By Alec Meer on March 26th, 2014 at 3:00 pm.
Extrasolar is a browser-based game about controlling a lunar rover as it explores the surface of an island on a far-off planet, poring over the photographs it returns, and inadvertently uncovering a conspiracy as you do. It’s out now, and while paid upgrades are available it can very be much played for free – as such the below is a discussion of the experience, not the value proposition.
For the last fortnight or so, I’ve been playing a game for approximately three minutes every hour. (I’d like to say ‘apart from at night’, but thanks to my living on a noisy street and having a baby in the next room, that would be a barefaced lie.) I didn’t do much, myself, though the small amount of clicking and reading at my end did result in a remote-controlled rover travelling vast distances across another world, light years away from our own. So, in a way, I did a great deal.
Extrasolar is perhaps best described as an alternate reality game, like I Love Bees back in the day, but it has nothing to do with hundreds or thousands of players collaborating across the planet to solve puzzles and riddles. It is strictly a solo experience. More than that, it does not boast anything that could truly be called a puzzle, or even a challenge – this is about seeing a narrative play out in something like real-time, and being shown sometimes stunning faux-photographs of not-quite-lifeless planet as it all unfolds. And sometimes just some photographs of rocks, but they’ve still got that OMG SPACE feel, somehow.
Extrasolar’s got one of the strongest starts I’ve seen in a while, which I won’t spoil other than to say it initially involves getting emails from in-game characters sent to your real-world inbox. I thought, from that, that I was in for something really special, something which weaved in and out of my day-to-day reality and required me to go further afield than just the one browser tab.
Reader, I didn’t go further afield than just the one browser tab. Indeed, the first email was also the last email – all else was in Extrasolar itself, which is a great pity. Initially, Extrasolar itself held great promise too – from afar, I sent the rover towards locations of interest, to find and photography alien plants and even alien creatures, all kept within the stoic confines of hard sci-fi, resisting the fantastical in favour of at least vaguely plausible botany and biology. Assorted characters share objectives and observations – the enthusiastic if distractingly young CEO of the private spacefaring company I’ve found my way into working for, the firm’s chief biologist who goes into great detail about the whys and wherefores of what I found, and an anonymous hacker who claims something is rotten in the state of the eXoplanetary Research Institute (XRI) and who has recruited me as their insider.
They communicate primarily via emails sent within the game/browser tab, and very occasionally via phonecalls and videoconferences, which are really MP3s and videos as no two-way interaction is possible. This latter I can understand even if I have to force disbelief suspension, but that something as simple as the emails not arriving to my actual, out of game inbox is an oversight so silly as to be unforgivable. It forces the game’s reality to exist in its own bubble, and while I can turn on the option to have activity alerts emailed to me, I’m looking at the same subject line each time then immediately clicking through to the same damned tab.
I’ll labour that point no longer – just a shame to see something effective so quickly squandered. As it is that the early long-distance relationship with your rover, and the odd excitement of waiting an hour per ‘move’ for it to relay its most recent photograph to you, peters out after the first few days, and instead becomes a long trudge waiting for whatever activates the next email rather than anticipation for what the photos might contain.
In the early game, there are a couple of images which elicit a wonderful, gentle shock – ‘hang on, what the bejeesus is that?’ – and craving to know more. Unfortunately it doesn’t escalate further and the shtick of ‘go here, photograph that, email half an hour later’ wears increasingly thin. At the same time, it’s pleasant to know Extrasolar’s chuntering away in the background, and there’ll always be another photograph to go take or email to read or usually hamtastic video to watch whenever I have an idle moment between other duties. A tiny soap opera concerning corporate and government skullduggery and its relation to the possible discovery of alien life drip feeds itself to me, and while the disassociation between the apparent gravity of the situation and the limitations of my screenshot-scrutinising actions only grows and grows, Extrasolar manages to remain at least charming.
When it ended, after a severely misjudged enforced wait of a full 24 hours (presumably intended to increase tension, but in fact causing whatever impetus my fortnight of near-hourly checkins had built up to suddenly fade), it fizzled rather than exploded, and then left me with the now-pointless task of scouring the alien island for any flora and fauna photos I might have missed. And then I thought ‘why did I do this?’ That question can and sometimes should be applied to any game, but whenever it arises without any active prompting, something’s gone wrong.
I’m left feeling like Extrasolar is, or at least should be, just the dress rehearsal for something bigger. Its concept of a narrative conducted via long distance communication, and its use of a very grounded form of sci-fi (for the most part), are initially smart and appealing, but it gives itself nowhere to go and simply burns out from repetition. Future instalments are planned – if there’s a way to up the stakes and the interaction (be it puzzles, two-way communications, whatever) I’m back on board, but more of the same would feel like both the waste of a great concept and my time.
It is, in theory free, which makes a certain amount of criticism churlish, though paid options to speed things up somewhat (or simply show your appreciation) exist. On the free basis – sure, give it a spin. There are nice ideas and some of the ‘photographs’ of alien landscapes and their otherworldly, primarily vegetable matter denizens, are close to beautiful – I even had a couple as desktop wallpapers for a while. All you’ve got to lose is time – even then it’s just a few moments of it per day, and given at your leisure rather than its demands. Please, take a look, but don’t invest too heavily.
I do sort of miss it from my life now it’s over. Despite the deflation, I’d really like for it to come back, bigger and stranger.
Extrasolar is out now, and free-ish. You can sign-up here, though you may have some trouble getting in.