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Here’s a fascinating historical ‘might’ve been’ for you. The man who made Infinifactory – Zachtronics, aka Zach Barth – almost made Minecraft. After all, Notch’s game was an admitted copy of Infiniminer, one of Zachtronics’s early games. But Infiniminer’s source code was leaked shortly after launch and the game was abandoned, allowing Notch to swoop in and make a (much-improved) copy, then sell it five years later for $2.5bn.

Barth hasn’t seemed unduly upset by these events, but has continued to put out the super-puzzle games he’s become known for. The most famous of these is SpaceChem, a superb chemistry/ programming game that’s available free to schools. Infinifactory is an indirect sequel.

Infinifactory-gameplay Infinifactory

Who’d have thought manufacturing ICBMs would be such fun?

In Infinifactory, you play an anonymous pleb, abducted by aliens and forced to build machinery. You see, the aliens are either too lazy or too thumb-fingered to build anything themselves, but they have this whole armada that needs constant crafting and maintaining. They, apparently, do this by kidnapping humans and getting them to do it (the ones who pass the initial tests, anyway). Your rewards for performing all their tasks range from a selection of random trophies to VHS tapes with no video player, and from a pile of food pellets to a bare cell in their mothership.

There is no escape. Attempts to use the supplied jetpack to fly away have you swiftly returned to your work station. The only successful way out, it appears, is death – and scattered across the levels are the bodies of previous workers, complete with the recordings of their last moments.

This is all a very Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy justification for doing some puzzles, but it gives the game some design coherency and vim. Hunting out the audio diaries of your failed predecessors, for example, is one of the game’s side-joys.

Process power

The puzzles themselves are doozies. Each level gives you certain inputs and asks you to use them to generate certain outputs. The inputs are produced by machines at certain locations and often need substantial processing – rotating, welding, separating, destroying – and good timing to be in the right order, at the right place, for the right process. The processing is the core part of the puzzle, as you place down blocks that affect blocks passing over them, or detect blocks in the case of sensors, triggering actions elsewhere.

Infinifactory-alien Infinifactory

Our (bored) alien overlords.

Unlike SpaceChem, these puzzles are three-dimensional, which means a solved puzzle can be completely obscure. All you can see from the outside might be inputs and outputs passing through a grey cube, while the complex products of your reasoning are buzzing away inside. It also means that gravity has to be taken into account, so your structures can’t just float in the air.

When you’re ready – or you just want to test your system – you can trigger the machines to start outputting, and watch your system succeed or fail. A useful fast-forward function helps you get to the critical point (which can sometimes be after a few minutes of processing), while a pause lets you scrutinise the moment.

It’s worth saying that some of the usability elements that made SpaceChem slightly more accessible are missing here. Rewind and slow-mo functions, like in SpaceChem, would have been useful, as they’re helpful for understanding where you’re going wrong. The ability to copy and replicate groups of blocks you use regularly is also missing.

Other game’s puzzles are obscure, or feature elements of randomness – a standard Match-3 like Candy Crush gives you arbitrary new objects, while the puzzle element’s impact on your targets is minimised, so that your choice is to play the odds many times or buy your way through to the next level. By comparison. What’s unique about all of Zachtronics’s games is that they’re pure tests of reasoning. Nothing is hidden and everything is known – the inputs, the techniques, the outputs and the level layout. It’s entirely down to your imagination and logic whether you can solve the puzzle or not. And given those sandbox tools, there’s no single solution.

Not so simple

That makes it hard. These puzzles look simple – move and combine these blocks – but they’re often unbelievably difficult, and require endless iteration. It’s one of those games that you’ll dream about, and wake up in the morning with a possible solution to a difficult level.

Significantly, like SpaceChem, at the end of each puzzle area you get to see how you’ve done relative to your Steam friends, and compared to the world averages, on three different measures – the number of cycles your apparatus took, the amount of blocks it needed, and the amount of floorspace it needed. It’s a great touch, because it immediately hints at the other possible routes you could have taken, or to congratulate yourself on beating the average. There’s no victory so hollow as completing a level inefficiently using 40 blocks, then seeing a friend completed it using just four blocks. Nor victory so sweet as doing it using just three.

Once you’ve completed the game’s main storyline and campaigns, you can start trying puzzles that users have made on Steam Workshop.

It’s worth noting that if your computer can’t run Infinifactory , or you’re a hardcore, old-school programmer, then you might want to consider TIS-100, another game that Zachtronics has released at the same time on Steam Early Access. It’s functionally the same game as SpaceChem, but the fancy graphical user interface has been replaced by programming code and a screen style that’ll be familiar to older DOS or BASIC users.

Infinifactory, like its predecessors, is the perfect mixture of gentle humour, soft-touch storytelling and rigorous puzzle-solving. At its heart is that loving, logical minimalism that’s necessary for engineering or philosophy. As such, it’s a game we’d heartily recommend for children from seven to 70

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