Ever wanted to experience the highs and lows of being a computer programmer, but with cute robots instead of coffee and dimly-lit offices? Today is your lucky day. May I present Autonauts: Age of Enlightenment, developed by Denki Games (presumably with lots of coffee and in a dimly lit office), a resource-management game with a unique and deceptively intellectual quality.
The premise of Autonauts is to gather resources. In this way, it’s similar to other survival sandbox games such as Minecraft, however instead of gathering those resources yourself one-by-one, players are encouraged to automate the entire process by having “bots” do all the work for you. Bots can be programmed to carry out a wide variety of simple tasks – anything from gathering wood and planting crops, to fishing and making clothes, or researching science and cooking. A good Autonauts player will barely have to lift a finger whilst his army of robotic minions toil for eternity in the fields, forests and factories.
The aim of Autonauts is to design and refine your team of bots to work as efficiently as possible. You can establish supply chains and program teams of bots to work together, all using a basic form of computer programming. The possibilities for your little bot village go as far as your patience to painstakingly organise and maintain them all does.
The Educational Quality
The game introduces players to the fundamentals of computer programming. In this way, the game has a strong educational quality. Who wouldn’t want to experience first hand the unholy irritation of pouring over 200 lines of code to find out which lines are clashing with each other, or to find out which crucial step in the action chain is missing? Thankfully, any aggravation caused by having to fix a bot’s broken code is soon offset by the feeling of accomplishment as you sit back and watch your army of thirty bots diligently gather, process and store your resources in perfect synergy. It’s like a well oiled machine, but instead of oil, this machine runs on tears. Your tears.
The process of building, testing, maintaining and reprogramming your team of bot’s also serves as a reminder for how utterly useless machines are without proper instruction from a human being. It certainly gave me a newfound respect for people working in the computer science industry – my brain is fried trying to keep up with thirty bots, can you imagine trying to build an app or a programme or a game? Mad respect to those guys.
In order to be a good coder, it is said that you need problem-solving, analytical skills and a metric tonne of patience. It follows then that some people would really struggle with picking up Autonauts, especially if they’ve no prior experience with basic computer programming. Thankfully, Autonauts offers a comprehensive tutorial to guide you through most basic tasks. It doesn’t hold your hand all the way through the game mind – once you’re clear on how to make a bot and give it simple instructions, you need to figure it out yourself. At it’s core though, Autonauts is designed to make programming accessible so the game is very generous with it’s giving the player tips and storing recipes for craftable items (and if you’re really stuck, you can use the amazing Autonaughts wiki)
Obviously once you complete the tutorial, the game is a sandbox. The endless possibilities and applications of all your robots can be quite daunting, so to keep you focused, the game features certificates (which function somewhat like quests or achievements) with mini-objectives like “Build X” or “Plant 20 X.” These are really helpful if you find the sandbox style overwhelming, or you like a more structured goal-orientated experience.
There were points in my quest for complete automation that I felt like throwing my monitor across the room screaming “Why don’t you work properly?!” at my poor innocent bots. There were points when the need to stock, and restock, and charge, and craft, and maintain, made me feel like a new parent with way too many children. There were points where Autobots felt like an all out assault on my prefrontal cortex, stretching my problem-solving and multi-tasking skills as far as they would go. Boy, it was a workout. However this was definitely due to my personal neurological shortcomings rather than bad game design, or poor instruction. I’ll chalk it up to being neither smart enough nor patient enough to take the Autonauts journey to its conclusion – and I’m not even ashamed of that.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…
Some people will absolutely despise Autonauts; this is a simple fact. It takes a certain kind of person to find programming and managing an army of tiny robots simultaneously to be “fun.” There’s no narrative, there are no cutscenes and there’s no fancy audio or visuals to keep your attention – it’s just you and the bots, programming your way towards an automated utopia.
Sometimes, I have to admit that it felt more like a workout for my brain than a game… but then, perhaps I’m not the kind of person this game is designed for. I’m not the kind of person who likes to sift through code with a fine tooth comb until I find the solution to my problem; I’m not someone who likes to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct again ad infinitum so I can I perfect my design; and I’m not the kind of person who gets a kick out of micromanaging fifty individual processes to make sure the overall operation works properly.
Make no mistake, that certain kind of person is out there. Maybe it’s you?