Waking Mars: Bringing Life to the Red Planet
Waking Mars is one of those games that starts off ridiculously simple and by its end feels like graduate-level science. It ramps up so gradually that you don’t even realize how far you’ve come unless you deliberately look back. At first, you’re just exploring a cave on foot and via your handy jetpack. A lost robotic probe needs to be recovered, but your attempts to follow its footsteps runs into trouble when some parts of the cave are found to be collapsed.
You come across a blocked passage, and the only way to open it is to plant a seed that is laying around. A bizarre bit of flora springs up immediately, and you’re allowed to move on. Easy enough. Before long, you find another type of plant. It spits a water-like seed that you can plant. Interestingly, you can also throw this seed at one of the first kinds of plant to cause it to start spitting its own seeds. It probably won’t take you long to realize that if things are angled properly, you don’t even need to be involved for this process to work and new plants to spring up.
This is the core of Waking Mars. It starts off feeling a little like classic exploration games like Metroid, and it never fully shakes the feelings of isolation and adventure that the series is famous for. But when it comes down to it, this game is about gardening and building elaborate, self-sustaining, organic machines. Your main goal is to explore, but to do so requires you to generate enough biomass to satisfy the barricades that keep you from moving forward. If you want to see the best ending of the game, you need to go well beyond the minimum requirements and demonstrate true mastery of the various life forms that inhabit Mars.
It may sound like a lot of homework, but learning how the various species of animals and plants interact with each other is a lot of fun. What makes it so enjoyable is that you’re going to be doing a lot of this learning in a very hands-on fashion. On top of that, there are a lot of things that you don’t necessarily need to learn that may prove useful anyway. As you get comfortable with the life forms you’ve encountered and how they work with each other and the environment, each new discovery makes you re-think everything all over again.
It’s exciting to have your knowledge challenged in this way, and really cuts to the heart of what science is all about. Make a hypothesis, test it, observe the results, and do it all over again. Sure, you’re figuring out puzzles and navigating sometimes treacherous environments, but there’s something a little different about this adventure game. It feels less like a typical space video game and more like a scientific journey. The story supports that to an extent, and the characters feel very atypical in how they react to things around them.
The main character, Liang, is an astrobiologist who actually fits the part. He’s courageous, curious, and observant. His reactions to the things happening around him strike the perfect balance between reason and measured wonder. He occasionally bounces off of a fellow scientist named Amani and a wacky AI named ART, but for the most part Waking Mars is a story about you and Liang. You’re going to be spending a lot of time alone with him, puzzling out the best ways to arrange seeds and attract creatures in order to get the needed level of biomass. Liang won’t say anything, but you can almost imagine his expressions as your various experiments go awry.
They will absolutely go awry, of course. What is learning if not suffering, after all? From our very first pokes and proddings at the world, we learn by making mistakes. Waking Mars has a very complex set of relationships between its flora and fauna, and that leaves a lot of room for you to succeed or fail based on how much thought and care you put in. Mistakes will be made, but each one will teach you something you can use in the future. Even with that knowledge in hand, however, you’ll still have some hard choices to make. Maximizing biomass often involves dealing with risky life forms, and pushing just a little too far can have disastrous consequences. You will almost certainly find yourself standing in a pile of dead flora and fauna at least once, trying to sort out where it all went wrong.
Once you do figure things out, Waking Mars feels like magic. Getting all the seeds you need and putting them in the proper types of soil in the right locations. Luring the necessary creatures to the places you need them to be. Throwing that last seed or pulling in that last creature that kicks off the whole chain is like knocking over the first domino in a chain after spending hours setting them all up. It is incredibly satisfying. When you find yourself passing through areas that you’ve brought back to life, it’s quite a feeling to see everything working as planned.
As much as the aesthetics hammer home the feeling of being isolated in a strange atmosphere, Waking Mars builds its setting through its mechanics more than anything. While you are certainly initiating things, when it all starts coming to life in believable but alien fashion, one can’t help but feel the slight sense of discomfort that can only come from seeing the face of the unknown. The line between explorer, scientist, gardener, and hero is as fine as it gets in Waking Mars, but by the end you’ll feel like you have comfortably earned all of those titles.