Shenzhen I/O : Probably not what you expect to be an enjoyable experience

Games from Zachtronics has always struck a very fundamental chord with me and it is the very thing that makes me who I am which I believe it is the very basic fundamental nature of humans, seeking information in order to satisfy their curiosity along with fueling their creative minds with ideas and various concepts that would possibly enhance the whole world and everyone’s quality of living.

Or all of this is just me trying to justify the amount of hours wasted with their games. It is known, however, that their games are known to be very nerdy and very technical but somehow very well packaged, magically, in an entertaining and enjoyable way. Well, at least for some people like me who are easily intrigued by puzzles and similar challenges.

Shenzhen I/O logo taken from the site

In this article, I will be talking about one of their titles called “Shenzhen I/O” and this is perhaps my favorite title of them all. Shenzhen I/O takes place, as the name implies, in Shenzhen, China where you work for a small but stable embedded systems engineering house.

The game features a 46 pages manual in PDF available both in English and Chinese and it is highly recommended that you take the effort to print the whole manual and put it in a proper binder with tabbed dividers and also a couple of notebook papers for “Engineering Notes” at the end. Other than that, it also features a somewhat weird modern take of Assembly that you write for a particular series of micro-controllers and a “simple” CAD software where you place and connect various components along with a simulator to test your design.

The Assembly language reference which you will be using when writing code for
the series of fake micro-controllers used in the game.

Does this sound entertaining to you? Probably not. But for a lot of people who are into “tech” games such as Factorio or a lot of Minecraft mod packs such as Tekkit which has most likely taken a lot of your “extra” time to the point it is possible to classify them as secondary jobs or maybe you’re interested because of the theme of the game which features a somewhat realistic “simulation” of a life as an embedded systems engineer but have never taken the time to use that Arduino/Raspberry Pi kit you’ve bought or maybe you’re just too lazy to take classes in electrical engineering. Well, whoever you’re, you may be able to take a liking to this game.

Personally, I’m in both camps. Minecraft mod packs such as Feed The Beast intrigues me because it challenges me to make a working infrastructure from the ground up in order to ease the process towards an “end goal” which is either determined by the game or by the player themselves and the nature of games being inherently virtual made it really accessible for me to experience this challenge without having to actually establish an actual factory in real life.

On the other hand, I’ve been interested in working with embedded systems for a long time but I’ve never had the time nor money to pursue this interest. If I have a brilliant idea that involves me making a DIY electronics solution to solve it, I would immediately go to various classes and buy the stuff I need but so far, I have none.

So, when a game like Shenzhen I/O features both camps and since it’s a game which makes the experience very accessible, I immediately put it on my wish list and bought it on GOG when it was on sale.

So, How was it? I can safely say that this game has satisfied my itch of wanting to try working with embedded systems. It was pretty amazing on how the game could breakdown something that are complex in nature to a set of simple problems along with in game lore which are progressed usually with emails that you exchange with other co-workers along with a newsletter about life in Shenzhen.

Problems are usually presented with an email from a co-worker requiring a working CAD design from you for a product. This product could range from a simple fake CCTV camera and could be complex as a coin operated machine which requires multiple components in order to handle coin counting and triggering the device when a particular amount is inserted along with refunding the excess amount.

Unlike other games where you’re just presented with a set of problems and passing one means you could pass onto the other one. Progressing in Shenzhen I/O feels somewhat natural. The product have a backstory like you need to animate a bunch of lights for a neon box which will be featured in an eSports event or something odd like receiving contract work from a fully AI controlled corporation. Among other “realistic” oddities such as hidden instructions or features in your micro-controller which are only available in the chinese version of the manual. For a game which main game play is writing assembly code, it is really surprising how much lore there is.

Example of a simple problem which involves creating a fake CCTV camera which
blinks a few LEDs in a certain pattern.

You wouldn’t believe how some issues that normally take you a couple of minutes with a high level language (such as Python or C) while running on a pretty powerful system could possibly be when you’re faced with a limited but powerful version of Assembly and a very limited amount of read only memory and registers.

Since this is a game, a lot of technical “realistic” aspects are replaced with something more accessible. For instance, you write code in the CAD software within the micro-controller graphic itself. Which may sound weird but this is the game’s way to present the limit of how big your program could be. A line of code taking up a space within the editor is more visible and much easier to understand than an arbitrary value of a number. It is a very visual representation of the issue.

Another example of this is the fact that your micro-controllers “need to sleep”, in this game, your micro-controller should sleep after it’s done doing something and could advance onto the next cycle. This makes it easier to understand what your micro-controllers are doing since they’re synced by “a sleep” and would start on the next cycle together. You could also sleep for multiple cycles or until you receive a packet from a bus which would also help with reducing power usage.

There are also other things such as some of the components on your bin being grayed out as “Not recommended”, challenging you to think more creatively and make good use of the limited resources. If that’s not enough to tell how terrible your design is, when your design passes the simulation which tests your design on various scenarios, you’ll be greeted by 3 charts which represents how power efficient your design is among other things such as line of code and cost.

A screenshot of the fake “Concept CAD” software being used to make a design
that solves the example problem above.

The end screen of a problem which shows you the three metrics that indicates
how well your design is

This game is really amazing in terms of how well packaged it is. Problems are presented as product ideas which has it’s own backstory or specific requirements that the client need and the very product idea is broken down into simple bite-sized concepts.

To put in perspective, they’re like those written math problems that you deal with during math exams at grade school which you have to calculate the amount of hamburgers Danny can fit within his tetrahedron container but unlike those, they’re presented really well and doesn’t give the weird impression that written math problems usually give.

The email conversation that you read while progressing the game doesn’t feel very robotic or forced. It has this natural feeling of “yet another day at work”, even though you barely speak or reply to them. The mailing list of life in Shenzhen is a nice touch to present the cultural aspects which are going on in this version of Shenzhen. Along with the 46 pages long manual which is dripping with a lot of lore that would make sense when you progress the game just represents how well crafted the whole game is.

In the midst of your journey, you will be given a chance to make the whole game into a simulation toy that you could play around indefinitely and make a lot of cool fake gadgets and even design test cases for them later on.

If you think to yourself that this game sounds interesting to you and you could see yourself wasting your nights solving arbitrary problems for a fiction company in China. Why not give it a shot? It’s on GOG and Steam for a pretty affordable price and it is not rare for it to be on sale. Not to mention, GOG has a pretty good “money back guarantee” refund policy. So, if you don’t like it, you can just refund it easily.

Give it a shot and you can feel what it’s like to be an embedded systems engineer in Shenzhen, China and realizing how bad your designs were while also having your head filled to the brim with various optimization ideas.