Waking Mars is not a normal game.
I was stuck. I couldn't progress. The reason why I couldn't progress was that I had introduced the wrong types of flora into the ecological system of the red planet's caves. I had to assess not just the area I was in, but also the areas around it. If I needed to change things, I would have to grow the things I needed for that change elsewhere. If I had to tear up this garden and start again, I would have to make sure that my other gardens were in good shape, healthy enough to provide all the seeds I'd need to start anew.
The red planet was silent as I thought my way through my problem. No battle robots attacked me.
The story of Waking Mars is pleasant, if not hugely important. But the main character is a wonderful creation. Liang, an astrobiologist, is a thoughtful and quiet man. A man of peace. And as he falls in love with this place of peace (he always seems reluctant to leave the caves) you start to fall in love with him. He's not just “dude with a jetpack”. He cuts a lonely figure as he hovers around the dead caves, trying to create life. The character strikes you so deeply, so early, that you build a whole back-story for him in your head. There is a lot of silence in those caves. Plenty of time to think about Liang's childhood, and to wonder why he looks so worried all the time.
In Waking Mars, you are tasked with exploring the mysteries of a network of Martian caves. You explore those mysteries by bringing the cave network to life, opening up new areas and activating new lifeforms. You begin with a game-typical PUT THIS HERE TO OPEN THIS HERE structure and watch as it transforms into an open, sprawling ecosystem-builder. The transformation happens organically. When you perfectly balance one area, so that it is self-sustaining, you can stand back and just watch it live. If it becomes a seed-rich area, you can use it as a supply base for barren areas elsewhere. And the game grows around you like that, deep and rich, like ivy.
Each area has a biomass total that you must aim to increase. Biomass is the sum of all flora and fauna in the area. It's not as simple as just planting seeds and growing plants (Liang would hate me calling them “plants”). That will rarely be enough. You will increase biomass with some simple planting, sure. And this might bring some little critters to life, sure. But you will then have to make the area sustain itself, by understanding how all the plants and lifeforms work together. You'll find yourself growing menacing plant-life that will feed from the creatures, producing new seeds. You'll assist the floating Cycots as they gather seeds to bring back to their nest, where new Cycots will spawn and add 40 points to your biomass. And you'll inevitably fling certain areas out of balance, and see life turning on life until the biomass dwindles towards death.
Research is important. Liang is a scientist after all. There's a little encyclopaedia, and you fill it with knowledge as you learn about each life-form's needs and vulnerabilities. Every time you throw some water at a new plant you will learn something. And all the information is vital if you want to play the game intelligently.
The smarter you are, the less work you'll have to do.
I think that's the key element of Waking Mars. Whenever you feel like you're doing some hard labour in the game, like travelling somewhere to get water, and somewhere else to get spores, and everything is taking too long and is a bit of a hassle – that's when you know you've got things wrong. When everything clicks – when you visit an area and there are seeds flying everywhere, and seething masses of life, you know that you've made some smart choices. A game that rewards thoughtfulness and reasoned choice is a rare one. Whenever I got stuck, and I was often stuck, it was because I am an idiot. Idiots get impatient. And impatient people are bad gardeners.
I think it might even be possible to turn a species extinct. I'm not sure. I wouldn't want to find out. But it feels like the game might allow that. It certainly became a fear whenever I'd grown too many hostile plants for their high biomass rating, and they'd started spitting hot death everywhere. I felt like whispering “I'm sorry, Liang” at his troubled face.
Waking Mars won't be for everyone. Some people will find it boring. There are people who, hearing that it's about gardening, will roar a yawn and fling their shoes at their computer. There are people who associate games with death and violence, and there is none of that here. There's just a guy in a cave, watching seeds take root, trying to understand how the water gets from the caverns above to the caverns below.
There's also a comedy robot. I want developers to consider putting a ban on these now. I think we've all had our fill of comedy robots. I will warn you now that the early part of the game has too much comedy robot banter. I hope that isn't a deal-breaker, as horrible as it is.
In truth, I didn't need anything more from Waking Mars than Liang and the caves. Anything else is superfluous. A part of me wishes that the caves were endless in size, and that you could just go deeper and deeper. Liang would never come out of the caves. He'd just live out his life as this lost gardener, smiling sadly as the biomass accumulates around him.
His childhood was a troubled one, I think, and he seems happy down there.
I think you should go down and see him. See what he's made.
Go and see what Tiger Style made.