Sir Isaac Newton really was on to something. The famous physicist is renowned for his law of universal gravitation (famously inspired by the fall of an apple from its tree), as well as his laws of motion. You're probably familiar with the third of these laws, which is often paraphrased thusly: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Osmos' title may invite you to imagine a different scientific process--osmosis--though Newton's theories form the basis of this clever but oh-so-relaxing puzzle game. Newtonian physics? Relaxing? Yes indeed, thanks to a soothing soundtrack that eases your nerves even when the frustration rises. Osmos languishes a bit too much: the visual style lacks variety, and the most demanding levels don't gel well with the game's peaceful ambience. Nevertheless, there's a dash of genius here that will make you wonder what independent developer Hemisphere Games has in store for us in the future.
You control a small circular organism called a mote, and as a rule, your primary goal is to grow. You do this by propelling yourself through space toward smaller motes and absorbing them. As you grow, you are then able to absorb larger and larger motes, until you "become the biggest," as the game itself so eloquently phrases it. This basic concept seems simple enough and bears more than a passing resemblance to games like Flow, Katamari Damacy, and Art Style: Orbient. There's one very important difference, however; in order to shoot your mote forward, you have to sacrifice some of its mass. Bubbles of mote matter are left in your wake and float into the void, where it can be absorbed by other motes. In the meanwhile, your own mote shrinks by a proportionate amount, while other motes absorb each other and gain mass. This simple variant means that you must make smaller initial sacrifices to earn greater gains, all while avoiding the threat of getting sucked into a massive blob. Consider this scenario: You are close to a mote that is just smaller than your own, and your strategy requires that you absorb it. Yet you need to change your trajectory lest it float right past. If you aren't careful, you could eject too much mass when thrusting and become smaller than your target. Then, you'll need to adjust your tactics or be sucked into the larger mote.
The situations get complex. Motes called attractors will draw you and other motes into their orbits. A helpful line will indicate the trajectory of your orbit and whether it is safe or will result in a collision with an attractor. Unfortunately, you can't always tell how other motes will react to the gravity of multiple attractors, so you need to be alert. Multi-attractor stages require you to be speedier than in most of them; if you waste time, motes and attractors will merge and grow too large for you to ever absorb, which causes you to lose the level. These stages are the most challenging but also seem most at odds with the vibe Osmos embraces. The simple shimmery visuals and chill-out music don't always mesh with the quick thinking the toughest levels require. The production values invite you to relax--but the game doesn't always let you.
The more successful levels give you room to experiment without forcing you into a quick solution. In some cases, that may mean babysitting a larger mote as it oh-so-slowly is absorbed into another, and then consuming it just as it reaches a palatable size. In a case of quantum physics meeting Newtonian law (could this be the infamous theory of everything?), you can shrink motes by pushing antimatter blobs into them with your flow of ejected matter. The slower-moving levels create an interesting antithesis to the more exacting ones, but thankfully you have control over the greatest of all equalizers: time. You can slow time down or speed it up at will, and the minimalist soundtrack will follow suit, which is a neat effect. Slowing down time is helpful in the stages where keeping expelled matter to a minimum is crucial, while speeding things along will keep you interested on the frequent occasions where you have to wait for ultra-pokey motes to float out of the way so you can pass by.
Osmos' music does its job well; each track stays true to the game's ambient vision while providing subtleties of its own. The visuals should have taken a cue from the soundtrack. They are pleasant but unchanging and will make you long for a touch of diversity and contrast that never comes. Yet if you've got the patience to work past the occasional frustration and frequent lulls, Osmos will both delight you with its ingenuity and induce that meditative trance that few games can evoke.