Synthesizing propofol in MOLEK-SYNTEZ, a Zachtronics game like Opus Magnum.

MOLEK-SYNTEZ is a puzzle game by Zachtronics, known for SpaceChem, SHENZHEN I/O, and TIS-100. It’s a cousin to Opus Magnum, but with chemistry instead of alchemy.

It’s 2092, and you’re a chemist living in a cold Romanian apartment. Your task is to program a molecular synthesizer—your MOLEK-SYNTEZ—by breaking and building bonds in ordinary industrial chemicals to synthesize new pharmacological molecules.

A gif of the synthesis of Dapsone, an antibiotic, in MOLEK SYNTEZ.

These walls don’t do a damn thing to keep the cold out.

Synthesize the good stuff

You're filling the shoes of a 2090s era chemist who's fiddling around with hydrogen bonds. Brief glimpses of this chemist's life fill out cutscenes between puzzles. "The walls don't do a damn thing to keep the cold out", he thinks.

As with most Zachtronics games, the subject matter drives the rules and mechanics of the puzzles. Chemistry knowledge isn't essential here—the mechanics and rules are something you can pick up on the fly, and it's only as complicated as counting bonds between atoms.

It's a pretty textbook "Zachlike" game—you know what to expect if you've played Zachtronics games before. Completing and optimizing puzzles is the journey. This time, though, you’re bonding benzene and carbamide to make Asprin. Or methanol and hydrochloric acid to make chloroform.

In each puzzle, in order to build your target molecule, you program six emitters that add, remove, or shunt hydrogen atoms to and from your target, as well as various operating controls like shifting your emitters, moving or rotating your targets. You program these options on a timeline on the left side of the screen, manipulating and emitting until you finally output your target product. Initially, you’ll seek just to build the molecule altogether. But as you gain experience with reaching solutions, you can more actively devise methods to optimize your programs, like completing target molecules in the fewest number of operation cycles, or with the fewest number of modules or symbols.

A screenshot of the programming of Dapsone, a few steps into producing the target.

Build and optimize your programs

The real game the rewarding feedback loop from optimizing. Once you solve a puzzle you've been chewing on for a bit, MOLEK-SYNTEZ shows you a histogram of solutions, which serves the purpose of setting a newer, harder benchmark for you just a bit out of reach. It's an effective trick in getting you to dive back in and iterate further.

I’m captivated by the irresistible need to optimize my solutions in these games. There’s an unspoken gentleman’s agreement between my friends and me: we’re just going to continue to over-optimize and usurp each other’s leaderboard positions until we get bored of the game. (But we’re here to help each other if someone gets stuck or misses a trick). Naturally, there's also a subreddit where people have been sharing gifs of their solutions.

If you don't have many Steam friends who have picked up this game, you can turn on percentile measures as benchmarks for you to compete against. I try to target my solutions to be in the tenth percentile of whatever category I'm shooting for—the first percentile is too daunting, and I still like to progress onto later puzzles too.

A gif of the synthesis of Mescaline, a hallucinogen, in MOLEK SYNTEZ.

Someone who believes the world is logical is bound for disappointment.

The minimal graphics shouldn’t distract you—even though it’s got cold computer-like looks like TIS-100, the difficulty and accessibility are quite similar to Opus Magnum.

As is tradition, it also includes a new variant of solitaire. It’s a vanilla solitaire variant, but rather than storing cards in the upper foundations, you “cheat” cards onto the top of any pile of your choice. If it sounds precarious, it is—it gets out of hand quickly.

The game’s soundtrack is a 90-minute atmospheric ambient experience, composed by Matthew Seji Burns, who is the composer and writer behind Zachtronics games, and also the director of their visual novel, Eliza. (Which too many people have sold short, and deserves another shout because it’s one of my favorites this year.)

A gif of the synthesis of Aspirin, an analgesic, in MOLEK SYNTEZ.

They all resemble each other, don’t they?
One might get you high as fuck, the other will kill you.

I’ve completed just over half of MOLEK-SYNTEZ’s levels so far. This game may not have the flourish and polish of Opus Magnum or SHENZHEN I/O, but it’s cut from the same cloth—if you’ve enjoyed those, you’ll enjoy this one.

Even though this was a surprise drop with minimal fanfare from Zachtronics on a random Monday, it’s not one to miss. MOLEK-SYNTEZ is available on Steam in early access and will be available on other platforms after the early access period.

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The title screen of Afterparty, depicting Hell with a close up shot of of a bottle of alcohol.

Afterparty is a Hell-based narrative adventure by Night School Studio, known for the acclaimed mystery adventure game, Oxenfree. You play as Lola and Milo, two recently deceased friends who find themselves in Hell—mistakenly, or so they think. Soon after arrival, they learn of a loophole: outdrink Satan, and he’ll let you return to Earth.

Celebrating Charlies bachelor party in Afterparty.

The Abyss

If you distill it down, the point of this game is bar-hopping: drift from bar to bar, order new drinks, and chat with different people as you take on the various puzzles and situations in the game.

This variant of Hell isn’t all that bad of a place. It’s a darker and slightly more tortuous facsimile of Earth. It eschews what could have been a grim horror setting, and instead brings a casual levity to Hell. Satan really could be your friend—and not in a “satanist” way; “hail satan” is used sarcastically in this game.

That said, you’re here after hours where everyone—humans and demons—are off the clock. The allusions to Hell while on the clock sound much, much worse.

One of the vignettes with Wormhorn, your demon.

Your Own, Personal Demon

There’s a wide variety of characters that you encounter in your romp through Hell. You’re assigned a personal demon, Wormhorn, who is responsible for a lot of non sequitur interruptions in your story—she drops in at inopportune moments to offend you. There’s also a demon nicknamed Fela—short for, uh, Fellatio—that requisitions you to help investigate some odd happenings at one of the bars.

One of the highlights is Sam, voiced by the inimitable Ashly Burch, who is your taxi driver throughout the lava rivers of Hell, ping-ponging you from place to place. She’s your friend, and also there for a lot of the exposition, giving you tips and background information for each new situation you’re soon to land yourself in.

Naturally, Satan is the center of the party. Hell is his domain, after all, and you find yourself at his home several times throughout the game. It turns out the big guy isn’t having that good of a time—he’s a bit of nice guy, but can’t keep his right friends and family around him. So maybe you’re not showing up at the best of times, but you’re not going to back down from the opportunity to make your way back to Earth.

The drink menu at the Schoolyard Strangler, a bar in Afterparty

The Schoolyard Strangler

The drinks—Hellcohol, harder stuff than on Earth—are pretty smart, and add a delightful punch of flavor to the game. Each different drink mixes up the game by unlocking new dialogue options tailored to the drink you’ve had.

You take a sip of your drink to unlock the new dialogue associated with your drink. If you don’t take a sip, you limited to default options, or you can say nothing at all. Not every choice is wise, though; mentioning romance to Asmodeus—a club-hitting monarch going through a rough breakup—might earn you some ire.

Even though there are some generic drinks like Bloody Stool give you a punch of confidence, some of the drinks shake up the dialogue. The drink The Grand Exhibitionist makes you talk like a vaudeville villain. Bluebeard’s Last Wife makes ye talk like a pirate—shiver me timbers! Oh, yeah, there’s even a drink that’s advertised as acid. I’ll leave you to ponder that one.

Encountering Satan in Afterparty

After, Party

Afterparty falls in my sweet spot of narrative games where you feel like you’re in control of the story. Night School committed to an actual branching narrative here; your choices take you down substantially different paths where you meet different characters and have different dialogue, even though you’re still going to wind up a drinking game with Satan at the end. There’s enough content for multiple playthroughs here.

Also, for such a long game, the writing sure holds up. You don't get bored of the comedy. Milo and Lola are realistic, flawed characters that you can certainly relate to in some way or another. It’s a testament to the writing that the dialogue stays consistently funny and doesn’t get dreary or fall apart during the game.

Afterparty is your perfect Halloween weekend game, and it’s available on PS4, Xbox One, and the Epic Games store for Mac and PC.

A screenshot of a replay of John Wick Hex, showing John Wick and an enemy pointing their guns at each other.

John Wick Hex is an action strategy game developed by Bithell Games. Billed as a prequel to the John Wick film series, it's a timeline-based action game that puts you deep inside the tactical mind of John Wick.

Who is the Baba Yaga?

So, John Wick is the "Baba Yaga," a title loosely inspired by a Slavic term for an old chaotic witch. But here, it more or less means that "even the Boogeyman would be scared of him." And boy, there sure are Boogeymen here. Hex, an antagonist, developed for the game, kidnaps Winston and Charon. Each new map area is a "scene" set up for you to face a powerful enemy from John Wick's past, before the first movie.

A top down view in the first level of John Wick Hex, showing off the vibrant game style.

This game is heavily stylized in a vibrant and flashy cyberpunk style. The UI is bright, and enemies die in sprays of neon pink blood.

True to the name, Hexes are everything in John Wick Hex. You move about the on a hexagonal grid. Because the levels are designed on a hex grid, but our everyday world on hexes, you don't exactly flow through spaces cleanly. When you first encounter John Wick ping-ponging and serpentining through a hallway, initially it's jarring but later becomes a bit endearing.

Even the final battle against Hex, a mob boss who prefers to stay out of sight, takes place in a Hex shaped room.

A screenshot of John Wick Hex, showing the timeline and game UI, with a the menu of potential actions open.

Watch the timeline

This game is essentially chess, but with guns and melee attacks instead of knights and rooks. You're always thinking about your decisions, and how it'll affect your timing for other incoming attacks from enemies. Mechanically, it's a bit of a cross-breed of the precise action dynamics of Superhot coupled with the tactical calculations of XCOM.

Playing as John Wick, you've got a limited set of actions—like "shoot" and "push"—that dictate how you interact with the world around you. You're free to move about, but every action—including movement—takes time. The timeline auto pauses when your queued action completes, or when there's a new interruption.

When you're scrapping it out against enemies, some actions are faster than others. A takedown is usually pretty useful, but it's a bit slow and needs melee proximity. A push against one enemy might get you out of the range of gunfire from a 2nd attacker. Parrying is an effective rapid response to a close enemy that's attacking, which generally enables you to edge in before their attack fires. You know the drill. On deck is the need to anticipate the moves of the people in the world—and sometimes it's better to wait.

A cutscene screenshot of Osborn, one of John Wick Hex's bosses in the Elysium level of the game.

It's a bit janky

Some parts of the game feel a bit off, though. In particular, the replay mode—which is available after you complete a level—stands out as having the most significant room for polish. Animations feel stilted and stuttery; there doesn't seem to be blended movements at play here. The dynamic camera also picks shots that are relatively uncinematic, occluding John or the enemy you're attacking from view, like behind an object or wall. It doesn't feel like a perfectly orchestrated cinematic action experience like the movies portray, but if you can look past that it's still an effective reflection of how you conquered a level.

Also at times, John Wick Hex has some tight difficulty pinch points which can make it a bit of a brutal game, much like XCOM, so you should get used to dying. I got extremely stuck in the Osborn level of Elysium and was frustrated because I felt like I was close but not quite to getting Osborne. I'd just get overwhelmed by a mire of enemies, even if I swept the place before entering Osborn's room. Part of me wants a lower difficulty I could flip on for that level, so I could advance forward and then flip it back to normal. It was worth it to stick with it, though—the level after Osborn introduced new enemies and weapons in the world that refreshed the tactical feel of the game after that tired boss fight.

A screenshot of John Wick Hex, showing John Wick in a spot of trouble against a boss.

Give it a shot

This game is a total departure from some of Bithell's past narrative-heavy games I've played, like Thomas Was Alone and Subsurface Circular. Even though it takes place in a story filled universe, the narrative takes the side seat to the tactics here.

If you're a John Wick series die-hard looking for the next dose of John Wick canon, there's no excuse to not pick up this game. The game is tightly associated with Lionsgate, featuring voice acting from the actual actors of Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (Lance Reddick). If you're just looking for a good indie tactics game, but the cost ($19.99 at the time of publishing) is too much to chew, wait and give this game a shot when it's on sale.

John Wick Hex is available on the Epic Games store for Windows and macOS. The game's publisher provided a review copy of this game.

Marketing artwork for Link's Awakening, dramatically composed to depict Link's drive and determination in this adorable new 3d world.

Okay, okay, I know. This isn’t an indie title at all. But bear with me, I’m trying something new.

The Legend of Zelda: Links Awakening for Nintendo Switch is a remake of a classic 90’s era Gameboy title. The remake clings onto the classic gameplay of the original but adopts a retro-modern 2.5D tilt-shift aesthetic.

There’s really a lot to say about how good this game is. There have been ample positive reviews, in both the 90s and 2019. But, that’s to be expected—Nintendo wouldn’t have remade this game for the Switch in 2019 if it wasn’t a good game to start with.

A screenshot showing Link attacking an enemy with a sword in the overworld.

Mechanical Language and Accessibility

Link’s Awakening is an exciting modern case study for how game design has changed over time, particularly in terms of game mechanics and accessibility. Yeah, I know I overuse the word “mechanics” on this site—and some jokes have been made at my expense for it—but this post is a deep dive on mechanics.

Even with the ground-up redesign and new style, the actual gameplay of Link’s Awakening is relentlessly classic. In the 26 years since this game was first released, game design has vastly evolved. For example, there’s more understanding around the quality of life and player experience, and how exactly that applies to games these days. Every designer knows fetch quests are busywork, and tasks that require blind trial and error are recipes for player frustration—but, that knowledge only comes with time.

Link attacking a dungeon miniboss with a sword.

Minimal player hinting

For what it’s worth, Link’s Awakening has an immaculate, linear story, and it’s hard to get lost in the narrative. The plot is primarily driven by the owl character. And if you do get lost, you have the telephone booths where you can speak with Old Man Ulrira.

But the primary challenge is the how—the game isn’t shy about telling you your goal at all, but occasionally extremely teasy about showing you how to get there. In one Old Man Ulrira call I got hung up on (about the Yarna Desert), he gives you a tip and ends the call, saying “Hmmm... How much more obvious do I have to be,”—but figuring out how to get to the desert was one of the hardest tasks in the game for me. The game teasingly expects you to try everything until you eventually figure it out.

In today’s games, there’s usually hints to give you a sense that you’re on the right track. Like brighter lighting when you’re on the right path, or scratches and wear pattern textures around frequently used doors. But, in Link’s Awakening, I found myself trekking across the map several times, fully knowing my ultimate destination but not the slightest clue of how to get there.

And, in that sort of way, the game has a relentless difficulty ramp. It’s far too easy at times, which leads to Polygon’s “perfect Zelda for younger fans” review, but also quite tricky when you’re spinning your wheels searching for more solutions.

Inscrutable Boss Difficulty

The dungeon bosses are also a quality example of how player accessibility has changed. While most bosses in the game are rather quite tame, a few have a Dark Souls’y level of difficulty, with just one way to elicit their weakness and deal damage to them.

I’m usually okay with battles give me a specific window of time to get in a hit, or that force me to switch to an appropriate weapon. It’s rewarding to figure things like that out. However, this game offers no hinting to indicate to you that you’re close to figuring them out.

The game doesn’t discriminate between failure here. If your strategy, weapon, or timing is wrong, you’ll get precisely the same block animation in every case. There are no alternate animations to give you an idea that you’re making any progress—even something like a subtly different deflection, or additional shield noise. There’s also nothing like “anticipation” animations in this game—sorts of subliminal hint that indicate certain times are good to get in an attack.

This made me write off too many strategies that were initially correct because I wasn’t getting the sort of reactive feedback I expected—something to hint that I was close but subtly wrong. This only made my returns to these initially correct strategies frustrating and unsatisfying—I knew I was right, but my execution was just slightly wrong.

Oh, and the difficulty curve varies wildly on you: sometimes the boss in the very next dungeon can be a total breeze, like something wide open that can be taken down with three or four arrows with and a complete disregard for precise timing.

Link avoiding a water spider boss

It’s too easy to spoil yourself

This game was built in an era of Nintendo Power magazine subscriptions, Prima strategy guides, and the Nintendo tips hotline sticker on the back of your GameBoy. Now that the internet has superseded these, the nature of information accessibility has changed.

Whenever I hit a brick wall as a kid, I’d usually scour a strategy guide to get an idea of what to do next. And it wasn’t cheating to use these—things like the Prima Strategy guides and Nintendo Power often offered critical worldbuilding and flavor while guiding you on your journey through the game.

Today’s answer, however, is searching the internet. In this world of hashtagcontent and profit engineering, a walkthrough is no longer flipping through a nicely editorialized worldbuilding book for subtle hints on what to do before giving you the right answer. Instead, anything you get is a dry, ordered list that cooly gives you your next immediate action. (This also puts you at risk of spoiling yourself to the next ten or so things you have to do if you scroll too far down the page).

Link happily fising, holding a fishing rod and a recently caught fish.

It’s still a good game

The collective knowledge of how to build games has evolved for the better. This means that more carefully considered gaming experiences do exist these days. (Even though there’s still repressed undercurrents of discussion about the accessibility of difficulty in games.)

A dive into Link’s Awakening shows that games designed these days are far better in handling their difficulty ramp, and giving players enough of a framework of what to do when they’re blocked. That means, we can have games like the Dark Souls series, which are far more difficult than a game like this, because we’ve learned how to teach players how to observe, struggle, and grow through things, like gameplay hinting.

That being said, I massively enjoyed playing this game, and I’m super glad this remake exists. It’s a good dive into nostalgic gaming, and it was interesting examining this game through a bit of a modern lens.

Ocarina of Time remake next, Nintendo?

David in Telling Lies

Okay, kids, get out your pen and paper; you’re taking notes.

Telling Lies is a voyeuristic narrative full motion video game by Sam Barlow. You scan a government-collated database of recorded conversations, looking deeply into the stories of, and relationships between characters.

The desktop and Retina software in Telling Lies

Surveillance Software

The game takes place in a “desktop simulator” that feels a bit like an Ubuntu Linux desktop environment. The meat of the game takes place by searching for clips in Retina, a pretty plausible piece of surveillence state government software. The videos you call up are, for the most part, one half of a two-way video call. Unhindered access to these personal videos is what makes the game ultimately feel voyeuristic. You know that you shouldn’t be watching this—these people didn't exactly consent to the government recordings. But, you just want to see how their stories unfold, and feel closer (or more distant) from some characters.

The game’s main character, David, is played by Logan Marshall-Green, supported by three other characters played by Alexandra Shipp, Kerry Bishé and Angela Sarafyan. David is a vastly complicated character and plays at the center of the giant nest of lies and half-truths that make up this story. I most closely followed the relationship between David and Ava (Alexandra Shipp’s character), a climate change protester that David gets quite close with.

The videos you find and watch feel, well, deeply personal. When you’re watching these actors in movies or on tv, they feel distant and non-impactful, no matter how compelling their delivery. Here, you almost feel them looking right at you, as they deliver their performances right into a camera for you to see. This delivery makes the videos feel truly raw—almost like they are government intercepted recordings of video chats—and can go on for minutes at a time.

Ava in Telling Lies

The evolution of the story

Sam Barlow, the game’s director, is a master of non-linear stories. His first indie title, Her Story, uses a similar video query interface. Where Her Story first experimented with the mechanic—by querying and reviewing small segmented snippets of a few police interviews—Telling Lies evolves it. You’re now watching full videos, hunting for keywords that not only help you progress your understanding of the intertwined plots but also finding the other half of the call you’re watching—seeing the other side to the story.

Throughout the game, I filled up four pages of my notebook, covering anything from notes on characters, new keywords to search, to quick scribbles from piecing together sudden story revelations. You’ll want to take notes too, either using the in-game note tool, your own notes app, or classic, analog pen and paper. (I recommend the latter.)

You see, the story isn’t laid out on paper. Nothing exists to say, “here’s the plot.” The only thing that guides you is the game’s initial query of LOVE. This gives you a few videos to skim for keywords and gather your initial impressions. Then it’s up to you to build your knowledge and understanding of the characters, their relationships, and their stories, and uncover their lies and half-truths. My experience won’t be like yours—we might have different conclusions about people’s motivations here, and that’s what makes this interesting.

Gameplay Tip:

If you query a video and feel like you’ve missed something, you can always scrub backward to earlier points in the video to see more.

This game feels like a love story to FMV video games, an all but dead genre, and shows more games like this can exist today. Which is why I’m posting about it here—It’s not a true indie title, with a credits roll of hundreds, but it feels like an indie-scale game gone right. I want more things like this, and want to see more of this from small creators.

Telling Lies is available on Steam for Windows and macOS.

There's more to be seen!