Particulars

Are you a SpaceChem fan who wishes its brand of dizzyingly complex, scientifically accurate gameplay could extend to particle physics? Well, first of all, your fantasy game has arrived in the form of Particulars. Second, you’re probably insane; when I first told my girlfriend I was playing a game about quarks (and explained that quarks are the particles atoms are composed of) she immediately blurted, “That sounds like the most boring game in the world!” While she wasn’t quite right – the sheer novelty of the concept prevents it from ever really becoming dull – the game is extremely flawed. More than anything, its unfailing commitment to scientific accuracy ensures it will never achieve fame as anything other than a moderately educational curiosity.

Particulars is clearly a game of distorted priorities. Presenting the gist of particle physics clearly took first place, which is fair if you’re going to base your game on real science. For this subject, you had better know your stuff. But then the game decides to shoehorn in an emotional story spanning over a decade shoehorned in between level transitions. Conveyed almost entirely through anachronic quotes, said story can be best described as aggressively pointless. It follows Alison Scott, a troubled physicist using a particle simulator (which is the setting for the gameplay) to accomplish…something that’s never really explained. While the stunted plot and tenuous connection to gameplay are disappointing, it’s the ending that truly ruins the narrative. After spending hours establishing characters and building intrigue, the final cut-scene simply deflates and implodes into the most inconsequential and self-defeating final minutes I’ve ever witnessed.

The gameplay is similarly confused; it seems to find more value in portraying the subatomic world as unfathomable chaos than tapping it for entertainment value. The game would have been much more approachable as a pure, analytical puzzle game, where the player's omniscient presence that can influence events by placing paths and obstacles. Instead, it’s a hybrid puzzle/action game where the player controls a single impotent quark throughout the entire game, constantly restricted by the very same laws that they’re trying to exploit. This decision not only takes a lot of control out of the player’s hands, it also marries the game’s complexity to a rapid pace, alienating anyone who isn’t a savant. The development team desperately needed the input of a layman – someone to explain that, even though these particles are technically categorized as “elementary,” there’s a reason they’re not taught in elementary school.

Levels start with simple win conditions like causing a certain number of collisions between particles and antiparticles, or surviving said collisions for a certain amount of time (remember, as a quark, the player is just as vulnerable as the other particles around them). They then quickly expand to include over a dozen particle types (all of which are attracted and repelled by different things, not to mention either destroyed or augmented when combined), as well as different types of barriers, particle spawners, and black holes. Once again, since the player controls a particle that is affected by all of this, a lot the game is spent being hindered by things that cannot be predicted or controlled. All in all, while the game pointedly ignores quantum mechanics, it doesn’t feel like it does, because the player’s eyes will need to be everywhere at once.

Oddly, this could actually be considered good game design from an educational perspective. Players will want to browse through the built-in particle physics encyclopedia just to figure out what the hell is happening in the gameplay and how to accomplish their goals. Furthermore, said encyclopedia is concise enough that it still feels like learning to play a video game, not studying a textbook. Its commitment to full disclosure is also admirable. The encyclopedia readily admits which elements of the gameplay are accurate and which are merely conveniences. If the concept of a playable quark strikes you as absurd, the encyclopedia will likely assuage that kind of thinking. If it doesn’t…you’re probably not the target audience for this game anyway.

When it comes to being engaging, however, Particulars is a cumbersome mess. Several levels simply solve themselves as long as the player’s quark just minds its own business, while many more are so ruined by chaos theory that they could be replaced with a particle-themed slot machine and the experience would be the same. It quickly becomes obvious why no one has attempted a game like this before: particle physics and game design are two very different fields of study. Most tellingly, “up quarks” and “anti-down quarks” are two completely different things. If those weren’t the actual names for two real things, that kind of naming convention would be the laughing stock of gaming forums everywhere.

But, as mentioned before, Particulars is not boring. On the contrary, there’s a special kind of tension to be found in carefully struggling against the fundamental forces of the universe to deliver a specific kind of particle that will be instantly annihilated if it touches the wrong thing. In addition, the wealth of mechanics and win conditions create an astonishing amount of variety considering the subject matter – easily enough to fill a game two or three times this size. Finally, when the gameplay calms down long enough for the level design to be assessed, it reveals itself as a brilliantly-woven web of barriers and particle spawners. Though this is often overshadowed by the chaos of the gameplay, it also allows the occasional simpler, focused level to shine through the haze.

Since informative ability and sparse entertainment aren’t exactly selling points, the best part of Particulars for most people will likely be the audiovisual experience. While the game’s minimalism was almost certainly born of necessity (any extraneous detail would make the gameplay impenetrable), that does nothing to diminish its beauty. The music is an expected but agreeable series of understated compositions, perfect for the air of study the game is aiming for. Lastly, the sound design is phenomenal; even when a level is failed, the humming and snapping of moving and colliding particles makes the experience more enjoyable than you’d think. However, it is rather jarring when, halfway through the game, characters suddenly receive dedicated voice actors when they had previously all shared the main character’s voice.

Particulars is about as niche as a title can be. Its minimalism, individuality, and interpretable narrative will surely attract the indie crowd, but the only people who could truly like it would be those that can figure out (or put up with) its tricky gameplay and ignore (or mentally flesh out) its story. I’m glad I played it, but I’m more receptive to the idea of knowledge for its own sake than most people, so it’s possible that the game’s scholastic bent just resonates with me. There’s nothing quite like it out there – even SpaceChem is only thematically similar – so who knows, maybe it will awaken the passion of some budding physicists. It’s more likely, however, to merely serve as a warning against future game ideas based on subatomic particles.