Five Minutes Of... SpaceChem
April 26, 2011 Page 2 of 3
So: no mysteries there. SpaceChem makes me feel good in a series of ways we now understand quite thoroughly as part of gaming's appeal. Competence, agency, social capital, etc. There are probably ten dozen post-grads completing theses which lay those elements out end-to-end as I write... and again as you read.
What's different at the end of five minutes in SpaceChem -- different from many other games which have given me those well-understood brain-chemical highs -- is that I've made something. Not just methane, or ammonia, or formaldehyde. Not just a machine. I've made a creative statement. I've made a joke, or a dance, or a boast.
My SpaceChem mentor finds pride in optimizing his machines so they don't use syncs. Syncs are little buffers that keep multiple circuits in time with each other. They can help you solve sequence and speed problems, but do feel a little like cop-outs. I am in reverent awe of those who can operate without them.
So, to begin with, I tried. There is something majestic about the purity of a sync-less circuit. I would fight my way to a solution, and then return to my functional-but-fritzy spaghetti junction and try to tease out a leaner structure.
And then I stopped. Partly, to be sure, because I was wilting in the face of the intellectual challenge. But partly because I like the pictures I make first time out. I like the crazy curlicues. I like how hard they are to read before you set them in motion.
I like the surprises they spring. I like the ballets that unfold as the molecules twist and rotate around each other. I like the crazy games of chicken I'm accidentally building, that barrel two circuits toward each other before a preposterous sequence of breaks and drops and grabs turns a head-on collision into a matador feint.
Here's what SpaceChem does that's so important: it gets me to make something without asking me to make something.
Asking someone to make something is one of the biggest impositions you can lay at someone's door. I can't think of a more threatening thing you can say to me than "Draw a picture of anything you like!" Except maybe "Write a story!"
You're asking, for a start, to take a little bit of some essential energy from me. Making anything costs something invisible but precious, something that's hard to replenish.
You're asking, too, for me to give you a statement of skill. The blanker the sheet of paper, the less there is to hide behind. There's no way for me to draw a picture without demonstrating how good I am at drawing a picture. And, for the record, how good I am at drawing pictures is not. There's no way I can hide that from you if I try to fulfill your request.
And then -- oh, the horror -- you're asking me to show you the inside of my head. You're asking me to volunteer a way in which I want to change the world. I'm about to introduce into it something that wasn't there before, and now I have to show you what I've chosen that to be. It's an anti-Rorsharch test which puts into pictures otherwise abstract, unspoken elements of my psyche. I would rather show you my medical records that draw you a picture.
Unless, of course, you were a game. Games fix all these problems.
Games fix them by mandating inadvertent creativity. They provide a framework that delivers you from the tyranny of the blank sheet of paper, of the anti-Rorschach test. They give you plausible deniability.
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