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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Chemicus Review

This is the addendum to my Chemicus Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Chemicus yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Chemicus

These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, maybe some game designer'll be Googling around and be inspired to write a great chemistry-based game with an actual plot. Ah, well a girl can dream, can't she? Here's all the news about Chemicus that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Chemicus is both a step up from its predecessor Physicus, and a step down. On the plus side, the puzzles are more integrated than in Physicus. Never are you asked to look up a formula simply for use as a password. (There is a periodic-table puzzle, but that is at least a visual puzzle.) On the minus side, the tutorial is nowhere near as good as the one in Physicus. Not only is that a shame in its own right, but with a tutorial so awkward, it's easy to just end up solving puzzles through simple trial and error. If all you have in inventory is a lemon, a cabbage leaf and a key, you don't actually HAVE to use any chemistry knowledge to figure out which one you can combine with copper and zinc electrodes to make a simple battery. It takes less time to just test the three items than it does to page through the manual about batteries. Unlike Physicus, it would be easy for a kid to finish this game without ever having learned very much, or without getting the impression that it's anything other than random. At least it is planting useful seeds in their brains, I suppose, and when they learn someday that putting a cabbage leaf in boiling water really DOES create a liquid that changes color when you mix it with different substances with it, they will probably think back on this game with a certain awe. That's not a factor to be entirely discounted. I'm still a little stung from the realization that snakes aren't actually frightened of canaries in real life. (If that makes sense to you, congratulations, you're as old as I am. ;-) )

Easter Eggs

I did not find any easter eggs or homages in Chemicus at all, but there are two things you can do in the game that are optional.

1) You can use the copper-oxide machine to make copper. Not that you ever need copper for anything, but I was pleased to see that copper-II-oxide wasn't the only possible output of the machine.

2) If you put the cold cast iron into the mold and try to stamp it, it will become broken bits of iron. (-: Which you can melt down just as easily as a bar of iron, so no harm, no foul.

Plot Holes

This entire game was one gigantic plot hole, in my opinion. What in the world was supposed to be going on here? I'm hoping this game was just particularly badly translated, but given how readable the tutorial was, I'm afraid it was just badly written in the first place.

1) What happened to the missing adrenalin molecule? Did our histrionic friend accidentally destroy it? Did it randomly disappear? This is never explained, and the game makes no sense without this key point being explained in some way.

2) Why did a lack of adrenalin make everyone in Chemicus have memory loss? To the best of my knowledge there is no real biological connection between adrenalin and memory. Was this random?

3) What happened to the city in the end? I mean, what was the point of the final cutscene at all? It looked like just a closeup of various locations from the game, and then at the end the priestess declares the city "restored to its former glory." Was something about each location supposed to be changing? I watched that cutscene movie three times and couldn't perceive a single change in any of them.

4) Was there any point to the priests you surprise in four different locations in this game? In each case they hurry away, but nothing in the location they were in has changed. What's the point to surprising a busy-looking priest near your cable car, watching him flee, and then realizing he's--done absolutely nothing to your cable car? Could this have been related to the damaged gearshaft in the S station, maybe? If so, why did it happen in the Cl station?

5) The trapdoor and switch in the first area never had any significance that I could find. Presumably those were just red herrings to get you used to the interface.

Chemicus Game Advances

Things I hope other game designers will learn from Chemicus:

1) Like Physicus, Chemicus is to be commended for offering physically realistic puzzles. I've played adventure games enough to be sick to death of illogical, nonsensical inventory puzzles where you stick together a pole and a pair of scissors with a piece of gum and suddenly have tree trimmers. It's immensely refreshing to instead be combining silver with nitric acid to get silver nitrate, something that would actually WORK in real life.

2) As a parent, I appreciated the educational focus of this game in general. I enjoy playing computer games together with my kids, and when they're able to come away from the experience having learned something, it's an added bonus. More importantly, Chemicus has proved that adding educational components to a game doesn't have to slow it down or make it annoying. A puzzle based on balancing a chemical equation is just as challenging and interesting as a puzzle based on arranging shapes in the proper random order, and a kid actually LEARNS something from the chemical puzzle. Not to mention that all the explosions and dramatic experiments definitely left them with the impression that chemistry is seriously cool.

3) This isn't an innovation exactly, since many of the better graphic adventures do this, but I always appreciate a game whose design does not punish you for making sensible guesses. In Chemicus, for example, you need to make a template out of glass, but if the template is transparent, it won't do what you need it to in the projector, so you have to metallize the glass. If you jump the gun and try to make the template before realizing the glass has to be metallized, you will neither lose the game nor be reprimanded with a vague omniscient voice informing you "No, I shouldn't do that yet." The game simply lets you make the template, even lets you try it out and see for yourself that it won't cast a shadow, then lets you go back and metallize the template, ending up with the same result you would have if you'd metallized the glass before cutting a template out of it. This is excellent gamewriting.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Chemicus a 5 out of 10 (rating: okay). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, as in most games, there were a number of minor interface issues that could have been improved. The inventory screen, a narrow strip along the right-hand side of the screen, was inconvenient for manipulating the huge collection of stuff this game sticks you with; you'd have to scroll through it three or four times to get the object you were looking for. The way an object slowly falls back into your inventory if you don't click it in exactly the right space is an aggravating time-waster, too. An object should always remain in your hand and ready to use till you either click it back into your inventory yourself or leave the screen, the way most graphic adventures do. Also, the arrows for exiting a screen were often annoyingly placed in unintuitive places (not, in other words, in the extreme margin of the screen, but an inch or two further in.) This made hunting for exits a real chore. Navigating around in certain buildings, where you can't click straight across an empty room but rather need to skirt around the wall to reach the screen you want, is poorly handled. The acting is also horrifically bad, and the in-game tutorial is disappointingly cumbersome to use (particularly in contrast with the wonderfully intuitive and interactive tutorial of Physicus.)

But those are minor failings, in the end. The two things that would really have turned this average game into a good game would have been an interesting plot and some satisfying, logical clues within the game as to what your character is supposed to be accomplishing. It was very frustrating trying to figure out what puzzle to attempt next. You never know what you need to make or why, so you frequently find yourself sitting around in front of an empty beaker going "Okay, which objects from my 26-item inventory will the game let me place into this beaker?" Wandering around clicking things on other things by trial and error to see which puzzle is ready to be activated next is not a challenge, it's a chore. Those useless fleeing priests could have been dropping notes or other clues that would have tipped off an alert player to the best next course of action. Or your imprisoned Herr Professor could even have been updating you on useful plot developments, not just giving you the same faceful of whining angst about being unjustly imprisoned every single time. For that to happen, though, there would have had to be a plot development. There wasn't one, in the entire game. Nothing happens, nothing changes, the entire world pretty much just sits there waiting for you to finish solving all the puzzles in the right order, at which point the priests reappear and congratulate you on winning the game. There's nothing in this entire game that could possibly surprise or engage anyone. Even in a solitary game like Myst, as you travel from world to world, you learn more about the two brothers that have been trapped in books and must eventually use what you've learned to make a decision: free them or not? That drew players in (by the millions, in fact.) Other good graphic adventure games have included characters whose fate you find yourself concerned with, plot twists that startle or even scare you, a gameworld that truly evokes the feel of a lost civilization, and/or choices you can make that will affect the gameplay. If Chemicus had done any of these things-- if it had been a game of Myst or Syberia caliber that also offered real-world chemistry puzzles, this would have been a truly awe-inspiring game. As it is, it's still a decent first step. Let's hope more games decide to build on what Chemicus and the other games in its series have started.

Best Puzzle: I really liked the molecular puzzle with beads on the wall. Took me right back to high school organic chemistry class.
Lamest Puzzle: Making the keycard. Unless I missed something critical, there was no indication anywhere in this game that printing a card with a diamond shape on it would cause a door to open. It was trial and error at its ugly worst.
Best Plot Twist: This game had no plot twists. (It only just barely had a plot at all.)
Lamest Plot Twist: This game had no plot twists.
High Point: There were several fun moments in this game, but my kids and I were especially partial to finding that golden arm using an x-ray machine and a vat of nitric acid. (-:
Low Point: Trudging back and forth to keep turning the gas on and off. I couldn't see any point to this exercise at all; it wasn't even really a puzzle, more of a frustrating hoop to jump through.

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