Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
There’s a certain mixture of joy and dread that accompanies the release of a new Zachtronics game, a potent sense of fear-thrill hitting the brain the way a runner’s muscles might respond to the news of an incipient marathon. “Oh shit,” your synapses whisper to themselves. “We’re going to work.”
Although he’s likely to go down in the broad strokes version of gaming history as the guy who created Infiniminer—i.e., the game that Markus Persson was, uh, “inspired” by when he created the initially very similar Minecraft—studio founder Zach Barth has spent the last decade or so crafting a singular vision of puzzle gaming, one rooted in real-world programming techniques and an almost fetishistic love for the creation of intricate, alternate universe construction machines. Zachtronics games—which include the space-based factory sim Infinifactory, the elegant alchemy designer Opus Magnum, and a whole host of more straight programming challenges like TIS-100 and Shenzen I/O—force players’ brains to adapt to increasingly demanding logic and physics manipulation puzzles as their lists of tasks progress. Playing through one can feel like you’re forcing your brain into new, unrecognizable, and more complex shapes, something Barth codified when he instituted a program earlier this year to license several of his games to schools as educational tools for free.
The studio’s latest, the monochromatic chemistry simulator MOLEK-SYNTEZ, has already been added to the aforementioned Zachademics program, although it’s not clear how many teachers are likely to take the studio up on its offer; a game where you play as an anarchist drug manufacturer, pumping out amphetamines, mescaline, and party drugs (alongside other, more culturally benign substances) might be a hard sell for any high school chem teachers who don’t happen to be Walter White. Which is kind of the point; although the plots in Barth’s games tend to be lightly sketched, they almost all focus on outsiders, iconoclasts, and rule breakers, deploying ingenuity to circumvent arbitrary rules set by more ostensibly powerful forces. These are games about understanding, and then breaking, rules and systems in ways that put a heavy emphasis on freedom, even within their own tightly defined constraints.
To be fair, Barth and his team are happy to address all these issues; every game offered by Zachademics, including this latest, comes with content notes explaining to teachers what their students might be exposed to while playing them. (Such notes for earlier games include “It also depicts alchemy, which is essentially made-up chemistry and may offend science teachers,” and “Students may acquire an increased sense of the ridiculousness of modern capitalist society.”) MOLEK-SYNTEZ pointedly does not depict made-up chemistry, asking players/students to synthesize real compounds from real-life components, even if the mechanics for doing so—you essentially fire instructions at your various chemicals in order to form and break bonds, the sort of convenience an actual organic chemist would likely die for—are far more fantastical than the realities of bench science. And while it lacks the Victorian elegance of Opus Magnum (still the studio’s most accessible and visually satisfying title to date), the compulsive drive to optimize solutions while you’re optimizing solutions is fully present, along with the simple satisfaction of playing with the pieces of Barth’s latest virtual toy. In other words, it’s another platonically idealized Zachtronics game—an educational tool for people who don’t mind when their educations (or their brains) happens to break a little bad.