Waking Mars is pretty special game. Part-Metroidvania, part-Mars-gardening-simulator, it's certainly not Just Another iOS Port. As Rab pointed out, it's got enough ambition to make countless triple-A sequels blush, resulting in complexity that punishes impatience, but never without reason. But where did it come from? How on Earth does one dream up Mars gardening? According to Tiger Style's Randy Smith, it all started with National Geographic. And from there, well, things ended up in a very, very different place.
I have to admit that I'm often disappointed when I ask developers about the central sources of inspiration for their games. All too often, the answer is something to the effect of a breathlessly excited "Transformers and Aliens and GI Joe and Dungeons & Dragons!" I mean, it's awesome that they're so passionate about, well, anything, but those touchstones are positively coated in Cheeto-stained fingerprints. As a result, it's sometimes hard to share their excitement. The deja vu's simply too thick.
So my hand practically leaped onto my stroke-starved beard when Tiger Style's Randy Smith explained what gave Waking Mars its first sparks: science.
"We spent four months after the release of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor thinking about what project we wanted to tackle next," he began. "We prototyped entire games, played them, then threw them out because for various reasons they didn’t meet our standards. This had been going on when we all got pretty excited about this one treatment called Descent that I whipped together in about an hour. The idea was that you were a normal dude going on a caving adventure on Earth. So we prototyped Descent and right away realized we’d basically just made Tomb Raider but without the wolves, boobs, and pistols. Normal caves just seemed too hard to make interesting."
Naturally, then, Smith and co decided to relocate. To Mars.
"When I wrote up the treatment document for what was at first called Mars Descent, I included one of my favorite and strongest inspirations for Waking Mars, a bit from National Geographic’s amazing book Our Universe which was mostly a factual encyclopedia about the Solar System and beyond, but had a short section speculating about life on other planets in a very credible way, where each lifeform had its own diet, habits, reproduction, vulnerabilities and so forth, existing as part of a larger, balanced ecosystem."
So that was the starting point, but it was only just that: a beginning. As Smith put it, the idea was just "words on a page" at that point. But it didn't stay that way for long. In addition to designing systems and breathing life into prototypes, Smith and co hit the books. And they hit them hard.
"After working on Waking Mars for two years, I feel like I’ve gone through a self-taught crash course in planetary science, organic chemistry, genealogy, zoology, cave formation, and the geophysical history of Mars," Smith quipped. "One reason for all the research is that I wanted to bring our love for science, space exploration, and discovery into the game as one of its core appeals, which necessitated a careful balance between credible science and fun speculation. Kind of like a pop Wikipedia about our game fiction to spark the imagination."
"Many parts of the game are very plausible and grounded in hard science. For example, the beginning of the game is set in a type of cave called lava tubes, which are created when lava flows over the surface and the outside layers solidify faster but the center continues to flow out until it leaves behind a hollow tube. We modeled ours to look like ones that really exist on Earth, such as in Hawaii. We chose lava tubes because caves on Mars really have been discovered and are presumed to be lava tubes formed during periods of lava flow billions of years ago. In fact, in many ways, that discovery is the origin of our game: people wonder if life exists in caves on Mars, and our game took it from there and went on a wild ride with it."
But, at the end of the day, Smith and co were still designing a game first and foremost. And, in spite of the fact that it's basically magic these days, science isn't always fun. So that became the central back-and-forth in Waking Mars' development: scientific pseudo-fact vs fun-enriching fiction. And of course, things didn't always go according to plan.
"We started with a large brainstorm list of exotic alien creatures and behaviors to prototype, but as time went on we realized that a smaller number of more highly developed and varied creatures would provide better consistency for the player and the game fiction than hordes of similar creatures that were hard to keep straight," Smith reflected. "Instead we focused on making each lifeform very 'explorable' meaning that there was always new discoveries about a creature’s behavior or revelations about how they interact with each other."
The end result, then, was a menagerie of interactions between fictional Mars' frightening yet oddly endearing brand of flora-fauna. For instance, skittish, spider-like Phyta are preyed upon by the spiny tentacular Prax, but Phyta eat Prax seeds, among other things. This causes them to spit out a new Phyta fully formed, because the circle of life is a miraculous, retch-inducingly disgusting thing. Even those two initial species, though, can hurt and harm each other in all sorts of ways - especially with a bit of outside prodding from a player. For instance, I once created an infinite life-death loop wherein a Prax would eat a Phyta and spit out a seed, which another Phyta would then eat - resulting in a new Phyta that, afraid of me, would immediately flee into the jaws of its main predator, thus beginning the cycle anew. Another time, I left two plant species in one room. Later, I came back, and one, the Hydron Zoa, had completely taken over the entire, previously empty area. It was water-vomiting vines as far as the eye could see.
But what do you do with a crazy interlocked ecosystem of a dozen of these bizarre plant-animals? Well, for a while, Smith and co didn't really know.
"[Percentage-number-based] Biomass wasn’t our first choice, actually," Smith admitted. "We experimented with a variety of alternate goals for each level, such as measuring how the player had balanced the environment with parameters including temperature and oxygen level, but in the end boiling it all down to a simple number put emphasis in the right place. As a player, your only goal is to grow more life until the Cerebrane door opens, which is simple to remember but the implications of this single goal can be quite varied."
"In one level, you might have to learn how a certain plant reproduces, in another you might need to protect a creature from its natural predators somehow. In all levels, you’re always playing a game of 'design your own level,' meaning that as you add more life to the environment you are placing hazards to navigate and opportunities to leverage, so what lifeform you decide to cultivate where has important implications. Given that this kind of variety can emerge with the player only having to think about raising one simple number, we feel like it was a good design. On one hand you always want to help the player feel immersed, but on the other hand players are comfortable with familiar gaming ideas and going too far outside the range of what’s understood can jar players out of their suspension of disbelief just as quickly."
In spite of a very Metroidvania-esque structure, however, you won't find any Mother-Brain-blasting missiles or wall-destroying super boots in Waking Mars. While other games of that sort tend to focus on the slow, compulsive build from zero to fully decked-out hero, Smith and co wanted Waking Mars to glorify a different walk of life entirely. Sure, your character has a space suit and that most coveted of all videogame items, a jetpack, but he is, first and foremost, a scientist.
"I feel like discovery is one of the top two things this game is about - the other being growing or cultivating," explained Smith. "We were definitely trying to create a game that could capture the essence of exploration and scientific discovery. There is nothing in the game that enforces you learn how to get Halid Zoa to heal you, nor that you learn how Cycots reproduce, how to enrich Hydrons so they grow larger, or what happens when you feed a certain secret item to a Phyta. Players all learn it at different times, depending on their level of interest and their investigative abilities. This provides a wonderful feeling of ownership when it finally happens: it feels more like you figured it out for yourself, not that the game forced you to understand it. You might stumble upon it accidentally, or pursue it deliberately, but either way it’s an example of the player authoring their own story within the context we’ve provided."
Ultimately, then, Waking Mars isn't so much about the tug-of-war between science and fun as it is the moments when the two come together. One minute, Smith explains how his game leverages the laws of conservation and mass as central gameplay mechanics, and the next, he tells me a story of the time he accidentally turned a frightening flying Cycot into his "pet puppy" by repeatedly stealing a seed from it as it was on the way back to its nest and, as a result, playing fetch. Scientifically-grounded systems produced a delightful moment of discovery, and that - as it turns out - is its own sort of fun.
And really, for Smith, it all comes back to that central goal of discovery. He wanted to know about life on Mars, so he made a game about it. Oh, and caves. It's also definitely about caves.
"I struggled for a long time seeking an answer to this question: 'If Mars ever had a time period when it could have supported life, then when was that, in what environmental conditions, and what would those lifeforms have been like?' Scientists, of course, are trained to be skeptical and careful, so although this exact question is very active in the scientific community, no papers are published that come right out and speculate about it.
"But I was able gradually to collect a set of the most relevant data – evidence that liquid water has flowed on Mars and probably even a gigantic ocean once covered the northern hemisphere, a long-lost electromagnetic field that might have shielded the atmosphere from the solar wind, real caves that actually have been discovered – that painted a picture of a surprisingly Earth-like Mars which may have existed at the very inception of our solar system. The story of Waking Mars involves the fate of this vibrant planet as its atmosphere and oceans dissolve away into space and the surface degrades into the barren, freezing rock seen today. The caves you explore leverage this research to depict environmental conditions that could have sheltered the remnants of that life for billions of years until you, the player, unsuspectingly enter the scene."
And then you make things eat each other for laughs. Because videogames.