Despite not being initially impressed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI), I continued playing. And now I’m very impressed with the rather clever gameplay flow that Klei has touched upon.
Like I mentioned before, every game of ONI starts with three Duplicants appearing in the middle of an asteroid. While you have enough supplies for a few days, there is always a bit of a frenzy of activity hollowing out some living space for your Duplicants. Amusingly, toilets end up being actually a higher priority than even water. By the end of the second day or so, I’ve got a water pump set up, some toilets, a bunch of resource compactors (e.g. storage), some beds, a Microbe Musher, and perhaps a manual electricity generator hooked up to an Algae Deoxydizer.
This is where the subtle genius of the game design kicks in.
Ostensibly, your base seems self-sufficient. The Algae Deoxydizer is converting algae into oxygen, the Microbe Musher is turning dirt and water into Mush Bars (e.g. calories). And you presumably have a nice supply of water handy. For now, everything seems fine. Emphasis on the “for now.”
The whole time your Duplicants have been running around, they have been exhaling CO2. This pools in the lower reaches of your base, turning certain sections into unbreathable rooms. Even if you dig out a trench beneath your base for the express purpose of giving CO2 somewhere to go, it never actually goes away – it will eventually become dense enough to spill into upper rooms. So, you’re going to need to research technology to try and filter that CO2. Something like the Carbon Skimmer sounds great… but using that requires turning drinkable water into polluted water. Where is that polluted water going to live? Hmm, perhaps you need to research methods by which you can filter polluted water back into drinkable water…
And round and round we go.
While this seems like Game Design 101, I do appreciate the flow ONI has set up here. At times, things can seem incredibly frustrating insofar as a fundamental flaw in your base design reveals itself far too late for you to realistically do anything about it. But most of the time, I just get a bit more excited to start back over with a fresh world and learn from my mistakes.
And somehow, these sort of things feel like my mistakes, rather than the game being cruel. “CO2 is heavier than Oxygen, so of course I shouldn’t have built my beds on the bottom floor.” “Oh, damn, I accepted one too many Duplicants, and now my food generation isn’t enough.” “Shit, I have been relying on six different machines that consume algae, and now I’m running out!”
Oxygen Not Included is still in Alpha, so there are a lot of things that can change. While I’m having more fun with it than I was originally, in the back of my mind, I also sort of recognize that the game is “solved.” As in, there are optimal base configurations that maximize output and minimize waste. While the same could sorta be said for other survival games, the issue is that ONI is all about managing a finite amount of resources. With something like Don’t Starve, I could always just strike off and head into the wilderness and take a chance.
I dunno. The asteroid itself is randomly seeded with biomes each time, so I can see encountering special circumstances that might change a strategy. For example, most people head towards Electrolizers and Hydrogen Generators, because they combo really well in powering your base and providing Oxygen (at the expense of water). I was heading that way too, before I discovered a Natural Gas Geyser – geysers being the only source of renewable resources – within sight of my starting point. All of a sudden, I was rushing to figure out how to exploit burning natural gas. “OK, it dumps out polluted water and a bunch of CO2. The CO2 scrubber deletes CO2 and also produces polluted water, so I should pipe that through a Water Sieve to reclaim the pure water, then send that into an Electrolyzer… but what about the Hydrogen?”
Like I said, there is a lot about Oxygen Not Included that can be compelling.
For now though, I’m going to stop generating new worlds and wait for some more releases to flesh out the rest of the game. The recent “Rancher” update overhauled a lot of the alien critter mechanics, invalidating certain strategies and presumably enabling a few others. I’m hoping that after a few more of those kind of patches, we’ll start to see something resembling a story-mode, and/or a way to make the march to endgame a bit more varied. The Rancher updates does this a little, but I feel we still end up with Hydrogen Generators and abusing Wheezewort (cooling plants) mechanics.