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The Bleeding Edges: Extrasolar

Space rovin'

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The Bleeding Edges is a series of articles on alternative reality gaming – games that blur the line between reality and fiction, smudge the edges of the frame and let the game bleed over into your real life.

When I reviewed The Temporal Invasion last week, I lamented that it fell short of the reality-augmenting pleasure* that I’d found in 2003’s In Memoriam, and wished there were more games that could blur reality and fantasy in such interesting ways. People told me about some. I’ve been playing them. And goodness me, if I’m not rather enjoying playing Extrasolar [official site].

Alec reviewed the game when it came out in 2014, and didn’t really rate it, and I now remember thinking at the time that I must check it out. I didn’t. But now I have, and my experience – while absolutely agreeing with all of Alec’s valid criticisms – has been very different.

The premise begins with your applying to take part in a crowdsourced project to explore an Earth-type planet in another solar system. You fill in the form on the game’s website to apply, and then wait. An email arrives into your real-life inbox telling you you’ve not been accepted on the project. And I think that might be the best beginning of a game ever. Then, by clandestine means, you get access anyway, and from then on you’re playing a sort of double-agent of space rover exploration. You’re at once performing your duties as a person sat at their desk or phone directing a rover around an island on a planet, taking photographs, logging information about new flora and potentially fauna, and at the same time aiding a hooded hacker figure who has an unrevealed agenda.

What I like about this opening narrative is it puts you in the position of not trusting the organisation you’re helping, XRI (eXoplanetary Research Institute), without ever giving you a good reason why. XRI are all NDAs and corporate speak, and that helps to suggest they’re not too friendly, but there’s really nothing there to suggest they’re, well, evil. It keeps things less obvious, less immediately blatant. Your mysterious hacker chum, kryptex81, also fails to give you any good reason to trust him/her. But since they got you access to something interesting, you may as well humour them.

And interesting I’ve found it, despite the actual tasks you have being pretty mundane. In the main, you’re directing your rover short distances across the small island you’re on, on Epsilon Prime, and taking photos. Because the planet’s bloody miles away, despite the new-fangled tech they’ve got worked out to allow this expedition to take place, it takes an hour for any photo to get back to you. And because the most you can do at any time is give it a few instructions (more depending upon how much you choose to pay for the game), it’s played in little bursts of a couple of minutes here, fifteen minutes there, over days, weeks.

I’m loving that! I’ve mostly played on my phone, because I started it over the weekend away from my desk, but have carried on into the week playing at my desktop PC – it’s seamless, because it’s all browser-based. When you get photos, you explore them for new bits and bobs, and anything that looks interesting you tag. It emails to alert you that new photos have downloaded, or that new discoveries have been made. And in between such things you receive correspondence from in-game characters, like the super-earnest project director, ol’ Hacky McHackington, or my favourite, Jane Eastwood, XRI Lead Exobiologist. She sends these long, astonishingly smart emails about the new species of plants (if they are plants) you’ve tagged in photos, speculating on their possible biology, enthusing about the excitement of such brand new science, and asking you to complete extra tasks in tagging and exploring to help her get a better database of materials.

As Alec mentioned, it’s beyond belief that these emails don’t come into your real-world inbox, and having to read them in the site’s own section steals such a huge chunk of the potential reality blur it could have offered. There are other blogs and websites that flesh out the fiction, but it uses them bizarrely sparely. And yet, getting an in-browser email from Jane is far more fun than my disappointment at this silly mistake. In fact, by strange serendipity, one of the subjects she particularly writes about happened to address a discussion I’d been having with my scientist wife a day or so before I started playing!

We were talking about Juno, Jupiter, and Europa, and about why it’s assumed that water is necessary for potential life. I was just assuming it is, while Laura pointed out that this assumes life would need to adhere to our current understanding of evolution, etc. So when my new pal Jane started emailing me about the matter, I was reading them out to Laura, asking her to explain words I didn’t know, and furthering our own discussion! Which isn’t something I can say has been true of many games.

I paid the maximum $25 for the game (receiving the hideous post-Brexit shock that this was no longer about £15, but £20, but there we go), which affords only slight extras – you can give your rover four contiguous moves, rather than three (for the $9.50 tier) or two for the free version of the game, and you get unlimited access to panoramic photographs which means you’ve a better chance of catching sight of things in any single snap. But the game is not dramatically changed by either, so can certainly be enjoyed for free. (I just loved that a game like this exists, so wanted to encourage such things.)

And I’ve found it all a rare pleasure, just checking in on my progress as I wandered around John Lewis on Sunday, deliberately setting up a bunch of photos before I go to sleep so they’d be there to look through when I woke, annoying Laura by excitedly informing her that I’d found a new species of bio-luminescent plantlife when she was trying to talk to me about something sensible. But at the same time, just a couple of minutes here and there, every few hours.

And the photos are often gorgeous. It’s such a clever idea, letting you take a picture from any angle, at any point, at various times of day, making them feel bespoke and unique to you.

I’d love if it could do more to spread itself outside of its own tab. There are pdfs, a couple of blogs and sites, but there could have been lots more. It’s odd that there isn’t a greater emphasis on doing your own research to find where the truth sits between your two main antagonists. And I think its most unforgivable mistake is how much better it plays on my telephone’s Chrome than the ugly, squashed, and cumbersome desktop version. It desperately needs a rehash for bigger screens, and since they’re still accepting money for it, that seems like something they should do. It possibly doesn’t bode well that they’ve not updated their site since February 2015, especially after a very failed Kickstarter to continue the game into further chapters in late 2014.

But the fact is, I’ve got a photo due to arrive in less than a minute, I just got an email from XRI revealing some very exciting secrets, and I’m completely compelled by this. The blur is minimum, the pulp is maximum, but the science is stunning and detailed and I’ve learned loads.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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