Even as I write this, it occurs to me that I don’t actually know much about the development company called Zachtronics itself. A quick look at their website tells me that, one, they are a branch of Alliance Media Holdings (which I know absolutely nothing about and am not sure I’ve even ever heard of before), and two, “all Zachtronics games are free for public schools and school-like non-profit organizations.” Which is really cool. So now I know two actual facts about Zachtronics, and so do you.
What I do know for certain is that I absolutely adore the games made by Zachtronics (henceforth to be abbreviated as Zac). All of them. Including the weird ones. Which is also all of them, in one way or another. Not that the games themselves are all that similar, in setting, tone, or gameplay; but at the same time, it’s really easy to grasp that they were all made by the same group. Mostly.
Anyway, when I think about Zac games, I tend to divide them into two arbitrary categories. –And then I remember that they have a few games that don’t fall into either of those categories, and have to quickly make a third category for them. Therefore, in my mind, Zac makes three types of games: visual/spatial puzzle games, programming puzzle games, and outliers.
As those categories are probably a bit unclear, let me explain. Setting aside the outliers, most Zac games involve taking an input of some kind, manipulating it in various ways, and outputting the correct solution. By specifying “visual/spatial,” I mean games in which you manipulate an “object” of some sort, where you can see it move around, and combine and separate from other objects. “Programming,” on the other hand, is about manipulating numbers (and occasionally strings of text) using a fictional(?) programming language to achieve various results. Finally, the outliers don’t have anything to do with these metrics, literally lying outside what I think of as a typical(?) Zac title.
With that in mind, I’d like to run through the various Zachtronics games, in chronological order, and give my thoughts and impressions.
This is the first Zachtronics game I ever played, and despite how later titles improved upon it in almost every way, it somehow remains the iconic Zac game in my mind. It is a visual/spatial puzzle game, wherein you use elemental atoms (such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon etc.) to create specific molecules. You do this using elemental “reactors” which physically rearrange the atoms with the aid of two “waldos” capable of picking up and rotating atoms and molecules along routes that you, the player, determine. If your instructions cause two atoms to collide, production will halt; so the challenge is to build reactors that will smoothly and consistently produce the molecules you need.
So, the puzzles start simple enough, but they quickly become more challenging, especially once you need to start using multiple reactors to make your products. But honestly, I don’t think the game would have caught my attention nearly as firmly if it weren’t for its setting. You see, Spacechem is set — wait for it — in space!
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
But yeah, Spacechem is set in a future where humanity has expanded into space, and taken its bureaucracy with it. I don’t remember all the details of the setting at this late date, but I do remember that you are working for a company that specializes in synthetic products (including some extremely suspicious artificial fish cakes), and you go from planet to planet creating and optimizing production of various molecular products. But all is not well; rumors of deaths and unusual incidents abound, and you witness strange behavior among your fellow employees…
Sadly, I never finished the game — I’m telling you, the puzzles get tough, ok? It is still one of my favorite games of all time, though, based on the unique puzzle mechanics and the great background story. Zac games often like to combine the banality of working life with the creeping undertone of existential dread, and this game is definitely the progenitor of the tone.
In retrospect, the game has some definite weaknesses compared to some of its later siblings. Most noticeably, the later games will come to lean harder on a programming point of view, and allow you to “step” through a solution to get a feel for how things are shaping up. In Spacechem (and Infinifactory, incidentally) you have to basically make a complete solution for the machine, before you can run it and make sure things are proceeding properly. Well, I suppose that isn’t completely true, you can deliberately make a half complete solution and let it hang or error out; but I’ve got to say, the ability to move step-by-step through a solution and make sure you haven’t missed something is invaluable.
Oh, and unlike any other non-outlier Zac game, Spacechem has boss fights. Seriously. I admit, they are thematically appropriate, but they don’t really feel right from a mechanics standpoint. Which is probably why they never came back, right? Right.
Ironclad Tactics (2013)
Ironclad Tactics is an outlier in the Zac catalogue. In fact, it is such an outlier, when I was compiling the list of Zac games I nearly completely overlooked it. I didn’t really remember what it was about, or how it played, either — which is why I quickly reinstalled it for a short refresher course. Now, about three weeks later — no, I’m kidding, I played for less than an hour. Not because I wasn’t interested, mind, I just got kicked off my computer for a bit right after starting…well, let’s set that aside.
So, Ironclad Tactics is…some strange combination of deck-building game, board game, and real-time strategy game. As for the deck-building elements, it seems to me that it came out at a time when we were seeing a lot of deck-building games, so they may have been following a trend there… But, I might be misremembering, it’s been a long time. Anyway, it’s a bit of an odd choice of mechanics, since on one hand you are trying to play strategically but you can’t always count on what cards you will draw.
Anyway, I don’t really want to delve much into the mechanics because the story is much more interesting. Set in an alternate past, the American Civil War has been set off slightly early due to the development of coal-powered robots known as Ironclads. The story follows a smart but lazy engineer as he gets involved in the battle to control the nation, along with a supporting cast of colorful characters. Literally colorful, in fact; the story is told comic book style, with panels of wonderful hand drawn art and a punchy storyline. In my opinion, the story is worth the price of admission alone, even if the gameplay seems a bit clumsy at times.
So, in Infinifactory, you play as a person who has been kidnapped by aliens. To build factory lines for them. Why? Hard to say. The aliens don’t seem to have much in the way of empathy or understanding, so maybe they’re just bad at building things? But then where did they get the tech to travel interstellar distances, all to kidnap humans to build the tech that allows them to travel interstellar distances? The story, for the most part, is told from the point of view of recordings left on corpses of people who died on the factory floors — macabre non-survivor logs, I suppose you can call them — but no one human actually has anything other than guesses to offer.
As for the gameplay, it’s a block-based puzzler where you build lines out of conveyors and other various parts, to assemble and disassemble input blocks into various forms. A typical visual/spatial Zac game, except that instead of a 2D playspace, you are actually designing objects to move in 3 dimensions. It gets tough, and a bit tiring, surprisingly fast; but watching an complicated assembly line you created at work is still a wonderful feeling.
TIS-100 is the first of the Zac programming puzzle games. It is extremely minimalist, with very limited graphics and minimal sound work. And the puzzles are literally programming challenges: you have a strange, old computer of unknown origin called the TIS-100 (we are treated to the boot-up sequence every time we start the game) made up of interconnected nodes. Puzzles (which represent “corrupted” segments of code) are solved by taking input data, passing them through the TIS-100 system of nodes and transforming them appropriately before passing them to an output. Simple in concept, difficult in practice, especially considering that the TIS-100 has a very limited assembly code you need to use to work with it.
The thing I like about TIS-100, and also the later Zac programming games, is that they actually created a printable manual for the system, which tells you the (limited) syntax you can use, and some other details about the system. It’s only 14 pages, and I like it as both a prop establishing tone, and a usable manual in itself.
Surprising for such a minimalist game, it actually has a story in it, as well. You received the TIS-100 after the death of your uncle Randy, who picked it up at a swap meet years ago. There are notes left from Randy in the manual, and on the TIS-100 itself; and as you progress through the corrupted segments, the notes he left behind become stranger and stranger… Because as I said, it wouldn’t be a Zac game without that slight sense of existential dread.
Shenzhen I/O (2016)
In a way, Shenzhen I/O is something like the full version of TIS-100 — or more like, TIS-100 was the prototype of Shenzhen. Like TIS-100, it is a programming game with a unique coding language to learn; but there are prettier graphics, nice music, and a fuller, fleshed-out story.
Speaking of the story, it is set in near-future (2026, apparently) China. You are an embedded systems engineer — or you want to be, but your home country doesn’t really do embedded systems anymore. So in order to pursue your career, you’ve decided to take a job in Shenzhen, China, working for the company Longteng Electronics. I admit, the game doesn’t have that existential dread of previous Zac games, but despite only interacting with the world in emails and assignments, the game really hits the “fish out of water” feel of living and working in a place you don’t really quite fit into, yet.
As for the gameplay, similar to TIS-100, you are given various tasks to accomplish via programming, with the added complication that the code needs to go on circuits that you place on the board, which then have to be connected with input/output nodes and each other. This adds a visual/spatial element to the experience, although it is clearly a programming game. My favorite part is, again, the printable manual, which is not only significantly bigger than TIS-100’s, but is also designed to be placed in a standard 3-ring binder. I like it a lot, it really puts me in the mood to do some programming.
Incidentally, I’m actually extremely bad at programming (in fact, I have an anecdote about Shenzhen I/O that more or less demonstrates it, but that’s nearly an article in itself); so the fact that I love these programming games so much is a bit strange. I do love them, though.
Opus Magnum (2017)
Absolutely my favorite Zac game. The visual/spatial puzzle game has a concept similar to Spacechem, wherein you take molecules, disassemble them, and then reassemble them into new forms. But Opus Magnum not only lets you assemble your own tools on the board, allowing you to work on many different pieces at once, but it also incorporates a programming-style interface for commanding your machine, allowing for step-by-step testing of your designs.
The story and setting are among my favorites as well. Unlike the majority of Zac games, Opus Magnum is set in a pure fantasy setting, in a great city where large feudal houses are supported by institutionalized alchemy. The story follows a promising young alchemist who joins a declining House, with the intention of revitalizing its prospects; but things don’t go as well as he had hoped.
Opus Magnum is the only Zac game that I have completed (for the most part; there are some bonus levels that I never finished) and I truly believe the excellent story is what kept me going. It is presented extremely well, too: before each puzzle, you can click through a conversation of the two main leads and others, explaining why the product of the puzzle is needed and how it fits into the story; and after you complete the puzzle, another conversation detailing the result is unlocked. The increasing stakes of the story is matched by the increasing challenge of the puzzles due to the main character’s change of circumstances, and it all comes together beautifully. I highly recommend this game.
The third of the Zac programming games, Exapunks is also probably the easiest — not easy, mind you, but the game provides a very visual way of rendering otherwise pure programming puzzles, so you can literally see where mistakes are being made. The systems in the game run EXAs, which are graphically represented as little robots that you program to travel through networks, create and modify files, and then delete themselves to leave no trace — because, y’know, you aren’t actually supposed to be inside those networks.
Exapunks is set in an alternate 1997, where a strange “phage” is causing some people’s bodies to turn into random piles of computer parts. Yes, you read that correctly: people turn into computers. Not functional computers, mind you, just mostly random assortments of parts. You play as a hacker who has contracted this phage (ah, there’s that undertone of existential dread again), and in order to afford the expensive medicine available on the black market for your condition, you have to carry out a series of hacks for a mysterious client… Oh, and occasionally you need to hack your own body to make it keep running. As one does.
The story of Exapunks has a slight feeling of a visual novel, where you can make occasional choices that produce a different response from the NPCs — nothing big, just dialogue changes, but enough to bring across the feeling of shaping your character a bit. You can once again print out a physical manual for programming EXAs just like TIS-100 and Shenzhen I/O; although in this case, the manual comes in the form of unofficial ‘zines, with other articles inserted for flavor as well. Including an interesting short story.
Eliza is a visual novel. I don’t own Eliza. I can’t tell you much about Eliza. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of visual novels in general, though I do appreciate the art form. I’ll probably check Eliza out sometime in the future, though, as I have great confidence in Zac’s ability to tell a good story.
MOLEK-SYNTEZ is somewhat strangely minimalist. It’s a visual/spatial puzzle game about creating molecules, again, but it has a very different set of controls from Spacechem or Opus Magnum. You basically place base molecules in a small space and bombard them with lasers that move them around, add or remove hydrogen atoms to manipulate bonds, and create drug molecules. The graphics and sound are very minimal, and the puzzles are tough. There is a story, but I’m not really sure about the details. You are in some kind of drug production facility, and someone has stolen a batch of formaldehyde? The story is told in occasional messages after completing a puzzle, which don’t really manage to explain much, but do manage to be rather creepy.
It is on the cheaper side for a Zac game. So there’s that.
Möbius Front ’83 (2020)
The most recent Zac game, Möbius Front ’83 is set once again in near past America. Only this time, America is being invaded…by America. Specifically, from a different dimension’s America. Seems legit, right?
This is another outlier game, being a strategic tactics game. Unfortunately, I don’t know how it plays yet; despite being available on Steam and Itch.io, it is still listed as “Coming soon” on my usual platform, GOG.com. This isn’t unprecedented, by the way; Opus Magnum almost wasn’t released on GOG at all, for unclear reasons. A bit disappointing, though.
So, yeah. That was way harder than I thought it was going to be. Zachtronics games are great, though, I recommend all of them. Well, I don’t recommend the ones I haven’t played, but I am still cautiously optimistic about them. If you are going to choose just one, I think Opus Magnum is the best realized on almost every level.
Speaking of just choosing one, I think I’m going to just choose one game to talk about in the future. And on that note, next week…hmm. Well, my friend gave me Disco Elysium for Christmas, why don’t I sink a few hours into that? The art style is quite distinctive, if nothing else…