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Oxygen Not Included is a breath of fresh air

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Impressions on Klei's tunnels-in-space game

Part of my job is to watch out for games that are popping on Steam, to take a look at them and to decide if they are worth a story. You'd think that would be all daisies and buttercups, but as often as not, I'll play some game for a bit and then decide, nah, this is boring, and I'll look for a more interesting story.

Last week, Oxygen Not Included came up in a Slack conversation. It's an Early Access game that's getting some buzz, so I decided to give it a whirl.

I played it for three days straight. Reluctantly, I figured I really ought to stop playing, and maybe, actually write something. To be clear, this is a really good game.

This shouldn't be entirely surprising, since it was developed by highly regarded Canadian team Klei Entertainment, best known for Mark of the Ninja and Don't Starve. Oxygen Not Included shares the kooky art-style and ready wit of those games, as well as a ferociously tight user interface and smart pacing.

Oxygen Not Included
Klei Entertainment

It's a sideways-view building and resource management game set inside a giant space rock. I begin the game with three little characters who've been portaled into a small hole inside the rock, armed with nothing more than a box filled with a few days' worth of food and some funky tools for digging.

They begin tunneling in order to create more room for themselves, and to yield resources. The inside of this rock is a Battenberg Cake of liquids, solids and gases, as well as organic stuff that is either really useful or absolutely life-threatening.

There's not much in the way of guidance, and so I use trial and error to figure out how to survive. I build rooms, secure them from gas or liquid flooding, find a way to generate food and, of course, oxygen.

Oxygen is the game's central resource. At first, I'm given a few pockets of it, here and there, toward which I carve out my tiny empire. But air soon runs out, and so I need to figure out which machines to build in order to keep breathing, and to find the resources needed to feed those machines.

Oxygen Not Included
Klei Entertainment

As I build more rooms, I begin to fill them with essential stuff, like a generator, a food-processor, cots, a toilet and a computer. This last one is needed to research the technologies I'll need when the early game solutions turn out to be temporary fixes, doomed to fail as key resources run dry.

Each world is randomly generated, but they all follow a similar pattern, beginning in a place where there are some useful and familiar resources, and then working outward toward more exotic and extreme resources.

Oxygen Not Included comes from a long line of terrain management games, from SimCity to Dwarf Fortress to RimWorld. Those games offer a top-down view of the world, but this sideways slice offers more opportunities to have some fun with the personalities of the workers.

Over time, more characters are portaled into play. Each comes with his or her own skills and peculiarities. At first, none of this really matters — they are there to dig and to build — but in the later game, it becomes more important to keep my people happy, and to have a care about their well-being. They each have little animations that clue me into their emotional well-being, including sneaking off to a quiet place for a good cry. Honestly, I can't blame them. They live hard lives and I’m a cruel taskmaster.

Oxygen Not Included
Klei Entertainment

As the game progresses it offers up new problems, new resources and new solutions. But it's never just a case of finding the correct block to fill the right hole. It's about figuring stuff out, to do with physics and science. Gases of different weight behave in ways that can be exploited. Solids with different properties can produce catastrophic consequences.

Example: It turns out to be a terrible idea to build a room underneath a sand-bottomed lake.

There are fiddly puzzles to resolve, to do with power circuits and plumbing. If, like me, you enjoy messing around with virtual pipes and conduits, you're in for a good time.

I haven't played enough of the late game to really judge its effectiveness. Late game is often the point at which strategy games lose cohesion. But I'm the sort of person who abandons my worlds at the point when it's clear I've learned a key lesson that I can use next time. And so, I work my way slowly toward the higher technologies and the bigger worlds.

Oxygen Not Included is charming, engaging and deep. It's still in development, so you can expect some bugs and oddities. But it's a brilliant take on the idea of exploration and problem-solving, in which each game follows a certain path, but always seems different from the last.

I'm going to go back in, to try to find my perfect little space world. I also hope Klei feels emboldened to keep adding to the game's palette. Sometimes complexity is welcomed.