Over the last few years I have played a number of programming games. It had me questioning as to why. There must be a reason I play them like some sort of Pavlov reaction. Especially the Zachtronics games have become my favorites. The challenge and novelty are certainly reasons, but ultimately they approach a world in which I work on a daily basis – that of the computer. With programming games you get to experience the challenges in a fun way – its a gamification of fantasy. That said, Zachtronics in particular, add their unique flavor of humor to the experience. So with this article I hope to give you an overview of the market and which games may be considered the bets of the bunch. Lets start this list with 3 Zachtronics games.
Zachtronics has labeled TIS-100 as the ‘assembly game no one asked for’. That label is quite apt. In TIS-100 you have to solve puzzles using an ‘assembly-like’ language. The interface is deliberately understated compared to Shenzhen I/O and Exapunks but that only amplifies the sardonic wit that comes with completing the puzzles. TIS-100 starts off easy enough. Use some variables and some conditional variables to ensure what is stored in your registers and sent to output match what the puzzle conditions. Quickly the puzzles become harder and solutions start requiring careful consideration. You will need to husband your resources such as programming space and registers in order to obtain the solution. TIS-100 can to a degree lay claim to the current surge in popularity of programming games. So be sure to check it out on Steam.
In Shenzhen I/O you play as a electronics engineer at a company on Shenzhen, China. You are tasked with designing circuits for customers. Their order is your puzzle. To complete a puzzle you must choose amongst a set of microcontrollers, ensuring not to use too many. Then using a programming language similar to Assembly the player has to ensure the circuits output the correct signals. The player is challenged by the fact they only have a limited number of lines to write their code.
This ensure that the player has to get a proper grasp of the problem and the programming language. I found that having a second look at some of the lesser known features gave a more optimal solution. Just like TIS-100 and Exapunks the player is show how their solutions measure up to that of others. Shenzhen I/O comes with a manual that you are asked to print out and keep by your side. Besides a description of the circuits and the Assembly-like language it also offers details on the puzzles. Considering where you work – Shenzhen, China – the story quickly goes of the rails.
Exapunks is bit of a departure from the other two games. This time you program small applications that are sent out to perform tasks on any computer system. They are Exa’s which stands for Executable Agent. It is mostly fiction, programs can copy themselves to a system but are not known to just jump around systems. It is a fictionalization to offer the player a more exciting setting and more challenging puzzles. And it works, as good as the previous games are Exapunks might be the best of the bunch.
Zachtronics continues their quirky delivery of digital game manuals. This time the player is sent digital editions of a hackers zine form the 90s. The manuals have all the details on how to create the correct Exa’s but also include a recipe for donuts and even a short story. You can read my review of Exapunks on this site, the game currently retails for $ 19.99 on Steam.
Human Resource Machine
Human Resource Machine is a game developed by Tomorrow Corporation. The game no longer takes inside a computer, instead it is set in an office. You as an office employee need to ensure that its processes perform as smoothly as possible. Again using a Assembly like language you have to complete specific tasks. The game makes clever use of the office floor plan to teach the player about use of memory. Just as with the Zachtronics games the goal is to come up with a solution that generalizes so during testing is need to pass variations of the problem. Human Resource Machine is currently available for just about every platform except PlayStation. Players on Nintendo witch and iOS are lucky, those platforms also got the sequel 7 Billion Human.
Hackmud can be best described as a hacking simulator. Officially it is inspired by movies such as WarGames and Jurassic Park and the 90s in general. As such the game gives the player a simplified hacking environment, but the game’s challenges are anything but simple. Hackmud is an MMO, but there is also a single player campaign. On YouTube there are plenty of tutorials in which players make their own content for the game, that is a novelty I have not seen often in games.
One of the most unusual games in this list is Pony Island. It is an Indie game developed by Daniel Mullins. The game takes place while you the player are actually playing the game. But to complete you also need to understand the system on which the game is played. It is thus a meta-game. Should you fail your soul will belong to Satan. While playing you are helped by the previous soul of a player. Mullins went all in with fake error messages given by your Steam account, a pseudo-programming language and interfaces. That said, Pony Island is a relatively short game and can be played using just the mouse. If you want to experience an absurd but highly worthwhile adventure than Pony Island is the game to play.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is the brain child of Brendon Chung. Just like the other games on this list it can be a bit difficult to describe the concept. Quadrilateral Cowboy is a first-person puzzle game. Using an in-game computer the player is tasked with bypassing security. The game is set in the 1980s and so the computer at your disposal is a 56.6k modem and no less than 256k of RAMs. In the words of a famous billionaire, that ought to be enough for anyone. Quadrilateral Cowboy can be best described as a heist planner. Using your computer you must time your actions correctly to bypass security. Brendon Chung admits there are plenty of references to Neuromancer, Uplink, Ghost in the Shell and Snow Crash. If that is not a reason to try out Quadrilateral Cowboy then I do not know what is.
More Programming Games
There are plenty of other programming games. A lot of them are by Zachtronics. Games such Opus Magnum, Infinifactory and SpaceChem are just a few. Then there are games that use programming as part of their mini-games. Good examples are else Heart.Break() and Transistor.
Whereas previously we might get one or two such games per decade now it looks as though we are getting that amount per year. And the I have not even mentioned games such as Dreams, which is basically a Game Creation System. Rec Room is another such example.