Let it be known that I am of the smooth-brained. When I encounter a Tower of Hanoi puzzle in a game, I panic and start throwing disks everywhere. Ask me to ferry a chicken, fox, and grain across a river and I will arrive on the opposite bank on an otherwise-empty boat. And anything involving calculating primes? Forget about it. All of this is to say that I should not be in the target audience for Zachtronics’ newest title, a spiritual sequel to Opus Magnum called Molek-Syntez.
And yet, when it came across my Steam dashboard as an Early Access title, the description captured my attention. “Use the MOLEK-SYNTEZ to create small molecules with various pharmacological effects from the comfort of your small Romanian apartment,” the copy read. I had never played any Zachtronics game, but synthesizing drugs was a compelling premise. I bought the game, launched it, and was confronted with an empty grid and a “target molecule.”
Molek-Syntez doesn’t really have a tutorial, so I found myself just staring at the screen, clicking things in hopes of making something happen. Not only was I in the dark about how to achieve my goal, I couldn’t clearly discern what that goal actually was. And so, I did what any smooth-brained gamer would. I turned the lights down, put my headphones on, and did a bunch of nitrous.
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Nitrous oxide (N2O) is one of the first molecules you’re tasked with building in Molek-Syntez. At room temperature, it is a colorless gas with a slight metallic taste. While it is used for a number of purposes, including increasing the efficiency of internal combustion engines and as an aerosol propellant, it is its status as a pharmaceutical dissociative that lands it in Molek-Syntez‘s ranks, alongside other molecules like propofol, GHB, and tranylcypromine. It’s what the dentist gives you when they strap that mask on your face, though it’s most-commonly taken recreationally via small capsules intended for making whipped cream, colloquially called “whippets” or “nangs” if you’re nasty/British.
In real life, producing nitrous oxide involves heating ammonium nitrate until it decomposes into water and N2O vapor. In Molek-Syntez, you’re instead manipulating things’ atomic level. You dip into a “precursor catalogue” of existing molecules, and then play around with them until you get your desired result.
Nitrous oxide looked pretty simple. I added one water (H20) molecule and two ammonia (NH3) next to each other in the center of the grid. “This is easy,” my smoother-than-usual brain insisted. “I’ll just push them into each other.” I set up an emitter around the outside of the grid to push its target, hit play, and immediately got an error: “atom collision.”
As it turns out, you do not in fact create new molecules by just mashing two together. I thought back to my high-school chemistry class. “There’s a time and a place for everything,” my old teacher’s voice rang out in my head, “and this is it.” I dimly recalled lessons on atomic bonds. Okay, so I had to manipulate hydrogen atoms to get the nitrogen and oxygen to bond correctly. Done.
I fed a few commands into the queue, instructing my machine to remove some hydrogen atoms and hopefully rearrange the component parts into N2O. And I did it, feeling a great rush of accomplishment (and, I should reiterate, real-world nitrous oxide) as I ran it again and produced one molecule of nitrous oxide. That feeling lasted for about a second, as immediately after I hit another error: “incorrect product.”
As it turns out, molecules are very small and you need a lot of them to make a drug. In this case, I had to create 120 molecules of nitrous oxide. Back to the drawing board.
Again, I set up my emitters and my instructions. One emitter pointed at each of the molecules on the grid, instructed to remove hydrogen atoms three times, then output the target. I ran it again, and this time it didn’t stop after the first cycle. Instead, it produced a deeply satisfying loop. It was almost hypnotic, seeing the fruits of my labor play out. That could have been the nitrous, though.
When it was over, I was treated to a graph indicating how I had fared compared to other players on three metrics: the number of modules (molecules and emitters), symbols (instructions), and cycles it had taken me to complete the level. This is a game that wants you to try different solutions and find the most efficient ones possible. That said, I was happy enough to have solved it at all.
I went on to play through the next few levels, unlocking a game of Solitaire and some inner thoughts from my character along the way. And at some point I realized that the nitrous had long-since worn off and I was actually having a good time with the kind of game I’d normally write off as not for me.
Would I have had an easier time playing Molek-Syntez had I not been taking the very drug I was attempting to create? You might think so, but I’m not so sure. At risk of making the moral of this story “drugs are good,” I don’t know that I would have had the patience to break through my initial smooth-brained aversion. In any case, Molek-Syntez seems like a perfect introduction to the world of Zachtronics puzzle games, and I’m glad I gave it a shot.