Wot I Think: Extrasolar

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.

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26 Comments »

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  1. Talahar says:

    I played Extrasolar purely for free, with a four hour wait between moves, (the paid options would speed that up to 1h), and I feel if it would have been way too short if I didn’t have the four hour wait. I finished the story in just a bit over three weeks.
    However, I did enjoy my time, and I’m also hoping for more.

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      I gave up on it after a bit.

      I felt moved to tell the world this. Yes.

    • Premium User Badge

      P7uen says:

      I paid, as Alec said purely to show my appreciation, not to get the 1-hour waits.

      After getting them, I tended to wait longer for different times of day and to make it more relaxing, and turned email alerts off. I’m not done yet, and it does lose the initial excitement (Alec’s whole WIT is spot on), but I look forward to the next instalments if and when they come.

  2. Taidan says:

    Hmm. By complete coincidence I just stopped by RPS to see what was up after the first of my twice-daily ExtraSolar visits.

    It’s worth extra-emphasizing that the game’s impact on your daily gaming time really is minimal, and it’s free-ness is particularly generous, so there’s no reason not to. (Which makes the primary paid option, that of letting you stop by more often, particularly mystifying to me. Pay extra to take away one of the game’s more appealing aspects?)

    • bhauck says:

      Me too! I thought “Wait, I’m nowhere near one of the GPS units?”

  3. bhauck says:

    I think it’s possible to agree with everything this review says, but adjust the sliders for how much you care about things and end up with one of my favorite gaming experiences in years. More real inbox interaction would have been fine, for instance, but BEAUTIFUL ALIEN LANDSCAPE PANORAMAS! Since it’s free, I’d say that if any of this sounds like it might appeal to you, even if other parts sound like a slog, give it a shot.

    • wererogue says:

      I agree with you entirely. I love how believable the rover control experience is – limited command, infrequent but amazing response etc. I love the story and the characters, I love the alien world, and I love the ARG intro all *so much* that any concept of “but it could be better if” is understandable but almost meaningless to me.

      I did pay for the game, partly to support it and partly because I wanted to be interacting with it more often. And I’ll pay for the other two campaigns when they launch.

      • wererogue says:

        Also, I felt the in-page email actually helped rather than hindered my belief in the game – it reminds me of *so many* in-house bespoke email-like systems meant to increase security.

  4. Synesthesia says:

    This is quite amazing. I had just taken that very same photograph of the second gps unit when i decided to check rps. Are you people watching me?

  5. Premium User Badge

    gorgonaut says:

    The developers have stated that this is just the first episode of several.
    Not quite sure how far along these are, but throwing $20 at the devs gives access to all the future episodes:)

    I think the 24-hour wait was unnecessary, but the payoff left me wanting more.
    Looking forward to that email, inviting me back to the awkwardly named world.

    Also, the tech behind the game is quite interesting:)

  6. jingies says:

    I’ve just ‘finished’ the story, and overall I quite enjoyed it. I paid the associate price, and felt the reduction in delay from 4h to 1h was worth it, but mostly because it meant I got more turns in during a day at work. The pace of the story might drag a bit at the 4h delay, and I genuinely doubt I would have got to the end of the story doing it that way.

    I didn’t like the 24h finish, and I didn’t like being told I wasn’t allowed to go ‘somewhere’ to look at ‘something’ I had seen in the distance until I had finished doing ‘something else’, without any attempt at giving a plot reason.

    I paid, I enjoyed, but I don’t think I’d pay for a second installment of the same.

  7. Cvnk says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself (I suppose that’s why I’m not writing reviews for RPS). I was sorely disappointed by the amateurish story and sub-par acting. I would have preferred a game with no story, just roving and exploring. Of course it would need a much bigger and more varied map with all sorts of hidden secrets. Also that way they could easily make it a multiplayer game, where you’d see the other players’ rovers in your photos, perhaps adding goals that require some sort of cooperation.

  8. blackfire83 says:

    I also agree wholeheartedly with this review. After the first (real-world) e-mail that I received, I thought I was in for a surreal experience. While it’s a bit disappointing that the experience did become limited to that one browser tab, I still think it’s an enjoyable one overall.

    However, like the reviewer and others have mentioned, I’d like to see the ‘out-of-game’ interactions increased. More real-world e-mails. Heck, maybe even an option to give the game my phone number and receive texts and phone calls (at certain hours of the day). This could drastically increase those surreal qualities and make you think a few times, “Wait, is this real?”

  9. Chiselphane says:

    One thing I thought that is really neat about this is that Jane van Susteren, a ‘character’ in the game, is actually a real person, a botanist, who gives you extra information about your discoveries. She applies real-world scientific theory towards what she thinks various things are.

    • bhauck says:

      She’s also really gung-ho about killing lifeforms she doesn’t remotely understand as an experiment. Has science fiction taught us nothing? This is not how you introduce yourself to a new world!

      • Chiselphane says:

        “I’m not sure what this is. Let’s deprive it of light then cut it up!”

    • Tei says:

      Ye she is in it for the science, can’t care less about hacker and other stuff. But she is really into mysteries, just science mysteries.

    • Premium User Badge

      P7uen says:

      I love that the life-forms and her thoughts about them were really believable. They were different and original enough from Earth, but really well thought through. Compared to say, Avatar, with it’s Hammerhead rhinos in dense forest, yeah I’m sure it’s really an evolutionary advantage to have a massively wide head while hunting in between trees.

      I loved it. Kudos to whoever came up with all that stuff.

  10. guygodbois00 says:

    My unfortunate experience with it was:
    “Unfortunately, due to the large volume of applications we have received, all entry-tier rovers that have been deployed on the planet’s surface have been assigned to drivers.”

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      Oh well. That’s the end for you then.
      I’ll drop you an email, just to say hi and commiserate.

    • bhauck says:

      I might be able to get you in, watch your inbox. If you tried to sign up a while ago, go back in your inbox and look around then.

    • Premium User Badge

      jjman says:

      I almost didn’t try after seeing this comment.

      I recommend you still still give it a go as I was able to get in ;)

  11. Contrafibularity says:

    This game is great, no one has an excuse not to play it. I love how the wait times fire up the ol’ imagination.

  12. GepardenK says:

    That first screenshot could be straight out of Riven. But in realtime :O

  13. Darth_Pingu says:

    I just recently completed the game myself (free) and agree on all the points in the review (spot on) – but I feel like you left out two parts: The acting and the plot.
    I feel that the plot was very immature in the way it escalated – and quite cliché.
    The acting was too robotic, I think.

    However, I guess that’s not a huge part of the _gaming_ experience of the game.

    And yeah that they stopped emailing RP mails baffled me.

  14. Dux Ducis Hodiernus says:

    The extrasolar link on the front page(the promotion thingies) have a broken link.