Wot I Think: Waking Mars

By Robert Florence on November 16th, 2012 at 9:00 pm.


Waking Mars is not a normal game.

I was stuck. I couldn’t progress. The reason why I couldn’t progress was that I had introduced the wrong types of flora into the ecological system of the red planet’s caves. I had to assess not just the area I was in, but also the areas around it. If I needed to change things, I would have to grow the things I needed for that change elsewhere. If I had to tear up this garden and start again, I would have to make sure that my other gardens were in good shape, healthy enough to provide all the seeds I’d need to start anew.

The red planet was silent as I thought my way through my problem. No battle robots attacked me.

The story of Waking Mars is pleasant, if not hugely important. But the main character is a wonderful creation. Liang, an astrobiologist, is a thoughtful and quiet man. A man of peace. And as he falls in love with this place of peace (he always seems reluctant to leave the caves) you start to fall in love with him. He’s not just “dude with a jetpack”. He cuts a lonely figure as he hovers around the dead caves, trying to create life. The character strikes you so deeply, so early, that you build a whole back-story for him in your head. There is a lot of silence in those caves. Plenty of time to think about Liang’s childhood, and to wonder why he looks so worried all the time.

In Waking Mars, you are tasked with exploring the mysteries of a network of Martian caves. You explore those mysteries by bringing the cave network to life, opening up new areas and activating new lifeforms. You begin with a game-typical PUT THIS HERE TO OPEN THIS HERE structure and watch as it transforms into an open, sprawling ecosystem-builder. The transformation happens organically. When you perfectly balance one area, so that it is self-sustaining, you can stand back and just watch it live. If it becomes a seed-rich area, you can use it as a supply base for barren areas elsewhere. And the game grows around you like that, deep and rich, like ivy.

Each area has a biomass total that you must aim to increase. Biomass is the sum of all flora and fauna in the area. It’s not as simple as just planting seeds and growing plants (Liang would hate me calling them “plants”). That will rarely be enough. You will increase biomass with some simple planting, sure. And this might bring some little critters to life, sure. But you will then have to make the area sustain itself, by understanding how all the plants and lifeforms work together. You’ll find yourself growing menacing plant-life that will feed from the creatures, producing new seeds. You’ll assist the floating Cycots as they gather seeds to bring back to their nest, where new Cycots will spawn and add 40 points to your biomass. And you’ll inevitably fling certain areas out of balance, and see life turning on life until the biomass dwindles towards death.

Research is important. Liang is a scientist after all. There’s a little encyclopaedia, and you fill it with knowledge as you learn about each life-form’s needs and vulnerabilities. Every time you throw some water at a new plant you will learn something. And all the information is vital if you want to play the game intelligently.

The smarter you are, the less work you’ll have to do.

I think that’s the key element of Waking Mars. Whenever you feel like you’re doing some hard labour in the game, like travelling somewhere to get water, and somewhere else to get spores, and everything is taking too long and is a bit of a hassle – that’s when you know you’ve got things wrong. When everything clicks – when you visit an area and there are seeds flying everywhere, and seething masses of life, you know that you’ve made some smart choices. A game that rewards thoughtfulness and reasoned choice is a rare one. Whenever I got stuck, and I was often stuck, it was because I am an idiot. Idiots get impatient. And impatient people are bad gardeners.

I think it might even be possible to turn a species extinct. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to find out. But it feels like the game might allow that. It certainly became a fear whenever I’d grown too many hostile plants for their high biomass rating, and they’d started spitting hot death everywhere. I felt like whispering “I’m sorry, Liang” at his troubled face.

Waking Mars won’t be for everyone. Some people will find it boring. There are people who, hearing that it’s about gardening, will roar a yawn and fling their shoes at their computer. There are people who associate games with death and violence, and there is none of that here. There’s just a guy in a cave, watching seeds take root, trying to understand how the water gets from the caverns above to the caverns below.

There’s also a comedy robot. I want developers to consider putting a ban on these now. I think we’ve all had our fill of comedy robots. I will warn you now that the early part of the game has too much comedy robot banter. I hope that isn’t a deal-breaker, as horrible as it is.

In truth, I didn’t need anything more from Waking Mars than Liang and the caves. Anything else is superfluous. A part of me wishes that the caves were endless in size, and that you could just go deeper and deeper. Liang would never come out of the caves. He’d just live out his life as this lost gardener, smiling sadly as the biomass accumulates around him.

His childhood was a troubled one, I think, and he seems happy down there.

I think you should go down and see him. See what he’s made.

Go and see what Tiger Style made.

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77 Comments »

  1. Eight Rooks says:

    Great review, mister Florence – Eurogamer’s loss and all that. I own this one three times now (iOS, and twice out of the last Humble Bundle) and it really is something special.

    In Tiger Style’s defence I think the comedy robot stuff grates more for the horrid comedy robot voice they’ve told the actor to do – the iOS version had no voiceovers to begin with (the Android release still doesn’t, annoyingly) and I winced the first time I heard how they’d made him sound. He was obviously the light relief all along but no way did he sound that… perky in my head.

    Other than that, fantastic game, and quietly one of the highlights of the year for sure.

    • sub-program 32 says:

      SPOILERSSPOILERSSPOLIERSSPOILERS (though it’s actually more of a character than story spoiler)

      I really did like how OCTO was well spoken and in control of human languge. In fact, the comedy robot stuff I almost found worthwhile simply for the “twist” that ART’s voice is because of a bad practical joke in the game world itself , and he is actually significantly smarter than OCTO (a moment I kind of went “WHAT” to when he said that).

    • frightlever says:

      Agreed. Good review.

      I consider myself more lucky than smart but I never had a problem planting the wrong sort of plants. (I sound like horticultural, Daily Mail-reading Hitler right there)

      Great game. Pretty chill.

      And, I like comedy robots. Cannot get enough of them.

  2. Bhazor says:

    So you’re saying about 7/10?

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      That’s the score I give your review.

      • Eddy9000 says:

        I’d deduct a point for the my little pony avatar, giving 6/10.

        • melnificent says:

          I’m deducting a point for it being reduced to below the mnimum value (7) allowed for reviews making 5/10

          • Eddy9000 says:

            I believe when something to be reviewed deserves a 5 or lower it gets into ‘comedic panning’ territory whereby the reviewer takes out all their latent anger and personal frustrations on the item, making over the top and unfairly scathing but witty remarks and awarding a 1/10.

            Sorry Bhazor, your review gets 1/10

    • Raiyan 1.0 says:

      I gave your mum a 7/10.

  3. sub-program 32 says:

    I have completed the game, and I agree with pretty much all of the above, though myself I found Liang a little muted emotion-wise, but that by no means affected my opinion much. The entire thing felt soooo much more like a place than other games, equaling Dark Souls I think in terms of a coherent landscape (both of them even explain why they have lethal lava lands!).

  4. Jesse L says:

    Sounds wonderful – not sure I’m that thoughtful, but maybe I’ll see…

  5. Danopian says:

    Get your ass to Mars!

    (sorry, I had to; the phrase arose naturally to mind when I was considering how best to concur that this is a beautiful game which everyone should play)

    • I want to stab you to death and play around with your blood. says:

      SCREW YOU!
      just kidding…
      See you at the party!

  6. JuJuCam says:

    Paragraphs to purchase: 2.

    I think this represents a new review record for me.

  7. lordcooper says:

    How could I resist?

  8. KungFuMassa says:

    Oy, if you like the game and want it on Steam, go hit up the Steam Greenlight Page and give it all your love. All of it!
    I’m helping Tiger Style promote the game BTW. Hope no one minds!

    • RandyTigerStyle says:

      Thanks for pimping our Greenlight page! I was just logging on to ask for some love there, as a matter of fact… :)

      Thanks very much for this awesome review. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Waking Mars the way we hoped some players would. Did you find any of the “real” endings?

      WORD. – Randy

      • Eddy9000 says:

        Going to your website and finding out you’re the team behind ‘Spider – the secret of Bryce Manor’ makes this a must buy for me. One of my favourite iOS games of all time, the way the story was told through the backgrounds was just awesome.

      • Joshua Northey says:

        I voted for it!

  9. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    Great review! Definitely need to check this game out.

  10. Hoaxfish says:

    Also part of the HumbleBundle atm

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      It’s called “for Android” which scares me….
      Are those PC games?

      • rustybroomhandle says:

        That’s just the title… if you read further or watch the video, you will also see that all of the games, including the ones they added yesterday can be played on Android, Windows, Mac, Linux.

        • Sparkasaurusmex says:

          Oh that’s cool. Although I do already own four of six in the bundle. I’ll just get this game directly so I can be sure of the version..

      • Avish says:

        Yes, I believe they are.

    • Vinraith says:

      Is it wrong that I’d rather just pay $10 direct to the developers of the one game in that bundle I find interesting, skipping the other stuff and the (wholly useless to me) Android platform support?

      • lordcooper says:

        No?

      • Kodeen says:

        You can still buy directly through the dev’s site. Also, the Humble Bundle allows you complete control over cash distribution, so if you wanted to you could get it for just this game, give all your money to Tiger Style and just forget the rest of it.

        http://www.tigerstylegames.com/wakingmars/buy-now/

        • The Random One says:

          No, the Indie Bundle lets you choose how much money goes to the devs, to charity and to the Bundle organizers, but you can’t choose to give the money to one dev specifically, or to give all to EFF instead of Child’s Play. Unless it changed from the last time I bought one of their bundles.

          Still, if you want to give money to a dev, go and buy their game directly from them.

          • Bhazor says:

            Yes you can customise how much each developer gets.
            Just click the arrow under developers on the split payment bit.

          • benkc says:

            There are individual sliders for each developer and each charity now.

  11. fishdinner says:

    Welp, you sold me a copy

  12. valz says:

    Down with comedy AI everywhere, except GlaDos.

  13. derbefrier says:

    weird sounding game but I do want to try it out and you say its in the humble bundle? well consider this a copy bought. I may only play it for a bit and not like it but who knows maybe I’ll enjoy it. the idea of it sounds cool enough to take a chance.

    • phuzz says:

      I just found out that it was in the Humble Bundle that I already bought.
      so, yay for that.

  14. Talon says:

    Rab, if this is your new home, I welcome you with open arms.

    • Squishpoke says:

      You know, I was hoping that Rab would start writing for RockPaperShotgun on a more frequent basis. Looks like it might happen!

  15. ZIGS says:

    That game mechanic kinda reminds me of The Void

    • brulleks says:

      Hopefully without the soul-crushing ‘Have you figured out what you have to do yet? TOUGH! OUT OF TIME! START OVER!’ mechanic.

  16. gschmidl says:

    I thought that robot was funny :-(

  17. LTK says:

    Okay, hold on, I’m looking at my radar, and Waking Mars was a blip about the size of a watermelon seed, and this blip just grew into a full-size hot-air balloon. That doesn’t happen often.

  18. Hunchback says:

    This might just be the best 1 line introduction to anything game-related, ever.

  19. VileJester says:

    “In truth, I didn’t need anything more from Waking Mars than Liang and the caves. Anything else is superfluous. A part of me wishes that the caves were endless in size, and that you could just go deeper and deeper. Liang would never come out of the caves. He’d just live out his life as this lost gardener, smiling sadly as the biomass accumulates around him.”

    This. I felt the same after completing the game.

    Unfortunately you forgot to mention that the musics are brilliant, although sometimes repetitive.
    They add greatly to the atmosphere of the caves.

  20. jrodman says:

    I generally find simmy games just don’t communicate their rules clearly, and I’m watching a system fail and feeling uninterested in figuring out why. Is there any reason to think this would go differently? (Not that that suggests the game is flawed.)

    • angrychair says:

      It’s not really a sim, more of a non-violent metroidvania. The game is very simple. There are plants, if you take care of them they produce seeds. You can plant the seeds and grow more plants. You need a certain amount of plant life in an area to open gates to new areas. Everything else is just figuring out how the different plants interact with each other and the environment. They can’t spell all the interactions out for you because that would take away what little challenge there is in the game. Waking Mars is what you would get if you crossed Flower with Metroid.

      I played the game on iOS and found it very simple. I don’t recall ever getting stuck. Frequently I was left thinking, “Is that it?” This game got rave reviews when it came out, but I didn’t get much out of it. The puzzle elements are too shallow to be challenging and the rest of it, while nice, isn’t enough to carry the game as an experience.

  21. webwielder says:

    It’s worth mentioning that one of the designers of Waking Mars is Randy Smith, who was one of the minds behind the Thief games. You can clearly see the emergent thread that runs through to this game as plants destroy each other. Also, I thought the robot’s strange way of phrasing things was funny. Oh, and I found the music overpowering. Much prefer just the sounds of water, seeds, and jetpack.

  22. Rawrian says:

    I’m surprised nobody said GARDENFACE yet.

    • The Random One says:

      Eh. Warfighter is already out, Warface is still a long time away.

      I used to be a WARFACE like you, if only I could talk to the 7/10. Ban this slick thing!

      • Rawrian says:

        SEVENSLASHTENFACE? No, that doesn’t sound right. WARSCORE? Maybe SCOREFACE?

      • The Tupper says:

        I used to be WARFACE like you as well, until I took an arrow to the knee.

  23. Auspex says:

    “…you start to fall in love with him. He’s not just “dude with a jetpack”. He cuts a lonely figure as he hovers around the dead caves, trying to create life. The character strikes you so deeply, so early, that you build a whole back-story for him in your head.”

    I did not do these things.

  24. Eddy9000 says:

    Cue a scandalous photo of Rab consuming gallons of mountain dew and nachos with the Tiger Style team.

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  26. Lupinstein says:

    This made me think of Pardot Kynes of Dune

  27. madog says:

    I got this for the iOS when it came out some months ago. I ended up with a nearly 100% game save, but couldn’t complete something at the end because I apparently missed a scripted part by doing something I “wasn’t supposed to” before the ending. It was extremely disappointing and I haven’t played since.

    However, it was an extremely entertaining and original (for me) game despite that issue.

  28. Chaz says:

    Comedy robots, not cool?

    *Sob!*

  29. The Sombrero Kid says:

    always wanted to pick it up, was waiting for it to come to my preferred platform, off to buy.

  30. Prime says:

    I’ve been playing this for the last few days. It’s very cool, very relaxing. I have also found myself getting things wrong, and am wondering if I’ve killed a species I really really need. But that’s not stopping me from enjoying a terrific little exploration and discovery game. If you haven’t got this, do so. Highly recommended.

    The robot must die, however. Irritating beyond belief. Bad coders! BAD!

  31. Giuseppe says:

    A very well written review, but it’s over selling the game a bit. It’s definitely an interesting and relaxing game to play, but I can’t say I feel the same kind of emotional and intellectual connection with Liang as the reviewer seems to describe. In fact I find Liang to be quite emotionally detached or, at least, how someone here put it “a little muted emotion-wise”.

    • sub-program 32 says:

      That would be me. Glad to know it was not just me being a soulless can’t-gauge-emotion-properly person. He just seemed to underreact slightly to the fact he was on mars, planting alien plantamals, and meeting SPOILERS. I for one would have a much greater tone of wonderment, which seemed to be lacking here. Still was a far better game character than most though.

      • gritz says:

        On the contrary, he seemed to exude a quiet reverence for everything- but without the kind of teeming enthusiasm that could potentially cause misunderstandings.

  32. Citrus says:

    You can always count on Indies to create games with cheapest art possible. How the hell do you even make Mars surface look like shit is a mystery that will never be solved.

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      Glad to see you have so much perspective and are able to deliver your criticisms with such glorious tact and due consideration. :/

      Personally I think the environment art is quite lovely. The caves themselves are also rather atmospheric.

      • Giuseppe says:

        I agree; the game is quite atmospheric and the art is actually pretty good. It serves the game well.

  33. Linfosoma says:

    Waking Mars robot = Kevin Spacey’s character in Moon

  34. phenom_x8 says:

    Sorry, its me who make it fail due to my post marked as spam (too many links!

  35. futage says:

    I love how you write about games.