I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent person. I did well in grades K-12, secured a B.S. in hard science, worked IT support before it went all flow-chart, and am now a full-stack application developer. Imagine my surprise and frustration whenever I decide that “sure! I can totally handle any game from Zachtronics!”.
Zachtronics is Zach Barth, which is a name we’d totally expect an alien living among us to adopt in order to “fit in” so it can pump out what it considers to be “entertainment”, while real humans consider it to be “sanity shattering puzzle software”. He’s a prodigious lone-developer who has created some of the most mind-wracking puzzle-games that I have had the pleasure to play.
I have tried SpaceChem, Infinifactory, and now Shenzhen I/O, and have Opus Magnum and ExaPunks on the wishlist. Zachtronics creates immersive puzzle games which are more than just point and click or straight-up environmental logic puzzles. Most of the parts in these games have properties, and it’s up to you to determine how to leverage those properties alongside other parts and their properties to solve the goal of the immediate puzzle. In SpaceChem, for example, you will need to combine atoms together at specific intervals, following the rules of chemistry. In Shenzhen I/O you need to program microprocessors to translate the input to output using a minimalistic programming language. While the puzzles all make a specific set of materials available to work with, and a specific goal to achieve, there’s really no one way to bring the two together. There’s an efficient way, which you’ll understand in the end as you’re usually graded on your solution at the completion of each puzzle, so the fun and frustration is one part solving the puzzle somehow, and one part trying to do it in the most efficient way possible.
I’m not a fan of the “Souls-like” method of difficulty because I consider that to be mainly knowing when to push a button or press a stick, which I realize comes across as condescending in a post in which I am obviously trying to sell you on what I consider to be a superior and more fulfilling avenue of proving your worth through video gaming, but there you go. I suppose in the spirit of maintaining peace between various camps I should say that solving a puzzle in a Zachtronics game gives me a level of intense satisfaction that I assume is the same kind of satisfaction that Souls-like players get from sweatily mashing buttons. I have never wanted to chuck my gaming rig out the window when frustrated by a Zachtronic pizzle, though. Instead, I go to bed and stare at the ceiling for a few hours trying to mentally push buttons and pull levers that could lead to a solution to the last puzzle I encountered.
These words may make these games seem like tests administered by a secret alien cadre of which Zachbarth is the lead scientist, but none of the games that I have played thus far require a particularly advanced set of intelligence or skills. In Shenzhen I/O, there are about a dozen commands that you need to understand how to use, and about that many different components that you can leverage in creative ways. Beyond that, it’s really just a case of arranging and rearranging the parts and the code in a logical manner. In fact, I’d say that if you wanted to learn to program but didn’t want to sit through some boring-ass engineer droning on about variables and loops, Shenzhen I/O is a fun way to learn how to think in programmatic structures to solve problems. These are less MENSA tests and more “intelligent games for the masses”.
I am currently pushing my way through Shenzhen I/O as you might assume, and while it’s slow going, the going is very rewarding. I’m trying very hard not to research anything on the Internet, and that’s made easier by the fact that the game comes with a PDF manual that they suggest you print out and store in a 3 ring binder in order to commit to the in-game aesthetic that you’re working for a soulless (!) multinational technology company, circa 1970 something (I’m not entirely sure when the game “takes place”, to be honest). Some parts in the game and of the game aren’t explained at all, which has lead me to the Internet for clarity, but so far, no spoilers. Again, while there can be multiple ways of solving any problem, there’s always the most efficient way, which is probably what you’ll end up finding if you look up specific puzzle solutions on YouTube. And to make you feel even more superior/inferior, the puzzle completion screen ranks you in relation to people on your Steam friends list who have also played that particular puzzle!