A new sort of familiar madness
It’s a new day and a new colony. My duplicants, dead-eyed and bushy-tailed, eagerly dig out rock with abandon in every direction. Beds are placed, power is created, and research is done. Things are looking up!
Wait, why are things looking… dimmer? Why is the oxygen concentration low, suddenly? What is that swirling green gas around the lavatories? Why is everyone so tired all the time? Wait, is that a hydrogen geyser? What happened to all the food? What do you mean, “Otto got stressed out and ate it all”?!
Is that chlorine gas?
Why is everything covered in vomit?
Why is everyone dead?
…So! This new colony! Things are looking up, eh?
Oxygen Not Included (PC)
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Released: May 18, 2017 (Steam Early Access)
There’s something truly insidious about a game made by Klei. I still remember my first day in the world of Don’t Starve, the fleeting feeling of innocence, soon snuffed by the cover of darkness – and my horrible demise. Oxygen Not Included, Klei’s new colony manager, wasted no time in bringing back those feelings of existential dread, by dropping my blank-faced colonists in through a sci-fi recreation of Don’t Starve‘s warp gate. With no idea how they arrived there, and the oxygen – which actually is included – quickly running out, the only hope for their survival is to dig, and my godlike influence.
Yeah, they’re good as dead already.
At this point of the Early Access phase, the goal of the game is simple survival – go until you can’t go any longer. You have three Duplicants (or Dupes) to start, and more can be warped/printed every few days. There’s a few thousand kilocalories of food, and a small amount of oxylite, a slowly-dissolving oxygen block, to be had, but the rest you’ll have to dig and craft for. Your dupes are industrious little minions, armed with multi-tools that will shoot lasers to break down objects, or spit out random junk to build things.
Eschewing wikis and YouTube for information, I quickly broke into a neighboring cavern filled to the brim with oxygen, stole the plants there, and used it to set up my latrines. After some experimentation, I finally discovered ladders to let me travel vertically, and continued carving out my domain. A giant hamster wheel was built to power a meal station to make food out of dirt (warning: May Cause Diarrhea) and research stations, to unlock better tools of survival.
Speaking of survival, as I dug, I noticed the bright blue of my oxygen-rich environment getting… dimmer. The game had helpfully been telling me my oxygen production was low this entire time, but I hadn’t also counted on the production of poisonous carbon dioxide. I also hadn’t counted on heavy pockets of it gathering on large, flat portions of my base. While food, temperature, rest, and mental health are all key to the survival of your Dupes, it’s the management of gasses that rule Oxygen Not Included, and in my hubris, I had not noticed that my oxylite was gone.
Thankfully, the game gives you a vast array of tools to handle this, assuming you’re more competent than I am. Heavy gasses like CO2 and deadly deadly chlorine sink, while oxygen and hydrogen float. My colony started to evolve: beds went up higher, with holes in the floors to let oxygen up/CO2 down. Deep pits were dug to encourage dangerous gasses away from my clones, who couldn’t be trusted to stand where they couldn’t breathe. Tools like terrariums filled with algae, placed in these pits of CO2, would slowly convert it back to happy oxygen. Other devices, like the electrolyzer, converts water into oxygen, but produces hydrogen. Latrines polluting the air? Make an air deodorizer filled with sand!
As you might see, this leads to a couple of additional problems. The first, of course, is supply and demand. Sure, those terrariums convert CO2, but algae is a limited resource. You always need to be looking for the next solution once the first solution breaks down. That leads into the second problem. As you advance further, each solution creates additional problems. An air scrubber is more efficient than a terrarium, but pumps out polluted water. Showers and the marvels of indoor flush toilets also produce polluted water. The solution? Dig a hole and hope it doesn’t fill up. Let the next generation figure it out.
I’ve found myself growing more attached to my original three Dupes than I thought I would. You get to shuffle your starting Dupes, but are stuck picking from whatever the printer wants to give you later on. I love the moral implications that the Dupes aren’t being warped into the asteroid, they’re just meaningless clones, and I’m sure that will play more heavily into the game upon release. For now, though, you have your bunch of oddly adorable “redshirts,” their eyes inky pools of ignorance. Each has strengths and weaknesses, which you’ll tailor their jobs to. More importantly, they each have a positive and negative trait. Some, like Diver’s Lungs, will reduce oxygen consumption (the opposite is probably the worst trait), others are straight skill bonuses/penalties, and some negative traits like Yokel prevent your Dupes from performing a skill altogether (research, in this case).
Despite the dramatic intro, your colonists are hard to kill at this stage. I predict this will change, but even chlorine takes days to finish them off. They’re able to hold their breath for long periods, and a carbon/chlorinated atmosphere will mostly do stress damage, unless the concentration is pure. Once the stress hits a certain level, your Dupes start their stress response. In Otto’s case, he’s a “vomiter.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. Others drop to the ground and cry (which can be deadly), or run around smashing things in violent despair.
Most of my colonists are vomiters. Lucky me.
Currently, there’s only a few non-aggressive critters, but knowing Klei, I’m sure they’ll manage to sneak something terrifying in underneath our noses. All of my deaths thus far have been to AI stupidity. Poor Hassan perished after digging out the block he was standing on, falling into a pit of polluted water while I wasn’t looking. They couldn’t build a ladder fast enough to save him.
Everything is in place to make Oxygen Not Included a full title. It’s accessible enough for people new to the genre, or those that are uncreative (like myself), but there are systems that I didn’t even touch upon, like temperature. Heat and cold increase stress, but also affect the natures of gasses, and even the yield of plants. People are already building perpetual motion machines, and recreating marijuana grow operations.
I’m not even sure where Klei can build the game from here, but it’s sure to be as fascinating and traumatizing as they can manage.
[This review is based on an early access build of of the game purchased by the reviewer]