becomes multi-layered. Whilst you start off dealing with one reactor in isolation, with some given inputs and outputs, eventually you are given a series of inputs and asked to perform tasks that require you to wire up multiple different reactors and get them working together. You are not just solving one ‘take these inputs and spit out this output’ problem in one reactor – there’s a meta-puzzle. You have to work out some combination of reactors performing certain tasks to get from the inputs (from atmospheric pumps, or storage tanks) to the outputs (to be dropped into a reservoir, or supply freighter). You have to assign different tasks to different reactors, wire up their inputs and outputs in a way that makes sense, and then design the insides of each reactor to actually perform the role you want them to produce.
Reactor A might break the water down into two Hs and an O, and then send the hydrogen off to reactor B to do something, and the Oxygen off to reactor C to do something else. The two levels of the puzzling interact wonderfully. Your decisions at the meta-puzzle level end up defining the parameters of you individual reactor problems. A breakthrough in the meta-puzzle can make the individual reactor circuit designs a lot easier; conversely, if you manage to make a particularly fancy circuit, you might not need so many reactors, or to hook them up in such a complicated way.
Should you be scared off by all this talk of chemicals? No. The chemistry is best thought of as a theme or a setting. Clearly, the game is made by a guy who loves his chemicals – and that love is very obvious and infectious – but you certainly do not need any chemistry knowledge to play this. Don’t think that this is a game where you do chemistry: you do SpaceChemistry, which is even sexier.
The crux of the game’s genius is the way it has executed the idea of a design based puzzle game. It taps into a potential to create things that I didn’t know I had. Each level involves creating a working circuit to complete a particular task and (after being shown the ropes) it is left entirely up to you to decide how you want to solve each challenge.
There is a vast number of different possible circuits that will get you through a given level. Spacechem is not about you finding the answer, it is about you making your answer. Because there is such a wide range of possibilities, you do not feel constrained or hemmed in. That’s why it is a design based puzzle game, and this is how creativity comes into the picture. Make no mistake, this is a challenging, deep and complex puzzle game – when I finish a circuit and watch it run successfully, it is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever achieved in a game. The solution I arrive at for each level feels much more uniquely mine than any game where there is only one prescribed path through. With no unique, right or optimal solution to a level, there is room for style and individuality, choosing one’s own approach. In contrast, in Braid, Portal or World of Goo, I solved things in much the same way as anyone else; I might have executed things slightly differently, but I will have been pursuing one of at most four or so different routes through.
I had two big fears about this game.
- I would never be able to produce some of the frightening looking circuits that I had seen in the previews, or anything of that calibre.
- The game would end up being a chore of optimisation – one where I would feel that my lack of prodigious mathematical and spatial analysis ability would be holding me back from playing the game properly, that the whole thing would give me a headache and feel a bit too much like work. Work that would much better be done by a computer.
On the first point, I shouldn’t have worried. I always find myself pleasantly surprised when I look back at some of the things I have produced. Some of them rather intimidate me. (Quintin Smith noted this very nicely in his RPS review.) No doubt you too will surprise yourself with what you end up creating.
It is not necessary to see the an entire design solution in your head at once: most of my progress has been made by taking the input molecule and seeing how I could make it a bit more like the required output one operation at a time. I would gradually build up the circuit in little stages like this. Work out how to unbond it first, then work out how to rotate it, then work out how to drop it over there, and so on. Step by step tentatively designing towards the goal, running the circuit for a bit, building the next stage as I could best see it, and so on. Every now and then I would tinker, go back and pursue a different line of thought or inspiration. Through no more complex process than this, I have been able to produce some rather impressive results. It is made very easy to tweak, play back, revise, tinker and shift your circuits around when you are making them, so you can locate faults, and see exactly how things are working. Things get a little trickier with multi-reactor problems, but not before you are ready.
SpaceChem has an excellent answer to the second worry, and it is worth looking at closely. Forget the idea that puzzles only have one solution – or one optimal solution – right now. Any design that can deliver the right amount of output molecules completes that level. That is a totally binary thing, success or failure, 1 or 0. Hundreds of designs can complete each level for you. With multi-reactor problems, where different configurations of reactors are encountered, the number of possible solutions to each level increases massively. I will use two examples of my own to show how two radically different designs can complete the same production task.
Your solutions have the following statistics reported when you complete a level (and compared to a distribution of other poeple’s designs):
Number of cycles taken (how long your reactors take to produce the stuff).
Number of symbols used (how many components your circuits needed)
Number of reactors used (how many reactors you needed to have working to solve the problem)
In gameplay terms, these are meaningless. There is no in-game reward or benefit for doing it in one way or another. By the time you see these, the game has already opened up the next level for you. So, the game does not force you to optimise your solutions on these counts. But, if the graphs are there, might we not be tempted to slavishly optimise all our designs until we sucked the fun out of the game? SpaceChem cleverly ensures that we are unable to get too hung up on optimisation. How it does this is crucially important. Beyond a certain point, it simply is not possible to optimise your solutions; this is because almost all the time, each of the statistics you might want to optimise are in tension. You are prevented from chasing a ‘perfect’ circuit’ because no such circuit exists. Having a faster circuit often requires more symbols; using fewer reactors requires that the ones you have work harder and use more symbols, and perhaps take longer. Because there is a trade-off between these different statistics you cannot chase all of them to a maximum, so you don’t have to worry about the burden of doing so.
Sure, your design may have been relatively slow, but you probably used fewer symbols. That guy who used even fewer than you? He was probably slower. Looking at the statistics is entirely optional. The question is less about making the single perfect design, and more ‘can I make what I have done better by the standards that I think are important?’ How you want to refine or optimise your circuits is up to you, the game does not mind either way. I found that I created circuits that were slow, but used few resources, and enjoyed trying to make them as economical as possible. The narcissist in me loves the idea of having my own particular SpaceChem style, and unique portfolio of intimidating SpaceChem designs.
Because because efficiency over and above completing the objectives is optional and – in terms of gameplay consequences – meaningless, because there are no stakes, no rewards or incentives involved there is no external reason to pursue it. You do it -if you do it at all -for its own sake; it is rewarding in and of itself. With no pressure either way I found that I wanted to have a quick tinker, especially when I cast my eye over some of my earlier designs. Making playing with circuits enjoyable in this way is a master stroke of design. Not introducing aggregate scores is a crucial part of what makes SpaceChem fun to play. I have seen some suggestions about introducing this sort of thing, but I hope it is clear why this would strike at the core of the game’s Fun. Pressured optimisation would creep in, and I’d feel like a maths program should be playing the game instead of me.
Beyond the bare minimum of completing the output quota is the room to breathe, experiment, be creative and unique. That is the crucial space that SpaceChem has created. That is the genius of design puzzling in SpaceChem- it is a uniquely creative form of puzzling, especially given the multi-layered structure of many of SpaceChems levels. The parameters are kept open enough to allow circuit creation to be genuinely free and enjoyable for its own sake. In SpaceChem, this sort of puzzling is delivered in a lovely package and polished to a shine.
You will find yourself much more talented at playing the game by the time you reach some of the more tricky looking puzzles. Again, you should not be intimidated by this game. I got better at SpaceChem as I played it. I have a better feel for the sort of difficulties I come up against, and have a better grasp of how I can work round them. Whilst a lot of my play revolves around incremental trial and improvement, I do have occasional flashes of insight and eureka moments, and I’m able to read things a bit more sensibly in advance than I used to. I’ve dropped some odd assumptions I had since the opening tutorials. (This wasn’t entirely my fault: see the supplementary post). Going back to the earlier puzzles shows me just how much I’ve learned, and it is great fun to go back and remake them.
Beyond the superbly designed mechanics of its central puzzling, Spacechem does a lot more to draw you into the game. Short written interludes break up the puzzling and sketch a story with a gentle sort of charm and wit. The music is superb; I was certainly not expecting to find music in this game that I would happily cruise to in my car. As Quintin Smith highlighted on RPS, this music is very important for morale, strengthening your resolve, and salving any potential feelings of frustration. The art direction is fantastic, the GUI is excellent and the game is tight and precise like it should be. The circuit designing is very responsive and intuitive – it is very easy to follow up an idea without having a hard time translating it into action. Components clunk into place in a very satisfying way. Whilst I have one or two minor suggestions that I will post later, SpaceChem is superbly made.
Spacechem is a work of dazzling originality and almost ferocious intelligence; its concept is brilliantly realised and the whole thing sparkles with love and polish. It is a game of unexpected beauty, charm and humour; a celebration of creativity and experimentation. It is a game about designing your way through sophisticated multilayer puzzles. SpaceChem’s most significant achievement is the way it is able to foster creativity and experimentation without having to sacrifice any of its complexity or subtlety. It introduced me to a compelling new skillset and type of thinking; giving me the space to learn, experiment and play with its game system. It has left me surprised, delighted, excited and intimidated – both at the demands of some of the puzzles, and at what I have managed to produce in response to them. With SpaceChem, Zachtronics Industries have created a charming, superbly rich and uniquely creative puzzler. Its rightful place is alongside Braid and World of Goo. I wholeheartedly direct you to the demo.
Quintin Smith did an excellent review of SpaceChem on Rock Paper Shotgun.