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Video Game / Opus Magnum

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Opus Magnum is a Programming Game from Zachtronics Industries that draws inspiration from real world alchemy. Using a transmutation engine that is effectively the fantasy equivalent of SpaceChem's atomic reactors, you separate, bond, and transform atoms from one form to another, programming the machines you place onto the transmutation engine's workspace to make it happen.

Like SpaceChem's 'fake chemistry', Opus Magnum takes its cues from 'real' alchemy: Only the classic elemental primes, neutral salt, and a handful of metalsnote  are used to create every molecule you construct in the game. The game draws many ideas from one of Zach's previous games, The Codex Of Alchemical Engineering, including all the component atoms save sulfur, and arms and glyphs to manipulate the atoms and molecules you'll be working with, now on a hexagonal working space instead of Codex's orthogonal board.

In a departure from the usual approach of Zachtronics games, you take on the role of a named character — Anataeus Vaya, an ambitious young man about to graduate from the Imperial University. The story follows his graduation and employment as the Head Alchemist of House Van Tassen. He chafes under the restrictions of his position and the politics of high society, but quickly finds himself scrambling to fight back when House Van Tassen comes under attack.

This game provides examples of:

  • Alchemy Is Magic: Repeatedly defied. When Concordia compares him to a wizard, Anataeus protests that alchemy is a science and an engineering discipline, not magic.
  • And You Thought It Was a Game: For generations the Houses have engaged in low-stakes "wars" where they'll fight for a bit before one side cedes a few streets. House Van Tassen treats the war with Colvan as more of this posturing, only realizing when it's too late that Taros isn't playing by the rules.
  • Art Major Physics: Even more so than SpaceChem. Scientific accuracy took a backseat to aesthetic appeal when it came to designing the puzzles for this game. The creators actively encourage players to consider the game's setting and aesthetics when designing submissions for the in-game Journal of Alchemical Engineering.
  • Authority in Name Only: The story makes several references to an imperial authority, hinting that the story takes place in an empire. However, the emperor seems powerless to intervene in concrete political affairs. The Imperial alchemist guild issues certifications to alchemy graduates, but the houses can start civil wars and steal territory from each other without repercussion. Taros Colvan destroyed and massacred one of the Empire's most prestigious houses, with absolutely no worries about the reaction of the imperial authority.
  • Book Ends: The tutorial levels end with Anataeus and his classmate Henley discussing their plans after graduation, and Henley wishes that "each of us realize (his) opus magnum". At the end, Verrin Ravari, realizing his plans were for naught, laments the loss of his opus magnum.
  • Brutal Bonus Level: After the main campaign is completed, you get access to the "Production Alchemy" puzzles, which require creating solutions in a limited space and with some new mechanics. The optional "Journal of Alchemical Engineering" has some difficult levels as well.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: The alchemists employed by the major houses tend to be more interested by inserting themselves into politics and furthering their political interests than actually practicing alchemy. Concordia tells Anateus that the vast majority of the previous alchemist who worked for the Van Tassen seldom set foot into the alchemy lab. She says Anateus is the first Van Tassen alchemist to actually focus on alchemy since generations.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Concordia Lem, House Van Tassen's Provisioner and natural foil to Anataeus's egotistical genius.
  • Decoy Getaway: The Head Alchemist of House Colvan has found Anataeus in his hideout, but the Mists of Hallucination and a spare mannequin reveal that Anataeus and Concordia are long gone.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Anataeus tries to convince his patrons that a war cannot be won by assigning him to make hair gel. Captain Gelt insists that having Frederick Van Tassen show up with impeccable hair to raise a sword will inspire the troops enough to turn the tide of the war. It doesn't.
  • Element No. 5: The Journal of Alchemical Engineering introduces quintessence, which is made from combining the four elements together; inversely it can also be split off into its constituent elements. Despite this some alchemists are still trying to produce "aether".
  • Foreshadowing: Playing Sigmar's Garden unlocks additional conversation where Concordia mentions that Anateus is the only alchemist she has met that is actually focused on alchemy: all the previous Van Tassen alchemists spent most of their time getting involved in House politics. Much later in the game Verrin Ravari, alchemist of House Colvan, is revealed to have been planning to usurp House Colvan, with the destruction of Van Tassen laying the groundwork.
  • Frameup: Part of the unspoken plan is arranging events to frame Verrin Ravari for creating the poisoned lipstick that kills Taros.
  • Gameplay and Story Integration:
    • After suddenly finding himself in a resource-starved working environment, the first puzzle of the chapter is Anateus building an alchemical engine to convert common cheap alcohol into a steady supply of basic elements necessary to get much of anything done.
    • During the post-puzzle conversation of "Very Dark Thread", Anateus mentions they've used up their last supplies of mercury/quicksilver to make the eponymous thread. Starting with the next chapter, he has to use the "Glyph of Purification" to turn metals into their higher forms without mercury.
    • The "Production Alchemy" foreword notes that the near-infinite workspace of the main story's alchemy engine is a modern convenience generally available only to labs and noble houses. The puzzles which follow use engines from a "production" environment which have limited workspace available.
  • Gameplay Grading: After completing a puzzle the cost of your machine, the number of cycles to complete, and the area used for the machine are recorded. They are then marked on a histogram of how other players have done on the puzzle, giving you an idea of how you compare.
  • Game Within a Game: Sigmar's Garden is a solitaire-like game based around clearing a hex-grid board of coloured balls with alchemy-inspired rules. Anataeus isn't too keen on the alchemical liberties taken.
  • Gentleman Thief: Nils Whittle, who manages to steal a shipload of lead from the Van Tassen estate for Anataeus and Concordia, is actually a high-level spy in employ of Clara Soria.
  • Gaslamp Fantasy: Much of the game's art direction and aesthetics are inspired by this, with artwork that depicts characters wearing elaborate outfits, intricately detailed interiors, and airships. The architecture of the Great Houses and major landmarks such as the university grounds dominate the landscape of the city, resembling cathedrals and industrial palaces that dwarf everything else. Even taking the map's emphasis of these locations as a Broad Strokes depiction they must tower over the surrounding buildings.
  • Honor Before Reason: House Van Tassen's military tactics amount to a lot of posturing and bluster, as Captain Gelt is positive that a few rockets will completely rout the House Colvan advance. When House Colvan slaughters the entirety of the Van Tassen line, it comes as a major shock to everyone involved.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Frederick Van Tassen is never seen but most conversations indicate he is less intelligent, ambitious, and cunning than his father.
  • Insufferable Genius: Anataeus is very much one. The tutorial's storyline is about him swotting up on the principles of automated alchemy for his final exam before graduating; prior to this he'd been doing all his labwork by hand, without realizing how powerful and convenient modern alchemy is. When he mentions that he finds the term "opus magnum" to be rather pretentious, his classmate scoffs at his lack of self-awareness.
    • The Head Alchemist of House Colvan gives off this vibe as well, but his ability doesn't quite measure up to his boasts.
  • Kiss of Death: The Curious Lipstick is worn by Clara in order to give a deadly kiss to Taros.
  • Liquid Courage: The Courage Potion, which turns out to be mostly alcohol.
  • Magitek: The transmutation engine is an atomic manipulator with magical parts that use the classical elements to perform traditional alchemy. Think the WALDOs in SpaceChem with alchemy thrown in.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Verrin Ravari claims he manipulated Taros into starting the war between the Houses.
  • Mayor Pain: The city where the story takes place is ruled by noble houses that are portrayed as decadent, self-centered, full of themselves, superficial, incompetent and oblivious to the real state of politics. Few to none of the alchemical compounds the Van Tassen asked Anateus to produce were created for the population, most of them was for the house's own profit. Although the population does not seem to suffer from these politics (at least not to the point of public unrest), the antagonists plan on using the weakness of the houses to seize control of the city.
  • Minigame: Sigmar's Garden, a match-the-marbles game with its own set of rules based on the principles of alchemy.
  • Motive Rant: Having found Anataeus, Verrin Ravari, Head Alchemist of House Colvan, reveals that the happenings of the game were his idea, and that his plan was to take control of House Colvan, and then proceed to take over the other Houses, which he considered weak from decadence, with his alchemy talent. He even offers Anataeus the remains of House Van Tassen, in exchange for his help. However, as detailed above, Anateus and Concordia are long gone by the time Ravari tracks down their hideout.
  • Mundane Utility:
    • In contrast to the real world where alchemy never achieved the transformation of lead into gold and even today it takes a hefty amount of equipment and a degree in nuclear physics, in-universe this is a well-known and straightforward process, to the point of being passe, especially by the main character's standards. He takes the indignity of having to perform such a basic procedure (twice!) poorly.
    • More generally, alchemy is used to produce any number of useful and mundane substances - clean water, abrasives, rat poison, etc.
  • Natural Elements: In Opus Magnum, molecules are composed of atoms. These atoms each correspond to one of the classical elements: Salt (the basis of all matter, acts as a stabilizer in molecules), Air, Earth, Water, Wind, Quintessence, Vitae (vital force), Mors (lethal force), Lead, Tin, Iron, Copper, Silver, Gold, and Quicksilver (purifies one of the former metals into the purer state).
  • Now Do It Again, Backwards: Two puzzles from "Production Alchemy" require a complex molecule be disassembled in one compartment, transferred to a second compartment one atom at a time, and then reassembled in the same configuration. One is a method for chemically distilling liquor while the other is an attempt to create aether through continuous refinement of a substance. Amusingly, both puzzle descriptions lampshade how worthless both processes are: the liquor manufacturer insists its disassembly then reassembly unlocks unique flavors though the book's author is visibly skeptical while the aether "creation" is noted to be a fool's errand only pursued by a handful of fringe alchemists who still refuse to accept that quintessence is the true "fifth element".
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Clara uses her reputation as being a bit dim to hide her behind-the-scenes activities. This even allows her to assassinate Taros at a party but avoid any personal suspicion.
  • Only Sane Man: Anataeus seems to be the only one who actually takes Colvan's aggression and later attacks with absolute seriousness, trying to make things that would actually help Van Tassen's defenses.
  • Perilous Old Fool: Captain Gelt, the aging commander of House Van Tassen's soldiers, charges into the Colvan forces and dies for the honor of his House — which surrenders immediately thereafter.
  • Post-End Game Content: Completing the main story unlocks Appendix levels where the player has only limited space, and journal, that has multiple, usually difficult levels. Journal also gives insight to more in-game lore.
  • Reluctant Ruler: Clara Soria explains that, as the heir of a major house, she constantly fears for her life and has to deal with the harshness of political plots. With Anateus and Concordia, she contemplates the idea of being a humble clothier. It is unclear whether this is a pure fantasy or if she seriously considered it.
  • Revenge: House Van Tassen is taken down by House Colvan. Anataeus, Concordia (former employees of Van Tassen) and Clara (who was in love with the Van Tassen heir who got exectued) plot to take down House Colvan in return. Although the protagonists don't know it, the idea to take down the house was suggested by Colvan's alchemist, Verrin Ravari. Ironically, the protagonist's revenge plan is to assassinate Taros Colvan with a kiss with poisoned lipstick, and then frame Ravari for synthesizing the lipstick.
  • Ruling Family Massacre: Taros Colvan orders the Van Tassen nobles to be executed after they surrender, just to make sure they are not a threat to him in the future. In that case, it makes Concordia and Clara's intense hatred for him quite justified.
  • Sequel Difficulty Drop: In contrast to other Zachtronics games which tend to introduce space or resource limits pretty quickly, the entire main story of Opus Magnum gives the player unlimited space and a bottomless supply of every relevant tool for every scenario. Gameplay Grading does encourage trying to be time, space, or resource-efficient, but this is not required. In effect, the entire story scenario is a tutorial for the "Production alchemy" and alchemical journal modes, where not having unlimited means becomes part of the puzzle.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Clara Soria, who is generally overlooked by her House as a pretty, but dumb thing, is actually a master planner and manipulator.
  • Spiritual Successor: To The Codex Of Alchemical Engineering.
  • Squick: An in-universe example. Anateus is not... exactly thrilled when he has to make a stamina potion to help Frederik "produce" a heir for House Van Tassen.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Anataeus wistfully bemoans that the story of how he manufactured the Universal Solvent (one of the aspirations of classical alchemy) will never be known, but survival and their revenge against House Colvan hinging on no evidence of his work remaining wins out over his desire for recognition. Ironically the only evidence of his survival after the timeskip were traces of the solvent.
  • Time Skip: The "Production Alchemy" puzzles take place an unspecified number of years after the main story, as the "Fragrant Powders" puzzle refers to the assassination of Taros Colvan happening "many years ago".
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Exaggerated, as we never actually learn what Clara's plan for revenge on House Colvan was, even after it is executed and the debris settles. From the little bits of dialogue and the compounds Anataeus makes for her, it appears to involve Clara making a dazzling appearance at her first official high society event, seducing Taros Colvan, giving him the Kiss of Death with the poisonous lipstick Anataeus created for her, then pinning it on Colvan's own alchemist, Verrin Ravari. Meanwhile, Nils sneakily places timed explosives (also created by Anataeus) around the Colvan estate to go off the moment Taros dies, ensuring the downfall of his House. And while all that is happening, Anataeus invents the Universal Solvent to destroy all evidence of his involvement, leaving behind a mannequin sprayed with hallucinogens to buy time while he and Concordia skip town.
  • Useless Superpowers: Anateus is stated to be one of the most brilliant alchemists of his time, and alchemy is stated to be a very powerful science (some even say it brings total mastery over the world). And yet, Anateus finds himself unable to protect the house Van Tassen, after which he has to hide in a decrepit abandoned shop, wanted by a military that aims to execute him. He reflects that alchemists believe far too strongly in their own abilities.