Zachary Barth, aka The Man Who Inspired Minecraft, graces gamers with another glimpse of greatness in SHENZHEN I/O, the computer-programming, strategy/simulation game.
As a fair warning, SHENZHEN (think “Shen-jen”), like nearly all Zachtronics titles, is unapologetically difficult: when your wife mistakes your gaming for actual work, you know there is some cerebral heavy-lifting going on. Indeed, when Zachtronics actually tried to make a game more approachable, in the form of their tactical card-game Ironclad Tactics, Barth conceded in an interview with Graham McAllister that “no one actually wanted to play [it].”
Barth seems doomed to forever shoulder the burden of genius, if only because he does it so well. For a quick recap, in 2011, Zachtronics released its first title, SpaceChem, to universal acclaim. Let’s Play YouTuber GuavaMoment described the glory of some of the more intense puzzles in the game as “what staring into the face of God feels like.” John Bardinelli, the writer for Fizz Pow's Bitcoin Billionaire (a great idle-tap game), enjoyed the immense gratification derived from solving a level as "a true thing of beauty." Graham Smith at Rock Paper Shotgun may have said it best: "SpaceChem broke the brains and captured the hearts of just about everyone." As OPNoobs was established in 2014, we did not have an opportunity to review SpaceChem upon its release, but our analysis may have been in line with Gamasutra’s take, ranking the studio’s debut effort as the #1 Indie Game of 2011. But SHENZHEN has only just been released, and it will be some time for many gamers to fully play through its engineering levels – and I can assure you, not all will be successful in this journey. However, the commendations, praise, and laud heaped upon SpaceChem could just as easily apply to SHENZHEN. In time, perhaps they will.
I say perhaps however because the scale of SHENZHEN is intentionally downplayed.
You do not save humanity with interstellar automation and chemical bonding (SpaceChem) or unlock the secrets of your uncle’s mysterious and corrupted computer (TIS-100, below). None of that. SHENZHEN aims for immersion via verisimilitude. From the perspective of a narrative, it is less a grand design than an invitation to an experience. Much like real life, your ‘missions’ show up as action items in email threads. Much like real life, your responsibilities can be rather mundane: for one of the initial ‘levels’, you fix some code so that LEDs blink properly on a cheap security camera prototype. And much like real life, your efforts are seemingly underappreciated: upon successfully completing a task, your boss, Jie Zhang, the chief staff engineer, might tersely reply “Looks OK.” The lack of fanfare notwithstanding, only Zachtronics and a small handful of other studios could make you want to leave work and escape the email of coworkers so that you can go home, read the email of coworkers, and get to work. (As a side note, also much like corporate life, account executives in SHENZHEN cannot seem to make it through an email without a sprinkling of superlatives and exclamation marks.)
From the very first time you run the game, you are invited to escape; SHENZHEN is Zachary Barth’s world, and we get to live in it. The ‘main menu’ is the slick dashboard of your 概念(Concept)-OS work tablet, replete with reports on the daily weather, air quality, drone activity, and a ‘feed’ (still image) of 'Live' Cam 04 of the Huaqiangbei District of Shenzhen. And when you want to take a break from electrical engineering, you can simply navigate out from your Concept CAD software and start a new game of Solitaire, or the Zachtronics version of Solitaire. SHENZHEN’s Solitaire is a fresh take on the classic and, at its essence, is an exercise tailored to get you in the habit of stepping-through your thought process: What are the repercussions of each move? What new possibilities become available, and which old possibilities are no longer an option? It is not a coincidence that this is the same mentality you adopt when stepping-through your coding.
And step-through your coding you must, for SHENZHEN checks your solutions left, right, and center.
Your final design must stand up to four iterations of testing which can vary slightly, intended to verify that you understand not just the specific details of the problem, but the actual concept behind it. For example, for one challenge you must code a thermal sensor which sounds an alarm at a certain temperature threshold, but only if this threshold is passed between certain times of the day. Barth makes sure your code will work when the threshold is reached between the time constraints, or beginning or terminating concurrently with the time constraints, or continuing beyond the set time frame, or… You cannot simply ‘fudge’ it – and you usually know when you are.
Extra Credits once opined, "Games aren't about what really 'is,' they're about what you perceive. If what mattered in games was what was really happening, we'd be talking about electrical impulses and math, not experiences." It seems Zachtronics took this less as a suggestion and more as a challenge, and made a game literally about electrical impulses and math. But this did not begin with SHENZHEN; in truth, SHENZHEN appears to be the spiritual successor to the studio’s most recent release, TIS-100 (2015), perhaps better known as “the assembly programming game you never asked for!” And it is no surprise that a game which centers around programming (mock) assembly code made the rounds on technophile sites such as Overclock.net and Stack Overflow. In a review of TIS-100, Jeff Atwood, cofounder of Stack Overflow, succinctly captured the appeal of the TIS/SHENZHEN genre: “An arbitrary programming game, particularly one that goes to great lengths to simulate a fictional system, is a wonderful expression of the inherent joy in playing and experimenting with code.”
And that’s just it. SHENZHEN supplies a sense of perpetual discovery because there are so many ways to play and experiment with code: you’re never wrong, you’re just not right yet. The beauty of the game lies in the elegance of its difficulty. You have to find the pattern. And RTFM. All 41 pages of it.