When I read Andrew Plotkin's review of Chemicus, I immediately wanted to play the game and see how good it was. On the whole, I wasn't disappointed, as it's a fun game with an engaging story. But that's not what I'm here to talk about. You want to hear about gameplay and atmosphere, talk to Andrew. I'm here to talk chemistry.
(Biographical note: I graduated from college with a BS in Chemistry, and then spent a few years in graduate school studying organic chemistry. I've also taught general chemistry classes and organic chemistry labs.)
I played Chemicus to evaluate it from two points of view: how good is it at teaching chemistry, and how good is it at performing accurate chemistry? In general, and with a few very specific exceptions, the answers are that yes, it does a good job teaching chemistry, and the chemistry presented is certainly serviceable.
Spoiler warning: I'm going to spoil a lot of Chemicus if you keep reading. You'll still enjoy it, I hope (I played most of the game with a printout of the walkthrough at my side), but it might not be as surprising.
Without further ado: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Like any good chemistry class, Chemicus starts with a few basic experiments to show you what's possible with chemicals around the house. The "general chemistry" course occupies the first few locations, ensuring that the player has a grasp of both the basic mechanics of both the game and the chemistry puzzles. The use of simple apparatus such a gas oven and a hot plate prepares the player for what lies ahead. Luckily for the player, some details are skipped. When I was in high school, I performed the same experiment with red cabbage as in the game. My parents were unhappy, since the house stank of boiled cabbage for a week. Some things are better in simulation.
Chemicus also does very well with some shining examples of what is usually called "real world" chemistry (to the dismay of chemistry teachers, who insist that everything is real world chemistry!). Creating a sparkler out of powdered aluminum is a nice demonstration that most students will be able to identify with. Using neon as a light is something they see every day. But the crowning jewel in this series is taking and developing a basic photograph using a projection lamp, silver nitrate, and several other (very accurate) chemicals. The only thing not accurate is that poor photographer's fingers don't turn brown from using silver nitrate. Although the puzzle of precisely what to photograph is ill-clued, the actual photography puzzle itself is well-documented and well-done.
As with all chemistry courses, Chemicus quickly moves past general, well-known chemistry into the more focused disciplines of inorganic and organic chemistry. Chemicus deals extensively with various inorganic processes. Very nicely done is the puzzle involving the silver bar, finding out its secret, and then using properties known even in medieval times to remove the silver. Also well done was the process of creating glass, including a very clever mechanism for creating many different colors, according to slight changes in the recipe.
Chemicus also includes a very nice introduction to basic organic chemistry. Starting with simple experiments such as steam distillation, the player works up to more advanced experiments, such as creating a basic ester. The culmination of the game is an interesting experiment not in chemical synthesis, but in chemical analysis: taking an unknown substance and identifying it based on its chemical properties. This type of experiment is commonly used as the final practical examination in organic labratory classes, and makes an excellent opportunity to try your hand at real chemistry.
Chemicus also has a few missteps. In the interest of teaching, a few obviously silly things have been included, including the second puzzle of the game, which involes using a lemon as a conductor to turn on the power to a lab. While it's true that a lemon, and more importantly the juice in it, is a weak conductor, the amount of electricity shown in this scene is far too much to be carried by one lemon and a pair of electrodes.
Good lab practice is also ignored in favor of simplifying the experiments. Nothing needs mixing, nothing needs stirring, and nothing takes any time. The worst offender here is the thermite production, where the player merely adds powdered iron oxide and powdered aluminum. This ignores the fact that if the materials are not thoroughly mixed, the reaction only occurs where they touch, and will quickly burn itself out. Just pouring the two ingredients into a flowerpot isn't going to acomplish anything.
Earlier, I spoke at length about the quality of the final part of Chemicus. However, this section was not without its weaknesses. Most notably, the entire analysis (featuring Mass Spectroscopy (MS), Infrared Spectroscopy (IR), and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy) was presented in terms of "put the material in the machine, get a list of structures". In real life, it isn't that easy! The data returned is in the form of a chart, and care (and a practiced eye) must be used to interpret these results and get the lists handed to the player. Even showing sample output from there would have helped to show the player what this type of analysis is like, even if the game also gave them the list of possible results.
Finally, there were a few choices that stuck out as being horrible, especially in what was overall a very well done game. There were a few puzzles (most of them almost totally unrelated to chemistry) that stuck out, not as being exceptionally bad, but as being exceptionally unneeded.
Some of these are simply silly, such as when you repair a ripped hot air balloon using a "nylon swimsuit". Discounting the fact that it must be either a small hole or a large swimsuit for this to work, I can't believe that a game set in an unending succession of chemistry labs was unable to figure out a better way to mention a polymer than to have you pick up a swimsuit.
The worst offender, however, was the "electron morpher". This device is used to transform metal compounds by adding or removing electrons. These types of reactions are known as oxidations (removing electrons) and reductions (adding electrons). While inorganic chemists have, over the years, come up with many inventive ways to perform these reactions, none of them involve pouring powders into little metal cups and whirling them around. I am extremely disappointed in the authors of Chemicus for not trying a little harder to use real chemistry for this puzzle.
Despite my problems with a few puzzles, overall Chemicus was very enjoyable to play. More importantly (from the point of this review), I think that this game does a good job of showing and explaining basic chemistry concepts. While it does gloss over many real life features of laboratory chemistry, it helps to show people what chemistry is capable of and what modern chemistry can do. I certainly recommend it to anyone who feels that they want to learn more about chemistry but can't set up a laboratory in their own basement.
This article copyright © 2003, John Cater