Everything is going well. The citizens of this colony have survived all of the challenges up until this point. Sure, the oxygen is getting low and citizen Nails urinated himself earlier due to an errant plumbing issue, but the team has come together over a common task: survival. Nails' research is proceeding at a steady level, so soon the colony will have better amenities, like showers and a real toilet. Hopefully, fellow colonists Burt and Catalina have finished that trench to the new water supply. Let's go check on them…
Oh, they're dead. They drowned in the life-giving water they were supposed to bring to the colony. I guess our little colony is living up to its name: All Is Lost.
Oxygen Not Included is the latest game by Klei Entertainment, the same folks like brought you Don't Starve. Like Don't Starve, must of your games will end in death. Oxygen Not Included is another version of the classic colony simulation game Dwarf Fortress, aimed at simplifying a very complex game and giving it a more polished exterior. This is similar ground tread by indie titles like Rimworld and Spacebase DF-9, though the former game sticks far closer to the aesthetic and spirit of Dwarf Fortress.
Upon starting a new game in Oxygen Not Included, you're given a choice of three colonist blueprints. Each colonist has bonuses in various categories like Athletics, Digging, Creativity, Medicine, or Learning. Beyond that, they also have positive and negative traits. A chosen colonist might be Buff, meaning their Strength is further enhanced, but they'll also have Irritable Bowels. Perhaps your Tinkering-strong Grease Monkey is also narcoleptic and responds to high stress by vomiting everywhere. It's about balancing out these strengths and weaknesses. You have the option of rerolling your initial three colonists until you find a group that makes you feel good about your prospects.
Once you've picked out your sacrifices, they're dumped out of the 3D printer portal into a pocket underground. In every direction, there are resources and hazards. Despite the game's title, an early, natural source of oxygen is provided in your initial chamber; I've never run into a new instance where my colonists were dropped into a room full of carbon dioxide or unbreathable gas.
You have no direct control over the colonists. Instead, you mark certain areas with specific actions, telling colonists to dig a certain region, harvest a plant, mop up a mess, or build an object. You can also set a priority level to each action, but in the end, you're only vaguely steering them in a direction. If they're hungry, stressed, or they need to go to the bathroom, then your colonists will simply ignore your requests in regards to their needs.
Every day and night is a single cycle in the game's countdown. During the day, your colonists toil for their survival, turning Sandstone into platforms and ladders, Dirt into cheap food, and Copper into Cots and Research Stations. The latter allows you to research further building improvements, trading in slow colonist-focused water collection for a water pump, adding refrigerators to keep your food lasting longer, or offering power generation that doesn't rely as heavily on your colonists running in a huge hamster wheel.
You're not stuck with your starting three colonists though. Every three cycles the 3D Printer shines with an unearthly light and you get the chance to make another colonist duplicate from a choice of three. In one round, I chose Stinky, who seemed like a great choice to dig out further expansions to the colony, but eventually lost his mind from stress to the point that he ran around punching holes in my new walls. Ungrateful.
As a fan of Rimworld, I find Oxygen Not Included easier to get into. There aren't as many options to juggle in the overall progression of your colony and the threats your face are mostly environmental. In Rimworld, most of my deaths resulted from raiders, hostile animals, or forgetting to take care of a vital widget in my complex colony. In Oxygen Not Included, my deaths tend to come from not getting certain advanced construction done in a solid pace or... forgetting to take care of a vital widget in my complex colony. (You need to either have a ton of Algae for oxygen production, or progress to other methods of generation quickly.)
Oxygen is the largest issue in the game, the thing that's always pressing down upon you and creating endless tension. You have to juggle oxygen, contaminated oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and more to survive. These various gases have different weights, with some rising higher or lower in a particular room. Air pressure also means that you can't just pump oxygen into an area, despite the fact that one of your colonists is trapped and suffocating in a room full of carbon dioxide. Mastering the flow of air in your colony is paramount. You'll need gas pipes, airlocks, carbon dioxide scrubbers, and an extensive ventilation system in order to get to later cycles in the game.
Water becomes an issue later in a game, because the plumbing systems creates contaminated water. You can't put that back into your sole water source, meaning it has to go somewhere. You can clean it, but that requires more tech. Most of my biggest messes - literally, flooding my living area with yellow water - were because my attempts to hammer out a good plumbing situation hint a snag in the concept stage. Contaminated water also create poor-quality air, so it's a matter of building an entire system to funnel that water to a safe and separate place.
One place Oxygen Not Included does stumble for me is in the piping systems for gas and water. Pipes can't occupy the same tile without a bridge and you need intake and outtake pipes for many services, so things can get fairly complex later on. Piping feels far more headache-inducing and error-prone than electricity, and worse, revamping your piping system can start a chain reaction that simply dooms you to a slow death.
Even with that issue, Oxygen Not Included is far easier to get into compared to Rimworld, which is the point. There's always room for stair-stepping games. Some games and genres are complex, and I believe that complexity is integral to why fans have such a deep and abiding love for those titles. Sometimes though, there's room for a game that understands a core idea, but focuses on a more streamlined presentation. Super Smash Bros and Street Fighter carry the same concepts and ideas, but the former seeks to simplify inputs so that a wider audience can enjoy it. Eventually, those fans can find their way to deeper into the genre, whether through something like Injustice 2, Street Fighter V, or Guilty Gear Xrd. Or not, as the focused game may scratch the itch they have.
Oxygen Not Included doesn't quite strip away everything though: this is still a complex game and you'll probably lose your entire colony in your early rounds. Everything begins to fall away like a house of cards, with one colonist vomiting uncontrollably, another crying every few minutes, one dead, and another pissing themselves. On the bright side, the art is done in the tongue-in-cheek tone of Don't Starve, so even dead, your colonists' are fun to look at. That's a departure from the ASCII art of Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld's rather basic art style.
Like Don't Starve, the eventual failure seems to largely be the goal: Oxygen Not Included doesn't feel like it's about the actual survival of your colony. It's about the tale you have to tell when they die. In fact, I'm sure there's no win state to the game currently, just a trudge on into endless life. Of course, Oxygen Not Included is Early Access and currently in Alpha, so Klei Entertainment has a chance to tweak current features and add many more ways to die. I'm looking forward to seeing where it ends up at launch.