Note: This article is about the early access version of the game.
While Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve is a survival game set in an alien world, their new game, Oxygen Not Included is a vastly different experience. Here’s the main difference between the two games: you are now in charge of multiple people, and they can get really snippy about the furnishings of their life-or-death struggle. You might grow to hate every single one of those complaining jerks, until you realize they’re looking right back at you.
In Oxygen Not Included, which is currently in early access, you are in control of a team of duplicants—clones that are “printed” at your home base in the center of a procedurally-generated asteroid environment. Each duplicant has a set of skills related to the various jobs that need to be done around your base camp. These range from basics like digging and construction to more abstract concepts like tinkering and creativity. Managing which duplicants work on which activities becomes a big part in running a successful camp.
As in Don’t Starve, you are still battling the elements along with strange creatures. You also still need to ensure a steady flow of food is coming in to keep your growing team of duplicants properly fed. However, this game adds an additional concern to your safety. As the title points out, you need to make sure you are able to create enough oxygen so folks don’t suffocate. There are only small pockets of naturally-occurring oxygen within the asteroid, so you need to quickly build devices to replenish the oxygen consumed by your clones.. And with the most efficient means of oxygen production being at the end of a research chain, that can be a challenge. Even if you don’t happen to accidentally dig too close to a pocket of chlorine gas that will kill half your team.
But it’s not enough just to build a device to do a job. Most of the objects you create will require an entire infrastructure be created to make them function. You can’t just make an algae deoxygenator to enjoy a source of clean air— you need to create a power generator and a battery to keep it running, you need wiring to run from the generator, to the battery, to the deoxygenator—and then you have to make sure you have a duplicant running the algae you’ve collected to the device. You can’t just make a shower to keep your clones clean—you have to create a water pump, pipes to bring that water to the shower, and then an entirely separate set of pipes to take contaminated waste water away. Almost every need your duplicants have comes with an attached system you need to establish, provided you can even find the materials you need in the first place.
Survival games are about just that—ensuring you survive in a terrible situation. Yet the more skilled your duplicants become, the more they expect to be rewarded in return. Your digger carves out a vast system of tunnels and cave openings? You better make sure they can sleep in their own room, with lots of light, flowers, a painting on the wall, and a statue they can admire. If your duplicants’ demands aren’t met, they’ll start to get stressed out and if their stress level reaches one hundred percent, then something terrible will happen. Depending on the duplicant, they might start destroying parts of your base, or just vomit on everything. This part was by far the most frustrating aspect of the game for me. It wasn’t enough that I carved a metropolis into the center of a space rock—now I had to make sure that Gary’s living arrangements were up to the standards that a chef of his quality deserved. You make fried mush-bars, Gary. Don’t you understand how much work I need to do just so you don’t die!? Give me a break.
There is something in all of us that takes our basic necessities for granted while feeling entitled to more. We assume we’ll wake up in the morning, assume we’ll have what we need, and assume that if something were to happen we’ll be able to put the pieces back together. In that state of sufficiency, we look at what we do and the skills we’ve developed. We think to ourselves, “You know what? I work hard. I deserve more than this. That pipeline can wait. But that canvas isn’t going to paint itself—and you better get Louise to paint it, because I want masterpiece quality.” Nobody wants to be that person—the one who puts their own desires and comfort before the big picture. While we don’t want to admit it, we know the feeling. Even if we make the sacrifice and follow through with the work it’s there on the edges. We all have the potential to grow frustrated when we think our labors are not being appreciated in the manner we think we deserve. Why should the duplicants be different?
There is a lot to consider with this game. You have to gather, plan, develop a basic understanding of gas and fluid mechanics, build systems and devices, and maintain the mental health of a team of newly-printed duplicants—all while trying to figure out how to make oxygen without a supply of algae. I’ve had all the gears of the machine finally fall into place—oxygen pumping, food cooking, water pumping—and seconds later I’m getting notifications that one of my duplicants is having a breakdown and taking it out on my research station. That starts the dominoes falling, and I look back to see half the base in flames and the other covered in unspeakable goo. I shout at my screen, furious that everything I worked so hard to build is rendered useless, and shut the game off in disgust. I deserve more than that for all my hard work. I wish they would just work the way I want them to. It just makes me sick.