Opus Magnum (2017)

While I love Zachtronics’ style of puzzle games, they are notoriously unapproachable. I struggle to recommend Zachtronics games to people because they are not traditional puzzle games, they are extremely difficult, and it is difficult for new players to learn the rules and mechanics of the games. SHENZHEN I/O for example includes a 30-page PDF manual that explains the programming language of the game, most people are going to see this and just skip the game thinking that it’s not worth the effort. While I love these games, I cannot fault anybody for not being interested in them. It seems to me that Opus Magnum is Zachtronics attempt to create a simpler, more traditional, and approachable puzzle game. It is the most beginner-friendly game of the Zachtronics line-up, and it does a phenomenal job at capturing what makes these games so engaging while also remaining accessible for new players.

Opus Magnum is all about alchemy. The game takes place in a fantasy-steampunk setting, and you use machines to combine and arrange different elements into new products. Each puzzle has a few starting “reagents”, which are some arrangement of colored orbs representing elements. You must place and give instructions to a set of machines to take these reagents and in some way assemble them to make a final “product”. This assembly may involve combining elements, decoupling compounds, or changing the reagent’s composition altogether. The series of mechanical arms and tracks that you place must repeat their actions ad infinitum, continuously changing the reagents into products.

There is a sort of mechanical satisfaction to be found when looking at the completed creations that the player devises. Every time I completed an objective, I would just sit and watch it run for a while. The concept of Opus Magnum helps it stand out from the other Zachtronics games, since it is easier to grasp what is happening at a glance. The rote mechanical creations of Opus Magnum are inherently satisfying. Moreover, the game’s simplicity makes it more approachable to newcomers. In SHENZHEN I/O, the player had to learn a programming language to play. Opus Magnum is comparably simple: move and combine the given colored orbs to form new shapes.

The beauty of Opus Magnum comes from its straightforwardness. Anybody could grasp what is happening. While the puzzles increase with complexity as the game progresses, the core concept of moving orbs around remains the same. There are quick tutorials to show the player the basics, and there are no restrictions when building a solution. You can place as many mechanical components that you want; you have infinite space to make your solution, and your solutions can be slow and inefficient so long as they get the job done. In every way, Opus Magnum is a perfect introduction to Zachtronics games.

There are two critical aspects that I enjoy in Zachtronics games: freedom and optimization. In most puzzle games there is an intended solution to every puzzle. Occasionally you can find an unintended technique that the developers missed, but for the most part the designers of puzzle games try to push the player to a specific answer. Zachtronics games on the other hand are all about creative freedom. You are given a set of starting resources and an end goal, that’s it. Whatever way you can turn the reagents into the product is acceptable. As a programmer, this emulates the process that I go through when trying to code something. I love thinking through the different methods or algorithms that I could use and testing my ideas.

Another aspect of Zachtronics games that mirrors real life programming is optimization. It’s one thing to get a working solution, but it’s an entirely new beast when making a “good” solution. The lead designer of Civilization IV, Soren Johnson, knew the dangers of optimization in games. “Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game”. I find this idea to be unfortunately true. Many games are ruined by exploits or techniques that once discovered; the player will use repeatedly. The fun is drained away once you know the optimal methods of playing. Often times what is fun and what is optimal are at odds, but players tend to gravitate to doing what is optimal; it is just human nature. Zachtronics games tackles this issue by making optimization part of the core experience. It is the game.

In Opus Magnum there are three optimization categories: cost, cycles, and space. Each mechanical component you place has a cost, and your solution’s cost is the sum of all of its components’ costs. The game works in discrete time, each moment is an opportunity to move or rotate a component. Each moment is one “cycle”, and the game keeps track of the total cycles it takes for your solution to make a certain number of products. Lastly, the number of hexagons that your solution interacts with is the total space. Once your solution is complete, the game will show you a leaderboard histogram of the three categories, comparing how you did to others who played the game.

Opus Magnum and other Zachtronics games utilize human nature’s desire to be optimal. If you wanted to, you could play each puzzle four times, with entirely different solutions. Your first solution, a cost-efficient solution, a cycle-efficient solution, and a space-efficient solution are all going to be completely different. You certainly don’t have to replay each puzzle to get a perfect score in each category, I found it satisfying enough to try to make an overall “good” solution on my first try. I tried to balance all of the categories, and this inherent draw to make clean or efficient solutions is addicting. Furthermore, the more effective solutions are elegant and astounding to watch.

The simplicity of Opus Magnum is a double-edged sword. While it is perfect to ease new players into the genre, it will probably bore some veterans. It is possibly the easiest Zachtronics game, for better or worse. The concept of moving colored orbs around is simple to grasp, but I found it to get a little repetitive. While in SHENZHEN I/O I was making various electronics that required vastly differing algorithms, I felt like the puzzles in Opus Magnum all resolved to the same core concepts. I rarely felt like I was solving new problems, instead I was just rearranging the elements into different shapes.

What stands out the most about Opus Magnum compared to its predecessors is how unrestricted it is. In SHENZHEN I/O, each puzzle had a limited workspace, you couldn’t place as many components as you wanted. Moreover, each component had limited memory to fit instructions onto. The largest and most expensive part could only fit 14 lines of code onto it. You had to make your algorithms compact. Opus Magnum doesn’t have these restrictions. You have infinite money, time, and space. The game comes with its own set of challenges, like making sure that parts are synchronized and don’t collide with each other. But this just requires more testing than it does ingenuity.

Unfortunately, I felt that working out an initial solution was more a matter of persistence than it was intelligence. In previous games, a puzzle often times felt daunting or insurmountable. I often questioned how I could complete the task under the conditions. When I did eventually devise a working solution, I felt intelligent and clever. When working on a puzzle I often had to step away and just think about how I could even approach it. Many ideas were formulated when I was making sandwiches or taking a shower. I didn’t have this experience with Opus Magnum. With no restrictions, each puzzle is initially just a matter of brute force.

I didn’t need ingenuity or creative techniques, just the persistence to keep trying and adjusting. That gratifying feeling of “I did it” was mostly absent in my time with Opus Magnum. There were a few times that I made a particularly elegant solution, but other than that I wasn’t proud of my creations. The game doesn’t push the player to create sophisticated machines, it will accept any ugly or inefficient solution. Interestingly, there are puzzles in the post-game that have restricted space, but by then I had mostly had my fill of Opus Magnum.

Overall, I believe Opus Magnum to be the Zachtronics game for beginners. Its simplicity makes it far more approachable than its predecessors. It doesn’t have any restrictions, it has plenty of tutorials, and it is conceptually simple. But all of that comes at the cost of what may appeal to veteran players. I didn’t find myself having to ever think really hard, or come up with some ingenious solution. I found that rearranging the elements was only fun for so long, it lacked the complexity of previous titles. It is for these reasons I give Opus Magnum a 7.5/10. It’s a great game to get started in the Zachtronics anthology, but veterans may find it underwhelming.