Clearly, someone at Klei Entertainment is a stickler for punishment. Invisible Inc., Don’t Starve and Mark of the Ninja all have a touch of the cutesy-cruel to them, in their own special ways, their sweetness or wit spread devilishly thin over some brain-wracking difficulty, and Oxygen Not Included is the same. A case of twee, quippy tone layered over a sprawl of systems that’s at once intricate and maddeningly vast, it’s a game that’s constantly teasing you; constantly luring and lulling just before throwing out another crisis; constantly reminding you that you are, in fact, a bit thick. Clearly I’m a stickler for punishment, too, because I think it’s brilliant.
You’ll start Oxygen Not Included picking a planet on which to be marooned (a new addition for the game’s recent move from early access to full release, which basically serves as a more flavoursome way of tinkering with the game world’s settings). After that, you spawn in, underground on some foreign world, with three Duplicates, the name for the little cloned people that form the backbone of your colony, and you’re off: survive!
That’s about as much onboarding as you get, which again is great if you’re up for a proper challenge, but intimidating as anything if you like a gentler start. It makes the discovery of some new best-practise positively thrilling, for the fellow technocrats out there, though it also means bad habits form as you learn on the fly – mining downwards, into air vacuums filled with your own CO2, without even knowing there’s an entire overlay for oxygen levels, or constructing an outhouse (one of the few hints you’re given early on) without a washbasin, so you think you’ve been smart but actually everyone is about to die of food poisoning because they didn’t wash their hands.
In fact, I actually had to look up some guides, which is where Oxygen Not Included having a couple of years in early access really helps (and is also saying something for its complexity, given I’m normally the one writing them myself for a living). Once I did that the experience is just vastly different, Oxygen Not Included revealing itself as working to a kind of brilliant, systemic, internal science. Oxygen floats up, carbon dioxide down, hydrogen right to the top. You can’t pump out more oxygen from a fancy gadget without digging out more turf to relieve the air pressure, but can’t dig too far, at least early on, for fear of hitting a pocket of unbearable heat or toxic gas that you’re totally unequipped for, in your fledgling colony’s technical infancy.
Even that, really, is just surface-level stuff. Burrow your way into the menus and submenus and there’s another world of moving parts waiting – not least a fantastic little twist to its survival-crafting-colony-management formula with a neat priority system, that lets you weight tasks from 1 to 10 in order of urgency, the type of thing that seems fussy at first but is actually an enormously powerful tool to those deft enough to use it well. Get a handle on that and you might, briefly, strike equilibrium before another alarm rings, and you’re off again, only this time just a little wiser.
Brave those gruelling first few attempts at survival, though – either through learning by doing, or swotting up like a true bureaucrat – and you’ll find, as always, that Klei has buried another gem just deep enough below the surface. Soon enough it’ll have you thinking, maybe a little dangerously, both as expeditionary scientist and meddling dictator, which should be read as high praise – it’s another deviously smart game from a studio we should all recognise, by now, as masters of survival sims’ dark arts.