How many times have you been to Mars? The butterscotch planet and its moons are popular spots for a bout of the old ultraviolence but there’s more to them than devilry, destruction and dicking about with Philip K Dick. I’d be surprised if you haven’t visited at least once and the tour could well have been a thoughtful one, with no angry fist, chainsaw or gun to block the view.
The Ultima series followed a Victorian detour and discovered the Martian dreamspaces, and there are ideological and scientific treatments of the possibilities that planets offer, including the words of Kim Stanley Robinson and Alexander Bogdanov.
No matter how many times you’ve taken the trip, you won’t have seen anything quite like Waking Mars. Rejecting the god of war, it’s a game in which progress is enabled by understanding; a journey with a genuine learning curve.
Waking Mars is Metroid with a different set of questions for the player to answer: ‘How will this plant react to these conditions and to this creature?’ rather than ‘Will I need more missiles to kill the giant brain?’ It contains nature red in pod and jaw but despite the conflict and collapsing tunnels, its story is gentle.
Waking Mars is an adventure game in which solutions aren’t concealed in a forest of dialogue trees or the abstract interactions between objects. It rewards observation and the toolset that the player gathers is made up of knowledge rather than things.
Waking Mars is a simulation of fascinating fictions and a reframed god game. It’s utterly compelling and in a year that has offered so much to celebrate, and so much that brings to mind the splendours of the past, Tiger Style’s ecologies felt like the hatching of something new.
Growing up in middle-of-nowhere-but-sort-of-close-to-somewhere, Texas, my childhood home was always overrun with animals. (Pets, mostly – and the occasional stampede of ostriches or whatever it is people think we have there.) Cats, dogs, turtles, rabbits, a supremely loud parrot, a small shark for a brief period of time, etc. But for me, having zillions of tiny creatures underfoot always meant home, and watching them form their own little ecosystem that openly spat in the face of Mother Nature was a marvelously fascinating part of my formative years.
In its own way, Waking Mars took me back to that place. And also to, um, Mars. At first, it struck me as almost suffocatingly solitary – I was one puny human rooting around in the larger-than-life guts of a silent colossus – but then I really took stock of all the life around me. These methodically undulating tentacle creatures and gnarled creepy crawlies that looked like deep-fried spiders weren’t out to get me. Sometimes, they were simply content to exist. Other times, they were hungry. And when their tiny virtual lives intertwined, I couldn’t help but just stand there and watch. Whether I was rooting for a terrified, helpless creature to escape from a looming predator or gawking at a once-empty room suddenly teeming with life, it was easy to forget that these were – at their heart – systems designed to help me solve puzzles. I liked forgetting.
Others still, they were my friends. Or at least, it felt that way. When the enormity of some dank Mars cavern threatened to swallow me whole, a wonderful plant-animal would skitter or fly or gyrate by, and I’d feel safe. Suddenly, this achingly lonely place innumerable miles from home wasn’t so foreign anymore.
And yeah, OK, sometimes they’d attack me. But it’s like they say: you only hurt the ones you love, or anybody in a fairly indiscriminate fashion if you’re a cold, uncaring Mars space alien.
(Whispers) I’ve only played this on eyeTablet so far. Is that OK? I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s 1000x times better on PC, though. In any case, I thought it was smart and charming and refreshingly cheerful, with lovely movement and a tendency to regularly bring abut visual awe. Plus I developed a bit of a crush on the girl in it – that smile! – and so I was disappointed when an update replaced the photos of her with drawings instead. WOE IS ME.