I’ve never been to Mars and probably never will in my lifetime, but I’ve both read and seen a lot of hot takes on the red planet, such as Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, The Martian by Andy Weir, and 1990’s Total Recall. I’ve even played a few games set there, like all the Red Faction joints. Chances are I wouldn’t survive long, knowing only how to make hot dog rice and a slumber party tent using two chairs and an old bedsheet, but that’s expected. Also, if hostile alien lifeforms exist, I wouldn’t know what to do to keep them from eating my Earthly flesh. Related to that, one is still trying to survive the harsh landscape in Waking Mars, but the true focus is on study and education, on discovering what makes this world alive and function.
Tiger Style put out Waking Mars in early 2012, but I only discovered it the other night in my Steam library, way at the bottom of the list. I honestly have no recollection of how it got there, but I’m going to assume it was through a Humble Bundle of sorts. Without knowing too much about the game other than some of the Achievement descriptions, I loaded it up and was surprised to discover that it is…a science-fiction adventure game with light platforming in the veins of a jetpack. Also, it’s totally about gardening. The year is 2097, and life has been discovered on Mars. Your mission of first contact takes a real bad turn, with American astronaut Liang becoming trapped by a cave-in. He must master the alien ecosystem to better survive and progress, as well as discover the secrets of the planet’s past.
Right. First off, instead of shooting your way to safety, Liang must grow a lively ecosytem to open passageways and redirect water to the areas that need it most. This was a great surprise. Much like The Swapper, combat is not the focus; instead, exploring your surroundings and puzzling out what to do next is the main mechanic fueling progression and storytelling, and that has actually made the jet-packing all the more fun because you are not trying to fire a blaster and dodge acid bombs at the same time, but rather zip around in search of places to grow some local life. Instead, you are looking for plant seeds and fertile ground, as well as scientific remnants of a co-worker that has gone missing. Each area has a Biomass rating, which you must raise to open up new areas to explore, and you do this by making life thrive. Plant seeds in the right spot, cultivate them, mix seeds with other seeds, avoid dangerous plants, and watch how everything interacts.
Waking Mars, so far, has a somewhat compelling story, but I’m more interested in the diversity of its cast, as well as the strong voice acting, which gives more meaning and urgency to the search for alien life and a way back to the headquarters. Liang is quiet and curious, but also physically alone in these Mars caves. In his ear are two support team members: Armani, an upbeat scientist, and ART, a humorous and glitch AI (think TARS from Interstellar). At different points, you’ll stop for conversation and figure out what to do next. These are linear moments, but they do reveal a lot about each character and provide hints at what is really going on here.
The gardening is fun. I generally always have fun growing digital plants, but the fact that everything interacts with each other to either raise or lower your Biomass rating is fascinating and much different than other games. Makes me feel like a scientist doing scientist-y things. You are also encouraged to get creative and research each plant fully, figuring out how it reproduces or reacts to prey. Once you know more about each respective plant, you can create a highly efficient zone, one that almost takes care of itself. It’s difficult but not impossible to reach five-star Biomass rating, and I suspect doing so will have a unique result on the current environment; alas, I’ve not been able to do this yet.
According to the Internet, Waking Mars takes about six to eight hours to complete. I’ve only put in two hours so far, which means there’s plenty of Mars left to explore and turn into my personal zoa garden. We’ll see if I have a green or red thumb.
Y’know, because the iron oxide prevalent on the planet’s surface gives it a reddish appearance?