I stopped playing SpaceChem two and a half months ago, but somehow other blog posts intervened, so I’m only writing about it now. Which I could use as an excuse for the complete lack of insight that I’m going to display, but the truth is: I don’t think I would have anything useful to say about the game if I’d written about it while it was still fresh in my mind.

I was really addicted to SpaceChem when I started playing it, and I wasn’t the only one: both Liesl and Miranda had moments when it kept them glued to the iPad. It’s a very good game: I like the programming that’s at the core of it; I like the way challenges build on top of one another; I like the sense of accomplishment when you start a puzzle, realize your standard bag of tricks don’t work, and have to invent some sort of new technique to solve it. And, within each puzzle, there’s a pleasant enough range of possibilities: frequently multiple approaches to a solution (it was quite interesting comparing Liesl’s solutions to my own), and you could go back and try to optimize your solutions if you so choose.

The iPad is a good platform for it. Though the iPad version wasn’t executed perfectly, and there were some real head-scratchers, most notably the lack of a mechanism for resetting a puzzle. It’s bad enough being frustrated enough at a puzzle that you want to start over from scratch, but having to spend a couple of minutes getting to where you can start over is pouring salt into your wounds. So, in comparison to the iPad game I’d been obsessed with over the previous months, it definitely had its warts, but that’s pretty stiff competition.

So: why did I stop playing SpaceChem? Part of the answer is that it didn’t fit so well with my playing schedule: I was doing a fair amount of my iPad game playing in the middle of the night while looking after Zippy, and SpaceChem isn’t nearly as good a fit for that time as Ascension was. I would say that I thought the challenges were excessively linear, except that they built on each other, forcing you to discover new ways to approach problems, in ways that were rewarding and that would have turned to frustration with a less linear approach.

Though puzzles didn’t always strictly build on each other: new puzzles removed possibilities as well as adding them, by removing possible implementation choices. That frustrated me at times, though I’ll also freely admit that it was necessary to make the challenges workable.

I also didn’t always enjoy the constraints of the playing field itself, finding ways to fit my wiring into the space provided. Also, I often didn’t enjoy the puzzles involving multiple reactors: sometimes, that was an interesting challenge (on more than one occasion having me take an approach for quite some distance before realizing that my strategy simply wouldn’t work at all), but often that made puzzles drag on, and just finding ways to place the reactors and pipes was boringly annoying.

I guess that’s really the issue that the linear progression had: it meant that I didn’t have control over the game’s pacing. So if I wasn’t in the mood for the time investment (and, perhaps more importantly, mental investment) of a multiple-reactor puzzle, then I didn’t have much choice: either struggle through it, or put the game down. And one day, I chose the latter, and never picked it up again.

I still think SpaceChem is kind of a great game in its own way. But it’s also one of the very few games that I’ve played (at least since my Apple ][+ days) that has a well-defined endpoint that I made a fair amount of progress towards but stopped before reaching it.

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