Friday 17 August 2018

Opus Magnum – Adventures in Alchemy, Bondage and Depression

Opus Magnum – Adventures in Alchemy, Bondage and Depression

By Casey Douglass

Opus Magnum

When I slip into depression, I find certain video games quite useful. Some provide the kind of gentle absorption that gives me a slight break from myself, others offer me the capacity to be aimless in a fun way for little while. Zachtronics’ alchemy puzzle game Opus Magnum falls into the first category, a game that I thought I might find frustrating, but that has actually become the “mind food” game that I nibble at every morning. This post will look at some of the ways that I feel Opus Magnum helps me with my mental state, so if you are looking for a review, you'll have to find one elsewhere I’m afraid.

Anyone familiar with Zachtronics’ games will know that some of them are incredibly difficult. Even the “easier” ones can become quite complicated before you know it. If that wasn’t enough, they usually include a community-based “How Well You Did” screen after each puzzle, showing how the efficiency or speed of your design compares with others who’ve completed the same puzzle. It’s quite likely, if there was one, that your solution would place you in the “Holy Shit! What did you do?” category. At least after your first attempt anyway.

This might all sound like a bit of a nightmare for someone in the throes of depression. Not only do you get the stress of trying to solve the puzzle, you most likely will also have some urges towards perfectionism, and the prospect of some competition from a faceless community that will only increase your feelings of inadequacy doesn’t sound like much fun does it!

Unless, that is, you approach things in a more measured way, a way that might also help your thinking with regards to non-digital pursuits in other areas of your life.

Just Solve The Blinkin’ Puzzle!

I said something like this to myself at one point, when I’d caught myself dilly dallying about where to put a few of the components in my latest alchemical machine. It does cut to the root of the thing though. At base, I needed to solve the puzzle. The “how” didn’t matter, the beauty of the device was immaterial, the efficiency... well, who cares if it takes ten times longer than the design of someone else? Opus Magnum doesn’t put restrictions on how many gizmos you use or how long the machine takes to perform its function, so your first attempt can be a massive, slow monstrosity, and still produce the outcome you need. Also, and this is quite important, you can’t refine a solution to a problem unless you have something to refine.

How many other things does this approach apply to? A good many. A prime example is a writer who doesn’t write that first draft because they want it to be perfect from the beginning. If you don’t give yourself permission to experiment and fail, you aren’t going to get very far, particularly with any work that involves creativity. It really is pointless to worry about refinements to something when the “thing” hasn’t even been created. It’s a little like worrying about your car’s first year service... before you’ve even decided which car to buy, let alone bought the thing.

Break It Down

Opus Magnum has the player creating various products by way of alchemical agents, such as the elements (air, water, etc.), salt and lead. By manipulating these with various arms, converters and bond-creators (Aha! This is the bondage I mentioned in the title, sorry if your naughty thoughts led you to expect something more... leathery!) and breakers, you need to get the correct layout and bonds into place before the output section will count it as being made. Some of the patterns are quite intricate, so looking carefully at what is required can often make things less daunting.

I found a good way to approach this was to first drag the mechanisms that I knew I would need into place. Need to create salt from an element? You need one of those converter pad things. Need to create bonds in a kind of “Y on it’s side” pattern? There’s a gizmo for that too. Just having the tools out in the work area helped me to drill down into what was required. Then I experimented.

I would often try to make a certain part of the design, and if things went wrong, I’d do what I could to get around them. That pivoting grabber can’t quite reach the thing I need it to after those other things are bonded... Hmm, I'll make it an extendable one, or I'll put it on a track that will allow it to move. I guess I created additional problems trying to solve the original one. I then solved those and eventually solved the larger design issue. After feeling pleased with myself for solving the thing, I then had these “self-created” problems in mind when it came to refining my design later.

Opus Magnum
This design needed a triple-twisted bond pattern on the orange elements. Yep, it was a pain in the backside.

Being able to methodically work through something, solving the little hiccups that emerge along the way, is something that seems quite alien when your brain is in depressed mode. Some things in non-gaming life have no solution, others might, but they might require things that you just don’t have, can’t do, or have any hope of achieving. Being able to experience a tiny version of the satisfaction that problem solving can bring feels nice. It might be a bit of a tease with regards to “Why can’t I solve all of my problems in this way?” sentiments, but I'll take it for now.

My brain is tired, my thoughts are self-critical, and I feel a bit muddled about what I wanted to say with this post and how long it’s taking me to say it. I’m going to go away and rest/reflect for awhile. I'll come back to this another day.

Small Bites

It does no good to smash your brain against a problem for too long without a break. I’ve been dipping into Opus Magnum for maybe 20 mins at a time, often just once a day. It’s enough time to progress a design and feel nearer to the solution. Even if all I manage to achieve in one session is another couple of atoms bonded to a design in the correct place, it’s enough to keep my mind interested and to generate a small feeling of competence. Competence is something that I don’t often feel, so again, a “lite” version of the feeling to show that I still have brain circuits that can bring the feeling about, is very welcome.

I recently reviewed abook about Kaizen, a system that utilises the doing of tiny actions to get big results. The “only adding one extra atom” to my alchemical machine goal allowed me to take the pressure off myself and, over the days that followed, would eventually see the design complete. The comparison with writing is again, easy to make. People suffering with writer’s block are often told to just write a little, maybe one sentence per day. They are free to write more, but they are also free to go and do something else after that one sentence has been written. Over time, even if only one sentence is completed each day, eventually they will have written a short story or article, or given even more time, a book. As someone who easily suffers from overwhelm, I like this approach very much indeed. The notion of behavioural activation is at play here, that doing the thing might not initially be fun, but finding satisfaction from doing it, over time, helps you to feel like doing it a bit more, and maybe even finding some mastery in the thing that you are doing.

Opus Magnum Gif
One of the machines I created. It's not that efficient but it gets the job done.

Lead into Gold

I guess that’s what I like about Opus Magnum. The thought processes that I have to go through to overcome the puzzles are ones in which I can see the parallels with other areas of life. When you are feeling depressed, fatigued and ready to give up on life, even the smallest things seem impossible. The manner of breaking things down into even smaller steps, and taking little bits of action on these, is probably one of the most useful ways to edge yourself towards things that you value. Having the freedom to do this is what Opus Magnum grants the player, and is one of the reasons that I’ve seen it described as being one of the most accessible Zachtronics titles. If there was a strict “Achieve this in ten cycles” style failure state, I think I might have bounced off Opus Magnum after an hour or two. As it stands, I keep going back to it to get a small taste of those mental states that seem so scarce in my non-gaming life. Maybe one day I'll feel satisfaction over something more than solving a puzzle in a game. Until then, I’ve got elements to bond.

Post Script: I originally thought that this piece would be finished and up on my site before now, but my mood and health imploded again. The irony of a piece about depression being held up by depression isn’t lost on me. Maybe I should write something about sex or wealth, so that said article could be held up by something more pleasurable. The whole time I was tinkering with this post, my mind has been yelling at me as to “What’s the point?” and “It’s not worth it!” Even today, the day I’ve published it, I admit that I still feel that way. I decided to post it, and I did, so that is what I am getting from this, the knowledge that I followed through with it and got it posted up. I guess that’s a win but it doesn’t feel like anything right now, which is a numbness that is one of my closest companions most of the time. Anyway, thanks for reading, and if you've found any particular games good for mood, please let me know below in the comments or find me on social media :).